At the maritime history museum, Scheepvaart Museum, in Amsterdam[i]
On 1st January 1738, the Dutch West India Company’s slave ship, the Leusden, was en route through Suriname with nearly 700 African men, women and children. The Leusden was one of the last slave ships of the Dutch West India Company (WIC) to set out on a slave-trading voyage. The ship was caught in a terrible storm by the Maroni River estuary in Suriname, and fearing their human cargo would overcome the crew as they scrambled for the few available lifeboats, the captain was reported to have ordered the crew to shut the ship’s hold and lock the captive Africans below deck.
Six hundred and sixty-four people were suffocated or drowned as the boat sank. The crew of the Leusden escaped. The sinking of the Leusden was the greatest tragedy of its kind in the Atlantic slave trade with a death toll almost five times that of the next largest slave ship tragedy at sea – the massacre of 132 slaves on the Zong.
The Leusden and the Zong
The Zong had sailed from the West Coast of Africa on 6th September 1781 with 440 enslaved souls onboard. The ship was inhumanely and dangerously overloaded. After two months at sea the Zong’s cargo, shackled in pairs of two, faced malnourishment, sickness and disease. It was alleged that 60 Africans died within the first seven weeks at sea and Captain Luke Collingwood, who had inadvertently added to the journey while lost at sea, felt more Africans would die of natural causes. The captain determined that the owners of the vessel would be called to absorb the financial loss of the Africans who had succumbed to disease on the voyage but the insurers would pay if he could prove they had drowned. On the pretext of a pending shortage of fresh water for the ships’ crew, Collingwood began to throw Africans he felt least likely to regain their health overboard.
Fifty-five individuals were thrown overboard on 29th November and forty-two the following day. Heavy rainfall on November 30 that would have remedied the water shortage did not stop twenty-six others from meeting the same fate on 1st December, while ten others chose to jump themselves. One claim has persisted, that one African climbed back aboard. The Zong sailed into the Black River Harbour of Jamaica on 28th December 1781 with208 Africans onboard, 232 less than when they sailed from the West African Coast, a loss of life of 53%. The case of the Zong went to court twice, in the end the court had emphasized that while the water shortage may have been due to the captain’s error in navigation causing the ship to go off course and extend its journey —and therefore lose its coverage by insurance—had this shortage occurred due to other factors, the killings would have been legally justified. The throwing overboard of 133 Africans was seen merely as lawful disposal of merchandise and not a brutal case of murder. The case of the Zong ignited the national consciousness but it took an additional twenty-four years for the British Parliament to ban the slave trade. The Zong was the first significant turning point in the campaign for abolition.
Fate of the Leusden and WIC
The Leusden delivered her last load of captives to Suriname in 1726. The competitive presence of the British forced WIC to intensify its supplies to Suriname. As a result, the destination of the other six voyages made by the Leusden was to Suriname. The overall decline of the WIC as a slave trade organization was inevitable.
The WIC could not compete with other slave trading countries, particularly the English and the French who paid higher prices for human cargo and brought added trade goods of higher quality that garnered preferential trade with the Africans. As a result, ships like the Leusden owned by the WIC, stayed near the African coast for many months before they had their desired load of captives aboard.
After the termination of the WIC’s trade monopoly for Africa in 1730, the company’s weak position further deteriorated. Free Dutch traders had been restricted from trading on Africa’s west coast, with the exception of a strip of sixty miles. However, in 1734, the States General lifted the restriction which ended the WIC’s trade monopoly for west Africa. Only the slave trade in Suriname and Berbice were reserved for the WIC. In 1738, the WIC concluded that it could no longer supply Suriname the quota of captives prescribed in the charter and in that year decided to surrender its monopoly on the slave trade.
In that year the WIC decided it would no longer play an active role in the trade of African captives and the Leusden perished at the Maroni River estuary. The WIC paid scant attention to the disaster or the many lives it claimed. The sinking of the Leusden and that no attempt was made to save the captives’ lives reinforced the claim that human cargo were considered as goods that could be lost due to calamities. The WIC’s directors took that decision in April 1738.
Mr. Balai remarked, “The story of the Leusden was never told in Holland,” … “It was the largest murder case in the history of the slave trade, but no one ever talked about it.”
The exhibition at the Scheepvaart Museum, a maritime history museum is based on a Ph.D. dissertation by the historian, Leo W. Balaipublished in 2011, resulting from five years of research in the Dutch national archives in The Hague. Mr. Balai is Surinamese Dutch, the descendant of ancestors who were themselves enslaved.
The interactive exhibition takes visitors below deck on the ship and then above deck to meet the captain and other characters who benefited from the Atlantic slave trade. The four-room exhibition is based on the Ph.D. thesis of Mr. Balai.
“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. “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 was opened to coincide with the commemoration of the official end of slavery in the Dutch colonies 150 years ago on July 1, 1863. Although enslaved Africans 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 approximately half a million people to the American continent and returned with the fruits of their labor in sugar and tobacco from the 1670s until about 1740.
As the Dutch commemorate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, some citizens insist there is insufficient acknowledgment of the role the country played in the trade.
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