By Mara Wendebourg
While spending your Saturday afternoons strolling through town, have you ever wondered about Utrecht’s history? Did you realize that the slave trade has also affected our beautiful city? This year it is 150 years ago that slavery has been completely abolished in the Netherlands. Thanks to historian Esther Captain, who designed a walk along the remains of this dark age, you can now find yourself wandering through the Utrecht of 1750.
During the Dutch golden age, thriving trade brought wealth and prosperity to the coastal provinces Holland and Zeeland. The large companies VOC (Dutch East Indian Company) and WOI (West India Company) were founded in 1602 and 1621 respectively to administer the trade between the Dutch Republic and its colonies. In Indonesia, the VOC would acquire spices and ship them to Europe. The journey to the West on the other hand included a stop in Africa, from where people were enslaved and taken to the cotton or tobacco plantations in the Caribbean. The final objective of this triangular trade was to meet the growing European demand in the plantations’ products.
The merchants who worked in service of these companies usually spent time working in the colonies and returned to their hometown once they had gathered enough money. They often also brought their domestic help home with them. Because the Dutch Republic forbade slavery in the Seven Provinces, these employees had a better status than enslaved workers on the plantations.
Historian Esther Captain, associated with the Center for the Humanities of University Utrecht, created an interesting account of the social diversity Utrecht hosted by collecting and gathering information about its houses. The aim of her work is to show that the international slave trade of the 18th century also had an impact on peripheral cities like Utrecht. She found the houses of traders, the homes of freed slaves, and finally the legacy of local protesters in favor of slavery’s abolishment.
One of these interesting houses is located on Drift 27, nowadays the university library. It was the home of Joan Gideon Loten, governor of Celebes and Ceylon (now Sulawesi and Sri Lanka) from 1752 to 1757. His testament and the epistolary exchanges with his brother show that he had a native Batavian (modern day Jakarta) maid and took great care of her. Another exceptional case is the one of Eduard van Akaboa, who came from Angola. He bought his freedom and became a weapon engraver on the Drieharingstraat. Then there was Nicolaas Beets, a member of the Dutch Society for the Promotion of Abolition, who lived on Boothstraat 6, where he wrote activist poetry influenced by the British Parliamentary Wilberforce.
More stories related to the slave trade are still to be found during a walk in Utrecht one and half centuries after it has been abolished. It counts as a testimony that its peripheral location did not hinder the establishment of a cosmopolite society. So look beyond the Albert Heijn and the shops at the Oudegracht and gain some insight into Utrecht’s vibrant history.