Monday, 1 July 2013

The end of slavery in the Dutch West Indies

On the 1st of July 1863 (the same day that gun fire opened around the town of Gettysburg) cannon fired from the capitals of the Dutch West Indies announced the emancipation of 34,800 slaves in Surinam and 11,800 slaves on the Dutch Antilles. 

Slaves and those placed under state supervision after 1863 

Although liberated in name, the former slaves aged between 15 and 60 in Surinam were required to work on the plantations as contract labourers for another ten years under state supervision (staatstoezicht). When this requirement ended in 1873, many former slaves left the plantations. The planters replaced them by contract labourers from India, Indonesia and China. Because no great loss of labour supply was feared on the Dutch Antilles, there was no period of forced contract labour on these islands.

The slave trade in the Dutch West Indies had been abolished under British occupation in 1808. The new Dutch government reiterated this measure in 1814. Lacking fresh supply, the number of slaves in Surinam fell from over 50,000 at the time of prohibition to 34,800 in 1862. The main reason was that fewer slaves were born than died. There was also a small but steady drain from manumission and slaves buying their freedom. Even fewer slaves escaped. On the Dutch Antilles slave births outnumbered deaths, so that despite manumission and emigration, slave population remained relatively stable above 10,000.

Slaves in 1863 for which an indemnity was paid

Following emancipation, the Dutch government paid an indemnity to the slave owners for all healthy slaves. After inspection the number of slaves for which an indemnity would be paid was established at 32,900 in Surinam and 11,000 on the Antilles. The Dutch Parliament set a sum of 300 guilders per slave in Surinam and 200 guilders on the islands*. The total amount of the indemnity reached almost 12 million guilders, or about 10 % of Dutch state expenditure in 1863.
Surinam:  a plantation economy

The plantations in Surinam grew mostly sugar cane and to a lesser extent coffee, cocoa and cotton. At the time of emancipation over half of the slaves were employed on sugar plantations. Another 14 % were involved in the production of cotton and 7 % in forestry. The remaining 22 % worked in the cultivation of coffee, cocoa and food.

Slaves by type of plantation, Surinam 1857

Not all slaves worked in the fields. Over a quarter of them was too young, too old or too ill to work, got an education or was reported absent. Six % served in their masters’ households or mended their children. More than 60 % of slaves was involved in the cultivation of crops or the tending of flock and in the processing of raw materials in factories or as craftsmen. Above them stood a small layer of supervisors, engineers and medics.

Slaves by type of labour, Surinam 1857

Autarchy on the Dutch Antilles

The effects of emancipation were different for the Dutch Antilles. Their economy was built around trade. Part of the slaves was therefor involved in crafts and industries like salt mining. Agriculture was mostly focused on food for consumption on the islands themselves. In dry years food even had to be imported.

Free and slave population in Surinam and on the Dutch Antilles, 1857

In comparison to Surinam the slaves were a smaller part of the total population. Over the course of the 19th century they were able to acquire more control over their own labour so that many were effectively working as wage labourers before the official liberation.

Outside the Caribbean

Surinam and the Dutch Antilles were not the only areas under Dutch administration with slavery. It was abolished in different parts of the Dutch East Indies between 1860 en 1910. On the Gold Coast (present day Ghana) emancipation occurred in 1872, when the colony was sold to Great-Britain. Slavery had been abolished there in 1834.

I’ve taken the statistics for this article from the Staatkundig en Staathuishoudkundig Jaarboekje. This source has been recently made available digitally through the Historical Collection Statistics Netherlands

* The amount set for the indemnityof slave owners on St Martin was originally only 30 guilders because they had effectively become free in 1848. In that year France abolished slavery, and the slaves on the French side of St Martin were emancipated. Faced by the threat of a mass exodus to the French part of the island, Dutch planters accepted the de facto freedom of their slaves as well. However, after waiting 15 years for an indemnity, they refused the amount of 30 guilders per slave. Dutch parliament then decided to offer 100 guilders per slave.

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