Skip to content

Response to Review no. 545

I am extremely happy with the review by Leslie Price. He seems to agree with many of my observations and to approve of my attempt at integrating the story of the Dutch slave trade into the wider framework of the Atlantic slave trade and of the early modern Atlantic in general. Right away, I would like to admit to a mistake regarding the demographic effects of the Thirty Years War. Price pointed out that the population of Central Europe could not have been reduced to only one third of its pre-1618 size. Mea culpa. I misread a sentence in an article saying that this war reduced the population of Central Europe by (and not to) one third in general, albeit that in some areas the loss was certainly more than 50 per cent. However, this mistake leaves my argument that a reduction in the population density did not bring slavery back to Europe unaffected. Even when the decline in population was about a third, certain areas quickly needed substantial numbers of mobile, landless labourers in order to make them economically viable again. In spite of this, the ruling elite in Germany never considered forcing people into slavery after 1648, even when they possessed the physical means to do so. Similarly, the dramatic demographic decline of the American Indians resulted in severe labour shortages in the tropical colonies in the New World, but not in the subsequent re-institution of slavery in the various European mother countries, in spite of the fact that only slavery could have produced the number of European emigrants needed to develop the labour-intensive plantations. Indeed, some European powers exiled their political and religious minorities, as well as prisoners, to their colonies and forced them to work as field hands; but only slavery would have made it possible to send a regular and sufficient number of labourers across the Atlantic. Only hereditary slavery would result in a permanent servile labour force as the children of slaves could also be employed as slaves, while the sons and daughters of exiled minorities and prisoners could not (1).

A more important issue raised by the reviewer pertains to the question as to whether racism was the basis of the Dutch participation in the slave trade, or whether it came into existence later. In my book I point out that the Europeans were racists long before they became involved in the Atlantic slave trade. In southern Europe, the Spanish and the Portuguese enslaved their Moslem enemies and also purchased black slaves from Africa, but they did not enslave their domestic opponents, such as the Jewish minority, or their European enemies, such as the Dutch and the English. Later, the Dutch, French, and English used the same double standards as the Iberians. Leslie Price, on the other hand, feels that the decision of the Dutch to participate in the Atlantic slave trade was not based on any pre-existing racism. He posits that the Dutch developed racism because they started trading in slaves, and suggests that the Dutch remained free of racism at home and strictly limited their racism to the overseas world. There is much to be said for the latter view. Unlike the Spanish and the Portuguese, the Dutch had no African or Arab slaves at home, and unlike the British, the Dutch did not even tolerate temporary slavery to exist in their republic in order to allow planters from the West Indies to come back to the Netherlands accompanied by their personal slaves. In the Netherlands, no Somerset case was needed to establish that slaves were free once they had set foot on Dutch soil (albeit that in actual practice very few slaves left their masters during their temporary stay in the Netherlands). Another argument in favour of the assumption that the Dutch knew no racism at home is the fact that during the sixteenth century, Dutch travellers and sailors, when confronted with slavery in the Iberian Peninsula and in the Spanish and Portuguese colonies, were appalled by it. In fact, the Dutch West India Company instituted a special committee to look at the moral implications of the slave trade once the Company was faced with the choice of participating in that trade. And last, but not least, the Dutch seemed to have been more tolerant at home than most other countries in Europe, and accommodated, rather than excluded, outsiders. That explains why the Dutch never forced their religious minorities into exile. In France, on the other hand, Huguenots and criminals were sent overseas to perform forced labour in the West Indies for lengthy periods of time, while others were condemned to long years of forced labour at the galleys in conditions much akin to slavery. The English also sent their royalist and Irish prisoners of war to their West Indian colonies as forced labourers. Of course, the Huguenots, the Irish, and the royalists were not enslaved, but even such temporary recourse to forced labour was unknown in the Netherlands. In sum, there is much to be said for Leslie Price’s idea that there was a two-tiered moral consciousness among the Dutch: one set of non-racist values for use at home, and another, racist one, solely for use in the world overseas.

However, there are also arguments that support my case. First of all, it would be a serious mistake to assume that before the end of the eighteenth century modern ideas about the equality of the human race had taken root in the Netherlands. The much-famed tolerance in the Netherlands was not based on modern principles, but on practical considerations enabling a population that was, and remained, deeply divided on religious matters to live together. Religious minorities such as the Catholics and Jews were discriminated against and barred from public office. That the Dutch did not resort to condemning criminals and prisoners of war to perform forced labour, as happened elsewhere, might not have been based on some uniquely tolerant and anti-racist attitude, but on the simple fact that the labour market in the Netherlands was far more supply-driven than elsewhere, as a constant influx of labour migrants from the neighbouring countries provided the labour required to perform the many dirty and dangerous jobs that needed to be done in the Dutch economy at the time. Perhaps we should conclude that the Dutch were racists just like everybody else at the time, but that they had less need than other nations to show it at home (2).

