Telling Stories of Slavery, One Person at a Time
A new exhibition in Amsterdam reconstructs personal histories to confront the Netherlands’ extensive and little-discussed involvement in the international trade of enslaved people during the colonial era.,
AMSTERDAM — An ornate tortoise shell box with a real gold nugget on its lid has long been on display in the Rijksmuseum. Considered a high point of Dutch rococo craftsmanship, it was a gift to Prince William IV from the Dutch West India Company in 1749, when he was named the group’s governor.
Look closer, though, and the gilded surface tells a different story. Embossed in the gold, two men wearing long coats point to nearly naked plantation workers crouched in the dirt. On the underside is a map of West African slave-trading posts operated by the Dutch West India Company.
“For the longest time, it was mainly displayed as an item that speaks about riches and world power,” said Valika Smeulders, who leads the history department at the Rijksmuseum. In 2013, one of the museum’s curators noticed the images on the lid, she added. “He saw that human beings were being purchased. That allowed us to look at the box in a new way, to relate it to the social history of slavery.”
The piece is now one of the first objects that visitors encounter upon entering the Rijksmuseum’s new exhibition, “Slavery,” which opened on June 5 and explores more than two centuries of Dutch participation in the global trade of enslaved people.
Four years in the making, the sprawling show is perhaps first and foremost a statement on the museum’s intention to right a historical wrong, and to tell a story about the Netherlands’ past that has largely been overlooked.
The Dutch were instrumental in the trans-Atlantic trade in enslaved people — often known as the “triangular trade” among Europe, West Africa and the Americas — and in Asia as well. The country’s activities were primarily conducted through the Dutch West India Company and the Dutch East India Company, organizations that were established with private and state capital and governed by Dutch state officials and, later, royalty. The companies even had the authority to wage war, with military and financial support from the Dutch state.
From the 17th century through the 19th century, they enslaved more than a million people, according to the museum’s historians, buying them at trading posts the companies ran in Africa and Asia and transporting them en masse across oceans, creating large-scale forced migrations.
Slavery was forbidden in the Netherlands, but it was legal — and crucial to the profitable plantations — in Dutch colonies such as Brazil, Indonesia and Suriname. Goods produced by enslaved people for the companies included sugar, coffee, gold, pepper, tobacco, cotton, nutmeg and silver. Enslaved people also worked in households, in shipping and in farming, and served in the Dutch military.
“It is, of course, far too late already that we’re addressing this subject,” said Taco Dibbits, the Rijksmuseum’s director. “But it’s better late than never.”
Slavery is also not typically discussed openly in the Netherlands, said Karwan Fatah-Black, a historian of Dutch colonial history at Leiden University. “It seems that the conversation turns very tense very quickly,” he said.
“It is not easy for mainstream Dutch society to talk about this history and how to understand the place of this history in the broader identity of the Netherlands,” he said, adding that there was a general perception that “the Dutch did not participate in it anymore than anyone else and it should not taint the appreciation of the golden age of trade.”
The Dutch educational system rarely emphasizes the country’s role in the trade, said Eveline Sint Nicolaas, a senior curator of history at the Rijksmuseum who curated the show along with Smeulders and others.
“In the Netherlands, when people did have lessons about slavery, it was usually about the United States and the cotton plantations in the South,” she said. “The story of slavery is the North American story. That’s why it’s important to make sure that it’s clear that it’s not American history, or even colonial history. It’s our national history.”
Museums at that time did not intentionally collect materials to record that history. The Rijksmuseum was established in 1800, “an era when museums were built to convey a nationalistic narrative, to speak about what Europe had achieved,” Smeulders said. “They wanted to underscore that they were well within their rights to do what they were doing, that it had brought wealth and prosperity.”
With a dearth of objects available to tell the story, the “Slavery” exhibition relies heavily on oral histories, storytelling and song, she said. And the audio guide for the show is not merely recommended — it is given out to everyone, free of charge.
Dibbits said he wanted the history to resonate on a personal level with visitors. So he decided to focus on 10 individual stories, each of which was connected to the Dutch trade in enslaved people, even if only indirectly. “Numbers and statistics are better for books, but a museum is a meeting place where you communicate with people and with the objects,” he said.
Each represents a part of that history, including enslaved people, those who bought them, colonial merchants and abolitionists. Here are five of those people and the objects that tell their stories.
Joao Mina was sold into slavery around 1640 at Elmina Castle, the Dutch administrative headquarters on the Gold Coast of Africa, in what is now Ghana. It is impossible to know his precise origins or his real name. His captors gave him the name Mina (short for Elmina) when he was bought and sent on a ship to the Dutch colony in Brazil, a voyage of between five weeks and two months. When he arrived, the traders sold him again, likely at a market in Recife, to Portuguese slaveholders who sent him to work on a nearby sugar plantation.
Foot stocks, known as a “tronco” (a tree trunk in Portuguese), would clamp the ankles of several enslaved people at once, which meant they had to lie still to avoid excruciating pain. The stocks were often used as punishment on sugar plantations like the one where Mina was forced to work. This set of nine-foot-long oak stocks was probably made in the Netherlands, said Sint Nicolaas, possibly for a plantation in Dutch Brazil, although it was never sent there.
During the period when Mina was in Brazil, the West India Company occupied territory along the country’s coast. It came under attack from Portuguese settlers who had colonized the area, and during a 1645 guerrilla war, many African people fled their Portuguese owners. Mina was one of them: He escaped from a sugar plantation and entered the Dutch colonial territory.
There, he was subjected to a lengthy interrogation by West India Company officials who were eager for information about the Portuguese. Documents recording that process have helped historians grasp the outline of Mina’s story, although they provided scant personal information.
