Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How cruel was the Slavery

While calls for an apology for the slave trade are growing louder in the Netherlands, a Dutch historian has drawn an unpopular conclusion: overseas slavery was less cruel than people think. Dutch Professor Henk den Heijer believes the cruel image of slavery that has developed over the centuries is too moralistic.
Slaves spent weeks at sea, shoulder to shoulder chained up in the ship’s hold without fresh air. They were beaten and fed poorly. Women were sexually abused and there was no medical care.
“This cruel image formed in around 1800,” says Professor Den Heijer, “during the debate to abolish slavery. You mainly see interviews, books and pamphlets written by people who supported the abolition of slavery and emphasised the bad side of the trade. Those sources have become the standard for its history.”
Doctor at hand
Professor Den Heijer has uncovered a different image by looking in the archive of a shipping company, the Middelburgse Commercie Compagnie (MCC). It was the largest shipping company to transport slaves in the Netherlands in the 18th century with 113 ships. The archive is unique, painting a picture of life on board the ships which took slaves from Africa to America.
The ships’ logs in the archive reveal a different story: on board the ships slaves were treated as well as the crew. A doctor was at hand for both the crew and the slaves and they were fed well. It was logical from a commercial point of view to treat slaves well.
“They were considered to be valuable. A good trader tried to get his slaves to the other side of the ocean in good condition to sell for a good price. Slavery is still morally objectionable, but that does not mean they were abused.”
Slave revolts
Abuse was the exception and officers would be punished by losing pay or being dismissed according to the ships’ logs.
Nevertheless there were slaves who revolted on board. But out of a total of 1500 trips by the MCC, this only happened 53 times. And the situation was probably the same for other counties involved in slavery like Great Britain.
Heated debate
The professor hasn’t had many reactions from his colleagues, but there are heated discussions on internet forums. On a Surinamese site one blogger wrote:
"If people are made into slaves and transported to a foreign continent, if you rob them of their language, culture, family and belief and then you say we have to see it in the light of the time, then there is something wrong with you.”
However, Surinamese sociologist at the National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy Aspha Bijnaar says she is open to Professor Den Heijer’ s conclusions.
“It is too easy to say ‘he is trivalising the matter’. I am not able to check his sources myself, but he is a historian and I assume he has good arguments.”
Mr Den Heijer was recently appointed professor at the University of Leiden and is working on a television series on slavery to be broadcast in the Netherlands from September.
(About the slave trade of the Artabs - which went hand-in-hand with Jihad...another article)

Day Opening - May 10