Tien snauwschepen met gehezen zeilen naast elkaar op het water.

Racial representation rarely included in archives

“The perspectives of enslaved individuals were rarely represented  in archival documents. Historians would metaphorically, kill for this kind of information”,  prof. dr. Gert Oostindie, professor Caribbean history at the University of Leiden and  director of the KITLV/Royal Institute of Linguistics and Anthropology observes. He elaborates on the recent debate on slavery, the role of archival research and the official recognition of the archives of the Dutch West-Indies Company (WIC) and the Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie (MCC) by UNESCO in 2011.

The Dutch involvement in the history of slavery and the slave trade currently gain the attention of the media on a regular basis, which provides a stark contrast to the lack of press coverage from  fifteen years ago.

Prof.dr Gert Oostindie, hoogleraar Caraïbische geschiedenis aan de Universiteit Leiden en daarnaast directeur van het Koninklijk Instituut voor Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde

Gert Oostindie explains this increased interest in migration-history by saying pointing out how: “The migrants from Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles are integrated into Dutch culture, which allows them to form political agenda’s as well. As a result, monuments to commemorate the involvement in slavery have been build in Amsterdam in 2002 and in Middelburg in 2005. Moreover, an annual celebration to commemorate the abolition of slavery has been introduced and takes places annually on July 1st. Other consequences of the increased political interest, are the foundation of the NiNsee (National Institute History and Legacy of Dutch History of Slavery) in 2003,  and the creation of the television series named “De Slavernij” which was broadcast in 2011”.

Nuanced perspective

The television series “De Slavernij” consists of 5 parts, presented by actress and presenter Dapne Bunskoek and comedian Roué Verveer. The series portrays the history of slavery from the perspective of common people through the use of diaries, personal documents and interviews with descendants. Some of the recordings took place in the Zeeland Archives.

The producer, the public broadcasting corporation NTR, presented the topic of the series: : The Dutch involvement in the international business of slavery, as one of the most repressed and controversial parts of our national history.

I never thought that I would send a letter to the Volkskrant.

— Prof. dr. Gert Oostindie

The Dutch involvement in the history of slavery was finally presented to a wider audience, however besides praise, it also caused some uproar. Oostindie was involved with the creation of the series as an advisor, he wrote scenarios and answered countless questions posed by the filmmakers.

He expected some criticism beforehand. “Yes, because for some people, you can never get it right. However, I never thought that I would would be the kind of person to send a letter to the Volkskrant.” In this letter he distanced himself of the sometimes too nuanced perspective –‘it wasn’t that bad’- of the television series. “I was the primary historical advisor. Based on my advice, they correctly made comparisons to practices of slavery elsewhere, they called attention to the African involvement as well and Caribbean slavery was portrayed in a nuanced manner. However, this nuanced perspective was sometimes too nuanced, which was unintended.”

Comparisons to slavery elsewhere were made.

— Prof. dr. Gert Oostindie

Nevertheless, Oostindie remains pleased with the creation of the television series. “Generally speaking, I’m okay with the series. The central theme of the series is the Dutch involvement in the international industry of slavery, so it would be difficult not to place the Dutch involvement into a larger encompassing context. The factual information is reliable, however sometimes it is presented with the wrong kind of attitude, which lead to negative consequences in one episode.”

Racial representation and perspectives

The accusation that the voices of enslaved Africans are missing, is according to Oostindie, socially and politically influenced. The sudden demand for ‘racial representation’ is caused by the ever changing political context. Have scientific research methods changed? Not significantly. New sources were barely discovered, and the ‘voices of the enslaved individuals’ are rarely represented in the archival documents. Every historian would metaphorically kill for such information, this was already the case thirty years ago. The current oral history mainly shows us how the past is currently remembered, but it doesn’t mention whether this overview is accurate or not.”

The demand for racial representation is caused by the ever changing political contexts.

— Prof. dr. Gert Oostindie

“I guess we are currently  more aware of this part of our history, which naturally causes us to look differently at things, for example paintings from the Dutch Golden Age which sometimes depict a person from African descent.”

Political awareness

The Netherlands is not the only country who cautiously addresses  their involvement in the history of slavery. “There are five European countries who have played significant roles in the history of slavery on the Atlantic Ocean. These countries are Spain, Portugal, France, England and the Netherlands. Spain started  the industry of slavery  in the New World and continued this practice for the longest amount of time out of  all previously mentioned countries. Portugal was roughly the biggest importer of slaves. However, France, England and the Netherlands are the only one whose governments have regretfully expressed  remorse regarding  their countries past actions. This development was  influenced by the large Caribbean community in these countries, who successfully managed to put this topic on the political agenda.”

