The forgotten history of the slave trade

21st July 2003, Comments 1 comment

The Netherlands' involvement in the slave trade hardly got a mention during the recent celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the Dutch East Indies Company (VOC). Mindy Ran exposes the reality.


The Dutch role in the slave trade is often said to be overlooked or unknown, rather than intentionally ignored. But as the nation toasted the brave sailors, merchants and traders who helped to build The Netherlands' maritime empire during the Golden Age, the forgotten issue of slavery has come back into sharp focus.

"It's difficult to generalise, but many Dutch people want to know why the slave trade and slavery is a problem that should concern them;" explains Dr Susan le Gene, head curator of the Tropen Museum in Amsterdam, which deals with the Netherlands's colonial past. "It is a lack of perspective."

"Specialist historians have always done research on the subject, but it is only recently become a public debate," explains le Gene. "In schools, when the subject of slavery comes up, the attention is shifted to North America and slave traders described as European."

Unlike the US and the UK, there is no national curriculum in the Netherlands. In the past ten years there has been a recommendation to teach the topic of slavery in the Netherlands, but frequently based on the US experience.

"It is very typical," say le Gene, "to confuse the issues. Even the debates in the past were imported. "Uncle Tom's Cabin" helped to end slavery in Dutch law. Too much about the slave trade was abstract."

One reason for this may be that very few slaves lived in the Netherlands itself. But, as the recent VOC celebrations revealed that does not mean that slavery was not an integral part of the Dutch economy from the beginning of the 17th century until the middle of the 19th.


The VOC, or Verenigde Ooostindische Compagnie, is often referred to as the first multinational. It had a board of governors and issued shares, much like companies today. Launched in 1602, the VOC was granted a monopoly of the trade with the East Indies. It united Dutch companies for essentially military purposes; to defend their trading centres from the Portuguese, the English and the Spanish, as well as Asian competitors.

Dr. Kees Zandvliet is head of the Dutch history department in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and curator of their recent exhibition "The Dutch Encounter with Asia". Zandvliet feels it is important not to ignore the connections to slavery in the Dutch past in the choice of objects and paintings on exhibit.


"In Dutch history it is quite unknown that there were so many slaves in Dutch Asia," says Zandvliet. "The rich Dutch merchants who settled there would have semi-courts with up to 200 slaves in and around their house. The Dutch households were a bit schizophrenic; up front the household was Dutch because the man was Dutch, but in the back of the house it was Asian because the woman was Asian."

In the 17th and 18th century a form of multiculturalism existed simply because there were no European women in the colonies. Most wives of Dutch men had begun their lives as slaves and could be freed after the death of their "boss" or husband if his will specifically requested it.

In Batavia (Jakarta), the major trading centre in what is now Indonesia, there was a large craft quarters producing goods for export, which employed some Dutchmen, but most labour was provided by slaves from Madagascar, Sulawesi (Indonesia), India and Sri Lanka. One researcher estimates that half the population of Batavia were a slave.

The use of slave labour undeniably created and supported large, complex and profitable trading networks throughout Africa, Asia and Europe. Yet, it is often pointed out that the VOC did not trade or traffic human beings.


The slave trade from West Africa was an integral part of the international trade network of the WIC, West Indische Compagnie, established in 1621.

Like the VOC, the Dutch West Indies Company, also had governors and issued shares. It is estimated that the WIC trafficked over 550,000 slaves from West Africa at a time the worlds population was approximately 500 million. The WIC was at one time the second largest slave-traders along the "middle passage" from Africa to North and South America and the West Indies.

The slave trade itself not only created a huge support network from shipping and ports to finance, slaves were considered an essential commodity. The WIC created an interconnected triangular trade route; starting in the Netherlands, ships would bring weapons and cheap goods to the West Coast of Africa.

These goods would be traded to buy slaves and then the ships would travel to the Americas and West Indies. The monies from the sales of slaves would purchase luxury goods from the Americas and West Indies, which were in turn taken to Europe to be sold.

