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Nimako and Willemsen’s The Dutch Atlantic opens a window on the less explored but important Dutch participation in the slave trade. Even today, this has not yet been properly acknowledged in the Netherlands.

Kwame Nimako and Glenn Willemsen, The Dutch Atlantic: Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation (Pluto 2011), 240pp.

The Dutch Atlantic examines the historical significance of slavery and the slave trade in the Netherlands and something of its legacy today. Its major emphasis is on the role played by the Dutch in the slave trade and in enslavement, but a whole chapter is devoted to the present-day circumstances of the descendants of the enslaved now living in Holland, and their endeavours to obtain a memorial and an apology, and to continued research into the history of the enslaved.

The co-author of The Dutch Atlantic, Glenn Willemsen (1948-2008) who sadly died before the book was completed, was also the first director of the National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy (NiNsee). This institute’s ‘goal is to reach as many people as possible and educate them on the Dutch slavery past and its legacies’ in the hope of ‘furthering the emancipation of the diverse ethnic groups and individuals in the Netherlands’ (p.22). The slave trade is not something which is past and over with, but something which deeply affects Dutch society today.

The Dutch role in the slave trade is said to be minor, but Kwame Nimako shows that although the Dutch colonies in the Americas might have been few and small compared to the Spanish, Portuguese and British colonies, the Dutch were, because of their well-built vessels and good seamanship, very active in the actual transport of slaves both for their own colonies and for others. Between 1600-1650 the Netherlands replaced Britain as the second major transatlantic transporter (p.19). This period Nimako calls the ‘age of banditry’ in which began the forcible capture and abduction of Africans for the purpose of enslavement in the Americas. There was no clear legal framework for this slave trade or the practice of slavery at this time. This was provided in what followed, described by Nimako as the ‘age of sovereignty’.

The Peace of Westphalia (1648) had led Spain to end eighty years of hostility towards the Dutch and to recognise the Dutch Republic; it also brought formal separation of the Netherlands from the Holy Roman Empire. It was therefore at this time that the Netherlands established itself as a nation state with the consequent territorial control, demarcation of borders and monopolisation of violence by the state (pp.20-21). This ‘age of sovereignty’, however, served to legitimise what had been going on during the ‘age of banditry’: the extermination of the indigenous American population and the enslavement of Africans. The rise of nationalism defined by a common language, faith and ethnic ancestry reinforced the idea of the European superiority to the African since sovereignty decides who is included and excluded in a nation. As Nimako says, race was the organising principle of slavery (p.17).

The state was very much involved in the slave trade: brokerage and pilot fees were required by the state, gifts to rulers were sometimes required, permits had to be purchased and agreements with other enslaving nations were made. There was government protection of sugar refining between 1650-1680 (p.73). The slave ships required a crew twice the size of a normal commercial ship, since ‘unwilling passengers’ might revolt. The transportation of slaves was never a normal business but needed state support. ‘The treaties that shaped the formation of some of the major European states in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were tied to control of or negation about the Atlantic slave trade, annexation and colonisation of other people’s land and subjugation of other people’ (p.184).

The Dutch colonies of Suriname and the Dutch Antilles had their complement of slaves, though these were fewer in number than in the British colonies. However, this did not mean that they were better treated. The slaves in Suriname were robbed of their names and ethnicity, denied the right to marry and denied education. The regime was characterised by physical violence and rigid segregation – a state of war to keep the slaves from resisting. But the slaves did resist, since there were seventeen major rebellions between 1725 and 1795. They also escaped, and some were ‘freed’ by their owners; usually women whose children had been fathered by whites. In times of economic hardship in Suriname the planters also gave permission for slaves to ‘go and work for a living’, which was a step towards manumission (p.81). Another form of resistance was artistic: tambu gatherings, an ‘interrelation of dance, songs, music, religion and social organisation which form a strong unity’, often critical of the system. These were prohibited by the authorities who feared them (pp.83-84).

Unlike Britain, in Holland there was no movement for the abolition of slavery. The Dutch ignored the 1794 French declaration of liberty for slaves, even though they adopted many French laws when under French control in the Napoleonic period. The enslaved became more and more restless. The Haitian revolution certainly influenced other colonies, and in 1795 there was a rebellion in Curacao under the command of Tula, a well-educated and well-travelled son of Africans, who had formed a union of slaves in 1789 which had achieved improved conditions.

The anniversary of the rebellion, August 17th, is celebrated there today rather than the day when slavery was abolished, July 1st 1863 (p.2). This long wait for the abolition of slavery in the Dutch colonies was preceded by many escapes and rebellions and there was a lot of anger and resentment about the length of time that elapsed before ‘emancipation’ was granted. In Suriname, even when it was granted, there were arguments about whether there should be a ten year period of ‘supervision’ by the white plantation owner before full freedom was actually attained. This resulted in many escapes and a rebellion before abolition was actually announced.

Nimako shows that, contrary to supposition, the Dutch still found slavery profitable at the time of abolition, since they deferred the latter until after the produce had been harvested. Further, the slave-owners wanted compensation for the loss of their slaves after abolition. The enslavers were compensated, but the former slaves received nothing, not even the much smaller amount they were supposed to receive. In fact the compensation granted to the enslavers came from the enslaved and most went not to the colonies but to slave owners living in the Netherlands (pp.140-3). In the Dutch Antilles, the compensation was lower than it was in Suriname, but the enslaved had unofficially freed themselves before abolition; it appears that a mixed economy existed (p.110). In Sint Maarten they freed themselves in 1848 when the French abolished slavery (p.140). Therefore they had no reason to commemorate the anniversary of Dutch abolition.

Nimako points out that the abolition of slavery existed within a struggle for other rights in the Netherlands, including the unrest in 1848, ‘the year of revolutions’, when the King was persuaded to grant a constitution. However, the history of Dutch slavery remained forgotten by the Dutch in general until the end of the twentieth century, and ‘the Dutch lexicon has no word for race or racism’ (p.187). For the Surinamese and Antilleans living in Holland, on the other hand, it was very much a living issue. Even now there are those who argue that it is best forgotten despite the fact that Atlantic slavery formed an integral part of the Netherlands’ state for several centuries. When the National Slavery Monument was unveiled in the presence of the Queen on 1st July 2002, the descendants of the enslaved who live in the Netherlands were denied access to the monument which was surrounded by walls, a crush barrier and mounted police. Not surprisingly, they cried, ‘the days of slavery are not yet over’ (p.163).

The Dutch Atlantic argues that the study of the history of slavery in the Netherlands and its colonies is still in its infancy. It argues that such research is necessary, and that, as archives and artefacts are not enough, it must be undertaken from the point of view of the descendants of the enslaved as well as of the professional, usually white, academic. I have found that this book illuminates not only the history of the slave trade and slavery but also aspects of Dutch history and culture which I had found puzzling. It should be read by anyone interested in how imperialism and racism have affected not only Africa and the Americas but Europe also, both historically and in the present times.

Various essays on slavery and resistance are freely available at: http://www.rc.umd.edu/praxis/circulations/