dutch slave trade

The Dutch Slave Trade: A History of the “Peculiar Institution”

The history of the Dutch slave trade is a complex topic. Though many historians have written on the subject, this narrative can’t be told within a single book, let alone a single blog post. But, unfortunately, to understand the evolution of the Early Modern and Modern worlds, we need to understand the history of slavery. So, in this article, I will endeavor to give what introduction I can to this weighty subject, and, as always, list my resources at the end so anyone who’s interested can partake in their own research. 

Table of Contents

The United Provinces Is Born

A young country as countries go (especially the European ones), what we now call the Netherlands first came into the world under a different name, the United Provinces. In 1568, the Low Countries, today’s Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Belgium, began an armed revolt against Philip II of Spain, hoping to secure independence from the Hapsburg empire. 

While the southern provinces were defeated, the northern territories continued fighting. The revolution would last for 80 years, and thus, rather uncreatively, come to be known as the Eighty Years’ War. In the Treaty of Westphalia, in 1648, the United Provinces entered the ranks of European sovereign states. In those 80 years, though, they’d been doing more than fighting the Spanish – they’d been building an empire of their own.

Natural Traders 

By the time the Low Countries revolted against Spain, the Dutch had established themselves as Europe’s preeminent traders. Due to this trading acumen, it did not take long for Dutch traders to appear in the nascent trans-Atlantic slave trade.

In 1596, Europe’s upstart economic power appeared in the records of the slave trade in the person of Rotterdam’s own Pieter van der Haagen. On this infamous occasion, van der Haagen captained a ship that brought 130 slaves into Middelburge, the capital city of one of the Netherland’s most powerful provinces, Zeeland. 

While this was certainly no small thing, it pales in comparison to the level of humans traded by the Dutch state and its sponsored corporations over the next 300 years. 

The Dutch Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade

All told, the Dutch accounted for somewhere between 5-6% of African slaves forcibly shipped to the New World. This translates to half-a-million people. To put this into modern perspective, the software industry accounts for approximately 6.5% of the modern US economy. The Dutch trans-Atlantic slave trade was enormous. 

Spanning three continents, slaves shipped from Africa were likely headed for one of the three destinations: South America, the Caribbean, or New Neterland, the short lived Dutch colony in the Hudson River Valley. 

Carving Out Dutch Brazil

When the United Provinces began its colonial adventures through the establishment of the WIC, the Kingdom of Portugal had also been subsumed under the Spanish flag. This meant that striking against a Portuguese territory would hurt the empire that the Dutch were trying to escape. With the potential to hurt the Spanish crown coupled with the possibility to get rich, the WIC set their sights on Brazil. 

A Portuguese colony dating back to the fifteenth-century, Brazil’s tropical climate made it ideal for growing cash crops. In 1624, the Dutch made their first attempt to carve out part of Brazil for themselves; ultimately, however, it petered out. But in 1630, the WIC returned, gained a foothold, and slowly expanded their power until they controlled half of, what was then, European Brazil.

The success of this second go-round in Brazil has largely been attributed to the leadership of Johan Maruits van Nassau. A nephew of the stadtholder (a king like figure in the Netherlands), Maurits’s, helped to not only drive out Portuguese forces from a large portion of Brazil, but also somehow persuade a good amount of Portuguese planters to stay in the new Dtuch colony. Turns out nepotism works sometimes.   

After establishing themselves in Brazil, the Dutch soon realized European labor, indentured or otherwise, wasn’t going to get them the Scrooge McDuckian vault full of guilders they’d been dreaming of when they went to war for the place. So, they turned to the slave trade. Indeed, historians often cite the WIC’s colonization of Brazil as the catalyst for Dutch entrance into this crime against humanity.

As Johan Maurits himself wrote, “Oxen and slaves will get teh sugar indsutry back on its feet.” 

The Dutch Slave Trade in Brazil

With their presence firmly established in Brazil, the Dutch turned to the slave trade to make this venture profitable. Hoping to kick start sugar production, a crop that had a lot of demand, the WIC began importing African slaves by the thousands. Indeed, between 1636-1645, 17% of slaves sent across the Atlantic on Dutch ships were sent to Dutch Brazil – that’s 25,000 people. Sadly, historians estimate that 17% of the people who left Africa in chains died during the voyage Dutch slave ships. 

After the slaves disembarked in Brazil, things did not get better. Many were sent to work in sugar mills and cane fields, which was hard, tortuous work. To refine raw cane sugar into an edible treat of Europeans, the slaves working the mills were forced into literal hell fire. Writing of these conditions, the Dutch colonist Pierre Moreau described the following scene:

“They [the slaves] were completely naked like animals; and had to bear the heat of the ovens which purified the sugar. They would be roasted alive without daring to move away or stop stirring the syrup with paddles and large sticks. They had to let the flames and sparks sear their skin rather than avoid them.”

