Opinion: Slavery is no excuse (for anything)

POSTED: 07/2/13 12:49 PM

Piet Emmer, a retired history professor with a specialization in European expansion, published a book last year about the overseas history of the Netherlands between 1600 and 1800. Before that he published a study about the Dutch slave trade in the period 1500-1850. This weekend, he published an opinion piece in the Dutch daily Trouw about the abolition of slavery. While many people are convinced that the slavery-past up to this day has its effects on racism, unfaithfulness and criminality, the now 68-year-old Emmer has a different opinion – one he expects to be criticized for.

Emmer starts his piece with references to the annual protestant Orange marches in Northern-Ireland that commemorate the battle at the Boyne from 1690, and the Serbian national day of mourning for the defeat by the Turks in – believe it or not – 1389. Both events are still able to trigger feelings of hate, Emmer notes, while the annual commemoration of the victims of the German occupation from 1940 to 1945 does not do that anymore. In some places there will even be a joint commemoration next year, because slowly it has dawned on people that most of the deaths on the German side were also victims.

The Second World War, the occupation and the liberation have thereby become what they ought to be, Emmer observes: purely historical events that evoke no personal feelings among the current generation. The same goes for the Peace of Utrecht (1713), and the foundation of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (1813).

We hardly reflect anymore on the introduction of the 48-hour workweek, the abolition of physical and capital punishment and the ban on child labor. The abusive situations that caused an end to these measures have been wiped from the public memory a long time ago. Everybody seems to be aware that all those horrors of the past have become history and that they were a necessary evil to let the Netherlands grow into what it has become today: a very prosperous country inhabited by about the longest living and most satisfied people in the world.

Emmer points out that excuses of financial compensation for the injustice that has been done to European Dutch in the past is limited to the generation that was subjected to that injustice. “It does not look like the millions of Dutch descendants from those that were subjected to child labor in the course of the past couple of centuries, will ever ask for apologies or financial compensation.”

The history-professor said that the generation-principle also applies to Second World War victims and for the so-called Wiedergutmachung (a German compensation program for the damages Hitler caused to other countries). Emmer notes sarcastically that it is near unimaginable that the great-great-grandchildren of the war-generation will claim a century from now that they are still suffering from the effects of the occupation and that they are demanding compensation, let alone that they are able to use the distant past as an excuse for frustrations, setbacks and wrong choices in their personal lives.

That also applies to the direct descendants of murdered Jewish Dutch citizens. Historian Dr. Lou de Jong, who documented the history of the Netherlands in the 40-45 war, famously refused to inform the children of his twin brother about the betrayal and the murder of their parents. He reasoned that his nephews had to leave that unfortunate past be for their own good, otherwise they would be unable to focus on their future.

Emmer notes that all this seems to be different for “some Caribbean Dutch citizens” – an understatement if there ever was one. They consider the commemoration of the abolition of slavery not only as a step towards a more just society, but especially as an opportunity to point out to the rest of the Netherlands that the effects of the slavery still have not passed.

Whatever can go wrong is attributed to the slavery-past: racism, discrimination, teen pregnancies, broken families, marital unfaithfulness, criminality, bad school grades, high blood pressure, and many other things. Slavery was so exceptional and so inhumane, that only our king is able to offer apologies for it. It is also logical to offer financial compensation. Without slavery, the Netherlands would have never become so prosperous. And every year on July 1 it gets called to account for it.

But Emmer is not buying any of this.

It could of course be, he reasons, that the slave trade and slavery have touched their victims longer and deeper than all the disasters that have struck Europeans. That was at least the position of the champion of the slave-emancipation, the abolitionists, who used 150 years ago, according to Emmer, a mix of truth and lies to achieve their goal.

The reality is, Emmer notes, that slaves in the European colonies formed only a fraction of the total number of slaves in the world. Most of the slaves in the Dutch colonies were not in the Caribbean, but in Asia and South-Africa. Their material position was favorable compared to that of the proletariat in Western-Europe, let alone compared to the serfs in Eastern-Europe and the slaves in Africa. This explains why the Europeans, churches included, have condoned slavery in their colonies for so long.

Emmer makes short shrift of the notion that slavery is the root cause of today’s broken families, of relatively high criminality among blacks and of the idea that the current loose sexual morals are due to the fact that enslaved women and girls were raped on a regular basis by plantation supervisors and managers. He also dismissed the idea that high blood pressure among blacks stems from the chronic water-shortage slaves had to endure during the trip from Africa to the West; this supposedly gave the survivors a higher salt-content in their bodies that causes together with potassium high blood pressure – a near endemic silent killer among blacks in North-America.

