The exhibit “Slavery: Ten True Stories of Dutch Colonial Slavery from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam” will be displayed in the lobby of the United Nations in New York City from February 27 through March 30, 2023.
The exhibition explores ten true personal stories centered on wooden foot stocks known as a “tronco” (Portuguese for tree trunk) that were used to constrain enslaved people by clamping their ankles. The foot stocks represent the more than one million people who forced to work in Dutch colonies on sugar plantations and in mines and harbors in Brazil, Suriname, the Caribbean, South Africa, and Asia.
In December, the Dutch Prime Minister apologized for the “past actions of the Dutch State: to enslaved people in the past, everywhere in the world, who suffered as a consequence of those actions, as well as to their daughters and sons, and to all their descendants, up to the present day.”
An estimated 11 million Africans survived the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean on slave ships from 1600 to 1870. Between 1.5 and 2 million people died on the trip (approximately 15%). As many as one-third of the enslaved Africans who arrived in the New World, perhaps 4 million people, failed to survive the first five years of enslavement. A high estimate for mortality directly caused by the slave trade while people were still in Africa is 6 million deaths.
This figure does not include people who died in warfare stimulated by the European desire for slave labor. The Dutch began transporting enslaved Africans to the Caribbean and South American starting in the 17th century. They eventually secured a monopoly over the Spanish colonial slave trade, through an asiento, a contract for furnishing enslaved people).
By the 19th century the Dutch were responsible for 2,000 slave trading voyages transporting approximately half a million people into chattel slavery. In August 1795 there was a slave rebellion on the Dutch Caribbean island of Curaçao led by Tula. At the time, sixty percent of population of Curaçao, over 12,000 people, were enslaved Africans. In October 1795, Tula was captured by Dutch authorities and publicly tortured to death. Curaçaoans celebrate August 17, the start of Tula’s rebellion, as the beginning of the island nation’s liberation struggle.
In the 1860s, the Dutch were the last European empire to abolish slavery in its colonies. However, the emancipation decree of 1863 required a ten-year “apprenticeship” forcing the enslaved population to continue to work on the plantations of slaveholders.
Profit from the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the sale of slave-produced commodities financed the development of the Netherlands. The population of Amsterdam increased from 30,000 in 1570 to 140,000 in 1647, a 467% increase. Money was used to drain swamps and build the famous Dutch canal system and dykes. Reclaimed land added over 1,400 new farms.
Although not a focus of the exhibit, New York City was originally the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam. In 1625, the Dutch West India Company established the village of New Amsterdam on
Manhattan Island. The first people of African ancestry in the colony were eleven men who arrived in 1626. They had Portuguese names and were probably captured from either Portuguese or Spanish ships.
These men worked for the company and were assigned to clear land, plant and harvest crops, build houses, roads, bridges and fortifications. Two years later, three enslaved Angola women were brought into the colony. At the time, New Amsterdam was little more than a muddy village with thirty wooden houses and a population of less than two hundred people.
During Dutch colonial rule enslaved Africans fortified a wall along a path that would later be known as Wall Street, constructed a road to Haarlem on the northern end of Manhattan Island, helped build Fort Orange in what is now Albany, and worked on farms in the Hudson River Valley.
They were so important to the economic development of the Dutch colony that officials passed a series of laws in 1640, 1648 and 1658 to prevent escape and in 1646, the Dutch West India Company promised to provide “as many Negroes” to the colonists as they were “willing to purchase at a fair price.”
A 1642 Dutch print with the heading “Nieu Amsterdam” shows two large European settlers (a man and a woman) in the foreground, with Africans behind and below ,doing the physical labor needed to make the colony economically successful.
In 1647, Peter Stuyvesant, became the Director General of New Netherland. Stuyvesant increased the number of enslaved Africans in the colony and became the largest owner of enslaved African in New Netherland. In 1660, he supervised what was probably Manhattan’s first public auction of human beings. The largest cargo of enslaved Africans, 290 people, arrived in New Amsterdam in 1664 on the Gideon, just before the colony was taken over by the British.
According to United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres, “The legacy of centuries of enslavement, exploitation, and colonial rule reverberates to this day. We must learn and teach the history of slavery: the crime against humanity; the unprecedented mass human trafficking; the unspeakable human rights violations. Behind the facts and figures are millions of human stories of untold suffering and pain. But, also, stories of awe-inspiring resilience, courage and defiance against the cruelty of oppressors. This powerful exhibition calls on us all to put an end to racism and injustice in our own time and make inclusive societies based on dignity and rights a reality everywhere.”
On Thursday, March 30, the United Nations Department of Global Communications Outreach Programme on the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Slavery, in collaboration with the Permanent Mission of the Netherlands and the Rijksmuseum will also host an expert meeting on the history of slavery as a controversial theme in many countries and highlight the current efforts by museums to include the voices of people of African descent; the importance and focus of ongoing research; inclusive programming; and dealing with the colonial past.
Speakers include Bryan Stevenson of the Equal Justice Initiative, Valika Smeulders and Taco Dibbits of the Rijksmuseum, Alissandra Cummins, Director of the Barbados Museum & Historical Society, and Richard Benjamin of the International Slavery Museum. For more information, contact Omyma David at email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Illustrations, from above: foot stocks built to hold enslaved people; a Caribbean sugar plantation in ca 1823; and a 1642 Dutch woodcut “Nieu Amsterdam.”