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Telling Stories of Slavery, One Person at a Time

Telling Stories of Slavery, One Person at a Time
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Telling Stories of Slavery, One Person at a Time

Telling Stories of Slavery, One Person at a Time

AMSTERDAM — An ornate tortoise shell field with a actual gold nugget on its lid has lengthy been on show within the Rijksmuseum. Thought-about a excessive level of Dutch rococo craftsmanship, it was a present to Prince William IV from the Dutch West India Firm in 1749, when he was named the group’s governor.

Look nearer, although, and the gilded floor tells a totally different story. Embossed within the gold, two males sporting lengthy coats level to just about bare plantation employees crouched within the filth. On the underside is a map of West African slave-trading posts operated by the Dutch West India Firm.

“For the longest time, it was primarily displayed as an merchandise that speaks about riches and world energy,” mentioned Valika Smeulders, who leads the historical past division at the Rijksmuseum. In 2013, one of the museum’s curators observed the photographs on the lid, she added. “He noticed that human beings had been being bought. That allowed us to look at the field in a new manner, to narrate it to the social historical past of slavery.”

The piece is now one of the primary objects that guests encounter upon getting into the Rijksmuseum’s new exhibition, “Slavery,” which opens on Saturday and explores greater than two centuries of Dutch participation within the international commerce of enslaved folks.

4 years within the making, the sprawling present is maybe at the beginning a assertion on the museum’s intention to proper a historic mistaken, and to inform a story in regards to the Netherlands’ previous that has largely been missed.

The Dutch had been instrumental within the trans-Atlantic commerce in enslaved folks — usually generally known as the “triangular commerce” amongst Europe, West Africa and the Americas — and in Asia as nicely. The nation’s actions had been primarily performed by the Dutch West India Firm and the Dutch East India Firm, organizations that had been established with personal and state capital and ruled by Dutch state officers and, later, royalty. The businesses even had the authority to wage warfare, with navy and monetary assist from the Dutch state.

From the Seventeenth century by the nineteenth century, they enslaved greater than a million folks, in keeping with the museum’s historians, shopping for them at buying and selling posts the businesses ran in Africa and Asia and transporting them en masse throughout oceans, creating large-scale pressured migrations.

Slavery was forbidden within the Netherlands, nevertheless it was authorized — and essential to the worthwhile plantations — in Dutch colonies similar to Brazil, Indonesia and Suriname. Items produced by enslaved folks for the businesses included sugar, espresso, gold, pepper, tobacco, cotton, nutmeg and silver. Enslaved folks additionally labored in households, in transport and in farming, and served within the Dutch navy.

“It’s, of course, far too late already that we’re addressing this topic,” mentioned Taco Dibbits, the Rijksmuseum’s director. “However it’s higher late than by no means.”

Slavery can be not sometimes mentioned overtly within the Netherlands, mentioned Karwan Fatah-Black, a historian of Dutch colonial historical past at Leiden College. “Evidently the dialog turns very tense in a short time,” he mentioned.

“It’s not straightforward for mainstream Dutch society to speak about this historical past and learn how to perceive the place of this historical past within the broader id of the Netherlands,” he mentioned, including that there was a common notion that “the Dutch didn’t take part in it anymore than anybody else and it shouldn’t taint the appreciation of the golden age of commerce.”

The Dutch instructional system hardly ever emphasizes the nation’s function within the commerce, mentioned Eveline Sint Nicolaas, a senior curator of historical past at the Rijksmuseum who curated the present together with Smeulders and others.

“Within the Netherlands, when folks did have classes about slavery, it was normally about america and the cotton plantations within the South,” she mentioned. “The story of slavery is the North American story. That’s why it’s essential to be sure that it’s clear that it’s not American historical past, and even colonial historical past. It’s our nationwide historical past.”

Museums at that point didn’t deliberately accumulate supplies to file that historical past. The Rijksmuseum was established in 1800, “an period when museums had been constructed to convey a nationalistic narrative, to discuss what Europe had achieved,” Smeulders mentioned. “They wished to underscore that they had been nicely inside their rights to do what they had been doing, that it had introduced wealth and prosperity.”

