Saturday, 29 June 2013

Slavery in the Dutch Caribbean: numbers

Okay, so how many slaves were there in Surinam and on the Dutch Antilles?

First, let's look at the number of slaves coming in to the Dutch colonies in the Caribbean. Numbers are difficult, because the Dutch Antilles served as an entrepot and a number of slaves may have finally ended up elsewhere.

Over two centuries around half a million slaves were imported to the Dutch colonies, out of more than 9 million slaves brought to the new world from 1600 to 1870. That's a significant bit minor share. Brazil, Spanish America and the British and French Antilles received much larger numbers.

Knight, The Caribbean p 364

The high watermark of slavery in the Dutch Antilles lay in the late 18th century, when there were well over 20,000. More than half of the the slaves worked on Curacao, the main commercial center.

Slave population of the Dutch Antilles
Dalhuisen, Geschiedenis van de Antillen p55

Immediately after the British occupation and the abolition of the slave trade (effective in 1808, but officially confirmed by the new United Kingdom of the Netherlands in 1814), the number of slaves had dropped to 12,000 and remained mostly stable after that.  Natural population growth was positive and balanced manumissions and several thousand slaves emigrating (ostensibly as freedmen).  The excess of births over deaths was probably mostly because the economic focus of the Dutch Antilles was on trade and self sufficiency instead of export of plantation crops for the world market.

The late 18th century was also the prime time for Surinam. There may have been as many as 60,000 slaves at that time. In the 19th century the numbers declined.  This was mostly the result of negative natural population growth, a common feature of plantation slave societies. Combined with manumissions and escapes, the only possibility was for a decline in the number of slaves. By 1863 there were only some 35,000 slaves left.

Slave populations in the 19th century
Staatkundig en Staatshuishoudkundig Jaarboekje
After abolition in 1863, the freed slaves between the ages of 15 and 60 were required by the Dutch government to work as contract labourers on the plantations for another 10 years. They were nominally under state supervision, or staatstoezicht. As soon as the requirement to work under contract disappeared, many former slaves left the plantations. This signalled the start of an era where plantation owners imported contract labour from India, Indonesia and China.

Until 1863 the population of Surinam was dominated by slaves. The white population was a small minority, living mostly in the capital, Paramaribo. In Paramaribo also lived the freed slaves, but while the colonial records account for 600 in 1844, Panday lists over 5000 of them in 1835. I have no way of reconciling those numbers.

There was also a significant group of maroons, called Bosnegers in Dutch, that lived in the interior. The were reckoned at 7 to 8,000 in the middle of the 19th century. The Surinam jungle also provided a refuge for maybe around a thousand Indians.
Population of Surinam 1844
Staatkundig en Staathuishoudkundig Jaarboekje 1850

Considering that about half a million slaves came in to the Dutch Caribbean, the death rate must have been horrendous if you consider the slave population at the end of the 18th century (just over 80,000). Apparently, slave owners felt no need to be careful with their investments as replacements were relatively cheap.


  1. meer blanken dan ik verwacht had in Suriname, toch (15%?). Leprozen, wat doen die in deze statistiek?

    1. Hi Jan Kees,

      you´re correct, the number of whites is high and there might be a mix up of whites and free blacks. As said, Panday gives much higher numbers for black freedmen, and the total number of freedmen seems to be correct.

      The lepers are recorded separately in the population statistics of the time because the live in a separate hospital. There's a few whites and free blacks among them, otherwise you wouldd count them with the rest of the slaves for clarity.

  2. annoying I can't get the Jaarboekje 1850 in Google Books! Just read the Surinam part of the 1870 edition . interesting. Did you know contract labour (450 people) was imported from Madeira?

    1. Hi Jan Kees, here's a link to the historical collection of Statistics Netherlands, including the Jaarboekje (1849 and onwards)

      I read that they initially tried to import contract labourers from Madeira, Barbados, Curacao and other places in the Atlantic without success. That's why they soon turned to China, India ('Hindoestanen') and Indonesia ('Javanen')

      ps my piece in Dutch


I appreciate comments. Let me know what you think!