Slave Trade’s Buried Sea Crime

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We somehow missed this one; many thanks to Michael O’Neal for bringing this item to our attention. In “Slave Trade’s Buried Sea Crime” Nina Siegal focuses on an exhibition at the Scheepvaart Museum, the maritime history museum in Amsterdam. Siegal writes, “On Jan. 1, 1738, the Dutch West India Company slave ship Leusden, carrying nearly 700 African men, women and children through Surinam, got caught in a terrible storm. Fearing that the captives would scramble for the few lifeboats, the captain ordered the crew to shut the ship’s hold and lock the Africans below deck.  A rendition of the slave ship’s lower deck is designed to recreate the feeling of being imprisoned.” See more excerpts with a link to the full (The New York Times, 1 July 2013) article below:

Six hundred and sixty-four people were suffocated or drowned while the boat sank and the crew escaped. It was the greatest tragedy of its kind in the Atlantic slave trade, the historian Leo Balai said, with a death toll almost five times that of the next largest: the massacre of 132 slaves on the Zong, a British-owned ship that was transporting slaves from Africa to Jamaica in 1781. They were thrown overboard for insurance money. “The story of the Leusden was never told in Holland,” Mr. Balai said. “It was the largest murder case in the history of the slave trade, but no one ever talked about it.”

It is now the subject of an exhibition at the Scheepvaart Museum, the maritime history museum here. The interactive exhibition takes visitors below deck on the ship before taking them above deck to meet the captain and other people who benefited from the Atlantic slave trade. The four-room exhibition is based on a Ph.D. thesis that Mr. Balai, who is Surinamese Dutch and whose ancestors were enslaved, published in 2011, resulting from five years of research in the Dutch national archives in The Hague.

“If you look for a list of shipping disasters in Dutch history you won’t find it,” said Remmelt Daalder, a senior curator at the Scheepvaart Museum. Why not? “It wasn’t seen as important. It was a large loss in terms of money, but no one seemed to mind that it was a large loss in human lives. No one was punished, and in fact, some of the crew members got a reward because they were able to save a box of gold from the ship.”

The exhibition opened last week to coincide with the commemoration of the official end of slavery in the Dutch colonies, which took place 150 years ago on July 1, 1863. Although slaves were never brought to the Netherlands, Dutch merchants played an important role in the maritime “triangular trade” from the 17th to the 19th century, capturing people from the West Coast of Africa and shipping them through its colonies in the Caribbean to the Americas. The Dutch West India Company alone shipped about half a million people to the American continent and shipping back the fruits of their labor — sugar and tobacco, for example — from the 1670s until about 1740. [. . .] As the Dutch commemorate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, however, some say that there’s still insufficient acknowledgment of the role the country played in the trade, or of the toll it has taken on the lives of its people. In the past five years, leading up to this commemoration, a number of Surinamese groups and others who represent people from the former Dutch colonies have been demanding that the government formally apologize. [. . .]

Sandew Hira, an economist and historian, has been an advocate for an official apology. “The Dutch glorify the 17th century and call it the Golden Age,” he said last week. “But in that century they were kidnapping hundreds of thousands of people from Africa and torturing them and forcing them to work for free in the colonies, in what we’d now call forced labor camps. In our opinion that so-called ‘Golden Age’ was the high point of the crimes against humanity perpetrated by the Dutch.”

On June 13, the Dutch Council of Churches issued a formal apology for slavery, and its secretary general, Klaas van der Kamp, called it a “black holocaust.” “Hundreds of thousands of people were removed from their homes, exploited and forced to spend a lifetime in captivity,” the statement says. “As churches we recognize our part in this shameful past and we must conclude that theology was abused in certain circumstances to justify slavery.”

The deputy mayor of Amsterdam, Andrée van Es, said the city doesn’t want to overlook its role in the slave trade. “When I was in school no one told me about slave trade history,” she said. “There is a lack of knowledge and also the Dutch are not very good at looking into the black pages of their history. There is a kind of taboo. People say, ‘Oh, it was 150 years ago, generations ago, we have to look at the future.’ In a way that is true. You can’t stay a prisoner of your past, but to move forward you have to look into the past.”

For full article, see http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/02/arts/slave-trades-buried-sea-crime.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

Also see museum page at http://www.hetscheepvaartmuseum.nl/

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