With a dearth of objects accessible to inform the story, the “Slavery” exhibition depends closely on oral histories, storytelling and track, she mentioned. And the audio information for the present is just not merely really useful — it’s given out to everybody, free of cost.

Dibbits mentioned he wished the historical past to resonate on a private stage with guests. So he determined to concentrate on 10 particular person tales, every of which was linked to the Dutch commerce in enslaved folks, even when solely not directly. “Numbers and statistics are higher for books, however a museum is a assembly place the place you talk with folks and with the objects,” he mentioned.

Every represents a half of that historical past, together with enslaved folks, those that purchased them, colonial retailers and abolitionists. Listed here are 5 of these folks and the objects that inform their tales.


João Mina was bought into slavery round 1640 at Elmina Citadel, the Dutch administrative headquarters on the Gold Coast of Africa, in what’s now Ghana. It’s not possible to know his exact origins or his actual title. His captors gave him the title Mina (quick for Elmina) when he was purchased and despatched on a ship to the Dutch colony in Brazil, a voyage of between 5 weeks and two months. When he arrived, the merchants bought him once more, possible at a market in Recife, to Portuguese slaveholders who despatched him to work on a close by sugar plantation.

Foot shares, generally known as a “tronco” (a tree trunk in Portuguese), would clamp the ankles of a number of enslaved folks at as soon as, which meant they needed to lie nonetheless to keep away from excruciating ache. The shares had been usually used as punishment on sugar plantations just like the one the place Mina was pressured to work. This set of nine-foot-long oak shares was in all probability made within the Netherlands, mentioned Sint Nicolaas, presumably for a plantation in Dutch Brazil, though it was by no means despatched there.

Through the interval when Mina was in Brazil, the West India Firm occupied territory alongside the nation’s coast. It got here beneath assault from Portuguese settlers who had colonized the realm, and through a 1645 guerrilla warfare, many African folks fled their Portuguese homeowners. Mina was one of them: He escaped from a sugar plantation and entered the Dutch colonial territory.

There, he was subjected to a prolonged interrogation by West India Firm officers who had been looking forward to details about the Portuguese. Paperwork recording that course of have helped historians grasp the define of Mina’s story, though they offered scant private info.

“The truth that we do have a few particulars about his life makes him a rarity,” the historian Stephanie Archangel wrote within the “Slavery” exhibition catalog. “No hint stays of hundreds of thousands of enslaved males, girls and kids.”


Shopping for enslaved folks was unlawful on Dutch soil in Europe, however folks may buy them elsewhere and convey them to the Netherlands. Paulus Maurus, a home servant for a rich household in The Hague, in all probability arrived within the Netherlands this manner. He would have been referred to as a “moor” in late Seventeenth-century Dutch society, and was in all probability not thought of enslaved, as a result of, at least in precept, he was free beneath nationwide legislation.

Maurus is included within the exhibition, mentioned Smeulders, as a result of he inhabited a grey zone between slavery and freedom. Many Dutch thought of African folks to be objects that might be purchased and owned, so though he was technically free, it’s unclear to what extent he skilled any sense of liberty.

He was allowed to marry a girl, Maria Sauls, and have a son, whom the couple baptized as Maurice in 1690. However Maurus was in all probability required to put on a brass collar, a signal that he was the property of a grasp. This engraved collar, which got here from the house the place Maurus labored, turned half of the Rijksmuseum’s assortment in 1881.

“We’ve had this within the assortment for a very long time, however till just lately we thought it was a canine collar,” Smeulders mentioned. The curators, nonetheless, regarded extra intently at the portrait “Maurits, Rely of Nassau La Lecq,” from 1670, by which the depend is depicted on his horse whereas an African servant holds his plumed helmet. The servant is sporting a brass collar.


In 1634, Rembrandt painted a pair of portraits of a husband and spouse, Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coopit, which the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre in Paris acquired collectively in 2015. The couple’s skill to afford a fee by the nation’s most well-known painter at the peak of his powers for full-length portraits, sporting regal silk and lace, signifies the measure of their wealth. Usually, solely members of royal or noble households commissioned full-length portraits, and this was the one time Rembrandt accomplished a set of full-length portraits for any personal shoppers.

