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Beeld: Norman B. Leventhal Map Center (CC BY 2.0)

The forgotten history of Dutch slavery in Guyana

When we think of the history of Dutch slavery, the areas that spring to mind are primarily the Antilles and Suriname. However, until the end of the eighteenth century there were also Dutch plantation colonies in neighbouring Guyana. Bram Hoonhout’s book ‘Borderless Empire’ describes this forgotten history.

Bram Hoonhout

Forgotten Dutch history

From the seventeenth century, the Netherlands had three colonies in Guyana: Essequibo, Demerara, and Berbice. In his book, Hoonhout looks at Essequibo and Demerara, two colonies named after the rivers on which they were situated, that were governed by the West India Company (WIC). Enslaved Africans produced coffee, sugar and cotton there for the Dutch market. At the end of the eighteenth century, the number of enslaved people in Guyana was roughly equal that in Suriname.

At the start of the nineteenth century, the colonies were annexed by the British and merged to form British Guiana, after which the colony disappeared completely from the Dutch memory. Hoonhout comments, ‘But these areas really shouldn’t be forgotten because many millions were invested in Essequibo and Demerara so that goods could be made for the Dutch market using forced labour by African people. Under the British, the colonies even became probably the biggest cotton producers in the world, something that was only possible because of the basis that was laid during the Dutch colonial era. These were, all in all, substantial plantation colonies that were important both for the Netherlands and for the Atlantic area.’

Illegal trade to oil the wheels

In his research, Hoonhout concentrated on the question of how these colonies were able to evolve so rapidly, while the local circumstances were so dire: there were constant shortages, the working conditions were atrocious and the WIC was hopelessly divided. But, in spite of all this, there were no uprisings in the Guyanese colonies, which meant they were able to develop rapidly.

Hoonhout looked at what the lives were like of the people in the colony. And, remarkably, he found that locally improvised solutions often worked well for the colonists, so the WIC left them to their own devices. An illegal trade with British slave traders developed, even though officially slaves could only be bought from Dutch slave traders. The local governors knew this, but decided to turn a blind eye. They also allowed British and American traders to supply food and building materials, even though these were often paid covertly with crops that were intended for the Netherlands.   

Hoonhout was surprised by the scale of this illegal trade. ‘Illegal trade oiled the wheels of colonialism in these colonies. These colonies were also much more internationally oriented than the label “Dutch colony” suggests. This gives us on the one hand a wider view of the history of Dutch slavery, and on the other it helps us understand colonialism as a much broader Atlantic process.

Cover of Borderless Empire

The role of the indigenous people

Besides the illegal trading that went on, the colonists also formed alliances with the indigenous people and recruited them as support groups. These native support groups tracked down runaway Africans, preventing them from forming their own communities, as happened in the rainforest of Suriname. They were also used to quash potential revolts by the slaves. ‘Without these native support groups, there would probably have been a lot more uprisings against the appalling regime of slavery. These groups helped keep the colonial authorities firmly in place,’ according to Hoonhout.

Abundance and crumbs

For his book, Hoonhout mainly made use of letters exchanged between colonial officials and the WIC. To be able to read this correspondence, he visited Dutch archives taken to London by the British colonists. He also travelled to Guyana, Barbados and the US to conduct additional archive research. ‘Sometimes there was an abundance of material and sometimes it was a case of trying to gather up a few crumbs,’ he explained. ‘My book provides an image of colonialism as a local and ad hoc process, rather than something that was carefully planned in the boardrooms of the WIC.’

Bram Hoonhout studied colonial and economic history in Leiden, before moving to the European University Institute in Florence for his PhD. After his PhD, Bram worked as assistant professor of economic history at Leiden University and in Nijmegen as education programme director of the N.W. Posthumus Institute. In 2019 he started as coordinator of the Honours College.

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