A shared past. Zeeland and the Dutch slave trade

Banner "Zwart verleden. Het verhaal van de Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie"

You do not expect after the six o‘clock news on television on two following evenings a documentary movie about slavery and the role of the Middelburg Commerce Company and its rich archive held at the Zeeuws Archief in Middelburg, yet exactly this could be seen on Dutch television on November 2 and 3, 2021. The series Zwart verleden: Het archief van de Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie [Black past] with six items was shown in two installments, each during some twenty minutes. On the tv playback platform NPO Start you can retrieve both videos which appeared in a series called Noord-Zuid-Oost-West [North-South-East-West] produced by Dutch regional broadcasting institutions and sent also by the broadcasting society Omroep MAX. The stories to be told using the materials at Middelburg are special indeed. In this post I will look at both videos created by Omroep Zeeland and at the archival records and other resources offered online thanks to the services of the Zeeland Archives.

A very active company

The story of the Middelburgsche Commercie Compagnie (MCC) is perhaps not unfamiliar to historians, but for the general public it is first of all revealing that this company existed at all outside the province Holland. It was not a part of the Dutch East Indies Company nor of the West Indies Company. By giving the story of Dutch slave traders a place within in a city this subject in Dutch and world history becomes more alive. The MCC, a privately owned company, was active as a sailing company from 1720 until the early nineteenth century; as a wharf it existed until 1889.

The first video starts with Hannie Kool, director of the Zeeland Archives, reading a letter from people on the Dutch Caribbean island Curaçao asking the company to send them twice a year 250 to 300 new enslaved persons, with very precise specifications for their personal qualities such as age and length. The directors of the MCC answered they could not fulfill this request, because they depended on the fortune of commerce. Fortune or misfortune led to 113 outbound voyages between 1720 and 1800 on the trans-Atlantic slave trade routes between Europe, West-Africa and the Caribbean.

In the second part of the first video archivist Ad Tramper looks at the voyages of the ship d‘Eenigheid (Unity), a ship measuring just 23 meter (70 feet). The journey to buy slaves in Africa could take as many as 200 days, and sailing to the Caribbean took some ten weeks. Tramper underlines the fact society in the eighteenth century could be very hard. The harsh treatment of slaves was taken for granted, but for many people this literally came not within view. The third part focuses on a person aboard the d‘Eenigheid who did professionally have a closer look at enslaved people. Ship surgeon Petrus Couperus kept a journal about his activities and medical care. He wrote for example about an enslaved woman dying from melancholy and sadness, and he noted how many enslaved jumped overboard. The book by D.H. Gallandat, De noodige onderrichtingen voor den slaaf-handelaren (1769) is also mentioned.

In the second video you look with Roosanne Goudbeek of the Zeeuws Archief at the voyages in general. European commodities were sold in in Africa to buy not just enslaved persons, but also gold and ivory. The voyage of the d‘Eenigheid did not end in Suriname. In a letter to the directors its captain wrote he judged it wiser to sail westwards to the colony Berbice. At Fort Nassau on the Berbice river the enslaved persons were auctioned. A report from this auction is part of the archive. The names of the enslaved people were not recorded nor their destination. Records about the sale of a plantation give you an idea of the way life and work were organized. The slaves belonged to the inventory for sale, and they are mentioned with their name and function. A letter even survives with felicitations to the directors of the MCC for the high prices fetched at the auction.

The fifth item in the series shows Gerhard Kok, known for his efforts to creaet quick access to computer transcribed acts concerning Dutch colonial history among the records of the Durch East Indies and West Indies companies and the colonies Suriname, Berbice and Guyana. He looks at the economic importance of the slave trade for the Dutch economy, amounting to between 5 to 10 percent around 1770 for Middelburg, and presumably more in the nearby port of Vlissingen (Flushing). He presents also a chilling document about the gruesome treatment of enslaved persons on the ship Middelburgsch Welvaren [The welfare of Middelburg] leading to their horrible death after a mutiny. The case is known thanks to the investors wanting compensation from an insurance company.

Resistance and protest

The letter about the escape of Leonora - image Zeeuws Archief / Omroep Zeeland
The letter about the escape of Leonora

In the final installment of the series the number of 113 voyages with some 30,000 enslaved persons between 1732 and 1803. Roosanne Goudbeek looks at some remarkable stories of slaves trying to escape their fate in the Dutch Caribbean. The slave Leonora succeeded in getting aboard an inbound ship from the harbor of Curaçao, and captain Jan Bijl wrote about the sheer surprise when she was detected after a day on the Atlantic. The owners of Leonora reclaimed here form the directors of the MCC, but the responded they could not do this, in particular because she was at the very point of becoming a Christian by baptism in the Dutch reformed church. This was not the only form of resistance.During at least twenty voyages mutinies occurred. Slaves refused to eat, other slaves tried to jump from a ship. Some women threw their children into the sea, and many tried to escape from plantations.