Those slaves who escaped work on sugar plantations were purchased by the WIC itself to work as cooks, porters, and couriers for the army, as well as perform upkeep of their forts.

While the above quote from Moreau shows us that at least some Dutch colonists were repulsed by the treatment of slaves in the colony, the trade continued. Another boom occurred, in fact, between 1642-1645. In this three year period, nearly 4,000 slaves were brought to Brazil per annum. 

The End of Dutch Brazil

Dutch Brazil was not long for this world. While Johan Maruits proved a capable leader of the Netherland’s first American colony, he left his post in 1644. Turns out, he couldn’t have stepped down at a worse time. 

Over the past nine years, the WIC had been accepting credit as payments for slaves. They had hoped this would cause the economy to boom and they would make a handsome profit. Eventually the colony’s planters racked up a bill to the WIC, to the tune of 4.5 million guilders.

Not only was the WIC cash poor by this point, but in 1645 the Portuguese planters staged an uprising. Though the planters claimed to be revolting against restrictions to their Catholic place put in place by Dutch colonial powers, historians have also pointed out that it, rather handily, allowed them to get out of their debts.

Whatever their reasoning, the Portuguese rebels met with a good amount of success. Then, to take matters from bad to worse for the Dutch colony, officials in Portuguese Brazil saw an opportunity in the chaos and sent troops to back up their rebelling countrymen. These combined Portuguese forces soons hemmed Dutch Brazil into the coastal capital of Recife.

The Dutch held out in Brazil until 1654. By then, they had not sold slaves nor sugar for years. The colony was not just in the red, but was dead in the water. The WIC cut their losses and moved on to their next venture.

The Dutch Slave Trade in Curaçao

After the fall of Dutch Brazil, the Caribbean island of Curaçao became the focal point of the Dutch slave trade. Having taken the island from the Spanish with apparently little to no resistance in 1634, the WIC recognized its potential as a trading port. Though it was too arid to allow for plantations, Curaçao was rich in natural harbors, making an ideal location for the WIC to set up shop.

By 1641, the WIC had outfitted Curaçao as a slave trading center. Taking in shipments of slaves from the Netherland’s African trade posts, Dutch slave traders sold their human cargo to buyers across the Western Hemisphere. Some were Dutch colonists further north in New Netherland (more on that later); some were English from places like Virginia and Maryland; most, however, came from the Spanish possessions much closer afield. 

Despite Dutch animosity toward the Spanish, the economy of Curaçao became tied to the need for slaves in Spain’s New World colonies. Though they had originally relied on Native American labor, the genocidal trifecta of slavery, warfare, and disease used by conquistadors like Hernan Cortez and others killed millions. So, the Spanish looked to Africa to provide labor – because, again, why would they farm land themselves? 

Dutch traders were more than happy to oblige the burgeoning need for African slaves in Spain’s American colonies. Indeed, this trade become so important to the Dutch at Curaçao that the Vice Director of the WIC on the island wrote to [insert name]:  “I have witnessed with pleasure your honours’ diligence in providing us here from time to time with negroes. That will be the only bait to allure hither the Spanish nation, from the Main as well as from other parts, to carry on trade of any importance.” 

New Netherland and the Dutch Slave Trade

In 1609, Henry Hudson became the first European to explore the river that now bears his name. For several decades, Europeans continued to explore the Hudson River basin and trade with the Native Nations there. This changed in 1621, when the United Provinces gave the WIC a 24 year monopoly on trade. Looking to make the most of their opportunity, the WIC sent colonists to settle along the Hudson and tap into the already well-established North American fur trade.

African slaves began arriving in New Netherland soon after the first Europeans came ashore. The earliest recorded mention we have of slaves in New Netherland comes from around 1625-1626 when WIC privateers captured Iberian ships in the Atlantic. In fact, piracy was one of the main ways New Netherland acquired slaves in the early years of its existence. A 17th-century historian named Johan de Laet estimated that from 1623-1636 the Dutch captured over 2,300 slaves as a result of their privateering agasint the Spanish. While these sorts of contemporary accounts tend to overshoot on their estimates, de Laet and others undoubtedly saw privateers brining huge numbers of slaves into New Amersterdam’s port. 

For the first several years of the New Netherland’s existence, the WIC held a monopoly on the slave trade and imported the labor they needed to get their new colony off the ground. New Netherland’s earliest slaves worked at a variety of jobs. Some tilled the land as farmers, some worked as domestic servants, but many of them performed the hard labor to build Fort Amsterdam, the main Dutch fortification at the mouth of the Hudson.

As the colony grew, so too did the Dutch slave trade. 

