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Student Sjoerd reveals link between cloth trade and slavery

What do the cloth trade and slavery have to do with each other? Quite a lot, as it turns out, as by history student Sjoerd Ramackers demonstrated in his bachelor’s thesis. He reveals that cloth merchant Daniel van Eijs was closely associated with four plantations in Berbice, a former Dutch colony on the north coast of South America.

Daniël van Eijs

In 1725, a combination of circumstances led to a collapse in demand for Leiden cloth. Some of the cloth merchants were able to live off their assets, but many others went bankrupt or had to find another source of income. Merchant Daniël van Eijs found that income in the Dutch colony of Berbice (British Guiana), where he bought four plantations with two brothers and a brother-in-law.

‘Slavery was one of the few profitable activities’

‘In those days, it was common for former cloth merchants to invest in plantations,’ says Sjoerd. ‘That made sense; at the time, they were one of the few profitable activities. You could earn a quick buck with tobacco, for example. We already knew that Van Eijs had a share in two plantations. But what we didn’t know was whether he was aware of what was going on there.’

The purchase of a little boy

For some time now, Museum De Lakenhal has wanted to know what information can be found in Leiden about the relationship between the city and slavery. So, during his internship at the museum, Sjoerd delved deeper into the life of this merchant. He transcribed more than 1,300 letters himself and read many others that had already been digitised. This is how he discovered that Van Eijs was co-owner of not two, but four plantations, and that he was very much involved in the ins and outs of the business. ‘He literally managed the plantations from Leiden,’ Sjoerd explains. ‘At the beginning, for example, he was outraged that he had been allocated too few enslaved people, which he blamed on a colony governor, who he said was corrupt, who distributed these people among the plantations. Later on, he started to look for solutions. People then had to get married and produce children. I also found a note from the plantation director about a little boy who was bought. His name was Majalla. That was the most profound moment of this research, because it suddenly became very personal.’

The note on Majalla

Life on the plantation: people and slaves

The correspondence also shone a light on living conditions on the plantation. ‘Van Eijs himself says that no plantation is better cared for than his, but his directors complain about a lack of wine, beer and meat for themselves,’ says Sjoerd. ‘They were also bothered by small flies and found it humiliating that they had to do the same work as black men when the plantation was being developed. They don’t write a single word about their circumstances. To find out about that, I mainly studied the account of a man who fled the plantation, Pieramus. After his arrest, he said that he was afraid that he would die because so many other enslaved people on the plantation had already died, partly because the director was a terrible man.’

Although in their letters the plantation directors did not go into detail about the working conditions on the plantation, Van Eijs must have known that life was hard. Between 1735 and 1737, at least 108 enslaved people were taken to the plantation; by 1737, only 68 remained. At least forty people must have died or escaped. Sjoerd: ‘Van Eijs did give orders to give everyone good food and drink, but he did so mainly because enslaved people were expensive, and sick or dead workers were of no use. In the letters, you can also see that he hardly considers the plantation workers as human beings. He regularly distinguishes between “Christians and the slaves” and once even between “people and slaves”. For him, the enslaved were really just a means of production.’  

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