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The slavery past of Friesland and Groningen

The traces of the Dutch slave trade cannot only be found in the former Dutch colonies, but also very close to home. Two richly illustrated books about Sporen van het slavernijverleden in Groningen en in Fryslând [Traces of the slavery past in Groningen and in Friesland] show how closely the history of the Northern provinces is intertwined with Dutch colonial history and slavery. The historians Barbara Henkes and Margriet Fokken literally take their readers on a journey through the two northern provinces along locations that are reminiscent of the slavery past.

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.

Uitsnede uit de kaart van Groningen van E. Houbois uit 1637
Cutout from the map of Groningen - E. Houbois - 1637

Although Friesland had no division of the WIC, nor of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), which focused on the eastern hemisphere, Frisians also profited from slavery both 'the East' and 'the West' through shipping, investments by the elite and the selling of colonial products.

With their research, Henkes and Fokken made these histories available to the general public by connecting the slavery past in the overseas territories to places, objects and documents in the region. 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 black orphan boy who was the son of a Dutchman and a Ghanian enslaved woman. The boy was raised in Groningen and later became a slave trader, plantation owner and estate dweller. Besides the elites in Groningen and Friesland who profited well from slavery in the America’s, Africa and South-East Asia, there are also the histories of resistance and protests against slavery such as the publications of Marten Douwes Teenstra in Groningen and the fundraisings of Cornelis Voorhoeve in Friesland.

Collaboration and awareness

Many of these stories were investigated by history students. Indispensable was the support of the Groninger Archives, Tresoar, the Leeuwarden Historical Center, the Hannemahuis in Harlingen, the Groninger Museum, the Fries Museum, the University Museum and the help of many experts, including many local amateur historians. Barbara 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: when you know what you are looking for, the archives can be approached from a different angle. We discovered surprising information about family networks and legacies, about theses at the university that took a position for and against slavery, and about the sometimes racist approaches to the Africans present in Groningen and Friesland. Since the books have been published the interest has only grown.

That is also reflected in the organisation of this years event 'Bitterzoet Erfgoed’ [Bittersweet Heritage] about Groningen and slavery, in which the Groninger Museum, the Museum aan de AA, the University Museum, the Graphic Museum, the Forum, the Stichting Oude Kerken in Groningen and many other heritage institutions in the province together draw attention to the presence of this history in the present.

Thanks to financial contributions from the Groningen University Fund, the Prince Bernard Cultuurfonds, Tresoar and the Friends of Tresoar Foundation, the Grote Zuidwesthoek Foundation, the Het Nieuwe Stads Weeshuis Foundation, the Professor van Winter Fund, the Ritske Boelema Gasthuis Foundation and the J.B.Scholtensfonds these books could be published. Both projects are part of the national network Mapping Slavery, in which various towns and regions literally put their slavery history on the map.

Walk along Traces of the slavery past in the city of Groningen, 2019; here at the New Church. Photo: Sidney Groeneveld
Walk along Traces of the slavery past in the city of Groningen, 2019; here at the New Church. Photo: Sidney Groeneveld

Barbara Henkes: “Our view of history changes over time. We sometimes prefer to forget violent events, consciously or unconsciously. Yet that painful colonial past has also shaped us as people and as a society.

More information:

Margriet Fokken & Barbara Henkes, Sporen van het slavernijverleden in Groningen, Gids voor Stad en Ommeland, Uitgeverij Passage, Groningen, 2016.

Barbara Henkes, Sporen van het slavernijverleden in Fryslân. Uitgeverij Passage, Groningen 2021.

Last modified:07 February 2022 09.33 a.m.
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