Telling Stories of Slavery, One Person at a Time

AMSTERDAM — An ornate tortoise shell field with a actual gold nugget on its lid has lengthy been on show within the Rijksmuseum. Considered a excessive level of Dutch rococo craftsmanship, it was a present to Prince William IV from the Dutch West India Company in 1749, when he was named the group’s governor.

Look nearer, although, and the gilded floor tells a totally different story. Embossed within the gold, two males carrying lengthy coats level to almost bare plantation staff crouched within the filth. On the underside is a map of West African slave-trading posts operated by the Dutch West India Company.

“For the longest time, it was mainly displayed as an item that speaks about riches and world power,” mentioned Valika Smeulders, who leads the historical past division at the Rijksmuseum. In 2013, one of the museum’s curators seen the photographs on the lid, she added. “He saw that human beings were being purchased. That allowed us to look at the box in a new way, to relate it to the social history of slavery.”

An ornate tortoise shell field that the Dutch West India Company gave to Prince William IV of the Netherlands in 1749 when he was named the group’s governor.Credit…Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

The piece is now one of the primary objects that guests encounter upon coming into the Rijksmuseum’s new exhibition, “Slavery,” which opens on Saturday and explores greater than two centuries of Dutch participation within the world commerce of enslaved folks.

Four years within the making, the sprawling present is maybe in the beginning a assertion on the museum’s intention to proper a historic fallacious, and to inform a story in regards to the Netherlands’ previous that has largely been ignored.

The Dutch had been instrumental within the trans-Atlantic commerce in enslaved folks — usually referred to as the “triangular trade” amongst Europe, West Africa and the Americas — and in Asia as nicely. The nation’s actions had been primarily performed by means of the Dutch West India Company and the Dutch East India Company, organizations that had been established with non-public and state capital and ruled by Dutch state officers and, later, royalty. The firms even had the authority to wage warfare, with navy and monetary help from the Dutch state.

From the 17th century by means of the 19th century, they enslaved greater than a million folks, in accordance with the museum’s historians, shopping for them at buying and selling posts the businesses ran in Africa and Asia and transporting them en masse throughout oceans, creating large-scale pressured migrations.

Slavery was forbidden within the Netherlands, nevertheless it was authorized — and essential to the worthwhile plantations — in Dutch colonies akin to Brazil, Indonesia and Suriname. Goods produced by enslaved folks for the businesses included sugar, espresso, gold, pepper, tobacco, cotton, nutmeg and silver. Enslaved folks additionally labored in households, in transport and in farming, and served within the Dutch navy.

“It is, of course, far too late already that we’re addressing this subject,” mentioned Taco Dibbits, the Rijksmuseum’s director. “But it’s better late than never.”

Many objects within the exhibition had been initially displayed within the Rijksmuseum to point out the Netherlands’ energy and wealth. Now, the curators use them to inform a totally different story.Credit…Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

Slavery can also be not sometimes mentioned overtly within the Netherlands, mentioned Karwan Fatah-Black, a historian of Dutch colonial historical past at Leiden University. “It seems that the conversation turns very tense very quickly,” he mentioned.

“It is not easy for mainstream Dutch society to talk about this history and how to understand the place of this history in the broader identity of the Netherlands,” he mentioned, including that there was a normal notion that “the Dutch did not participate in it anymore than anyone else and it should not taint the appreciation of the golden age of trade.”

The Dutch academic system not often emphasizes the nation’s position within the commerce, mentioned Eveline Sint Nicolaas, a senior curator of historical past at the Rijksmuseum who curated the present together with Smeulders and others.

“In the Netherlands, when people did have lessons about slavery, it was usually about the United States and the cotton plantations in the South,” she mentioned. “The story of slavery is the North American story. That’s why it’s important to make sure that it’s clear that it’s not American history, or even colonial history. It’s our national history.”

Museums at that point didn’t deliberately accumulate supplies to document that historical past. The Rijksmuseum was established in 1800, “an era when museums were built to convey a nationalistic narrative, to speak about what Europe had achieved,” Smeulders mentioned. “They wanted to underscore that they were well within their rights to do what they were doing, that it had brought wealth and prosperity.”