Social interest increases the political awareness.

— Prof. dr. Gert Oostindie

The increasing social interest, simultaneously increases the political awareness of the topic. “It certainly is an expression of political awareness that the archives of the Dutch West Indies Company (WIC) and the Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie (MCC) have now earned a spot on the world heritage list. Recognition is important.”

Oude stadhuis, 4 november 2011: Gert Oostindie overhandigt het certificaat van de UNESCO aan Hannie Kool, directeur van het Zeeuws Archief. Sinds mei 2011 staat het archief van de MCC op de werelderfgoedlijst van documentaire werken. Foto: Aart van Belzen.
The Old City Hall, November 4th 2011: Gert Oostindie presents the certificate of the UNESCO to Hannie Kool, director of the Zeeland Archives. The archive of the MCC was included on the world heritage list for documents since May 2011. Photography: Aart van Belzen.

Scientific Research

“The scientific interest in slavery and slave trade has also grown due to the social interest in the topic”, Oostindie suggests. “When I received my Phd. In 1989 on the topic of slavery in Suriname, interest in the topic could only be found amongst inhabitants of Suriname and a handful of scientists. Currently, many other scientists are working on the topic, although the total amount is still not that great, only a dozen of people, and from the Dutch universities probably less than 10.” However, thanks to the research which has been done, there is a lot more information available than thirty or forty years ago. “We primarily know a lot more about subtopics, think about the numbers, and the involvement of the people of Zeeland in the slave trade industry.”

Dutch Atlantic Connections

The University of Leiden and the KITLV participate together, in cooperation with the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, in the research project Dutch Atlantic Connections, a project which took fifty years, and focuses on the exchange of people, materials and ideas during the period of 1680-1795. Their goal is to analyze how the Dutch networks functioned during this particular time period.

Our researchers often use the MCC-archive.

— Prof. dr. Gert Oostindie

Four trading centers on both sides of the ocean are being studied: Paramaribo in Suriname and the islands of Curacao/St. Eustatius in the West Indies, Elmina off the coast of Africa, and Amsterdam/Rotterdam in Europe.
Oostindie responds surprised to the question as to why Middelburg was not included – the presentation of the project on the website only mentions Amsterdam and Rotterdam -, “That must be a mistake on the website! Middelburg and Vlissingen are definitely part of this category too, our researchers often use the MCC-archive.”

Dutch involvement is larger than suspected

The research project which will end in 2013, will, according to Oostindie, show how the Dutch involvement in the Atlantic area was actually larger than initially thought until recent developments. “The Dutch presence distinguishes itself because of its ambitious start, but areas of their involvement soon start to disappear, think about Brazil and Manhattan. The Dutch government is fragmented, which also applies to their presence abroad. Besides the WIC, there are also others institutions who play significant roles such as the Society of Suriname and the MCC. That fragmented component is something I’d like to call attention to.”

Seminars about Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo

One component of the Dutch Atlantic Connections project, is a seminar which is given annually by Oostindie to history students in Leiden who are working on their Masters degrees. In this seminar, the students learn how to work with primary sources. The seminar consists of small groups of students.

“And we are also looking at how these areas developed, a process which was partly made possible by the slaves from the English island of Barbados and the people from Zeeland who have been there from the start and who stubbornly kept holding onto the areas despite pressure from Amsterdam.”

— Prof. dr. Gert Oostindie

“As a starting point, I’ll try to find a subject which has not become a total cliché. The upcoming seminar (which starts February 1st 2012) is about Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo, the former colonies in western Suriname, from 1760 onwards. We already know how the plantations functioned , and the big uprising of slaves in 1763 in Berbice has also been extensively researched already. That’s why I would rather focus on new subjects, like the role of the Indians, who were allies of the plantation-owners during the slave uprisings.”

“And we are also looking at how these areas developed, a process which was partly made possible by the slaves from the English island of Barbados and the people from Zeeland who have been there from the start and who stubbornly kept holding onto the areas despite pressure from Amsterdam.”

Traveling for two hours

“During the seminars, the students will start doing research on the printed sources, after this process, they will continue doing research in the National Archive in The Hague. That is the most obvious choice because that particular archive is so close by in comparison to Zeeland, which, in order to reach, requires two hours of traveling by train. Though I don’t completely rule out the possibility of students visiting the Zeeland Archives. However, such a visit is not obligatory since the National Archive also has beautiful sources on these colonies in their inventory. Only if you do research specifically on slave trade, it becomes impossible to ignore Middelburg or Vlissingen.”