P. C. Emmer
Oxford, Berghahn, 2006, ISBN: 1845450310; Price: £45.00
University of Hull
Date accessed: 30 September, 2023
This is a short book on what turns out to be a rather bigger subject than might have been expected from the title; not because the Dutch slave trade was so important, but because Emmer uses it as an entry to a wide range of issues concerning the Atlantic slave trade in general and its historiography. In just over 152 pages of text the author not only covers the main features of the Dutch slave trade, but also provides a succinct discussion of the impact of the trade as a whole, and even finds space to enter into the contentious arena of moral judgements and imputed guilt. Indeed, besides being a triumph of concision, the book is also characterized by its pervasive moral tone. In an interesting variation on the usual form of such discussions, Emmer moves beyond straightforward condemnation and tries to place the undoubted harshness of the slave trade in the perspective of man’s general inhumanity towards man in the early modern period, and so to suggest that there was nothing especially cruel about the treatment meted out to slaves. It is remarkable how much interesting material and controversial argument he has managed to pack into such a limited space. The translation by Chris Emery from the original Dutch text is clear and reads well.
Emmer estimates that despite their general economic strength, in the seventeenth century at least, the Dutch had only a relatively insignificant share in the Atlantic slave trade—never averaging much more than 5–6 per cent of the total. However, he argues that they did have a significant role in the development of the trade in the first half of the seventeenth century, not only through supplying their short-lived Brazilian colony with slaves, but, perhaps more importantly by stimulating the cultivation of sugar—with the consequent urgent need for slaves—in the French and English Caribbean. Then they turned to Spanish America, transporting around 100,000 slaves to this region by 1730. Nevertheless, the Dutch share of the trade as a whole remained relatively small. In a way the problem is not so much why the Dutch role in the Atlantic slave trade was so limited, but rather why they bothered with it at all, as the surviving evidence suggests that, as far as the Dutch were concerned, the economic returns of the slave trade were notably poor. Certainly, the second West India Company (after 1674) failed to make the trade pay, despite enjoying a monopoly until 1730. Admittedly there were a range of other problems dragging the WIC down, but opening the trade up does not seem to have led to a significant improvement in profitability. Indeed, this may be the reason why the economically ailing province of Zeeland played such a prominent part in this trade—merchants there had fewer alternative options, and there was always the hope of profit.
In his introductory chapter, Emmer sketches the background to the Dutch entry into the slave trade, showing how initial hostility faded with the economic opportunities opening up to the (first) West India Company after its foundation in 1621. Opposition to the slave trade seems to have been little more than a minor part of the more general condemnation of Spanish cruelty embodied in the Black Legend rather than having strong moral or religious roots in contemporary Dutch culture. When the conquest of part of Brazil opened up new economic opportunities such moral scruples rapidly faded. (In a similar way, sympathy for the sufferings of Native Americans at the hands of the Spanish did not long survive Dutch contact with real, rather than idealized, Indians in New Netherland.) Emmer suggests that there was a species of racism involved here; subjecting Europeans to slavery was unthinkable but Africans were a different matter. There is, however, another way of understanding the situation. Slavery and the slave trade existed in Africa, and the Dutch were prepared to take part in it, just as they involved themselves in existing trade and trade systems throughout the world in the seventeenth century, without giving too much thought to the moral implications of what they were doing. To this extent racism did not create the slave trade, but it did give Europeans a ready excuse for taking part in it.
The main sections of the book cover the way in which the Dutch collected their slaves in Africa, the crossing to America, and the destination of the slaves. The Dutch bought their slaves in West Africa and the Congo/Angola region, and they bought them on the open market. This could be a slow business. In the eighteenth century it took about five to seven months cruising off the coast of Africa before a full cargo could be obtained, and although traders had their preferences they usually had to take what they could get. With regard to the conditions on the ships during the crossing of the Atlantic, Emmer stresses that high rates of mortality were not a consequence of deliberate inhumanity, but rather of disease, ignorance, and overcrowding. There was no profit in dead slaves, but disease came aboard with the slaves and flourished in the cramped conditions in which the slaves were forced to live. A major problem seems to have been the lack of sufficient drinking water—in the hot conditions of the slave-holds the slaves suffered severe dehydration as far less water was available than they needed. It was not cruelty that kept rates of mortality aboard the slave ships high but a combination of ignorance of its causes together with an inability to treat tropical—indeed any—diseases effectively. However, the Dutch did lag behind when the English, in the late-eighteenth century, began to improve conditions on their slave ships by better ventilation of the slave holds. If there was inhumanity involved, it was of a much more general nature and not especially directed at slaves. The rates of mortality among the crews of slave ships were also high, as they were for the crews of the Dutch East India Company ships on the long voyage to Java. Emmer notes that a particular problem for Dutch slave ships was the difficulty of finding ships’ surgeons with experience of the slave trade and its problems, as more than half of them died on their first voyage.
The slaves were mostly taken to the West Indies or Surinam and Emmer gives a brief account of their treatment on arrival and the conditions of life on the plantations where most of them were sent. One problem he considers is the relative reproductive failure of slaves in the Dutch West Indies and Surinam, which meant that a constant supply of slaves was required to satisfy the needs of the plantation economy. The chief reason for this seems to have been a constant high mortality rate caused by the continual importation of West African diseases along with the slaves. (Emmer points out that mortality among Europeans in the West Indies was even higher than that of the slaves.) The effects of this unhealthy environment were compounded by the low ratio of female to male slaves, so the birth rate was never able to exceed the death rate. In contrast, in the southern United States mortality was lower and the slave population was able to reproduce itself, which in itself produced a demographically healthier male-female ratio.