A Growing Need for Slaves

New Netherland did not become the immediate hit the WIC had hoped for. In an attempt to boost settlement, they established patroonships in the late 1620s. Officially penned in 1628, this policy gave huge tracts of land to wealthy Dutch benefactors on the condition that they could settle at least 50 permanent colonists on the land. In exchange, the patroons were given access to the lucrative fur trade and could exercise the power of government over their little slice of New World paradise. While most patroonships ultimately failed, patroons’ desire to see a return on their investment meant they needed a labor source to work the land. 

European laborers proved ineffective, as most would look to skirt their responsibilities to their patroon and establish their own plot of land as soon as possible. One WIC official even wrote that African slavery should “Be more extensively cultivated than it has hitherto been, because the agricultural laborers who are conveyed thither at a great expense to the colonies, sooner or later apply themselves to trade, and neglect agriculture altogether.”

On top of their troubles keeping Europeans tied to farming, the enterprising land owners realized that they could purchase a slave’s life long labor for the same amount of guilders it took to employ Europeans for 40 days. To them, it sounded like quite the bargain.

The WIC thus turned to slavery as its main form of labor in New Netherland. In 1640, the company promised that it would provide both patroons and colonists as many slaves as it possibly could.

The Slave Trade Grows New Netherland

Looking to make good on their promise to powerful investors, and stick it to the Spanish crown at the same time, the WIC captured Portuguese forts in Africa. In August 1641, the Dutch captured Luanda, the port capital of Portugal’s Angola colony; the next year, they would take two more first in Angola, Loanga and São Thomé. The Dutch now had complete control of the slave trade out of Angola. 

This new found control of over every aspect of the slave trade meant slave labor became even cheaper. The settlers of New Netherland proved eager to take advantage of the so-called ‘Dutch Triangle’ that linked Africa, the Caribbean, and North American. Indeed, from just 1659 to 1664, 438 slaves arrived in New Netherland from Curaçao alone – an average of 87 per year.

In 1660, a big wig of New Netherland, Peter Stuyvesant wrote to Vice Director Beck in Curaçao outlining his apparent desire for slave labor along the shores of the Hudson: 

“The negroes, whom the Lords-Directors ordered to send hither, must be clever and strong men so that they can immediately be put to work here at the fort or at other places, also if they are fit for it, in the war against the wild barbarians either to pursue them, when they run away or else to carry the soldiers’ baggage, for it is quite evident, that in order to possess this country in peace and revenge the frequent affronts and murders we shall be forced into a lawful offense against them. An important service would be done to the Company, to use and the country, if among the expected negroes some experienced men, who have been some time in Curaçao, were sent to us.”

Though it took a decade or two for this New Netherland to get going, get going it did – on the back of slave labor. WIC policies and immigration from Dutch Brazil grew the population of New Netherland to several thousand European settlers (many of whom were not, in fact, Dutch), while the slave trade brought in roughly the same number of souls from Africa. Alongside this population growth, Manhattan island became an important trading port and Beverwijck (now Albany) became an important part of the beaver trade, as its name suggests. 

Though the Dutch would ultimately lose New Netherland to English, the fate of the slaves in the colony did not improve. After New Netherland became New York, the English, themselves familiar with the institution of slavery, kept slavery going strong in their new colony. 

The Dutch Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean World

Though the Dutch played a large part in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, theirs was world wide empire. And much like the triangle that connected Europe, Africa, and the Americas, the Dutch had a trade network that extended from the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa to India, East Asia, and various islands of southeast Asia. While goods such as spices and silks undoubtedly traversed these oceanic highways aboard Dutch ships, the Dutch slave trade, much like it did in the Atltantic World, displaced between 660,000 to 1.1 million people. 

Unlike the trans-Atlantic slave trade, which was a system of slavery that had never occured before, the Dutch slave trade in the Indian Ocean World took advantage of already extant systems of bondage. As the Dutch empire and its commercial arm in the Indian Ocean, the VOC, conquered swathes of territory across the eastern hemisphere, they placed themselves atop the societal hierarchies of the lands they claimed for their new empire. Yet, while the societal hierarchies remained the same around the Indian Ocean (just, with the Dutch now on top), the rules of slavery became stricter. 

The forms of slavery practiced by indigenous societes acrtoss the Indian Ocean World varied greatly, including property status, temporary enslavement to pay off debts, “social death,” an enforced status of social outsider, and more. But as the Dutch empire and VOC gained footholds, these systems hardened, in many places, until chattel slavery became the norm.

Expanding the Dutch Slave Trade Through ‘Just Wars’

Prior to the arrival of the Dutch, indigenous societies outside of the “House of Islam” in the Indian Ocean World did not transport slaves over long distances. Unless they were prisoners of war impressed into servitude, slaves in this area of the world seem to have, by and large, been born into the societies that enslaved them. So, while slavery existed, many societs around the Indian Ocean World had no institutionalized slave trade. Indeed, a Dutch envoy recorded Krishnappa Nayaka, the ruler of a south Asian polity called Senji, as having said “that selling human beings was not only disgraceful to the world, but was also considered one of the greatest sins by our gods.”

