The first black people in the Netherlands

I’ve been researching the history of black people in the Netherlands lately, and it’s an interesting, complex and sometimes infuriating project. I’d like to share a bit of what I’ve learned over a few posts starting with what one researcher believes is the first recorded evidence of black people’s arrival on Dutch shores.

The account comes from Black Africans in Seventeenth Century Amsterdam, a paper by Dienke Hondius of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam published in 2008. The paper also includes earlier historic accounts that occured in places other than Amsterdam in the Dutch provinces.

middelburg jan arends
Middleburg in the Dutch Golden Age, when the city was a center of the slave trade. By Jan Arends.

The earliest of those instances is believed to have happened in Middleburg, the capital of the province Zeeland, in November 1596. At the time, Middleburg was a pretty influential city, a seaside town that many trading ships called their home port. That month, a Dutch captain named Van der Hagen (or Haagen) showed up with 100 African men, women and children who he apparently planned to sell as slaves. 

In that time, Portugal had already established itself as a capturer and seller of Africans. That trade began in 1444 when a group of 250 Africans were brought to Lagos, Portugal. Portuguese Prince Henrique knighted the captain who brought them there and sanctioned their sale as slaves, thereby giving his blessing to the establishment of slavery on the Portuguese mainland as well as on its overseas colonies.

Things went down a little differently in Middleburg a century and a half later. Presented with the group of Africans, the local leaders determined that there was no slavery in Zeeland, and that these people would be freed, provided that they agreed to be baptised and become Christian.

Granted, the decision isn’t perfect by today’s standards. Freedom shouldn’t be contingent on giving up one’s faith and adopting another’s. But those were, as they say, different times.

Worse, the local magistrates declared a date and time for the Africans to be put on display, so that local residents could come and get an eyeful. Truly cringe-worthy. They were also told that anyone who wanted could employ the Africans, so long as they agreed to guide them into being good Christians. But as this was expressly not slavery, I assume this was work done with a wage, and that the men and women (and children – no word on how young was too young to work) were able to exercise some agency over where they worked and for whom, though realistically they would have to have the ability to speak the local language and some money to do so.

It’s a nice story. Unfortunately, it doesn’t end there.

Captain Van der Hagen wasn’t about to take the loss of his profit lying down. He appealed the decision of the Middleburg burghers to the States General, the governing body of the united Dutch provinces. He asked to be able to take the Africans – who he considered to be his property – to the West Indies to sell as slaves.

Dutch trader with slaves
Dutch trader with enslaved people

The States General rejected the captain’s plea. Slavery existed nowhere in the Dutch provinces, and the captain was asking for the right to establish its practice now in their overseas territories. It was a monumental request.

Persistently, Van der Hagen asked again. This time, the States General acquiesced. It had taken just two weeks from his arrival in Middleburg for the national assembly to undo the principled stand of the Middleburg burghers.

The historical records suggest that Van der Hagen got his wish. Aside from nine Africans who were buried in the Middleburg cemetery within months of their arrival there, there’s no mention of them in church records, baptismal ledgers, city records or any other documents. No one in Middleburg ever mentioned any African man or woman living among them — not for the next several decades, at least. Apparently, the Africans were taken to the Caribbean and sold as slaves.

And the burghers who made a stand against slavery? Apparently, their stand wasn’t so strong, either. Some of them, including the mayor of the city, became personally involved with the slave trade just a few years later.

What can be made of this disappointing story? Are there lessons to be learned here, or is this just a curiosity from centuries ago? I’d like to think we’ve moved on so far beyond who we were then. I just don’t see that we have.

One, it’s pitiful just how easy and how readily people are to see another person as something other than human. There are so many examples of this happening that it’s easy to become numb to it. Whether it’s seeing refugees as “parasites” or the poor as “freeloading welfare queens” or Muslim children as “terrorists in training,” this crap is everywhere, and it has devastating consequences when we allow ourselves to give in to it. 

Two, morals are easily corrupted, especially when self-interest is on the line. Look how the burghers of Middleburg were willing to take a principled stand when they were only considering right and wrong. But a few years later, when they saw that profits were being made in the sale of human bodies, many were ready to capitulate. In fact, Middleburg and the nearby city of Vliissingen, also in Zeeland, became the leading cities in the Dutch slave trade, responsible for sending off the bulk of the ships that transported enslaved people from Africa to the Americas. The Middelburg Commercial Company was the chief slaving company in the Netherlands.

I’ll be reading and posting more on this history.  I believe we certainly need to know more about it.

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