Saturday, 22 April 2023

ANANSI – advance notice

A month and a half remain before the Dutch edition of my new novel ANANSI will be published. The English edition will follow shortly afterwards.


There is no book that cost me so much effort as Anansi. When I was interviewed by a journalist of the local newspaper De Ware Tijd in Paramaribo last year, she asked me whether I wouldn’t romanticise the slavery period too much. A valid question. My reply was ‘don’t worry - I won’t mince words.’ And I didn’t, because I tried to write an honest story without trying to play down the horrors of the past.

Dilemmas and pitfalls

This puts us right in the middle of the dilemmas an author is confronted with when writing a story such as this. Anansi isn’t an history book, but an historical novel of a rebellious Dutch sailor and an enslaved woman, who feel irresistibly attracted to one another. I mainly wanted to write a good story, and in a novel to some extent the author can ignore reality. One wonders whether in the 17th Century an equal relationship could have existed with an enslaved woman. I think nothing can withstand true love, but it must have been very difficult socially. However, I found an answer to that in the book.

As an author, one must be honest in the choices made and do one’s homework. The truth about slavery history is difficult to determine, in part due to it being several centuries ago, and also due to the sensitivity of the subject and the heated debate it causes, with diametrically opposed opinions. The only way to learn your business is by doing your homework, and with tact and modesty it should be possible to avoid most of the pitfalls.

I admit I was a bit naive in this respect, having been under the illusion that in a novel about this theme, even though being careful with words, perhaps the word ‘slave’ would be permitted in the historical context. After all, the grande dame of Surinamese literature, Cynthia McLeod, uses it in her books herself!

I was in for a surprise though, being urgently advised to change the wording in my manuscript. So just before the deadline it took me two days to thoroughly weed out all the even remotely controversial words from the manuscript. I think I succeeded, and perhaps the book is better for it.

All the same, in hindsight I often wondered whether I should have written this book. But why not? I thoroughly investigated the history of slavery and drew my conclusions. The horror I felt in the slave dungeons of Elmina and Cape Coast, and at the historical drawings of the steerage of a slave ship and the cruelties on the plantations, and the many publications and historical travel diaries I read, that horror just cried out for release.

The forebears of many Surinamese people weren’t free like mine, unless they ran away from the plantation to lead a harsh life in the jungle. Their descendants feel strongly connected to them, a strong aspect of culture in their community. I can hardly imagine what it must be like, knowing your great-grandmother was the property of a businessman, who could abuse her or have her beaten to death with impunity.

To anyone who wishes to read of slavery, I can recommend We slaves of Suriname, the 1934 book written by Anton de Kom, the Surinamese author and Dutch WW2 resistance fighter, whose mother was born in slavery. He puts into words what is still being felt by many present-day countrymen of his.

According to R. S. Rattray, the West African folk tales of Anansi are told predominantly in the dark of night. They often carry a moral message, or make fun of important people. That is why the storyteller usually begins with the disclaimer of his tale merely being a rumour he or she picked up somewhere.

Like the storytellers of Anansi I cannot escape a disclaimer myself. During the scant months in which I studied Suriname, I can only have penetrated skin deep into the culture and history of that wonderful country. All I tried in my story was make a connection, and whether I succeeded, is up to you to judge when you read the book.

The English edition of Anansi will appear during the summer, in e-book and paperback format (Kindle/Amazon).

Monday, 3 April 2023

The Dutch Republic and the slave trade

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 liquor.

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 India Company. 

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 Asiento!


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.

Tuesday, 21 March 2023

17th Century Dutch seafaring

In my planned new book ANANSI, shipping plays a major part because most of the slave trade went overseas. I’d probably take things too far writing an extensive article about this subject - it might bore many readers. Therefore I will restrict myself to a short introduction and a few images.

replica of Henry Hudson's 1609 vessel, showing the tall narrow stern


Around 1600, the Dutch Republic was at war with Spain, meanwhile developing into an important trading nation, which cried out for shipping tonnage. Apart from smaller coastal and inshore craft, hundreds of seagoing vessels a year were built in the Netherlands. The invention of the wind-powered sawmill in 1592 speeded up shipbuilding. Nor did the development of new types of ships hesitate - better hull shapes and rigging emerged. The first thing noticeable was ships increasing in size, and a reduction of the tall and extremely narrow stern to better proportions. This can be seen in the replicas of early ships such as Henry Hudson’s Half Moon of 1609, and the slightly older White Swan of Willem Barentsz, the polar explorer who perished at Nova Zembla, 1597.

replica of Willem Barentsz's vessel of 1596, also showing the tall stern and tubby shape


Types of ships used in Dutch seafaring

The first one to publish an extensive description of Dutch shipbuilding was the Amsterdam alderman Nicolaes Witsen. His cousin Jonas Witsen, another member of that wealthy family, owned three plantations in Suriname, where his harsh policy caused a slave revolt in 1704.

a fluyt (left) and a pinnace (right), the latter beeing careened and its hull scraped.


