Double interview

The repercussions of slavery continue to this day

25 February 2021

To what extent were Rotterdam and Amsterdam and the local authorities involved with slavery? Commissioned by the present authorities in both cities, two Academy institutes, the IISH and the KITLV, have separately conducted research on this issue.

Researchers Pepijn Brandon (International Institute of Social History (IISH)) and Alex van Stipriaan (Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV)) investigated the relevant history of slavery. Van Stipriaan’s book Rotterdam in slavernij [Rotterdam in Slavery] was presented to the city’s mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb in October 2020, together with (Dutch-language) collections on “Rotterdam’s Colonial Past” and Rotterdam: a Post-Colonial City on the Move”. Pepijn Brandon compiled the book De Slavernij in Oost en West: Het Amsterdam-onderzoek’ [Slavery in East and West: The Amsterdam Study] in collaboration with his colleagues Guno Jones, Nancy Jouwe, and Matthias van Rossum. It was presented to Amsterdam’s mayor, Femke Halsema, in September 2020.

Amsterdam and Rotterdam as a case study

Two research projects, two books, and two cities – but still with a clear unifying factor in the conclusions of both works: the city authorities of both Rotterdam and Amsterdam were indeed deeply involved with slavery. Alex van Stipriaan: “In actual fact, Rotterdam is a case study, because what I say in the book applies to the whole of the Netherlands.”

Virtually everybody, whether knowingly or unknowingly, was aware of slavery and was in some way involved with slavery or the commerce associated with it. The authorities in both Rotterdam and Amsterdam were involved. Leading figures (the “regents”) were active in political administration, trade and banking, and thus had a personal stake in various ways. But it wasn’t just the elite: soldiers, seafarers, clergy, and others who went out to the colonies were well aware of the slavery situation.

The argument that it was only the elite who knew about it is therefore quickly dismissed by both researchers. And we shouldn’t forget that slavery was also the subject of debate and resistance at the time. Pepijn Brandon: “There was definitely resistance and discussion of slavery back then.” When people talk about slavery, the focus is often on the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,  but Brandon emphasises that we shouldn’t forget that slavery existed well into the nineteenth century. It was abolished by law in the Netherlands in 1863, although that didn’t mean that it suddenly ceased to exist. “The repercussions continue to this day,’ says Brandon.

Slavery wasn’t just a short-lived phenomenon

Slavery was not therefore a short-lived phenomenon in our past but was widespread. Van Stipriaan outlines the situation: “Products were traded – indirectly and from all over the place – in various port cities. They were used for bartering in Africa and for maintaining the colonies in the Caribbean and the Americas. A great deal of capital was also invested in the plantations. That plantation property was passed down by inheritance in such a way, for example, that there was a single owner in 1750 but a hundred years later numerous heirs with shares in the plantations. When slavery was abolished, they also received compensation because they had lost their ‘investment’. And that compensation could be very considerable. I recently came across the case of a lady in Utrecht who received 50,000 guilders. The enslaved people who were released got nothing.”

Enslaved men working on the land; anonymous, about 1850. Source: Rijksmuseum

Enslaved men working on the land; anonymous, about 1850.

Source: Rijksmuseum

A lot of research still needs to be done

Both Van Stipriaan and Brandon believe it’s a good idea to investigate the connection between the Netherlands and slavery by examining shares and investments in accounting records and notarial deeds. Doing so clarifies the direct links the Netherlands had with the colonies. But they also make the point that we mustn’t forget what it’s really all about, namely the enslaved people themselves. Brandon: “The automatic response should be that when we study the shares in a plantation, we shouldn’t just focus on the shareholders but on the lives of the enslaved people themselves. What was their day-to-day life like? What happened on that particular plantation? And if they resisted, what happened? Those are important questions.”

Van Stipriaan: “There’s still so much that we need to investigate. Take the Dutch Caribbean, for example. Slavery is being identified more and more with Suriname, which is highly cynical as regards the islands that still form part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.” Brandon adds: “That kind of research definitely still needs to be done. The same applies to research in East Asia: there has been some research, but not much is yet known about the physical context of slavery, apart from in the Banda Islands.”

A map from 1833 of the Banda islands. Source: National Archives

The Banda Islands are outlined in red.

Source: National Archives. Accession number 4. MIKO. Inventory number 210, map dated 1833

Offering apologies for slavery

The Rotterdam and Amsterdam studies of slavery were commissioned by the two cities. The results thus serve as a prelude to offering apologises for their slavery past. Do the researchers believe that apologies should be made? Brandon: “Whether apologies should be made is not up to us. We provide information, after which the decision regarding apologies is a matter for the politicians. Do I think apologising can contribute to the collective memory? Yes, but it then depends very much on how the apologies are made, and in what context. In my opinion, apologising is a starting point for giving the topic of slavery a productive place in the collective memory.”

Alex van Stipriaan adds: “Above all, it shouldn’t just be a matter of making apologies and then closing the book on the issue of slavery. It’s actually about opening the book! Making apologies so that you then don’t need to do anything is the last thing you want. The apologies need to be sincere, with actual substance, and followed up. That means apologies that actually involve accepting responsibility.”

Diversity in research

Pepijn Brandon and Alex van Stipriaan frequently receive comments and questions. Two white men doing research on slavery, can be a bit controversial. Van Stipriaan: “My whole life, people have asked me ‘What business is it of yours?’ I never hesitate to enter into discussion with them and to make clear that I’m doing my bit to break the deafening silence surrounding slavery. Everyone is entitled to contribute. But I also notice that in the forty years that I’ve been doing this kind of research, I myself have changed. I’ve adopted different perspectives and terms. And in all my research, my Afro-Dutch friends are looking over both my shoulders, and I try to look at history and my research through their eyes. Whether I’ve succeeded in doing so is for others to say. But I’m prepared to assert that I’ve developed in that regard. I greatly appreciate contributions from other researchers. Most of all, I’d like to see a lot from the Afro-Dutch, Afro-Surinamese, and Afro-Antillean angle.”

Brandon emphasises that he understands the “white male” comments extremely well. An important aspect of the research is the ability to empathise as a researcher. “But at the same time there are two other factors that are relevant,” he says. “If slavery is a core element of Dutch history, then everyone involved with Dutch history should deal with that issue. The second factor is that, when I look around, I see a research field that is white. That means that a lot of perspectives don’t receive much attention, which weakens how we look at the history of slavery. Diversity in research is essential. We noticed that when we were compiling our book on Slavery in East and West. Our project group included researchers from different disciplines, as well as researchers whose own heritage meant that they each had a personal connection with the history of slavery. That was valuable, and it ought to be much more of a matter of course.”

Interpreting historical information for a wider audience

For both researchers, it’s important that historical information about slavery and the lives of enslaved people is interpreted such that it can be used for educational purposes and for a wider audience. Van Stipriaan: “A national slavery museum is currently being planned in Amsterdam. Among other things, it will show what slavery means in this present day and age. The history of slavery can thus become part of everybody’s history.”