In Zeeland some people protested in public against slavery and its consequences. Ad Tramper is shown reading the sermon against slavery preached by vicar Bernardus Smytegelt in the first half of the eighteenth century, printed in his book Des Christen eenige troost in leven en sterven (Middelburg 1747). Tramper mentions the distance between the actual practices stemming from slavery and Europe as a determining factor for the very low number of people protesting. Things happening far away can seem less important. Goudbeek stresses the unique richness of the MCC archive. Tramper ends the video expressing his hope that understanding this period of Dutch history both from white and black perspectives will help to gain more understanding of a shared history.

Using the archives of the MCC

From my brief summary of this television series of just 40 minutes you can hopefully see the clear effort of the creators to present a balanced view of the involvement of Zeeland and this company in Middelburg in slavery during a relatively short period. Some elements in the video are definitely not new. The engravings of the plan of a slave ship are just as well known as the drawing by Aernout van Buchell of The Globe theatre in London. The sermon by Smytegelt duly figures for example in the book accompanying in 2011 the television series De slavernij discussed here, too [De slavernij. Mensenhandel van de koloniale tijd tot nu, Carla Boos et alii (eds.) (Amsterdam 2011)]..

Logo CCvM / MCC - image Zeeuws Archief

Let’s look at the online resources created by the Zeeuws Archief for getting acquainted with the story of the MCC and studying its archival records. The English version of its website opens immediately with an image and a button bringing you to a page for the MCC and the history of the Transatlantic slave trade. You can follow the voyages of the Unity from 1761 to 1763 on a separate website with a Dutch and English version. In 2011 the UNESCO entered the archive of the MCC into the Memory of the World register.

Startscreen "Into the triangle trade"

Some years ago I already encountered the splendid online exhibition of the Zeeuws Archief On the Triangle Trade at the Google Arts & Culture platform. This colorful exhibition contains much that has been now retold in the short television series. For English readers this is surely the quickest way to get a picture of the history of the MCC and its role in the slave trade. Only the blog Atlantic Slavery Voyage with the daily sequence of the voyages of the Unity has disappeared. The explanations about the blog on the Unity website suggest the blog still exists, but the actual link is not anymore present, nor have the entries been relocated on this website.

On a second page at the website of the Zeeland Archives follows the actual concise research guide in English for the MCC and its role in the slave trade. The archival collection of the MCC has been completely digitized (toegang (finding aid) no. 20, Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie, 1702-1889). The finding aid is in Dutch. I will highlight some aspects of it. In the 1951 inventory archivist W.S. Unger had changed the actual name of the company, Commercie Compagnie van Middelburg (CCvM) into Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie, an unusual thing for Dutch archivists. Apart from the 1951 introduction there is a new foreword from 2011, and you can benefit from three bijlagen (appendices), among them a list of relevant scholarly literature held at the Zeeuws Archief or at the Zeeuwse Bibliotheek in Middelburg. All handwritten maps in the collection of the CCvM / MCC were destroyed in the fire caused by bombs hitting Middelburg in May 1940. Only the printed maps survived. Luckily Unger had contributed before 1940 to some important editions of archival sources held at Middelburg. In an article from 1962 Unger gave a brief introduction to the ship journals. The Zeeuwse Bibliotheek has an online image database, and it hosts the project Zeeuwpost for some 600 digitized letters, a number of them with transcriptions, from Zeeland among the Prize Papers in the collection of the High Court of Admiralty at The National Archives, Kew.

New vistas to be explored

Last year I could applaud here the efforts of the Zeeuws Archief to tune the most used archival system in the Netherlands into creating a very simple and most useful list of all its digitized archival collections, an example still in need of swiftly copying by most other Dutch archives. The city archive in Amsterdam and the Nationaal Archief, The Hague, have created easy access for and visibility of their digitized collections. The disappearance of the voyage blog is only an example of the fragility of the internet infrastructure and the need to give finished projects a proper place within normal productivity, management and existence of any organization.

The archival collection of the CCvM / MCC should perhaps not be called unique, but with all its remaining riches and its online availability it is certainly a singularly important resource for Dutch Early Modern history enabling you to see the characteristics of the Dutch East and West Indies Companies in a different perspective. The recent computerized transcriptions of archival records of these trading companies made accessible at Zoeken in transcripties open new research possibilities for scholars worldwide. These archival records put slavery in its contemporary context, reminding us of the distances in perceptions, time and locations. The digitized records can bring you closer to dark periods in the past and show you developments and details that matter.

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