Dutch reaped profits from slavery

Beginnings: By the late 1630s, the Dutch traders were bringing West Africans to the plantations of the New World, where there was a huge market for them in the sugar fields and in the mines.

April 28, 2002|By Jacquelyn Swearingen | Jacquelyn Swearingen,ALBANY TIMES UNION

ALBANY, N.Y. -- Lured by easy riches, the Dutch took up the slave trade in the 17th century and left a legacy of brutality.

From the start of European settlements in the North America, the Dutch had their hands in slaving. The first 20 Africans to arrive in the British colony at Jamestown were brought from the West Indies in 1619 by a Dutch trader who had robbed them from a Spanish ship. He exchanged his human cargo for food.

Almost from its beginning in 1621, the Dutch West India Company found a place for slaves in its financial schemes. In 1628, the company decided to deal with a labor shortage in New Netherland by bringing slaves from the African coast.

The catalyst

But the real catalyst for the Dutch was the company's growing frustrations over colonizing the Caribbean and Brazil. Although the Dutch had acquired a reputation for tolerance in Europe, the company's directors and independent merchants were willing to traffic in human beings because they believed slavery's profits to be low risk.

By the late 1630s the Dutch had fixed on West Africa, where they picked up slaves to bring to the plantations of the New World. There was a huge market for Africans in the sugar fields and in the mines. They replaced the Indians who had died from European diseases and forced labor.

In a triangular route, Dutch traders carried European tools, weapons and trinkets to the slave ports of West Africa to exchange for human beings. They crammed the Africans into holds and carried them to the New World to trade for commodities to ship back to Europe.

The human cost of first decades of the slave trade cannot be calculated. On the forced march to the slave ports of West Africa, as many as half the captives died, some historians believe.

During the "Middle Passage" -- the 60- to 90-day voyage to the Americas -- disease and beatings killed many more.

Just how many slaves remained in New Netherland is unclear.

A 1639 map included a slave camp 5 miles north of New Amsterdam (Manhattan). By mid-century, when the Dutch dominated the slave trade, West India Company records indicate that ships filled with African slaves docked in the town's harbor. Some were sold in New Amsterdam, but most were loaded onto freighters bound for the Caribbean or Virginia.

`The cage is there'

Those who remained in New Amsterdam worked as domestic servants. A handful -- no more than 1 percent of the town's population -- were enslaved in Beverwijck, modern-day Albany.

Before 1664, some former slaves won a kind of half freedom by paying the Dutch West India Company a set annual fee. With the takeover of the territory by the English in 1664, the population of slaves grew rapidly throughout the colony.

"What is happening in New Netherland is the process by which the iron cage of slavery settles on the African," said Oliver Rink, professor of history at California State College at Bakersfield. "By the end of the 1670s, the cage is there."

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