Another point the reviewer made concerns the abolition of the slave trade and the emancipation of the slaves. He rightly labelled these actions as a jump into the dark that only countries such as Britain, with a dynamic economy, seemed to be able to afford. In fact, that is what I point out in my book. The question is, however, whether having a declining economy during the first half of the nineteenth century, as the Dutch did, constituted sufficient reason to keep quiet about the inhumanity of the slave trade and slavery. Are my moral standards in this case too high, as Price seems to feel, and should I have refrained from blaming the Dutch for being so reluctant even to talk about abolishing the slave trade and slavery? There is no doubt that the British government at the time had many more financial resources at its disposal than its Dutch counterpart, and that this fact weighed heavily as slave emancipation, and concomitant compensation for the slave owners, was a costly affair. However, I would like to point out that during the first half of the nineteenth century the Dutch seemed to have had sufficient funds to wage an expensive colonial war in Java as well as a prolonged military campaign against the secession of Belgium, and that only decades later the Dutch political elite made sufficient public money available to end colonial slavery and pay compensation to the slave owners. In addition, it has always been argued that the smaller countries of Europe, such as the Netherlands, were more democratic, more progressive, and more innovative than the larger countries where the established interests of the court, church, and nobility were usually much more opposed to change. The Dutch are rightly proud of their early modernity based on a long republican tradition, the absence of nobility, a virtually uncensored publishing industry, the wide circulation of newspapers, a comparatively generous welfare system, and religious pluriformity. In my book I simply noticed that this rose-coloured picture is badly marred by the fact that all these supposed advantages had no practical effect when it came to abolishing the slave trade and slavery, and that the Dutch did not even manage to organize a sizeable abolition movement. If that is not a moral shortcoming, what is? (3)

As was to be expected, Leslie Price’s main criticism is aimed at my last chapter, in which I discuss the hotly-debated heritage of the Dutch participation in the slave trade and of colonial slavery. I agree with most of what he writes. Price is absolutely right in pointing out that the present generation cannot be held responsible for what previous generations have done. Why then, he asks, do I bother to add a separate chapter arguing that Dutch feelings of guilt about their country’s involvement in the slave trade, and the acceptance of slavery, are an a-historical projection of present-day moral attitudes into the past. Such projections frequently occur in public debates in the Netherlands, and that is why I felt the need to address these issues. These a-historical interpretations usually come into play when the German occupation of the Netherlands during the years 1940–1945 is discussed, or the slave trade, slavery, and the conquest and the decolonization of the Dutch East Indies. Are there no similarly sensitive areas in the history of Great Britain? Is the general public there really more interested in a purely scholarly approach? When that is the case, our reviewer, and other historians in the UK, should count their blessings. That professional historians attempt to write history without shame, pride, and other moral emotions is unfortunately not always accepted in the public debate on the Continent, and professional historians have to react to this, whether they like it or not. In Germany, for instance, the history of the national-socialist regime (1933–1945) stubbornly refuses to become a purely scholarly topic, in spite of the fact that the present generation Germans and Austrians were born after its demise. In France, matters seem even worse, as the French Parliament passed in quick succession three laws making it possible to prosecute anyone who does not consider the holocaust, the persecution of the Armenians in Turkey during and after World War I, and the Atlantic slave trade as crimes against humanity. After a right-wing majority had replaced a left-wing one, a fourth law was passed, suggesting that in the public education system of the country more attention should be paid to the positive side of French colonialism. No wonder that a committee of French professional historians is asking their Parliament to refrain from prescribing the way in which history should be interpreted. The committee was set up after a young French historian, Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau, had published an award-winning study comparing the Atlantic, internal African, and Arab slave trades, and was subsequently accused of being racist and charged at a Paris court with denying the uniqueness of the Atlantic slave trade as stipulated in French law (4). In the Netherlands, professional historians of the slave trade and of slavery are also faced with the vicissitudes of a stereotyped public debate, but the case of France shows that it could be a lot worse.


  1. For a discussion of the possibilities of re-instituting slavery in post-1500 Europe see David Eltis, ‘Labour and Coercion in the English Atlantic World from the Seventeenth to the Early Twentieth Centuries’, Slavery & Abolition, 14 (1993), 207–226; David Eltis, The Rise and Fall of African Slavery in the Americas (Cambridge, 2000), 57–84; and Seymour Drescher, ‘White Atlantic? The Choice for African Slave Labor in Plantation America’, in Slavery in the Development of the Americas, ed. David Eltis, Frank D. Lewis, and Kenneth L. Sokoloff (Cambridge, 2004), 31–69. Back to (1)
  2. David B. Davis, Inhuman Bondage. The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford, 2006), 48–76. Back to (2)
  3. Several historians of slavery and abolition have noted the difference between the remarkably free and mobile labour force in the Dutch Republic and the absence of such a labour force in most of the Dutch colonies overseas. See The Antislavery Debate: Capitalism and Abolitionism as a Problem in Historical Interpretation, ed. Thomas Bender (Berkeley, 1992). Back to (3)
  4. Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau, Les traites des noirs. Essai d’histoire globale (Paris, 2004). Back to (4)