Groningen’s ties to Dutch colonial history and the city’s association with the slave trade have been made public by historians in Groningen through the success of the Mapping Slavery project and Sporen van het Slavernijverleden in Groningen (“Traces of the history of slavery in Groningen”).
By Rebekah Daunt
The Dutch West Indische Company (WIC), which held office in Groningen during the 17th century, was responsible for transporting more than 300,000 slaves from the African coast to the Dutch colonies between 1621 and 1792. “The slave trade is becoming less of a taboo subject compared to what is used to be” says Groningen historian Lieuwe Jongma. The topic was once met with quite a lot of resistance but attitudes are slowly improving.
Efforts being made to encourage national acknowledgment of slavery within the Dutch Colonies, as well as in the wider Dutch Republic, is part of a broader movement of social activism to re-examine Dutch involvement in the slave trade, which historians and activists believe is vital to tackling modern day discrimination.
The trend is mirrored in debates about the removal of statues of colonial figures from the United Kingdom to South Africa, and debates in the United States about Confederate history. Societal divisions over the issue are rehearsed yearly in the Netherlands with controversy over the use of the seasonal festive minstrel character, Black Pete.
In Groningen, Mapping Slavery has identified 57 locations around the city with connections to Dutch colonialism and the WIC, illuminating how Groningen’s elite benefited financially through networking with the company. Warships such as the Groeningen sailed to Africa’s west coast from Groningen’s shipyards and carried enslaved Africans to plantations in Brazil, Suriname and the Antilles and returned to Europe with goods including sugar, coffee and tobacco.
The charter company of Dutch merchants and foreign investors established their Groningen headquarters in Reitemakersrijge and built additional warehouses along the canals at Noorderhaven to store colonial produce. The WIC’s divisions, known as chambers, were spread across the Netherlands in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Hoorn, and Middleburg – and Groningen.
Assistant professor Barbara Henkes, who is a co-author of Sporen van het Slavernijverleden in Groningen, has discovered that the Groningen chamber of the WIC held a prime position in the transatlantic slave trade. “The slaves were subjected daily to a working and living regime that was based on violence, segregation and a policy of divide and control” says the guide.
The profits generated from both the slave trade and plantation wares encouraged many wealthy Gronigers, who served in the political, academic and business spheres, to invest in the WIC. “The main reason to be involved with the WIC for a long time, in Groningen especially, was for prestige” says Jongsma, who currently works for the Groningen archives and also contributed to Sporen van het Slavernijverleden in Groningen.
To this day, a warehouse stands across from the Noorderplantsoen in the Noorderhaven with the words De Compagnie painted on the facade, “The current warehouse is named after an older warehouse that used to be there, which was one of the West Indische Warehouses”, Jongsma says. “The main site was at Reitemakersrijge and additional warehouses were built further along the canal to house the wares obtained from the plantations on the Dutch colonies.”
The WIC halted shipments from entering Groningen from 1650 as the depth and width of the canals made it difficult for larger ships to enter the city, and the warehouses at the Noorderhaven and Reitemakersrijge fell into disuse in 1793.
The decision to end slavery in the Dutch colonies was made in 1848, but was not brought into effect until 1863. What was the reason behind the delay? “Money, as always!” says Henkes. In addition to the delay, slave owners required compensation for their “loss of property”, but there was no compensation given to the enslaved people. “On the contrary: they were forced to stay with their former owners for another 10 years for very little pay” says Henkes.
Servants in Groningen
Slavery was not just limited to the colonies but was also part of the history of the Netherlands, including Groningen. By the late 18th century, there was an increase in people of African origins in the city of Groningen: a number of enslaved African and Asian people were relocated to Groningen and worked as servants for the wealthy class.
Jongsma has led several tours through the city highlighting Groningen’s connections to the slave trade. These tours have previously been arranged in relation to the University of Groningen and the Alternative Groningen Tour. Jongsma hopes to lead more tours this summer, but dates are yet to be released.
In his inaugural lecture at the University of Amsterdam, Stephen Small, a professor of Dutch History of Slavery and its Legacy, said that there is still much work to be done when it comes to the visibility of the history of the slave trade in the Netherlands. “The legacy of slavery can be identified throughout the Netherlands today, even if it is not currently as explicit, visible or palpable as it should be”.