On November 19, 1737, the Leusden, a Dutch West India Company slave ship, departed from Elmina, located in modern-day Ghana, carrying about 700 African men, women and children who were to be sold as slaves in Suriname. It was the ship’s final voyage. Two months into the journey — January 1, 1738 — the ship was caught in a storm. The captain feared that the African captives would rush for the few lifeboats in the vessel so he directed the crew to shut the hold and lock the African captives below deck.
At the end of the day, 664 captives died, either from drowning or suffocation after the ship sank in the Maroni River in Suriname. Only 16 captives survived and were later sold. The crew escaped. The incident has since been described as the single largest human tragedy in Dutch maritime history and in the history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade.
Records show that the number of deaths was almost five times that of the Zong Massacre, the unforgettable 1781 incident which saw 133 slaves thrown into the Atlantic. “The story of the Leusden was never told in Holland,” historian Leo Balai told the New York Times recently. “It was the largest murder case in the history of the slave trade, but no one ever talked about it,” the Surinamese Dutch whose ancestors were enslaved added.
In July 2013, an exhibition based on a Ph.D. dissertation by Balai was held at the Scheepvaart Museum, the maritime history museum. The aim of the exhibition was to let people understand the ins and outs of the slave trade and especially the fate of the people on board the Leusden, Remmelt Daalder, a senior curator at the Scheepvaart Museum, said at the time.
Daalder said of the Leusden disaster: “It wasn’t seen as important. It was a large loss in terms of money, but no one seemed to mind that it was a large loss in human lives. No one was punished, and, in fact, some of the crew members got a reward because they were able to save a box of gold from the ship.”
No one was punished for the deaths of the African captives.
For many people, the disturbing history of the slave trade brings to mind the horrifying experiences enslaved Africans had to go through while working on plantations in the Americas and other parts of the world. Africans were, for centuries, captured and chained down, forced onto ships and taken into new lands against their will. Some even died before getting to their new homes due to the awful experiences on the ships that packed them like spoons, with no room even to turn. For those who survived, it was the start of several hours of work on large plantations with little to eat and with never having to forget their status as property.
In time, the slave trade itself and the trade in goods produced by slave labor formed the most important source of income for the countries involved. The Dutch Republic was one of the wealthiest nations in the world, accruing much of its wealth from Atlantic slavery. According to an account, economic activities based on slavery contributed 5.2 percent to the gross domestic product of the Dutch Republic in 1770, with 19 percent of Dutch imports and exports consisting of goods produced by enslaved people in the Atlantic. For the Netherlands’ most prosperous province, Holland, the gross domestic product was as high as 10.36 %.
Vlissingen and Middelburg in Zeeland were then the most important slave trade cities in the Netherlands. As phys.org writes: “Between 1730 and 1800, about 500 slave ships departed from Vlissingen or Middelburg, loaded with valuable exports to exchange for people in West Africa.”
In recent times, groups that represent people from the former Dutch colonies have been demanding that the Dutch government formally apologize for its role in the slave trade. In June 2013, the Dutch Council of Churches issued a formal apology for slavery. Its secretary general, Klaas van der Kamp, called it a “black holocaust.”