This is another post about my research into the
background for my new book ANANSI, which will be published during the summer.
Around the year 1600, the Dutch Republic was at war
with Spain and Portugal. Slavery was forbidden by law in the Netherlands, but
not on the Iberian peninsula and in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies. The
Netherlands didn’t have colonies at the time, but this would soon change after
the Dutch East India Company was floated in 1602. The war with Spain and
Portugal was suspended between 1609 and 1621 due to a twelve-year cease-fire, a
period which allowed Dutch overseas trade to flourish and many colonies to be
started in Asia. The Dutch EIC was largely a military organisation aimed at
displacing the Portuguese in Asia, and existed under a warrant from the Dutch
authorities. The trade followed on the heels of the military.
|The gunshot (Willem v/d Velde the younger, 1707)|
The cease-fire came to an end in 1621, and it cannot
have been a coincidence that in the same year the Dutch West India Company was
inaugurated, set up after the model of its East India counterpart. The WIC also
began as a military organisation, rather like a mercenary army. Nowadays we’d
see a parallel with the infamous Russian Wagner Group! Similar to the EIC, the
WIC was meant to drive the Portuguese from their African and American colonies,
which partially succeeded. We have to take into account that as early as 1494 a
line had been drawn in the Atlantic by the Tordesillas Treaty, a meridian
through the mouth of the Amazon river, which separated Spanish and Portuguese
colonial claims. The Spanish weren’t allowed to trade east of the line, and the
Portuguese and other nations would have no peace beyond. This incidentally is
why Brazil, much of which is east of the Amazon, still speaks Portuguese.
|A charter of the Dutch West India Company|
During most of its existence, the WIC was in financial difficulty. It had to be rescued with
Government funds in 1647 and eventually succumbed in 1674. Then the remains
were swept up and the second WIC set up. This, apart from trading in plantation products, was strongly focused on the slave
and gold trade. Military expansion was off the cards since peace had been
signed with Spain and Portugal in 1648.
As early as 1623, the first WIC had considered
entering the slave trade. Slavery being forbidden by law in the Republic itself
apparently didn’t come into the picture. The Board ordered an investigation
into the slave trade in Angola, the coast of which by then had been in
Portuguese hands for a century and half. Later, the Company tried to oust the
Portuguese from the entire West African coast. Luanda was occupied in 1643, and
a few years earlier in 1637, the WIC took the fort of St George of Elmina from
the Portuguese. Elmina was destined to be the African headquarters of the WIC,
next to a few other so-called ‘trade posts’.
The Portuguese had been deep into the slave trade as
early as the start of the 16th Century, but Elmina initially was established
for the gold and ivory trade, its name meaning ‘the mine’, being situated on
the Gold Coast. The slave trade eventually would develop all along the coast,
reaching from Angola to as far as present-day Nigeria and even further west and
north towards what is now Senegal.
|Elmina: the slave fort|
Demand and supply are what drive any trade, including
the slave trade. Discussing the slave trade in its entirety in this short
treatise would take things too far, so I will restrict myself to the supply of
enslaved people in what is now Ghana, and the demand for slaves in the Dutch
colonies west of the Amazon River, the Caribbean and the Spanish Main.
The first thing to remember is that slavery was a
common fact of life in Africa. People used to sell themselves or their children
into slavery to escape from debt or poverty. Apparently sometimes slavery
offered more security than life in poverty, even though slaves were treated
badly in Africa as well as elsewhere. Apart from that, tribal strife was an
important source of captives. The area which is now called Ghana was and is
largely occupied by mutually related Akan tribes, such as the Ashanti, the
Denkyira, the Akyem and the Fante. They still speak several dialects of the
Akan group of languages, the most important of which is Twi, and their cultures
are very similar.
|Ashanti settlement, c. 1810|
Despite the similarities between the various Akan
peoples, they waged war amongst themselves, which must have been comparable to
present-day atrocities in eastern Congo or Rwanda. Mutual slaughter and slave
taking was rife. The Ashanti, at the end of the 17th Century, were a very warlike people led by the asantehene (king) Osei Kofi Tutu.
