Alex van Stipriaan is Professor of Caribbean History at Erasmus University Rotterdam. On 31 October, Van Stipriaan’s book Rotterdam in Slavernij (‘Rotterdam in Slavery’) was presented to Mayor Aboutaleb, together with two other books. These publications came out of a large-scale study into Rotterdam’s involvement in slavery and the city’s colonial history and identity. This research was commissioned by Rotterdam’s municipal council in response to a motion submitted by Peggy Wijntuin, who at the time represented PvdA in the council.

Why did you feel there needed to be a book about Rotterdam’s involvement in slavery?

“Too often, the history of slavery is still seen as a Surinamese, Antillean or African affair. And when people do talk about a Dutch connection, the focus tends to be on Amsterdam or Middelburg. But if there’s one thing this book shows it’s that Rotterdam was involved in slavery in all sorts of ways, be it through its governors, patricians or ordinary people. An interesting result of this local approach is that it allowed me to show just how widespread this involvement actually was.”

In your book, you focus among other things on a number of prominent businesses and families. Could you name an example?

“One of them is the De Mey family. Rotterdammers through and through. Although originally, of course, they came from elsewhere – like every family in Rotterdam. In this case Flanders. But they prospered in Rotterdam. The De Meys had a number of sugar refineries, for which they needed raw materials. These were imported from Brazil, which at the time was still a Dutch colony. Later on, the De Meys shifted their attention to Curacao and Suriname, where they took over a large sugar plantation. They remained the owners of this plantation until the abolition of slavery.”

And we’re talking about a plantation where slaves – or rather, ‘enslaved people’, as you refer to them – did the heavy work.

“Absolutely. And at the end of the slavery period, the family actually received a reimbursement for the loss of their ‘property’: the enslaved people. This was not unusual at the time.”

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Image credit: Bas van der Schot

Rotterdam’s ties with slavery extend far beyond an isolated plantation owner. Everything and everyone was connected in some way or other, you write in your book. Could you explain?

“What makes the De Meys an atypical example is that they didn’t mortgage their operation to a Rotterdam banking firm. Many other plantation owners had done this. Businesses like Coopstad & Rochussen or the firm Hudig organised ship voyages and issued mortgages that had slavery-based plantations in the Caribbean as surety. The capital for these arrangements was often collected via negotiation. This meant a lot of people in Rotterdam had a direct stake in slavery – not just wealthy entrepreneurs, but also ordinary citizens who had invested their savings. What’s more: these trading houses earned a commission on sales, and the provisions for these plantations were all sourced from Rotterdam. Everything – from burlap bags to writing materials – was made, purchased or shipped in Rotterdam. And the same applies to luxury goods – fabrics, weapons, gunpowder, alcohol, all sorts of items – that were used to buy people along the African coast: from today’s Sierra Leone all the way to Angola. Rotterdam served as a hub that linked all sorts of manufacturers – in Borculo, Groningen, Maastricht, all the way to Germany – with Africa and the Caribbean.”

To which extent was Rotterdam directly involved in large-scale trafficking?

“Rotterdam bears responsibility for around 12 percent of all enslaved people transported under a Dutch flag.”

These remain heinous crimes, with huge repercussions. To what degree could you call this book an inquest into the guilty parties?

“You won’t find any mention of ‘guilt’ or ‘guilty’ in my book. This is also something I find problematic in the current debate. You don’t bear guilt for the conduct of your ancestors. The only thing you could say is: I have a responsibility to learn about this history, share it and give thought to its repercussions. And if you indulge in racist behaviour in the wake of this history, you should feel guilty about that.”

They were different times, is what people often say when slavery is brought up. Do they have a point?

“People say: that’s how things were back then, people didn’t know any better. Which is complete nonsense, for more than one reason. In my research, I show that people have always protested against the practice of slavery – including in Rotterdam. Ministers, thinkers, politicians, writers, playwrights, you name it. They believed that slavery runs counter to what’s said in the Bible, to Enlightenment ideas or nascent democratic ideals. There was no case of ‘I wasn’t aware of it’ back then. I found lottery tickets showing a white man whipping a black man, with the caption ‘slavery’. People subsequently used these tickets as playing cards, in the tavern or at home. So people literally came across images of slavery in their everyday surroundings.

“The selective rejection of slavery is also effectively illustrated by the debate surrounding white slavery, to which I’ve devoted a section of my book. This concerned Rotterdam citizens who had been captured by the Barbary pirates, as they were called at the time. They were North Africans and Ottomans who seized merchant vessels in order to sell the cargo and crewmembers to the sultan and the galley captains. This form of slavery was considered absolutely unacceptable and inspired many collection drives in the city’s streets and churches.”

Let’s talk about the consequences of the slavery history of the Netherlands. In your book, you quote a Surinamese bank director who describes the present political and economic situation in Suriname as a direct outcome of this past. Do you agree with him?