Emmer notes that Africans and Arabs controlled the purchase, transport and sales of slaves on the African continent. European traders had no influence on the composition of the slave families because the Africans and the Arabs had torn those families apart long before they brought their slaves to the market.

Upon arrival at the plantations slaves were seldom separated in a sale. There was much more migration among free colonists, while slaves often remained for a long time at the same location, Emmer says. Only after the abolition did the free slaves begin to migrate and that weakened the social cohesion. One-parent families are not a result of slavery, Emmer concludes.

Teen pregnancies were unusual at the plantations in the Caribbean, the history professor point out. Slaves had their first child relatively late compared to the free and not free population of North-America. Rapes did occur, but supervisors and managers knew the consequences if they would get a conflict with the superior number of slaves for that reason. It could lead to a strike, a revolt or poisoning.

To make plantations profitable a good relationship with the slaves was essential. Slave-owners and supervisors knew better than to fool around with working hours, the monthly rations of food, tobacco and alcohol, a piece of land for growing crops and the semi-annual distribution of fabrics and utensils like knives, fish hooks and pipes.

That the slaves had no possessions is a myth, Emmer says. After the abolition there was a sudden increase in purchasing in the colonies. It appeared that the slaves had saved a lot from selling their crops and poultry that they could afford expensive clothing, while some even proudly went to church on Sunday with their own horse and carriage. Nothing indicates that theft, murder and manslaughter were the order of the day in the slavery-time.

Emmer refers to the situation in Europe where at the same time there were many more police officers and soldiers. That gives reason to assume that the colonies suffer much less from wars, revolts and criminality. The relatively high criminality among slave-descendants cannot be attributed to the slavery, the professor concludes.

Emmer furthermore dismisses the notion that the Netherlands became prosperous because of the slave-trade and the slavery. The Dutch slave-trade shriveled in the course of the years to two or three ships per year. And here is another point: nowhere did so many plantations go bankrupt that fast as in the Dutch colonies in the West.

The trade with the slave colonies and the processing and sales of the coffee and  sugar the plantations produced brought additional income to several port cities in Zealand and Holland, but according to emmer its importance was marginal: of every ten ships that left the Netherlands, seven went to European destinations, two to Africa and the West and one to the East. Their activities were not highly important for the Dutch economy.

In spite of all this, Emmer notes that financial compensation could be justified because slaves earned less than free laborers in the colonies. He even offers a formula to calculate the lost wages, but encounters a practical problem: to whom should that compensation be paid? Most descendants of slaves from the colonies, including St. Maarten, have not only slaves but also free colonial citizens among their forebears.

There is also a historical stumbling block, because comparing slave-wages with those of free laborers in the West suggests that the slaves did not object to their transfer from Africa to the Caribbean. The opposite is true: they would have much preferred to stay enslaved in Africa or Asia. For this reason, their wages ought to be compared with that of slaves in Africa and Asia – and they happened to earn much less than their brethren in the Caribbean.

Emmer concludes that it is no longer possible to use the slavery-past as an excuse for social disadvantages. The descendants of slaves have to be judged like all other ethnic groups in the Netherlands. Those who do well display religious tolerance, score low in criminality, have a good education, speak their languages, produce many innovative entrepreneurs, deliver capable political leaders, hardly rely on social benefits and tend towards frugality.

That the forebears of the Turkish-Dutch have missed the Enlightenment, that the forebears of Moroccan- and Vietnamese-Dutch once were colonized by the French, that European-Dutch have endured two occupations – from 1794 to 1813 and from 1940 to 1945 – that the forebears of Jewish-Dutch during the last occupation have been practically massacred, that the forebears of Ghanese-Dutch sold slaves and that the forebears of many former Surinamese and Antilleans were forcibly taken from Africa and have lived as slaves, will always remain part of the collective memory. But that will no longer return compassion, let alone social or financial credits.

Reactions to Emmer’s piece were generally positive. One stood out: “Slavery was not abolished 150 years ago. It is still the order of the day and it will continue for years.” Knowing what is going on in our brothels, and fresh from reading the trafficking in Persons Report from the American State Department about St. Maarten, we wholeheartedly agree. But who is going to do something about what is happening today?

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