By Lloyd Kandasammy
The enslavement of Africans is without a doubt, one of the worst atrocities to have been committed in the name of Catholicism, wealth and greed by European powers who pillaged the African continent, with the help of some African kingdoms to meet the demands for labour in the ‘New World’. This article briefly examines the life of enslaved Africans during the early period of Dutch rule while next week’s article will continue the examination of lawmaking and the consequences of law breaking during the last stages of Dutch rule.
Enslavement was nothing new within the region, the decimation of the indigenous peoples soon after the rediscovery of the Caribbean by Christopher Columbus, resulted in the need for a new group of slaves to take their place. Sanctioned by the papacy, Africans, who were equated by many as the lowest forms of humans on the face of the planet would be used for centuries until ‘enlightened’ men finally realized isn’t this my fellow brother. Of all the European powers, the Dutch are, quite correctly deemed to be among some of the cruelest owners of enslaved Africans. The following article presents a summary of many of the atrocities observed by those visiting the shores of present day Guyana, then known as Essequibo and Demerara and Berbice in the 18th century.
Visiting the shores of Demerara in the 18th century George Pinkhard gave this more than accurate description of the miserable enslaved African.
Divested of every right, a slave has no redress, not even against the bitterest of wrongs; however oppressed, however injured, he has no resources- no means of relief. Not having the power of changing his home, he has no escape from ill usage or cruelty; but is condemned to travel the long journey of life in hopeless discontent.
Early settlement and
Depending on sources used the dates of Dutch occupation vary, from 1580 by Hartsink to 1590 by Netscher. Defying the Spanish claim to all lands to the west by the Treaty of Tordesillas the Dutch sailed along the Guyana coast, commonly referred to as the Wild Coast, an area which encompassed neighbouring Suriname, French Guiana and also Venezuela in search of tropical products.
The Dutch were astute businessmen and unlike the Spanish did not seek to uplift the indigenous peoples with the rays of Christianity. Trade in tropical products such as balsam and annatto was their primary focus. With time small settlements were established, they were eloquently described by Cornelius Goslinga as ‘wooden shanties’ consisting of a small shack surrounded by an earthen palisade and manned by one or two Dutch men. Within time these small settlements soon became permanent.
In the East Indies the Dutch were extremely prosperous and hoped to replicate this success in their new western possessions. However business interests in Holland were not guaranteed the same ratio of prosperity as the resources in the west did not mirror that in the East Indies. In the circumstance a special joint stock company known as the Dutch West India Company was chartered in 1621. Its objective was to finance the development of the new Dutch possessions in the west. From the outset the prospects were bleak as the company did not manage to attract the significant revenue it had envisioned.
Under their administration the Guyana colonies were never really prosperous owing in part to a lack of financial resources and administrative bickering. Guyana had never been perceived as a colony worth more than a trade in tropical products with the indigenous peoples. Early attempts at attracting settlers from Holland had failed and the establishment of an agricultural industry was even less of a success owing to the acute shortage of enslaved labour.
With the loss of Pernambuco, in Brazil, in 1645 the Dutch West India Company hastily established a settlement known as Nova Zeelandia in the Pomeroon in 1648. Pernambuco had been extremely prosperous for the Dutch. After they were expelled from that area they hoped that the new settlers in the Pomeroon would transfer their technology and soon the area would be prosperous with the cultivation of sugar.
The settlement got off to a less than prosperous start as colonists complained that their shipment of enslaved Africans which they were promised were yet to arrive. Disillusioned with the inefficiencies of the Company many migrated to Suriname, which was being founded at this time (circa 1650), French Guiana and Barbados.
For many years Guyana remained stagnant, unworthy of significant investments of labour and capital. By the 1740s the prospects of Guyana remained dull the newly appointed Governor of the Dutch West India Company’s administration in Guyana noted that the Company treated her Guyana possessions in a ‘Step motherly fashion’.
Opening Demerara a new era
Faced with the fact that the Dutch had no capital to develop the colony Gravesande proposed a most unusual proposal, commonly described as the ‘Open Door Policy’. Under his guidance the colony of Demerara was founded and shortly thereafter opened for settlement, opened to persons of all nations. They were to be granted lands in Demerara, along with tax exemptions with the hope that they would transfer not only their capital by the new settlers but most importantly labour, which was crucial to the success of any venture to be undertaken.