His high priest, the okomfo Anokye, created a personality cult and
mythology around the asantehene. Their expansion war made the Ashanti an
important supplier of African captives to the Dutch West India Company. They
were paid with trade goods - cheap textiles, firarms, ammunition and hard
The demand side of the equation was the plantation
economy of the Caribbean, the Spanish Main and the fertile forested coastal
plains west of the Amazon delta. As soon as the Dutch had learned the secret of
sugar refinement from the Portuguese, sugar became the new gold. Production of
sugar needed a great amount of manpower, which was provided by African captives
imported from overseas.
|arrival of a slave ship|
West of the Amazon, the Spanish were lord and master, apart from the
wild coastal areas where British, French and Dutch colonies had been
established. The carriage of enslaved workers to Spanish America needed an
independent supplier, because the Spanish weren’t allowed to trade east of the
Tordesillas line including Africa. That supplier was found in the Dutch West
The trade charter was given by the Spanish Court, who granted an
asiento (a monopoly) to a single Spanish or foreign trader to deliver
slave labour from an intermediate port to Spanish America. The asiento meant that the contractor
obtained enslaved people on a Caribbean island, where they had been taken by
foreign vessels. For a long time, the WIC was that supplier, using Curaçao as a
transit port. Incidentally there still is a neighbourhood on Curaçao named
Apart from that, the WIC sailed to Surinam and Berbice
(in present-day Guyana) to supply the local plantations with slave labour. The
WIC had been assigned a monopoly by the Dutch authorities, but there was a
brisk trade by slave smugglers, many hailing from the Dutch southwestern province
of Zeeland. The WIC had its hands full trying to control them, more so as the
smugglers didn’t hesitate to open fire on the Company’s patrol vessels!
After the Dutch mercenary Admiral Abraham Crijnssen
had taken Surinam from the British in 1667, the WIC despite being in financial
trouble governed the colony. Even so, there was a dispute with the provincial
Government of Zeeland, who had paid for Crijnssen’s fleet and therefore claimed
ownership of the colony. Eventually this was settled by the inauguration of the
Suriname Society (SvS) in 1683, which was to pay the Province for ownership.
The three shareholders were the West India Company, the city of Amsterdam, and
Cornelis van Aerssen van Sommelsdijck, a former cavalry officer who’d take
Governorship of the colony. He paid for his share with money borrowed from Amsterdam-based financiers.
|Cornelis van Aerssen van Sommeldijck|
Economically, the colony was a disaster. Many British
planters had departed from the colony after the take-over by the Dutch, moving
to Jamaica together with their entourage of slaves. As a consequence, there was
a great shortage of manpower in the colony, where new Dutch planters were
arriving, who gradually grabbed power from the colonial government. There wasn’t
only a shortage of manpower, but of almost everything - horses, cattle and food
supplies. Part of the problem was the condition that supplies had to be routed
through Amsterdam, which levied a duty on anything going in and out of the
city. This caused a logistic problem due to the supply route taking many
months, instead of looking towards neighbouring areas for food supplies and cattle.
This was compounded by the unwillingness of the
planters to reserve land and manpower for food production. The garden plots of
the plantation population were for local use only and hardly adequate to supply
the garrison and townspeople of the capital of Paramaribo. Eventually, Van
Sommelsdijck occasionally had to allow in British vessels from New England with
emergency supplies. The eternal shortages led to rationing of the garrison,
which in 1688 mutinied and shot Van Sommelsdijck.
The supply of enslaved manpower from Africa was
unstable. The planters obtained their workforce at auction in Paramaribo, which
was held as soon as a slave ship came in. Usually trade was done on the basis
of bartering, as cash money was scarce and the plantations made little profit.
The people were sold against a certain weight of sugar, sometimes even against ‘futures’
- a cheque based upon the expected proceeds of the next harvest. The shortage
of manpower meant that the people were often worked beyond their limits, and
some scarpered into the bush as soon as they arrived on the plantation. These
were mercilessly prosecuted, and runaways once caught were cruelly punished.
|restored plantation house at Mariënbosch|
The mean life expectancy of a healthy young African
labourer on a Surinamese plantation was between 8 and 10 years, which says
enough of life and work conditions. It isn’t exactly clear whether they were
only worn out by that time or actually dead of disease and abuse. Once worn out
and unsuited to hard labour, they were freed and sent away - the usual term was
being ‘manumitted’ (Latin for sent away by hand) - to lead a dismal life
outside the plantation grounds.
Slavery was mainly kept going by absentee plantation
owners or shareholders, who expected a steady income from sugar and other
tropical products. I haven’t been able to find any clues, but my hypothesis is
that most of the profit on tropical produce came not from the plantations
but from the intermediate trade - transport and refinery. The price paid for
sugar, coffee and indigo produced on the plantations may well have been as low
as the price paid to present-day coffee producing smallholders in Central
America. In those days they didn’t yet know the principle of Fair Trade...
The WIC and the SvS were wound up when the Batavian
Republic was established in Holland under French patronage in 1795.
Regrettably, after the demise of Napoleon and the establishment of the Kingdom
of the Netherlands in 1815, the new State allowed the planters to merrily
continue their practice of exploitation and humiliation.
To be continued.