Days of Yore
Illuminating a dark page: The Dutch and slavery
AMSTERDAM – Generations of school children in the Netherlands have grown up with stories of 16th century Dutch mariners. They were invariably tales of cunning and courage and conquering new horizons. This month, the National Maritime Museum adjusts that picture with an exhibit showing a nasty side of Dutch maritime history: the slave trade that for centuries fattened the pockets of ship owners who ferried Africans to the New World. The exhibit _ De Zwarte Bladzijde (The Black Page) _ opens June 27. It will run through Aug. 31, 2014. The show is not suited for children under 8.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. The National Maritime Museum illuminates the Dutch role in that from its maritime history expertise. It tells the story of the Netherlands’ biggest but least known maritime disaster: the capsizing of the slave ship “Leusden” in 1738 in Suriname’s Maroni River estuary. More than 700 African captives. Only 12 captives survived.
The show is based on the book ‘Het slavenschip Leusden’ (The Leusden slave ship) by historian Leo Balai (photo above). It explains the slave trade’s economic background and tells the story of life aboard the Leusden. The ship holds the record death toll for a Dutch ship. She was built in 1718 for the West India Company and carried 6,564 slaves from today’s Ghana to Latin America and the Caribbean. A quarter died en route. Still, “this event is not part of the Dutch history canon. The most important reason for that is the feeble interest in this period in Dutch history, though the Netherlands was involved in the transatlantic slave trade for over 240 years,” says Balai.
In a Radio Netherlands interview that year he said what happened Jan. 18, 1738, when the Leusden struck a sandbank:
“It was hoped the high tide would lift the ship free. It was afternoon. The captives were coming on deck to eat (but) when the captain saw he was wedged onto a sandbank, he ordered them back down. The ship was not coming free and started to capsize. At that point, the murderous decision was made to nail shut the hatches so no one could come up from the slave quarters … No questions were asked later about how this could have happened.’’