In assessing the effects of the slave trade on Africa, Emmer sides with those who tend to minimize its impact, at least economically. Europeans did not create the African slave trade, though they did stimulate its growth, and the Atlantic trade was only a part of the total African trade in slaves, and was never controlled by the Europeans who had to take what African traders offered at the prevailing market prices. Similarly, the volume of European goods imported to pay for the slaves was far too small to have any significant deleterious effect on the African economy overall. (Yet, as he points out, this only serves to emphasize how little Africa gained from the sale of so many of its people.) Demographically too, he argues, the impact on Africa was minimal: 11 million over nearly four centuries comes to only 1.3 per cent per annum (p. 52; a figure of 12 million is given on p. 56). In brief, the economic problems of modern Africa have nothing to do with the slave trade, however morally repugnant it may have been.
The Dutch played even less of a part in the ending of the slave trade, and what little they did was largely the result of British pressure. At first glance it seems odd that the Dutch, with so little to lose, dragged their feet while England, with a much heavier investment in the trade, took the lead. On this issue the Dutch failed to take the moral high ground which was to become so familiar to them by the later-nineteenth century. Emmer attributes this failure to the deeply conservative nature of early-nineteenth-century Dutch society and politics together with concern for the plantation economy of Surinam. More weight might, perhaps, have been given to the general fragility of the Dutch economy in contrast to the dynamism of industrializing Britain. The Dutch believed they were in no position to take risks, and only later in the century, with increasing profits from the exploitation of their East Indian possessions, did they feel able to afford to end slavery in their American colonies. Emmer sees this notable lack of humanitarian concern as morally reprehensible but notes that other countries with relatively weak economies and an investment in the slave trade and slavery were equally unwilling to act.
Throughout the book the author tries to place the unpleasant realities of the slave trade in a comparative perspective. In some cases these comparisons are more than somewhat dubious, and at times they are inaccurate. Unless it is a misprint, he appears to believe that two thirds of the population of central Europe died as a result of the Thirty Years War, while his comments on the general harshness of life in early modern Europe are true but of uncertain relevance. More obviously relevant is his comparison of the cruelty of some of the punishments meted out to slaves with the equally inhumane treatment of condemned criminals in early modern Europe. Appalling cruelty there was, but it was endemic in European society and not specific to the slave trade. Similarly, as noted above, mortality among slaves during the Atlantic passage is compared with that among the slave ships’ crews and, indeed, with mortality during long-distance voyages in general before the advent of effective modern treatment for disease and physical debilitation.
Less helpful perhaps is the comparison with other great crimes of history, though, to be fair, Emmer is more concerned with the problem of selective historical memory rather than with futile arguments as to whether the slave trade was worse than the Holocaust. It is more to the point to ask why the one has been given far more attention than the other. He claims that the relative neglect of the slave trade is part of a wider tendency for the Dutch to ignore, or play down, the less virtuous aspects of their own history. Here Emmer joins what seems to be a fashion in Dutch historiography; in recent years historian after historian has attacked what is seen as a pervasive sense of moral superiority stemming from a highly selective view of their country’s history. The spectacular achievements of the VOC are celebrated, but not the ruthless exploitation that was essential to this success. The extent of religious toleration in the seventeenth century is praised, but its sometimes severe limits receive far less attention. The German occupation of the Netherlands during the Second World War is seen in terms of the heroism of the few and the sufferings of the many, while the extent of collaboration of one sort or another is swept under the carpet. Indeed, such condemnations of complacency have become so common that one is left to wonder who is left to be complacent—just who still clings to such simplistic views about the past? The Occupation is a case in point. During the last forty or so years a flood of material has been published that has very effectively shattered the myths that were so dear to the immediate post-war generation. This particular battle against complacency has surely been won. It may be that the Dutch need to be made aware of the part that their country played in the slave trade, but sometimes it seems that the prevailing Dutch vice is not complacency but moral masochism. At one point Emmer lists some of the darker aspects of the Dutch past: ‘persistent and widespread poverty, high infant mortality, the relentless persecution of homosexuals, the degrading treatment of women … and the inequitable system of class justice’. He then goes on: ‘One might expect the present-day Dutch to feel some sense of shame, but there is no indication that they do’ (p. 147). Apart from the fact that there is nothing specifically Dutch about such conditions, it is hard to see why anyone should be expected to feel guilt about high infant mortality in early modern Europe when no one could have done anything about it at the time. Also, while a better understanding of attitudes to women and homosexuals in the past can make a vital contribution to contemporary social debate, it is far from clear why shame should come into it, and what purpose it would serve if it did. It seems that it is the claims of the black community in the Netherlands—largely from Surinam and the Antilles—for some sort of recognition of their part in Dutch history, and perhaps for some form of reparations for past mistreatment, that has made the imputation of guilt an issue in this case.
It might be asked whether it should not be possible to study the history of the Atlantic slave trade and the associated slave systems in the Americas without questions of shame and guilt blurring the picture. It is in any case difficult to see who should feel guilty for these undoubted crimes of the past. Should the descendants of the almost equally exploited labourers and unskilled workers of early modern Europe be excluded—together with women and homosexuals because they too were mistreated? On the other hand, Emmer argues that without racism the Atlantic slave trade could never have flourished as it did. Europeans did not enslave fellow Europeans but had no such scruples about Africans. It is in the context of persisting endemic racism in the modern world that the history of the slave trade has an enduring relevance.
This book is volume five of the series European Expansion and Global Interaction , of which the author is one of the general editors, and it certainly constitutes a valuable contribution to the history of the European impact on the wider world in the early modern period and after.
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.
- 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)
- David B. Davis, Inhuman Bondage. The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World (Oxford, 2006), 48–76. Back to (2)
- 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)
- Olivier Pétré-Grenouilleau, Les traites des noirs. Essai d'histoire globale (Paris, 2004). Back to (4)