The couple, like Soolmans’ father, had been within the sugar refining enterprise, which was linked to slavery as a result of uncooked sugar equipped to the Netherlands got here from plantations in Brazil. Coopit additionally moved a number of levels nearer to the slave commerce after Soolmans died: She married Capt. Maerten Daey, a navy officer who had served in Dutch Brazil and witnessed slavery there firsthand.

Researchers additionally found proof that whereas in Brazil, Captain Daey raped an African girl named Francisca, who reported the crime to the native church, in keeping with a grievance submitted by its pastor and the native mayor. The 2 males mentioned that Daey had made Francisca pregnant and that he had imprisoned her for a least a month and “abused her horribly,” in keeping with Sint Nicolaas, the curator.

In 1632, Francisca gave start to Daey’s youngster, a daughter whom she named Elunam. He didn’t marry her, however as an alternative returned to the Netherlands, married a Dutch girl and introduced his spouse again to Brazil. The church introduced an indictment in opposition to Daey in 1635, however there isn’t a proof that he was ever tried in any formal context.


Surapati was a freedom fighter who led a insurgent motion at the flip of the 18th century in opposition to the Dutch East India Firm in what’s now Indonesia. Right this moment, he’s thought of an Indonesian nationwide hero, featured in performs, comedian books and tv collection. His life historical past was additionally chronicled in a number of “babads” — lyrical verses written on palm leaves — with every telling a barely totally different story of his heroism.

Though some of the small print are murky, what is evident is that Surapati was an enslaved man from the island of Bali who labored within the Dutch East Indies’ capital, Batavia, an space that corresponds to present-day Jakarta. The service provider who purchased Surapati, Pieter Cnoll, additionally bought at least 50 different enslaved folks. In 1665, Surapati was included as one of two servants in Cnoll’s household portrait.

For 320 years starting in 1619, the East India Firm had its headquarters in Batavia, whose colonial Dutch-style buildings served as the middle of the corporate’s buying and selling community in Asia. Virtually half of Batavia’s inhabitants was enslaved, in keeping with the historian Marsely L. Kehoe. They got here largely from different components of Asia and southern Africa, together with India, the Indonesian archipelago and Madagascar.

Surapati escaped enslavement and have become the chief of a group of fugitive Balinese individuals who initially fought for the Dutch East India Firm’s military after which switched sides to battle in opposition to it. As a reward for taking up the Dutch, a native sultan made Surapati the ruler of a court docket in Pasuruan, East Java. Surapati continued to wage a number of battles in opposition to Dutch colonial forces till 1706, when he was killed in battle.


Lohkay is a revered determine amongst descendants of enslaved folks in Sint Maarten, a Dutch colony within the Caribbean. Based on oral histories, she tried a daring escape from a plantation there, and its homeowners had one of her breasts reduce off as punishment. Nonetheless, she tried to interrupt price once more, this time efficiently, and managed to outlive on her personal within the island’s hills.

An archival file from the early 1800s accommodates a reference to “Lukey,” which means “fortunate,” a “Negro lady” provided on the market for 240 guilders. In oral historical past, she acquired the nickname “One-Tété Lohkay,” (“One-Breasted Lokhay”) to honor her bravery.

She was the inspiration for a collection of mass escapes by enslaved folks on the island, which was divided between French and Dutch colonizers.

In 1848, after the French declared the abolition of slavery on their aspect, enslaved employees within the Dutch colony started to flee throughout the border. That prompted Dutch slaveholders to demand that the Netherlands additionally finish slavery — and compensate them for the misplaced labor.

Enslaved folks within the Caribbean had been generally “paid” with blue beads as a form of unofficial foreign money, which restricted them to bartering quite than having the ability to use actual cash. To rejoice emancipation when slavery was abolished in 1863, legend has it that individuals threw these beads into the water as a rejection of the colonial system.

Blue beads proceed to be discovered off the coast and fished out of the ocean by divers and vacationers, Smeulders mentioned. “We nonetheless can’t show how they received there,” she added, “however once they’re discovered folks put on them with nice pleasure, as a result of it reminds them of their ancestors’ emotions of liberation.”

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