“The fact that we do have a few details about his life makes him a rarity,” the historian Stephanie Archangel wrote in the “Slavery” exhibition catalog. “No trace remains of millions of enslaved men, women and children.”
Engraved brass collar
Buying enslaved people was illegal on Dutch soil in Europe, but people could purchase them elsewhere and bring them to the Netherlands. Paulus Maurus, a domestic servant for a wealthy family in The Hague, probably arrived in the Netherlands this way. He would have been called a “moor” in late 17th-century Dutch society, and was probably not considered enslaved, because, at least in principle, he was free under national law.
Maurus is included in the exhibition, said Smeulders, because he inhabited a gray zone between slavery and freedom. Many Dutch considered African people to be objects that could be bought and owned, so although he was technically free, it is unclear to what extent he experienced any sense of liberty.
He was allowed to marry a woman, Maria Sauls, and have a son, whom the couple baptized as Maurice in 1690. But Maurus was probably required to wear a brass collar, a sign that he was the property of a master. This engraved collar, which came from the home where Maurus worked, became part of the Rijksmuseum’s collection in 1881.
“We’ve had this in the collection for a long time, but until recently we thought it was a dog collar,” Smeulders said. The curators, however, looked more closely at the portrait “Maurits, Count of Nassau La Lecq,” from 1670, in which the count is depicted on his horse while an African servant holds his plumed helmet. The servant is wearing a brass collar.
Portrait by Rembrandt
In 1634, Rembrandt painted a pair of portraits of a husband and wife, Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coopit, which the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre in Paris acquired jointly in 2015. The couple’s ability to afford a commission by the country’s most famous painter at the height of his powers for full-length portraits, wearing regal silk and lace, indicates the measure of their wealth. Typically, only members of royal or noble families commissioned full-length portraits, and this was the only time Rembrandt completed a set of full-length portraits for any private clients.
The couple, like Soolmans’ father, were in the sugar refining business, which was linked to slavery because raw sugar supplied to the Netherlands came from plantations in Brazil. Coopit also moved several degrees closer to the slave trade after Soolmans died: She married Capt. Maerten Daey, a military officer who had served in Dutch Brazil and witnessed slavery there firsthand.
Researchers also discovered evidence that while in Brazil, Captain Daey raped an African woman named Francisca, who reported the crime to the local church, according to a complaint submitted by its pastor and the local mayor. The two men said that Daey had made Francisca pregnant and that he had imprisoned her for a least a month and “abused her horribly,” according to Sint Nicolaas, the curator.
In 1632, Francisca gave birth to Daey’s child, a daughter whom she named Elunam. He did not marry her, but instead returned to the Netherlands, married a Dutch woman and brought his wife back to Brazil. The church brought an indictment against Daey in 1635, but there is no evidence that he was ever tried in any formal context.
Family portrait by Jacob Coeman
Surapati was a freedom fighter who led a rebel movement at the turn of the 18th century against the Dutch East India Company in what is now Indonesia. Today, he is considered an Indonesian national hero, featured in plays, comic books and television series. His life history was also chronicled in several “babads” — lyrical verses written on palm leaves — with each telling a slightly different tale of his heroism.
Although some of the details are murky, what is clear is that Surapati was an enslaved man from the island of Bali who worked in the Dutch East Indies’ capital, Batavia, an area that corresponds to present-day Jakarta. The merchant who bought Surapati, Pieter Cnoll, also purchased at least 50 other enslaved people. In 1665, Surapati was included as one of two servants in Cnoll’s family portrait.
For 320 years beginning in 1619, the East India Company had its headquarters in Batavia, whose colonial Dutch-style buildings served as the center of the company’s trading network in Asia. Almost half of Batavia’s population was enslaved, according to the historian Marsely L. Kehoe. They came mostly from other parts of Asia and southern Africa, including India, the Indonesian archipelago and Madagascar.
Surapati escaped enslavement and became the leader of a group of fugitive Balinese people who initially fought for the Dutch East India Company’s army and then switched sides to fight against it. As a reward for taking on the Dutch, a local sultan made Surapati the ruler of a court in Pasuruan, East Java. Surapati continued to wage several battles against Dutch colonial forces until 1706, when he was killed in battle.
Lohkay is a revered figure among descendants of enslaved people in Sint Maarten, a Dutch colony in the Caribbean. According to oral histories, she attempted a daring escape from a plantation there, and its owners had one of her breasts cut off as punishment. Still, she tried to break free again, this time successfully, and managed to survive on her own in the island’s hills.
An archival record from the early 1800s contains a reference to “Lukey,” meaning “lucky,” a “Negro girl” offered for sale for 240 guilders. In oral history, she acquired the nickname “One-Tete Lohkay” (“One-Breasted Lokhay”) to honor her bravery.
She was the inspiration for a series of mass escapes by enslaved people on the island, which was divided between French and Dutch colonizers.
In 1848, after the French declared the abolition of slavery on their side, enslaved workers in the Dutch colony began to flee across the border. That prompted Dutch slaveholders to demand that the Netherlands also end slavery — and compensate them for the lost labor.
Enslaved people in the Caribbean were sometimes “paid” with blue beads as a kind of unofficial currency, which limited them to bartering rather than being able to use real money. To celebrate emancipation when slavery was abolished in 1863, legend has it that people threw these beads into the water as a rejection of the colonial system.
Blue beads continue to be found off the coast and fished out of the sea by divers and tourists, Smeulders said. “We still can’t prove how they got there,” she added, “but when they’re found people wear them with great pride, because it reminds them of their ancestors’ feelings of liberation.”