Picture: Ranu Abhelakh/REUTERS – Surinamese descendants of African slaves participate in a street celebration of the 145-year anniversary of the abolition of slavery in Paramaribo, South America. Though the Dutch abolished the slave trade in 1818, slavery was only halted permanently in this former Dutch colony 45 years later on July 1, 1863. Local organisations demand an official apology from the Dutch government as well as payment to compensate for the years of slavery.
The history of Dutch slavery predates the establishment of the Netherlands as a state in the 16th century. The ethnic groups that lived in the region, the Celts, Germanic peoples, and Frisians, had a history of slave trade. Their societies were divided into nobles, freemen, and slaves.
At the beginning of the 17th century, during a period nicknamed the “Dutch Golden Age”, the Netherlands’ involvement in the overseas slave trade began alongside growth in the country’s trading interests across the world.
In the early 1600s, the Dutch established two trading companies, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the Dutch West India Company (WIC), which later took the lead in trading enslaved people across Asia, the Americas, and Africa.
In 1634, the WIC kidnapped about a thousand people from the Gold Coast (known today as Ghana) and sent them to work in the WIC’s plantations in Dutch Brazil, also known as New Holland, marking the first notable involvement of the Dutch companies in slavery.
Eventually, the Dutch Republic managed to colonise a number of territories on the northeast coast of South America and turn them into “plantation colonies” that were mainly dependent on slave workers brought from Africa.
Seeking natural and human resources, the Dutch Republic and its companies began colonising territories in Africa, from West Africa, with some territories of contemporary Ghana becoming the first victim, followed by Senegal and the Ivory Coast. The Dutch later captured some parts of contemporary Angola, Namibia, South Africa, along with Mauritius.
Colonising these territories and enslaving their people, the Dutch Republic grew over the course of more than 200 years to one of the world’s leading economic powers.
As the Dutch colonial activities flourished, the Dutch East India Company built a hub for the slave trade in Cape Town on South Africa’s southwest coast to receive slave traffic coming mainly from Mauritius and Madagascar, as well as from India and Indonesia in South Asia. The enslaved Africans and Asians were later transported to the Americas and Europe.
Besides being used as a resupply and layover port for vessels of the VOC trading with Asia, the Dutch Cape Colony also served as an ideal retirement place for employees of the company, where they could receive pieces of lands and slaves, cultivate crops, and sell them to the VOC at fixed prices.
According to historians, two-thirds of the population of Cape Town, then known as the Cape Colony, which occupied much of modern South Africa, consisted of slaves in 1795, when the colony fell into the hands of the British Empire.
In 1863, the Netherlands was one of the last European countries to give up the slave trade. After the start of its practice in the 1590s, the Dutch Republic transported about half a million Africans across the Atlantic, with thousands dying on the way, before making it to their final destination in the Americas.
Generally, Africa was the hardest hit by Western slave activities. According to a UNESCO report, during the period between the 16th and the 19th centuries, approximately 28 million Africans were enslaved, and only about 10 to 12 million out of the 14 million slaves who made it to the African coast were transported alive over the Atlantic and the Indian Oceans to Europe and the Americas. Millions of African people died due to these slave trade activities.