Just how much was earned by the sale of humans is still hotly debated. Most historians agree that the trade of spices and other good were more profitable, but they were still based on a slave economy.

That they were treated as inhuman is obvious by the fact that slaves were not given "human" status by Dutch law until the late 17th century. The Dutch were also known for cruel practices such as whipping and branding, which were common throughout the slave trade at the time.

Playing it down

It is only recently that the connection between the WIC and the VOC has been highlighted. Dr le Gene's book "De Baggage van Blomhoff and van Breugen" (The baggage of Blomhoff and van Breugen) is one of the first to examine that connection.

"Blomhoff and van Breugen are only examples of high society people at that time," say le Gene. "But what is fascinating is that the 21 people on the board of governors of the WIC are the same people that are also some of the governors of the VOC."

"It is very striking," she continues, "that it is a very small group of elite families that were all interconnected and intermarried. Amsterdam was a part of a federal republic called North Holland and extremely powerful in the early 17th Century."

The end of the road


Slavery was officially abolished by most countries by 1838, although some form of "Indentured service," continued in Indonesia up to the early 20th century. The VOC closed down in 1799, as it was unable to compete with the English. The WIC had stopped trading by 1790, as slavery was no longer considered "acceptable".

On the 1st of July, 2002 Queen Beatrix unveiled a national monument to the victims of slavery as a way of showing "deep remorse" for the nation's slave trading past. An important first step, but by no means as far as the National Committee on Slavery, who sponsored the monument, would like.

So far, the Netherlands, England, Spain and Portugal - all major past slave-traders - have refused to officially recognise slavery as a crime against humanity. The National committee on Slavery is pressing for a formal apology, compensation and a permanent museum.

"I think an apology is the least they can do," says le Gene. "But it is more important that they open the debate on what this history really means to us and the discussion on Dutch citizenship. We share a common history in terms of slavery, but with different perspectives. It is particularly important for the way we relate to Surinam and the Dutch Antilles that it is a joint discussion."

Time Line

1602 - The VOC, Verenigde Oostindische Compangie, is granted its founding charter

1610 - Batavia (present day Jakarta, Indonesia) becomes the central hub of an immense and profitable trading network throughout all of Asia

1619 - A "Dutch Man-of-War" ship brings first shipment of African slaves to Jamestown, Virginia. Some 20 West Indian slaves who had been pirated from a Spanish ship were sold to the governor and a merchant

1621 - The formation of the West Indische Compagnie, WIC, brings the Dutch firmly into the centre of the slave trade between the west coast of Africa, the Americas and the West Indies. The WIC bought, sold and transported over 550,000 people into slavery

1624 - WIC begins importing slaves to New Amsterdam (later New York) as an answer to the labour problems on Hudson Valley farms.

1638 - The first public slave auction was held in Jamestown square in colonial Jamestown. An African male cost approximately $ 27.

1655 - Dutch colony of New Amsterdam becomes the main focus of the WIC slave trade into North America. It is estimated the Dutch were trafficking 2,500 slaves across the oceans each year at that time.

1658 - First (Dutch) slave shipment arrives at the Cape from Angola.

1717 - VOC decides to retain slavery as main labour system in the Cape of Good Hope.

1790 - WIC stops trading in response to the growing abolitionist movements and slave rebellions.

1799 - VOC stops trading and dissolves as a result of complex political and financial problems. Shares are almost worthless.

1838 - By this time most countries have banned slavery.

1863 - Slavery abolished in Suriname.

1910 - Slavery is (finally) abolished on Soembawa, Indonesian Archipel.

January 2003

Subject: Dutch slave trade

1 Comment To This Article

  • Eiasam posted:

    on 27th September 2015, 03:56:20 - Reply

    Don't forget to ask governments of Southwest Asia, "Mid-East", about recognizing and issuing an apology for the Arab slave trade also, as they will defend their role by saying their god fearing mission was to spread their faith on these sujugated heathens just like the European empires did.