Wednesday, 20 February 2013

Slavery: 50 shades of grey

Jumped into the subject of slavery over the last couple of days, because coming July 1 it will be 150 years since slavery was abolished in the Dutch colonies (although I'm not 100% sure this also was the case in the Dutch East Indies, that needs figuring out).

I'm hoping to do a little bit on this subject for work, but that requires that I can find some official statistics to anchor the story on. Preferably some source the Statistics Office has digitised and is publicly available. There is some stuff in trade statistics (ie the products made by slaves) and in taxes (slaves, like all property, were liable to taxation), but I'm actually hoping for something on real numbers of slaves. If I figure out how, I'll put on some stuff here.

Since the British had abolished the slave trade while they held the Dutch colonies during the Napoleonic Wars and this was confirmed by the reinstated Sovereign Prince William in 1814, there are no statistics for the slave trade in the 19th century.

On Saturday I bought De slavernij, mensenhandel van de koloniale tijd tot nu (Slavery, trade in human beings from colonial times to the present) by Carla Boos. She was the chief editor for a 5 part television series on slavery that was aired on Dutch television in 2011. The book is therefor aimed at a broad audience and covers lots of ground with not a lot of depth. It has some great illustrations but sometimes it´s clear that it was hard to translate the action on screen to paper.

But what struck me most in this book is that the history of slavery is (as most of history) pretty resistant against black and white, right and wrong interpretations. Very few of the people covered in the book are utterly evil and very few are all in all good.

Look for example at Jacobus Capitein, a freed slave who grew up in the Netherlands in the 18th century and became a reverend. He wrote a book defending slavery on the basis of the bible (not surprisingly, given that it's full of rules on slavery). He died in one of the slave fortresses on the Gold Coast after having failed to convert slaves, age 30.

Or Philip Quassie, a black Surinamese professor of botany, who brought the medicinal effects of Bitterash to the attention of Linnaeus in the 18th century. But he also hunted runaway slaves.

Even Bartolomeo de las Casas, the 16th century Spanish bishop who wrote his book to stop the terrible treatment of the Indians of America, thereby condemned black Africans to work in their stead. Even when he realised his mistake, he was unable to undo it.

Willem Bosman, a Dutch employee of the a Dutch slave trading company had very low esteem of the mulattoes and mixed race, but on the other hand fathered a number of children who to this day live in Ghana carrying his name.

The two great communities of marrons, or runaway slaves, in Suriname signed peace treaties with the colonial authorities in 1758 and 1760, recognising their freedom but also agreeing to return any further runaways to their masters.

Or E.J. Bartelink, a black supervisor of Dutch plantations in Suriname before and after abolition, with great deferrence to his white employers and often low esteem for his black slaves or labourers.

From the 1770s the Dutch employed black troops, known as het Neger Vrijkorps, de Zwarte Jagers or redimusi (for their red hats). They gained their freedom and some land by chasing runaways and fighting the marrons.

Europeans were as much victims as perpetrators of slavery. Hundreds of thousands were taken by Barbary Pirates from the coast of North Africa. Special insurance societies were set up to buy the freedom of sailors, but most never saw home again.

Many Africans were involved in the slave trade, such as the Ashanti tribe and 19th century Ghanese trader Mohammed Babatu. The Zanzibar slave trader Tippo Tip ruled an area as large as the half of Europe and was employed by the Belgian king Leopold for a time to administer areas in the Congo. In all, muslim slave traders may have taken as many black Africans to the Middle East as the Europeans.

On Dutch ships on average about 1 in 7 of the slaves died during the trip from Africa to the Americas. This rate was the same as the death rate among the European crews on these ships.

Although there never was a Dutch abolitionist movement like in Britain, when it took off it was quickly successful. Especially after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, the decision to abolish slavery was quickly taken, but it took almost a decade to dismantle it completely.

The most prominent abolitionists, Julien Wolters and Wolter baron Van Hoëvell, were not great lovers of the black race and displayed prejudices common for the age, for example against Jews and non-christian slaves.

I'm not making moral judgements here, because I don't know what emotional conundrums these (mostly) men faced in many cases with the choice between poverty and great riches or survival and death or a life of forced hard labour. Most of them were religious and must have struggled with their consciences.

That is the real world. Muddied, fucked up, hypocritical, delusional, hopeful, bittersweet, guilty, melancholy.

Treasure it in your work.

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