With a dearth of objects accessible to inform the story, the “Slavery” exhibition depends closely on oral histories, storytelling and tune, she mentioned. And the audio information for the present will not be merely advisable — it’s given out to everybody, free of cost.

Dibbits mentioned he wished the historical past to resonate on a private stage with guests. So he determined to deal with 10 particular person tales, every of which was linked to the Dutch commerce in enslaved folks, even when solely not directly. “Numbers and statistics are better for books, but a museum is a meeting place where you communicate with people and with the objects,” he mentioned.

Each represents a half of that historical past, together with enslaved folks, those that purchased them, colonial retailers and abolitionists. Here are 5 of these folks and the objects that inform their tales.

João Mina

Foot shares

Credit…Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

João Mina was bought into slavery round 1640 at Elmina Castle, the Dutch administrative headquarters on the Gold Coast of Africa, in what’s now Ghana. It is not possible to know his exact origins or his actual identify. His captors gave him the identify Mina (quick for Elmina) when he was purchased and despatched on a ship to the Dutch colony in Brazil, a voyage of between 5 weeks and two months. When he arrived, the merchants bought him once more, probably at a market in Recife, to Portuguese slaveholders who despatched him to work on a close by sugar plantation.

Foot shares, referred to as a “tronco” (a tree trunk in Portuguese), would clamp the ankles of a number of enslaved folks at as soon as, which meant they needed to lie nonetheless to keep away from excruciating ache. The shares had been usually used as punishment on sugar plantations just like the one the place Mina was pressured to work. This set of nine-foot-long oak shares was most likely made within the Netherlands, mentioned Sint Nicolaas, presumably for a plantation in Dutch Brazil, though it was by no means despatched there.

During the interval when Mina was in Brazil, the West India Company occupied territory alongside the nation’s coast. It got here below assault from Portuguese settlers who had colonized the realm, and through a 1645 guerrilla warfare, many African folks fled their Portuguese house owners. Mina was one of them: He escaped from a sugar plantation and entered the Dutch colonial territory.

There, he was subjected to a prolonged interrogation by West India Company officers who had been anticipating details about the Portuguese. Documents recording that course of have helped historians grasp the define of Mina’s story, though they offered scant private data.

“The fact that we do have a few details about his life makes him a rarity,” the historian Stephanie Archangel wrote within the “Slavery” exhibition catalog. “No trace remains of millions of enslaved men, women and children.”

Paulus Maurus

Engraved brass collar

Credit…Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

Buying enslaved folks was unlawful on Dutch soil in Europe, however folks might buy them elsewhere and convey them to the Netherlands. Paulus Maurus, a home servant for a rich household in The Hague, most likely arrived within the Netherlands this fashion. He would have been referred to as a “moor” in late 17th-century Dutch society, and was most likely not thought-about enslaved, as a result of, at least in precept, he was free below nationwide legislation.

Maurus is included within the exhibition, mentioned Smeulders, as a result of he inhabited a grey zone between slavery and freedom. Many Dutch thought-about African folks to be objects that could possibly be purchased and owned, so though he was technically free, it’s unclear to what extent he skilled any sense of liberty.

He was allowed to marry a girl, Maria Sauls, and have a son, whom the couple baptized as Maurice in 1690. But Maurus was most likely required to put on a brass collar, a signal that he was the property of a grasp. This engraved collar, which got here from the house the place Maurus labored, grew to become half of the Rijksmuseum’s assortment in 1881.

“We’ve had this in the collection for a long time, but until recently we thought it was a dog collar,” Smeulders mentioned. The curators, nevertheless, appeared extra carefully at the portrait “Maurits, Count of Nassau La Lecq,” from 1670, wherein the depend is depicted on his horse whereas an African servant holds his plumed helmet. The servant is carrying a brass collar.

Oopjen Coopit

Portrait by Rembrandt

Credit…Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

In 1634, Rembrandt painted a pair of portraits of a husband and spouse, Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coopit, which the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre in Paris acquired collectively in 2015. The couple’s potential to afford a fee by the nation’s most well-known painter at the peak of his powers for full-length portraits, carrying regal silk and lace, signifies the measure of their wealth. Typically, solely members of royal or noble households commissioned full-length portraits, and this was the one time Rembrandt accomplished a set of full-length portraits for any non-public shoppers.