“He’s referring to what you could call Suriname’s neo-colonial cultural identity. The idea that people are less likely to take the initiative because they never learnt to do so. That they don’t take action, because this was penalised for centuries. The interesting thing about the slavery period is that it is a history of conflict. This book once again shows how much resistance there has always been. In the period that followed – the colonial phase – those in power tried to quell this resistance, with great success. The people in Suriname, for example, were no longer oppressed physically, but mentally. And this process was bolstered by all these so-called civilisation initiatives – Christianisation, education. And this has had long-lasting effects. A very poignant example is the hierarchy based on skin colour, either conscious or unconscious, that has survived to this day. Including in Suriname and Curacao. The lighter your skin tone, the more beautiful you are considered – and the better your prospects in society. This can be very far-reaching. Sometimes, you can even see people being distinguished on the basis of skin tone within individual families. I know people who want nothing more to do with their families due to this kind of discrimination.”

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Image credit: Bas van der Schot

In the debate surrounding slavery, there is a strong interest in the profits and losses associated with slavery – also with an eye on possible reparation payments. You have meticulously inventoried the financial details of a number of Rotterdam stakeholders. Nevertheless, you refuse to draw a conclusion from this overview. Why?

“Because it’s impossible. How could you ever arrive at a definite profit-and-loss account for the practice of slavery? Which aspects should you include? Just the income of the De Mey family? Or also of the Dutch grocers who sold sugar? And the people who cleaned their shops? And imagine you totted up some figure – what then? There’s a professor here in the Netherlands who has calculated a specific total and concluded that it wasn’t as bad as it seems. I think this a very futile pursuit.”

It also becomes clear from your book that Rotterdam’s city government was involved in all sorts of ways. The Mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, is currently considering an official apology in response to a similar study. Should Ahmed Aboutaleb follow suit?

“I am very happy with the book published about Amsterdam’s past, and the debate that it has given rise to. But to be honest, I think our Mayor Aboutaleb is doing a better job. For quite a few years already, he has been calling on our national government to issue a formal apology. I think that makes more sense than all these separate statements: first Amsterdam, the Rotterdam and then in ten years’ time… I don’t know… Zutphen, for example.”

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You’ve presented a copy of the book to Aboutaleb. Should he apologise?

“That’s fine with me.”

But do you believe it’s important?

“It would be an important signal towards Rotterdammers of African ancestry. Of whom there are quite a few. One in eight citizens of Rotterdam descends from enslaved Africans. But let’s not forget that this whole process can only really start after we learn about this history and make our apologies. There’s a risk of people thinking: hey, they said sorry, didn’t they – couldn’t we move on now?”

Let’s talk about another possible conclusion: reparations. According to Alfrida Martis, who is a student at the University of Amsterdam and member of its diversity office, people on the island of Bonaire, for example, need to be helped to break out of poverty. “We keep referring to the past, but in mental, social and political terms, people there still live in a neo-colonial system,” says Martis. “I believe that a fund for Afro-Caribbean students, for example, would be an excellent form of indemnity.” What’s your opinion on this matter?

“It would be a fine initiative. In the same vein, I am also in favour of all sorts of other initiatives, in the cultural sector, for example. And I believe it is very important to make the findings of books published on this subject accessible to a large and wide audience. My book has a print run of 2,500 copies. Which is nice, but it doesn’t run much chance of becoming a bestseller. This history needs to become part of our collectively experienced past. By educating our children, for example.”

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The fact that Gert Oostindie, director of the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV), would be heading this study drew the necessary flak. People said the research team should have been made up of people of colour. And today’s discussion is once again held by two white men. Do you find it difficult that this subject occasional inspires heated responses?

“I’m constantly aware of this aspect. Before I had even put a word to paper, people were saying: why should you, a white male, be writing this book? People’s reactions can be quite emotional, but I see this as a logical phase in an on-going struggle. It’s part of the emancipation process. We’ll need to bite the bullet and get through this together.”

The struggle surrounding Black Pete seems to have been resolved. And arts centre Witte de With changed its name to Melly in response to protests. Do you see these as successes in the fight for emancipation?

“These are symbols of a mental legacy. As soon as you start discussing the abolition of something like Black Pete or changing the name of a cultural organisation, this leads to a growing realisation of this legacy. As well as to the fact that you can do something about it.”

Should Rochussenstraat be renamed too?

“It could be. But remain aware that it was actually named after a painter – not after the Rochussen described in my book. I have had talks with the Hudig family, though. As direct descendants of the Hudigs who were involved in slavery, they now have to deal with the knowledge that their family fortune and the prominent position they still occupy in Rotterdam today are founded on slavery.”

The notion that this is ‘blood money’ springs to mind. What’s your opinion on a family like this?

“They’re an easy target – simply because they’re still around. Quite a few of the businesses and families described in the book no longer exist, for all sorts of reasons. I believe the Hudigs should enter into dialogue about this legacy, both within the family and with society at large. As we all should. It’s about taking responsibility as a citizen of the Netherlands. Acknowledging that this is also part of my history, and we should keep paying attention to it in the present day.”

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