Slavery history is a Dutch history, and it is Rotterdam’s slavery past, as well. Rotterdam was involved in the slave trade from the get-go, and our slavery past did not end when slavery was abolished in 1863. It did not end after the ten subsequent years during which enslaved people had to continue working on plantations, either. History lives on in the present. For this reason, the podcast starts with the foundation of the city of Rotterdam, while the final episode ends with the protest march on and near the Erasmus Bridge in June 2020.

New Rotterdam

We have all heard about New Amsterdam, which ended up becoming New York. However, far fewer people are aware that there used to be a New Rotterdam, as well. As Van Stipriaan explains in the first episode of the podcast, a large area in Suriname was cleared of vegetation in the nineteenth century so as to allow for the creation of plantations. “And its capital was called New Rotterdam.” Furthermore, there were plantations and forts called Rotterdam, and sometimes ships and plantations had names that were indirect references to the port city. An example of such an indirect reference would be ‘Maasstroom’ (Meuse river), which unmistakably refers to Rotterdam.

Was Rotterdam a major player in the slave trade?

“One might say Rotterdam merchants were the pioneers of the Dutch slave trade”, historian Gerhard de Kok says in the second episode of Nooit Bewust Opgeslagen. While scouring the Rotterdam archive, he found more evidence of Rotterdam’s involvement in the slave trade. This new evidence relates to the first ship that transported black people who had been enslaved to the Netherlands, even before the foundation of the Dutch East India Company. Enslaved people were seldom taken to the Netherlands, because slavery was prohibited here. The ship reached Zeeland in the late sixteenth century. “We used to believe that Dutch pirates won this ship in a battle with the Portuguese. It was a Portuguese slave ship, and the Netherlands was at war with Spain and Portugal at the time. But take a good look at the historical documents and you’ll find it may well have been a Dutch slave ship, with a very clear link to Rotterdam. The owner of the ship, the person who sent that ship onto the seas, was from Rotterdam. One might say Rotterdam merchants were the pioneers of the Dutch slave trade.”

De Kok says that it is hard to determine just how major a player Rotterdam was in the slave trade, as it depends on what you are looking at. It is true that more ships sailed from Zeeland and Amsterdam. “But that’s not the whole story.” You see, De Kok explains, Rotterdam did supply the slave ships that sailed from Zeeland with gunpowder. In other words, Rotterdam might not have been the biggest player in the Netherlands, but the city ‘was definitely involved in the whole thing’.

Hoe groot Rotterdam was in de slavenhandel is afhankelijk van waar je naar kijkt, zegt De Kok. Vanuit Zeeland en Amsterdam vertrokken meer schepen. “Maar dat is niet het hele verhaal.” Want, zo vertelt hij, Rotterdam leverde bijvoorbeeld wel buskruit aan Zeeuwse slavenschepen. Rotterdam was dus niet de grootste, Nederlandse speler, maar ‘was er absoluut bij betrokken’.

Nooit Bewust Opgeslagen: A Podcast on Rotterdam’s Slavery Past is available from OPEN Rotterdam and Erasmus Magazine starting from Tuesday, 25 August. The podcast is only available in Dutch.With these stories about the podcast we also want to inform non-Dutch speakers about Rotterdam’s slavery past.