The city of Utrecht was directly involved in the slave trade and benefited from the proceeds, research shows. Various layers of the Utrecht population have instigated, invested in and earned money from slavery in America, Africa and Asia, the book concludes. Slavery and the city of Utrecht.
The study was presented today to mayor Sharon Dijksma and alderman Linda Voortman, whose portfolio includes diversity.
The research was commissioned by the municipality of Utrecht, with the aim of investigating the role of the city in Dutch slavery history. In addition, the researchers also tried to find out what the meaning of slavery was for the city and society. Rotterdam and Amsterdam had previously carried out such a study. The Hague will also investigate its own slavery past.
The slave trade and slavery-based production chains were “an integral part” of Utrecht’s history, is one of the conclusions. According to the researchers, Utrecht’s role was relatively small compared to a city like Amsterdam, but larger than previously thought.
Utrecht mainly played a role through the provincial government (the States of Utrecht) that was involved in the establishment of the Utrecht Company in 1721. The city council stimulated the establishment of the company that invested in plantations in Suriname and the sugar trade.
In addition, Utrecht administrators sat in the chambers of the Dutch East India Company and the West India Company in Amsterdam and Rotterdam. Here they supervised the subsidies to those trading companies. Utrechters were also overrepresented in prominent colonial positions, probably due to the presence of a university in Utrecht and the many Utrecht nobility.
Slavery and colonial exploitation were of great importance for Utrecht employment. Until 1795, 2800 Utrechters found work with the VOC. The researchers estimate that for this reason, nearly thirty men from Utrecht traveled to Asia every year. This made the Company a major employer, they write.
Belle van Zuylen
The researchers argue that Utrecht’s involvement in the slave trade has long remained invisible. Administrators and traders could profit from slavery in relative anonymity by investing in mutual funds and other then new financial products.
The Utrecht writer Belle van Zuylen also reaped the benefits. Almost 40 percent of its capital was invested in colonial companies. “Colonial gains made it possible to live a luxury writing life without being critical of slavery,” the researchers write.
The stately houses around the Janskerkhof, the Drift, Kromme Nieuwegracht and Nieuwe Gracht belonged to families with intensive colonial ties. Hendrik Swellengrebel, who was once governor of the Cape Colony and is now buried in the Janskerk, is also someone who profited from the colonial trade. The families owned, among other things, plantations and had substantial investments in the colonial business.
Advocates abolishing slavery
Ultimately, all major institutions in Utrecht benefited from slavery. The municipality, the Catholic Church, museums and the university were involved in the colonial exploitation and trade in people.
At the same time, Utrecht was also a center of abolitionism, the researchers say. Writers and poets such as Petronella Moens and Nicolaas Beets argued in the 19th century for the abolition of slavery. This was often based on religious grounds and, according to the researchers, cannot be seen separately from Utrecht as a religious center, partly due to the presence of a theological faculty.
According to the researchers, Utrecht’s slavery past shows how also cities that did not have large colonial institutions themselves were linked to slavery. They therefore argue in favor of setting up a similar study in other medium-sized cities as well. In this way, the structural interdependence of the Netherlands with colonialism and slavery can be properly visualized, they conclude.