The Chains of Holland’s Glory: research into South Holland's slavery past completed
Karwan Fatah-Black and Lauren Lauret are co-authors of Geketend voor Hollands Glorie (The Chains of Holland’s Glory) that studies the political and economic connections between South Holland and slavery. The findings of this research will be presented with Dr. Joris van den Tol (Radboud University) to the residents of the province on June 8, 2023, in The Hague.
In February 2022, the provincial executives (Gedeputeerde Staten) of South Holland recognized the need to increase awareness of the region's involvement in slavery and colonialism as part of its shared history. In response to the growing interest and curiosity about South Holland's historical role in slavery, the executives commissioned a report to delve into the topic.
South Holland was formed in 1840 when the province of Holland was divided into a northern and a southern part. Prior to 1840, Holland served as the political centre of the Dutch Republic, particularly concerning military affairs, international relations, and matters outside of Europe. Decisions related to supporting slave-based activities were made at the provincial level, giving significant influence to cities and nobility in Holland. This is evident in the leading role played by the States of Holland in creating charters for the Dutch West India Company (WIC) in 1621 and 1674. Furthermore, the decentralized nature and traditions of provincial politics granted substantial power to figures like Grand Pensionaries. Johan de Witt, for example, prioritized the conquest of slave forts on the west coast of Africa.
Unlike the provinces of Utrecht and Guelders, the States of Holland did not directly appoint a director to the WIC. However, the States General (the supra-provincial political body) held a political director's seat during Board of Directors meetings. At least eight political directors (regentenbewindhebbers) from Holland represented the States General in these meetings. Due to Holland's central role in the politics of the Dutch Republic, political delegates from other European powers sought support for their colonial endeavours there. Additionally, representatives from African or Latin American regions visited The Hague for diplomatic missions.
From the 16th to the 19th century, the colonies played an increasingly important role in the economy of Holland. The region became a hub for European goods, capital, labour, and knowledge, facilitating trade with overseas territories. This exchange was not limited to the Dutch empire, as Dutch goods, capital, labour, and knowledge also flowed into other European colonies, and vice versa.
Leading slave trader
Between 1650 and 1675, the Dutch Republic was the leading slave trader in the Atlantic World, with ports in Holland being the most significant until around 1700. Subsequently, the province of Zeeland became the primary Dutch centre for slave trading activities. The economy of Holland became deeply intertwined with colonialism and slavery. This involved the production of goods like guns and alcohol, which were traded for enslaved Africans on the west coast of Africa, as well as consumer goods like shoes and soap for sale in the colonies. There was also a thriving processing industry that brought colonial commodities such as sugar, cotton, and tobacco to the market. Estimates suggest that slave-based activities accounted for anywhere between 4% in the 1730s and 14% in the 1780s of the Holland economy.
The accumulation of capital in Holland resulting from European slavery and colonialism led to the concentration of wealth, status, and privilege among the elites of South Holland. Revenues from plantations were invested in further colonial expansion and country estates, which often featured ornamental gardens inspired by overseas flora and fauna. Furthermore, administrators returning from the colonies leveraged their expertise for political positions in Holland, contributing to knowledge in fields such as natural history, ethnography, and art collection.
At the same time, South Holland became a central hub for the abolition movement in the Netherlands. Politicians from the region played a vital role in the creation of the law that abolished slavery in 1863. However, prominent politicians like Elout, Gefken, and Van Sypesteyn held racial biases that shaped policies aimed at perpetuating colonial hierarchies and continuing the exploitation of people living in the colonies.
The presentation of the research findings aims to provide an opportunity for the residents of South Holland to engage with their shared history, fostering a deeper understanding of the region's historical ties to slavery. By recognizing and confronting this past, South Holland can continue the important process of reconciliation and progress toward a more inclusive future.
Karwan Fatah-Black and Lauren Lauret conducted the research in collaboration with Joris van den Tol (Radboud Universiteit and Cambridge University). More information about the study is available on the website of the province of South Holland.