‘The Dutch Slave Trade 1500-1850’ by P.C.Emmer

2006, 153 p. & notes. Translated by Chris Emery.

One of the things that surprised me when looking at the history of slavery in the West Indies (and the map of Caribbean slavery I showed in a recent blogpost) was the involvement of  countries that I don’t readily associate with slavery or the West Indies for that matter-  Sweden and Denmark for example.  I was aware of the English, French and Spanish involvement, the long classical history of slavery, and the participation of Africans themselves, but I didn’t think of Scandinavian countries  which somehow seem so ‘white’ and Northern European.

In reading this book, it seems however, that the Dutch people themselves do not suffer any widespread moral malaise about slavery. As the author, P.C. Emmer of Leiden University writes:

The Netherlands was clearly guilty. Between 1600 and 1860, almost without exception, the Dutch allowed Africans to be bought and traded, and they would never have treated each other or any other Europeans in such a way.  Admittedly they share that guilt with some of their Europeans neighbours.  But, if we start from the premise that the Dutch, both past and present, see their country not just as any country but as a particularly moral and principled oasis in the middle of a wicked world, then their guilt has surely incurred a debt of honour. (p. 147)

This slim book examines the Dutch slave trade as a historical event, but the book itself is firmly located within the current historiography that deals with memory, commemoration and reparation.  In his foreword, the author mentions:

Incidentally, several scholarly observations about the slave trade have aroused high emotions in the past, as indeed have some conclusions in this book.  Twenty years ago I had to climb onto a table to make myself heard among students, who accused me of falsifying history and of being a reactionary and a racist. (p. ix)

In reading this book, I was reminded of the response to John Hirst’s Convict Society and its Enemies, a similarly punchy book.  Hirst argued that right from the planning stages of the First Fleet there were slippages in the intent and practice of New South Wales as a penal colony, and that the system had freedoms and rights designed into it from the start.  It’s a prickly argument to run: Hirst admitted that there were cases of brutality, but that the extreme had become seen as the norm, and that the historical record of a more prosaic, adaptable system had been obscured.   Likewise in this book, Emmer clearly states that slavery was wrong, but that it was never as large, politically influential, or financially lucrative as in other European countries.  For both historians, the major point is conceded, and rather than spending time reiterating it, the argument moves to the nuances of a more complex treatment.  It’s not so much down-playing, as moving to a different line of argument, but their opponents might see this as dismissal or special pleading.

Emmer points out that the Dutch used few slaves on their own holdings in the Dutch Antilles, which were not suited to large-scale plantation agriculture, or in what was to become New York. They first became involved supplying slaves, purchased in Africa from African slave traders, for the Spanish gold and silver mines, but this expanded over time to a market in supplying slaves sourced from the African slave-traders for the Dutch plantation colonies of Berbice, Essequibo, Demerara and Suriname.  The first three of these were later to become British Guiana in the territorial merry-go-round after the Napoleonic Wars (and hence my interest in them).

The middle part of this small book focuses on the trade itself: the crossing from Africa to the West Indies, then the nature of plantation slavery in the Dutch colonies.   However, unlike the English and French colonies, the West India Company and Dutch plantations were not profit-making enterprises, and formed only a marginal part of Dutch commerce.  When the end of slavery came, it was with a whimper because the trade itself was unsuccessful, and any reparations to slave-owners were easily covered by a system of forced-farming in Java, where villages were forced to pay a tax of coffee and sugar, thereby bolstering the coffers of the treasury in the Netherlands.

The relative economic insignificance of slavery to the Dutch economy (especially compared with the English situation) raises the question of why the Netherlands did not take a strong lead in the abolition of the slave trade, and then slavery itself.  The reality is that slavery did not end in the Dutch colonies until 1863, long after the other slave-trading European countries had done so, and that it was only English pressure that led to half-hearted acquiescence to the abolition of the slave trade in the early 19th century.  Emmer attributes this to a defensiveness on the part of Dutch politicians, who did not share the English openness to change but instead adopted a shield of conservatism and self-preservation.

Emmer locates the slave trade among other ‘debts of honour’ that the Netherlands owe- a phrase that he thinks particularly apposite given the Dutch emphasis on finance. These debts revolve around treatment of Dutch Jews during WWII; about actions in Indonesia; and the Dutch slave colonies.  He raises a number of difficulties to the question of reparations, but suggests instead that 1 July should be commemorated as the date in 1863 when slavery was finally abolished in Dutch colonies.

I have no idea how the politics of this plays out in the Netherlands, and how and if the situation has been complicated by the increase in far-right politics in Europe.  You can find a good review of this book, and Emmer’s response to the review at Reviews in History.     There’s also an article available here online that gives a taste of Emmer’s approach.

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One response to “‘The Dutch Slave Trade 1500-1850’ by P.C.Emmer

  1. I look forward to reading these, I love that many aspects of different countries’ history are being printed for open discussions/debates and consideration.
    My father often said that, during WW2, the Dutch treated the local workers on the oil fields in Dutch New Guinea like slaves; holding back food, clothing, etc, for when they didn’t (couldn’t) work due to war activity.
    While I had a quick search online and found no mention of any official slavery activity of the Dutch in New Guinea from what Dad described was very similar behaviour albeit under a different title.

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