Slavery was ‘Godless Charmery’ – until it became clear how lucrative it was


Resolutions of the states of Zeeland, 15 November 1596. In the two bottom lines it can be read that the enslaved Africans were to be set ‘in true free liberty’ ‘without yemand having to pretend such yghendom’.Picture Zeeland Archives

The Middelburgers were used to strange people in their lively port: sailors from distant places, now and then a single black sailor from Africa. But the “many bogs” brought in by ship in November 1596 must have given rise to a shock. It was an introduction to the African slave trade, which Dutch captains had begun to experiment with at the time.

Mayor Andriaen ten Haeff’s words, which can be read in the resolutions of the states of Zeeland in the Zeeuws Archief, radiate moral indignation. These approximately 130 Africans were “baptized Christians”. They were therefore not to be ‘sold as slaves, but restored to their own free liberty, without yemand having to pretend to such wealth’. It seems a firm rejection of slavery, as practiced by Spain and Portugal at the end of the 16th century, but not yet in the Republic.

gaping hole

Slavery has never been taken for granted. There has always been debate about the moral basis of forced labor and serfdom. William of Orange, for example, warned in his ‘apology’ in 1580 against the ‘pure ende volmaeckte slavernye’ which Spain applied to ‘the poor Indians’. If the Dutch did not join the rebellion of Orange, the fate of the people of America would await them. He later called Spain’s treatment of the indigenous inhabitants tyrannical and barbaric.

In practice, however, a gaping chasm arose between the moral rejection of slavery and the spirit of commerce between residents of the republic and foreigners. Two weeks after Mayor Ten Haeff’s sentence, the 130 were still reduced to merchandise by the Dutch government. The Rotterdam merchant Pieter van der Hagen, as ‘owner’ of human cargo, had sought refuge in a higher authority, the States-General. They judged that he must do with ‘the ants as he understands’. He could sell them in Portugal all he wanted as long as it wasn’t here.

Out of sight

That slavery appeared briefly was new, because normally slave ships did not come to Northern Europe. Yet the 130 were not even the first Africans transported by the Dutch. It was precisely in those years that the colonial ambitions of the Republic grew, and it was accompanied by slavery from the start, but so far from the Dutch mainland, out of sight.

View of Middelburg's inner harbour, approx.  1790. Picture Zeeuws Archief

View of Middelburg’s inner harbour, approx. 1790.Picture Zeeland Archives

A year earlier, a Dutch fleet led by Cornelis de Houtman had sailed under the Cape of Good Hope towards Southeast Asia for the first time, a journey that would lay the foundation for the later VOC. Along the way they had already met another Dutch captain in Portuguese service. He had five ships under his charge, filled with ‘sugar and blacks’. De Houtman was not on the road as a slave trader himself, but had no problem robbing more people from Madagascar. Two boys named Lourens and Madagascar and kept on board in chains are the first Africans to be single-handedly enslaved by the Dutch.

In Java they robbed two more boys, Arosbaya and Madura. In the early 17th century, for example, there are several examples, but on the mainland, slavery is often still morally condemned. In 1615, Bredero mentions in his comedy moortje the practice is ‘inhumane’. The main character exclaims that slavery is ‘Godless scoundrel!’ involving some Amsterdammers in Brazil. This is where the attitude of a minister in Holland and a merchant at sea becomes clear.

Legal justification

Because slavery was also a topic of discussion in the churches. Some believed that human trafficking was a sin, but at the Synod of Dordrecht it was decided that it was permitted as long as Gentiles were involved, with the result that slaves were simply not baptized. Legal scholar Hugo de Groot established in 1625 that slavery was permissible if it was a matter of captivity. This legal justification suited the merchants, who assumed that the people presented to Africa were prisoners of war from mutual wars.

It was not until about 1637, when Portuguese plantations in Brazil and slave forts in West Africa had been conquered after several attempts, that the West India Company possessed the infrastructure to enter the transatlantic slave trade on a large scale. In practice, however, the Republic has been a slave-trading nation for much longer, because by that time the VOC had already enslaved tens of thousands of people and deployed them to build the colony in the ‘East’.

New Riches

What happened to the 130 Africans in 1596? At least eleven African deaths have been recorded in Middelburg within four months of their arrival, but more will have died while waiting for the Walcheren. Only in the summer of 1597 did the Zeeland captain Melchior van den Kerckhoven sail from Middelburg to Lisbon on behalf of merchant Van der Hagen, most likely with the survivors on board. He then sailed on to South America and West Africa. In Angola the Zealanders again bought slaves.

And Mayor Ten Haeff? He turned out to be one of the most important merchants in Middelburg. When he heard of De Houtman’s return from Asia a little after the 130th century, he immediately sent a merchant fleet that way to exploit possible new riches. Later he also sent ships to South America and became a co-founder of the VOC.

About the author

Leendert van der Valk (42) is a freelance journalist for NRC and The green Amsterdammer. He writes extensively about music, with an emphasis on the dissemination and development of musical ideas through migration. In addition, he examines the beginnings of the Dutch slavery past. On this he published, among other things, the story of Lourens and Madagascar, the first people to be enslaved by the Dutch. He has also published non-fiction books and is a part-time journalism teacher.

Leendert van der Valk Statue Anneke Hymmen

Leendert van der ValkPicture Anneke Hymmen

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