‘The Amsterdam administrative elite was deeply intertwined with slavery’


The involvement of the city of Amsterdam in slavery was direct, worldwide, large-scale, multifaceted, long-lasting and still has an effect. That is the conclusion of the collection Slavery in East and West: The Amsterdam Investigation that was presented on Tuesday afternoon to the Mayor and Aldermen in Amsterdam. The city council had called for an investigation into the city’s involvement in slavery in February.

Before it could come to a possible excuse for that involvement, the councilors wanted the facts about this past to be mapped out first.

This job was outsourced to the International Institute of Social History (IISH) in Amsterdam. IISH researcher Matthias van Rossum was one of the four compilers of the study presented on Tuesday. He has been publishing about slavery for a decade, but was still surprised by the findings. “When I saw everything together like this, I thought: you could have guessed that it was so gigantic. But you only really realize it when you collect all this knowledge. ”

Wasn’t half a year too short for this research?

“Ideally you would of course want to do new research, because much is still unknown about Amsterdam’s slavery past. That was not possible in this short term. That is why we decided to do a field survey: we wanted to bring together and interpret all the knowledge that is currently available. We did this by having a wide range of about 40 experts write about various subjects. It is important that we pay attention not only to transatlantic slavery, which is currently quite the focus, but also to slavery in South Africa and Asia.

Matthias van Rossum.
Photo Anne van Gelder

“The emphasis is on the role that the Amsterdam city council has played in slavery and its consequences for the rest of the economy and society. The synthesis of this knowledge has yielded surprising insights. ”


“How deeply intertwined the Amsterdam administrative elite was with slavery. The city not only directly governed the colonies, such as Suriname, but also through the chambers of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and West India Company (WIC) they had great influence on the ins and outs of these powerful companies. And then they often also acted on their own title. In the States General, Amsterdam administrators also had a finger in the pie when it came to decisions about war and peace. Our analysis shows for the first time how all these levels interact and reinforce each other and how extensive Amsterdam’s involvement in slavery was. ”

A facing brick with a ‘Moor’ with a tobacco leaf in his right hand. Many Amsterdam facing bricks refer to the trade in colonial products such as sugar, coffee and tobacco.
Photo of Frank Lucas

Another IISH research last year showed that at the end of the eighteenth century, slavery – the slave trade and the economy surrounding goods produced by slave labor – accounted for 10.36 percent of the GDP of the province of Holland, in which Amsterdam was a high earner. Do you think that is extensive?

“First, we shouldn’t just express the impact of slavery in the money it makes. I put my hand into this, because I myself have also been counting on the proceeds of the slave trade. But slavery had many more consequences, also socially and culturally. That is why we have discussed them extensively in our research.

“In addition, the last word about the economic yield has not yet been said. Last year’s research only focused on the Atlantic part of slavery, Asia was left out of the picture. Furthermore, the merchants who traded products such as sugar and coffee from colonies were also involved in European trade. It is true that it was much larger, but the money made in the East and West could also be used to invest elsewhere. The interweaving of slavery with the rest of the economy could therefore be much stronger. ”

Have you been able to demonstrate a link between contemporary racism and slavery?

“The racialization of the image of mankind increased sharply in the eighteenth and especially nineteenth century. It is certain that this is because of slavery: why were non-European people marketable and European people not? A racist explanation was sought for this.

Also read: “Why are we so frenetic about slavery?”

“These ideas did not end up one on one in 2020. Contemporary racism is based on a whole complex of factors, of which slavery is a part. But how that relates to other causes is something that requires more research. ”

There is a chapter in the collection that is intended as an ‘ode’ to the deceased activist Perez Jong Loy. Elsewhere, Mitchell Esajas advocates “apologies and some form of compensation for the descendants of enslaved ones.” Isn’t the boundary between science and politics crossed there?

“For this collection we asked authors who could write about slavery and its effects from different perspectives. This way, different voices emerge. I think this is good: there is no one way to write about this topic. ”

Plantation Palmeneribo in Suriname, owned by Jonas Witsen. He commissioned painter Dirk Valkenburg to record his new property on canvas. Painting from circa 1707.
Photo by Hans Petersen

So you didn’t make the research vulnerable to accusations of bias?

“This collection was created under the auspices of the IISH, and we have used exactly the same purely scientific standards as for our other publications. There was also a supervisory committee that supervised this. ”

Should the municipality now come up with apologies for the slavery past?

“We as scientists are not about that, that is up to politics. We have provided a foundation of knowledge to reach a decision. It is important to realize that apologizing is not a yes or no question. If you decide to make excuses, which form do you choose and what implications do you attach to it? I hope that politicians think about it carefully. ”

You write in your introduction that the slavery past must become the history of all Amsterdammers, not just those directly involved. So also of the third generation labor migrant and the first generation refugee?

“Hell yes. Anyone who wants to understand current Amsterdam society must know this history. Otherwise you don’t understand the city. ”

Pepijn Brandon, Guno Jones, Nancy Jouwe and Mathhias van Rossum (ed.): Slavery in the East and West. The Amsterdam study. Spectrum. 448 pages € 24.99

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