Nicolaes Witsen in 1671 described several types of vessel that gave a great boost to Dutch seafaring. One of those was the fluyt, a long-hulled ship with rounded bows and stern, which had a simple rigging plan, a large cargo capacity and surprisingly good sailing properties. Another vessel described by Witsen is the Dutch pinnace, a medium-sized ship with an ornate stern, looking like a smaller version of the great Dutch East Indiamen.

another view of a fluyt, showing the rounded hull, steep tumble-home and narrow poop


The fluyt was a three-masted vessel about 120ft long, a general-purpose cargo carrier of the Dutch mercantile marine, with an acute tumble-home to the hull and a narrow deck. About 80% of Dutch seagoing cargo vessels was of this type. They sailed to the Baltic, to the Mediterranean, went whaling near Greenland and made far voyages to the East and West Indies. Thus, they also took part in the West India Company’s slave trade. The number of enslaved people carried on such a trip was up to 600, they were armed with 15 or 20 guns and had a crew of up to 60. The mean round trip on the triangle trade (see below) took 516 days, including time spent at anchor or chasing after cargo, human or otherwise.

a mid-18th Century galliot, gaff rigged with a tiny mizzen mast - note the flush deck, the pronounced sheer and the square topsail and topgallant sail


For coastal traffic, and also in the colonies, smaller vessels were used such as the hooker and the galliot, probably developments of fishing and inshore vessels. They were up to 80ft long and usually flush-decked with a pronounced sheer. Originally galliots had two masts and a sprit or gaff rig, but in the late 18th Century three-masted square-rigged galliots were built as well. For communications purposes and for transporting Company Directors and members of Government at home and in the Colonies, both the East and West India Companies used armed yachts. And finally there were real warships, two- and three-deckers, which are outside the scope of this article. They were comparable to big East Indiamen.

typical armed yacht with an ornate stern cabin


General arrangement of seagoing ships

Both the fluyt and the pinnace, to which I will restrict myself, had a tweendeck or steerage below the main deck. A screened-off section of this forward of the mainmast was usually assigned to the crew as accommodation. Astern of the mainmast most ships had a quarterdeck extending to the stern, even though it doesn’t show as such in Nicolaes Witsen’s drawing, which only has a short quarterdeck. Under the quarterdeck was the officers’ accommodation. Right at the stern was a poop deck, below which the skipper’s main cabin was situated. Forward under the forecastle was the domain of the warrant officers - the boatswain, the carpenter and the cook and their mates. The area of deck between the forecastle and the mainmast was commonly called the waist. Often there were gangways along the bulwarks at the level of the quarterdeck, to enable the forecastle to be reached without passing through the waist.

Nicolaes Witsen's drawing of a medium sized pinnace, this one with a quarterdeck cut short forward of the mizzen mast


The headroom in the steerage under the maindeck depended on the size of the vessel, and commonly was between 5 and 6 feet. It should be remembered that for the carriage of slaves, the steerage was converted in West Africa, fitting half-height berths, if that word decribes hard planking, for an additional row of inmates a few feet above the tweendeck level. Thus, such a ship could carry 500 or 600 people. The kind of conditions encountered down there can easily be imagined.


The rigging of most merchant vessels was simple, in order to enable the ship to be sailed with as few people as possible. This particularly was the case in the fluyts, which only had lower sails and topsails to each mast, one fitted to the lower mast and the other to the topmast, an extension. The sails were square-rigged to yards, spars that were braced round to the wind. The luff (forward) side of the sails had to be braced by a tackle called the tack, in order to present a tensioned edge to the wind and prevent the sail from flapping. The leech (the downwind edge) of the sails was tensioned by the sheet (another tackle) and could be released a little to spill the wind and let the sail do its work.

a late style galliot, three-masted and square-rigged, sailing close to the wind


Sailing close to the wind, these ships were not at their best - they ran better with a beam wind or the wind on the quarter or from astern. Therefore the route of these square-rigged vessels usually followed the prevailing wind. Fore-and-aft rigged vessels such as a galliot perform better when sailed close to the wind.

Cargo and passages in the triangle trade

The triangle trade to West Africa and the Caribbean consisted of three distinct passages, and was laid out in such a way that the vessels followed the prevailing wind and the ocean currents, or at most sailed with the wind abeam. From Europe they carried trade goods used as bartering material to buy people, ivory and gold on the West African coast. These ships sailed with the north wind along the Portuguese coast, which carried on into the Northeast trade to Cape Verde and the anchorage of Gorée near what is now Dakar. Thence they continued south into the ocean for some distance, to avoid the chance of contrary wind at the edge of Africa. They then continued east towards Elmina, where they had to report to the Dutch Governor. From Elmina they might be directed towards other trade posts to discharge and load. The ship was re-supplied there and the steerage converted into a slave deck.

crowded conditions aboard a slave ship - note the plan of the additional 'berths' created on a gallery about 3ft over the steerage deck


Often vessels spent weeks or even months at anchor on the coast, or they sailed to and fro to collect cargoes of people being offered on the beach or at other trading posts. The skipper had an important function in negotiating the trade. When eventually the (often human) cargo was completed, they departed to their destination across the ocean, sometimes venturing as far south as Angola to find the wind. Then they continued in the trade winds and through the doldrums (the belt of calms on the equator) to the Caribbean. This part of the trip could take months and often took place at a great cost of life.

schematic map of the Atlantic, showing the routes of the triangle trade


It must be remembered that the crews were also prone to disease and death in those ships, due to the bad food and spoiled water. Sickness and death touched them as well as the cargo of human wretches in the steerage, the crew's death rate for the entire trip being about 10%. In the steerage this was often exceeded due to the frightful living conditions of the poor people chained down there.

From Suriname or Curaçao, the vessel eventually turned north to the North American coast carrying tropical produce, picking up the west wind there to sail back to Europe.

To be continued.