New Intoxicants, Slavery, and Empire in the Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Dutch Atlantic

The history of new intoxicants is intimately connected to one of the darkest chapters in history: that on slavery, and the exploitative world economic system that sustained it. The increasing demand for consumables such as sugar, tobacco, and coffee in Europe was supplied by New World plantations run by white planters, managers, and overseers and cultivated by enslaved black workers from Africa. More than 12 million enslaved were forcibly transported between 1500 and 1865; an estimated 1.8 million died en route. There is a cruel irony at play here: when we miss our morning hit of caffeine, sugar, or nicotine and withdrawal symptoms set in, we should remember that the psychological and metaphorical ‘enslavement’ of millions to an intoxicant is the historical result of the physical and literal enslavement of millions of African workers and their trafficking to the Americas.

The relationship between intoxicants, slavery, and other forms of colonial power and violence is one of the themes we’ll be investigating. The issue is of crucial importance, not only in an ethical sense, but also to show how changes in consumption, diet, and drug fashions – even within local and national settings – have profound consequences that affect social, economic, and political interactions on a global scale across spaces and centuries. Here, I will make a start in exploring this theme by relating it to the ongoing controversy surrounding the historical significance of slavery in the Netherlands. The debate, while mainly waged by professional historians, is far from academic in nature, and elicits powerful emotions across Dutch society, including among descendants of the enslaved.

An eighteenth-century depiction of a Dutch merchant with slaves. Rijksmuseum (CC0 1.0 Universal)

Between 1630 and 1654 the Dutch West India Company (WIC), a consortium of merchants and investors granted a monopoly over trade with the Americas, controlled part of north-eastern Brazil. Although formally (but not always in practice) in the Netherlands itself a person could not be enslaved, to work the sugar fields the Dutch used African slave labour, as did the Portuguese before, during, and after the Dutch presence. Sugar, which could only be grown on a small scale in the Mediterranean during the medieval period, thrived in the tropical climate of Brazil, and later in the Caribbean where it entered in the mid-seventeenth century. On sugar plantations the work was extremely hard. Laying drains and water canals, digging holes, and cutting, crushing, and boiling the cane all required intense physical labour and was performed under harsh working conditions and severe discipline driven by the whips of the overseers and by other forms of physical torture.

An idealised 1652 painting of a Dutch sugar estate in Brazil. Rijksmuseum (CC0 1.0 Universal)

The Governor of Dutch Brazil, Count Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, is as a typical humanist prince something of a culture hero in both the Netherlands and Brazil. This year, however, the Mauritshuis, the museum in The Hague named after the count, for the first time explored the theme of slavery in Dutch Brazil and the personal involvement of the governor in a new exhibition that did not shy away from the theme of slave-grown sugar. The exhibition led to negative reactions. The Dutch prime minister (a right-wing liberal) expressed fears about ‘iconoclasm’, while two prominent Dutch historians of the slave trade and the WIC deplored perceived misrepresentations and left-wing activism in the exhibition. ‘Not everything in the Golden Age was related to the slave trade, so let’s not pretend it did’, they wrote.

While one can hardly dispute the last statement, it does not explain away the fact that – by these historians’ own estimate – the Dutch trafficked 24,000 Africans to Brazil to perform forced labour on sugar plantations. After the Dutch lost their foothold in Brazil in the 1650s, they created new plantation economies in the Guianas (in what are now the republics of Suriname and Guyana). Suriname, taken over from the English in 1667, was until 1795 one-third in the possession of the city of Amsterdam, as major shareholder in the ruling Society of Suriname. The plantations in Suriname (around 400 in 1783) produced intoxicants – sugar, coffee, and cacao – as well as cotton and timber. Suriname was a society comprised predominantly of enslaved Africans: in 1783, more than 50,000, compared to only 2,000 white Europeans and 500 free people of colour and mixed race individuals. Six to seven thousand insurgent Maroons (former enslaved who had run away) lived in the interior of the colony. In Essequibo and Demerary (later conquered by the English and now part of Guyana) the number of enslaved people was even higher.

A mid-eighteenth-century map of Suriname. Rijksmuseum (CC0 1.0 Universal)

Forced labour on the plantations was an essential link in a production and distribution chain that eventually put intoxicants on the tables of European consumers. Dutch slave traders (until the 1730s the trade was a monopoly of the WIC) connected through trading posts on the coast of West Africa with existing African circuits involved in trading captives from raids, prisoners of war, and criminals. But Europeans also modified these African circuits, encouraging slave-holding and the rise of powerful groups and leaders with whom to trade. The Dutch transported an estimated 290,000 Africans to the Dutch Guianas, of whom only 250,000 disembarked alive. Raw sugar was from the outset the most important of the goods produced on the plantations and destined for export to Europe. Sugar plantations in Suriname numbered 171 by 1713. They supplied an extensive (and polluting) industry of sugar refineries in the city of Amsterdam. Coffee became important after the 1720s, with most of the coffee imported into the Netherlands during the eighteenth century coming from the Suriname colony. Around 1750, of 38,000 enslaved labourers in Suriname, 19,000 worked the sugar plantations and 16,000 the coffee fields. Twenty-five years later the number of enslaved labourers on the coffee fields had almost doubled, while those on the sugar fields had slightly decreased. While the work on the coffee plantations was less strenuous than on sugar estates, the labour conditions and discipline remained as hard.

An 1839 depiction of slaves crushing cane and extracting juice on a Suriname sugar plantation. Wellcome Collection (CC BY 4.0)

According to some historians the economic significance of slave-produced commodities has been exaggerated. More recent research, however, has shown that in the years around 1770 the whole chain of import, export, and processing of goods produced by the enslaved accounted for ten percent of the GDP of the economy of Holland, while 40 per cent of the economy’s growth in the decades around that year was slavery-related. Where in other countries the boycotting of intoxicants (especially of sugar) played a key role in abolitionist movements, there were no equivalent campaigns in the Netherlands. Slavery was only abolished in 1863, under the influence of international developments.

A Dutch coffee plantation on Suriname in the eighteenth century. Rijksmuseum (CC0 1.0 Universal)

Economic significance is one thing, but using only quantitative metrics enacts a kind of ‘violence of abstraction’ from the cruel and gruesome realities of plantation enchattlement, nor do they do justice to the cultural significance of the history of intoxicants and slavery. The demand for intoxicants in the Old World drove the formation and reproduction of a system of power and inequality that was both informed by and stimulated popular and scientific racism and whose negative legacy is felt to the present day. At the same time, intoxicants’ profound impact on European societies would not have been possible were it not for this system. In our project, we will investigate these problematic relations and entanglements, and their ramifications within our case study cities, more closely. For now, one wonders how the everyday use of intoxicants would look in an alternative virtual history where, as in the counterfactual television series Black Sails, African slaves and European pirates had collaborated to bring down the system of power…

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