The couple, like Soolmans’ father, had been within the sugar refining enterprise, which was linked to slavery as a result of uncooked sugar provided to the Netherlands got here from plantations in Brazil. Coopit additionally moved a number of levels nearer to the slave commerce after Soolmans died: She married Capt. Maerten Daey, a navy officer who had served in Dutch Brazil and witnessed slavery there firsthand.

Researchers additionally found proof that whereas in Brazil, Captain Daey raped an African girl named Francisca, who reported the crime to the native church, in accordance with a grievance submitted by its pastor and the native mayor. The two males mentioned that Daey had made Francisca pregnant and that he had imprisoned her for a least a month and “abused her horribly,” in accordance with Sint Nicolaas, the curator.

In 1632, Francisca gave beginning to Daey’s little one, a daughter whom she named Elunam. He didn’t marry her, however as an alternative returned to the Netherlands, married a Dutch girl and introduced his spouse again to Brazil. The church introduced an indictment in opposition to Daey in 1635, however there isn’t a proof that he was ever tried in any formal context.


Family portrait by Jacob Coeman

Credit…Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

Surapati was a freedom fighter who led a insurgent motion at the flip of the 18th century in opposition to the Dutch East India Company in what’s now Indonesia. Today, he’s thought-about an Indonesian nationwide hero, featured in performs, comedian books and tv collection. His life historical past was additionally chronicled in a number of “babads” — lyrical verses written on palm leaves — with every telling a barely totally different story of his heroism.

Although some of the small print are murky, what is evident is that Surapati was an enslaved man from the island of Bali who labored within the Dutch East Indies’ capital, Batavia, an space that corresponds to present-day Jakarta. The service provider who purchased Surapati, Pieter Cnoll, additionally bought at least 50 different enslaved folks. In 1665, Surapati was included as one of two servants in Cnoll’s household portrait.

For 320 years starting in 1619, the East India Company had its headquarters in Batavia, whose colonial Dutch-style buildings served as the middle of the corporate’s buying and selling community in Asia. Almost half of Batavia’s inhabitants was enslaved, in accordance with the historian Marsely L. Kehoe. They got here principally from different elements of Asia and southern Africa, together with India, the Indonesian archipelago and Madagascar.

Surapati escaped enslavement and have become the chief of a group of fugitive Balinese individuals who initially fought for the Dutch East India Company’s military after which switched sides to combat in opposition to it. As a reward for taking over the Dutch, a native sultan made Surapati the ruler of a courtroom in Pasuruan, East Java. Surapati continued to wage a number of battles in opposition to Dutch colonial forces till 1706, when he was killed in battle.


Blue beads

Credit…Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

Lohkay is a revered determine amongst descendants of enslaved folks in Sint Maarten, a Dutch colony within the Caribbean. According to oral histories, she tried a daring escape from a plantation there, and its house owners had one of her breasts reduce off as punishment. Still, she tried to interrupt payment once more, this time efficiently, and managed to outlive on her personal within the island’s hills.

An archival document from the early 1800s accommodates a reference to “Lukey,” which means “lucky,” a “Negro girl” provided on the market for 240 guilders. In oral historical past, she acquired the nickname “One-Tété Lohkay,” (“One-Breasted Lokhay”) to honor her bravery.

She was the inspiration for a collection of mass escapes by enslaved folks on the island, which was divided between French and Dutch colonizers.

In 1848, after the French declared the abolition of slavery on their facet, enslaved staff within the Dutch colony started to flee throughout the border. That prompted Dutch slaveholders to demand that the Netherlands additionally finish slavery — and compensate them for the misplaced labor.

Enslaved folks within the Caribbean had been typically “paid” with blue beads as a type of unofficial forex, which restricted them to bartering reasonably than having the ability to use actual cash. To rejoice emancipation when slavery was abolished in 1863, legend has it that folks threw these beads into the water as a rejection of the colonial system.

Blue beads proceed to be discovered off the coast and fished out of the ocean by divers and vacationers, Smeulders mentioned. “We still can’t prove how they got there,” she added, “but when they’re found people wear them with great pride, because it reminds them of their ancestors’ feelings of liberation.”