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Mapping Slavery Groningen

The traces of the Dutch slave trade cannot only be found in the former Dutch colonies, but also very close to home. A tour with the guidebook Sporen van het slavernijverleden in Groningen [Traces of Groningen’s slavery history] reveals how much the history of the town is connected to slavery. In this special publication, ICOG-researchers Barbara Henkes and Margriet Fokken take their readers on a journey through a forgotten part of the Groningen’s history. They present their readers a wide range of stories and facts during a hiking trail and four different cycling routes.

The guidebook with interesting routes
The guidebook with interesting routes

The West India Company in Groningen

The Dutch West India Company (WIC) was in the seventeenth and eighteenth century leading the triangular trade between the Netherlands, West Africa and the Americas. The company made profit by selling enslaved African people in the Caribbean and then refilling the ship holds with slave labour products like coffee, sugar and tobacco. Historians often focus on the WIC sections in Amsterdam and Zeeland. Henkes and Fokken show that also the Groningen section of the company played an important role. When converted to today’s currency, entrepreneurs and share owners invested around ten million euros in the WIC.

The research project on this underexposed aspect of the past shows how much Groningen was connected in the WIC and its slave trade. Henkes and Fokken make the stories available to the general public by connecting them to places, objects and texts. They show how close this past is, but also how versatile and nuanced. Close to the Nieuwe Kerk in Groningen lived a WIC captain who crammed 628 Africans in low ship holds without remorse. The same man also took care of a young orphan boy who was the son of a Dutchman and a woman from Ghana. The boy was raised in Groningen and later became a slave trader, plantation owner and estate dweller. Besides the many mayors of Groningen who profited well from the slave labour in the Caribbean, there is also the story of Marten Teenstra who protested against slavery. One of the cycling routes takes the reader along his grave in Ulrum.

Collaboration and raising awareness

Many of the stories were investigated by history students. The access to sources from the Groninger Archieven, the Groninger Museum, the University Museum and the aid of many experts was indispensable. Henkes: “Such a collaboration is necessary and inspiring, but it is also a large investment in time. When we approached the organisations, the first reaction was: but we do not have anything about slavery! This turned out not to be the case: students discovered the traces of slavery in the collections. When the book was published (September 2016), we gave a presentation in the Groninger Archieven which included a walking tour. There were many interested participants.”

Margriet Fokken at the route to the former office of the WIC in Groningen (Photo: Marij Kloosterhof)
Margriet Fokken at the route to the former office of the WIC in Groningen (Photo: Marij Kloosterhof)

Henkes thinks it is important that people realise that the beauty of Groningen town and the estates in the province emerged in connection with the history of slavery. “The way we look at history changes over time. We like to forget violent events, consciously or not. However, the painful past has shaped our society and ourselves. When we realise that the past makes the present, we can see the value of discussions about diversity in academia or the appearance of Black Pete.”

Thanks to the financial support from the Groningen University Fund, the Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds and the J.B. Scholtensfonds, the book could be published. The project is not on its own, but is part of the national network Mapping Slavery, in which various towns and regions literally put their slavery history on the map. 

Last modified:13 August 2021 11.10 a.m.
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