One would think that as Christians, the Dutch powers-that-were would have felt much the same way. But, like so many other Chrsitian nations of the time, they found some convenient loopholes. One of the most widely accepted of these loopholes among contemporary Europeans was the idea of bellum iustum, or ‘just war.’ According to theologians and jurists of the time, a just war was any conflict that was initiated for morally justifiable reasons. European colonizers, thus, often justified wars of conquest as a means of spreading Christianity, and thus saving souls, or bringing ‘civilization’ to a ‘barbarous’ part of the world. 

Due to this rather contrived logic, the Dutch were able to justify their conquest of vast swaths of the Indian Ocean World, as well as the spread of the Dutch slave trade. A vast network that now connected societies across several continents, Dutch colonizers and the VOC regularly exported hundreds, if not thousands, of slaves each year from their homes to any number of colonial settlements around the Indian Ocean.

What We Know About Slaves’ Lives

Within slaveholding societies, very little written evidence is ever left by the slaves themselves. As such, it’s difficult to ascertain exactly what life was like for these people. But, by examining the roles they were forced to play and the ways they rebelled against the institution of the Dutch slave trade itself, we can come a little closer to understanding what these people went through. 

A contemporary observer would have seen slaves all around them. They worked in every aspect of Dutch colonial society, from hard labor to nursing to shipping. While the list of all possible slave occupations is far too long to his here, slaves worked in crop production, mining, sailors in the inter-Asiatic trade, artisans, mills, public works, and even medical and adiminstrative positions. Not all slaves, however, were equal. The Dutch colonizers deemed people taken from India and Southeast Asia “to be cleaner, more intelligent, and less suited to hard physical labor than African slaves.” Therefore, African slaves were often the ones forced into the hard labor in fields, mines, chain gangs. But race was not the only factor. By-and-large, women worked in domestic capacities, such as house maids or seamstresses. 

While thousands of people found themselves trapped in these roles, they found ways to fight back. According to historians, “relationships of power in Dutch territories were tilted too heavily in favor of the owners for a large or even a medium-scale slave revolt to break out.” Thus, resistance, as it did in so many other slave societies, took on everyday forms – though this does not mean they were any less courageous. In order to rebel against the Dutch slave trade, people would perform work slowly, steal from their owners, burn down crops or property, and, from time-to-time, poison their enslavers. The most common form of resistance, though, was escaping. Similar to the Atlantic World system of slavery, the escaped slave who remained unfound by the Dutch colonial powers created maroon socieites in the remote regions. 

A Few Final Words

The Dutch slave trade persisited well into the ninetheenth-century. Like the slave trades undertaken by other western European empires, it displaced and killed millions of people over several centuries. The scale of this institution was absolutely huge, touching every continent known to Europeans at the time. Because of the immense scale of the Dutch slave trade, understanding why and how it happened, even just a little, can help to us to better understand the cultural and polictical makeup of our modern world.

Resources on the Dutch Slave Trade

  1. Johannew Mienne Postma, Dutch in the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1600-1815 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 7
  2. Ibid, 10
  3. Pieter Emmber and Henk den Heijer, “The Dutch Slave Trade in the Atlantic, 1600-1800,” African History.
  4. Pepijn Brandon and Ulbe Bosma, “The importance of Atlantic slavery for the 18th century Dutch economy,” blog.lse.ac.uk
  5. Michiel van Groesen, “Dutch Brazil,” oxfordbibliographies.com
  6. P.C. Emmer, translated by Chris Emery, The Dutch Slave Trade, 1500-1850 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006), 18
  7. Ibid, 18-19
  8. Ibid, 19-20
  9. Ibid, 20
  10. William F. Page, The Dutch Triangle: The Netherlands and the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1621-1664 (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997), 97
  11. Johannew Mienne Postma, Dutch in the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1600-1815 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 29
  12. Morton Wagman, “Corporate Slavery in New Netherland,” 34.
  13. Ibid
  14. “The Patroon System,” international.loc.gov
  15. William F. Page, The Dutch Triangle: The Netherlands and the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1621-1664 (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1997), 191
  16. Ibid, 199
  17. Ibid, 192
  18. “What Was New Netherland?”, newnetherlandinstitute.org
  19. “Indian Ocean slave trade,” ascleiden.nl
  20. Due to the limited amount of research on the Dutch slave trade in the Indian Ocean World, the rest of the research for this article as conducted using: Markus Vink, “‘The World’s Oldest Trade’: Dutch Slavery and Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean in the Seventeenth Century,” Journal of World History, vol. 14, no. 2 (June 2003), 131-177 via jstor.org

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