This Open Door Policy attracted the attention of the English resident in Barbados, St Lucia and other colonies. With lands exhausted in the islands, fortunes declined with the shortfall in production of sugar there. In this circumstance many soon flocked to our shores bringing their assets with them.
Demerara was for the planter a blessing as great fortunes were attained by those who accepted the offer. For the African however it was one of continuous misery as they toiled for countless hours in the sun under the crack of the whip and the careful eye of the planter.
The administration of Guyana by the Dutch was never clearly defined as it consisted of many bodies whose jurisdiction overlapped each other. This often resulted in friction and or eventually led to a stalemate in the resolution of the colony’s affairs.
As it relates to slavery the laws in existence were basically formulated around the Imperial Criminal Code ‘Constituto Criminalis Carolina’ of 1532. This law cannot be considered a Slave Code of any sorts as it was applicable to both enslaved Africans and free persons. In reality it was left to the proprietors of the Dutch colonies to implement their own system of laws as related to all activities pertaining to enslavement.
Judge, Jury & Executioner
For the greater part of the occupation of Essequibo, Demerara and Berbice there were in fact no special slave laws to govern the planter. Every planter was, not surprisingly, judge, jury and executioner. Every planter was master of his own slave with power to administer corporal punishment short of inflicting loss of a limb, or as long as he did not kill them.
Only in the case of these extreme severities would the appointed official of the Dutch West India Company, the Fiscal investigate. This however was of no avail as the planters were in control of the administration of the colony and its affairs. Additionally planters were also granted permission to confine his slave in the public prison on his own personal fiat.
The horror of the Africans
The accounts by visitors and observers particularly missionaries, to Guyana in the late 18th century and after, noted with great disdain the barbarism meted out to the miserable enslaved African by their Dutch Master.
It is in their words that this presentation shall portray the horrors of the life of the enslaved African under the judgment of the Dutchman.
Witnessing a Bush Negro execution in Demerara, 16 May 1796 one observer wrote
“…most of the ringleaders were taken and brought to Stabroek, where they were afterwards tried and executed. One in particular Amsterdam … was subjected to the most shocking torture, in the hope of compelling him to give information… but in vain.
He was sentenced to be burnt alive, first having his flesh torn from his limbs with red hot pincers; and in order to render his punishment still more terrible , he was compelled to sit by and see thirteen others broken upon the wheel and hung and then, in being conducted to execution, was made to walk over the thirteen dead bodies of his comrades. Being fastened to an iron stake to be burnt alive.
When the destructive pile was set in flames, his body spun round the iron stake with mouth open, until his head fell back, life extinguished. I am told by a gentleman attending that the most horrid stench continued for many hours…and was extremely offensive throughout the town, penetrating so strongly into houses on the leeward side, as to make many persons sick, and prevent them from taking food during the remainder of the day.
Such punishment was not uncommon for runaways or those found guilty of inciting revolts and or hitting a white man, a most grave offence.
Lieutenant Thomas St Clair stationed in Essequibo wrote extensively about the case of Sampson a runway slave. He stated that in addition to receiving a severe flogging at the direction of his master he had an iron collar fastened around his throat which had three large legs sticking out from it, having hooks at their ends, making it impossible for him to escape through the thick under wood in this country. In addition, to this, his left leg was chained to an enormous heavy log of wood, which when he walked was thrown over his left shoulder. In this state he was obliged daily to perform as much work as any other negro on the estate.
For striking a white man, a most offensive crime he documented the nature of judgment form this crime in New Amsterdam in 1806;-
A small platform was raised near Government house, a large number of Europeans, mostly women, with about 1000 Africans were gathered around the platform when the executioner of the law stepped forward and revealed that the slave had been convicted, before the Court of Justice for the rebellious and horrid crime of striking a white man.
And he was sentenced to have his right hand from which he struck the blow severed from his body; and turning around to the prisoner he ordered him to lay his hand on the block. No sooner was this done than, with one stroke, the hand fell to the ground. He then walked from the platform, his arm streaming like a fountain on blood, and a surgeon, standing on the steps bound it up and directed him to the hospital