Exhibition ‘Swart op de Gracht’ – Slavery and the Amsterdam Canals


The year 2013 marked both the celebration of the start of the development of the famous Amsterdam ring of canals four centuries ago (today a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and of the Peace Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. In addition 150 years ago slavery in the Dutch colonies of Surinam and the Dutch Antilles was abolished. These three events are connected. The wealth of the city of Amsterdam was largely built on profits from global trade in products, of which a significant part, such as sugar, cacao and coffee, were produced in Latin America and the Caribbean, using slave labour force. The Peace Treaty of Utrecht ended the major role of Dutch traders in the transatlantic slave trade. Today, the consequences of this shared global history are still relevant.

Museum Geelvinck Hinlopen Huis had two good reasons to join in these celebrations: the ensemble of main house and former coach house is situated in the middle of the ring of canals, with its main house on the prestigious Herengracht and its former coach house (now public museum entrance) at the Keizersgracht. Its location on two canals justifies its honorific label ’city palace’. But also, all inhabitants of the house, through the 18th.c. had functions within the ‘Societeit van Suriname’

Amsterdam – WIC – Societeit van Suriname

The history of the city palace, which Museum Geelvinck Hinlopen Huis encompasses, starts with the ancestors of its first inhabitants Albert Geelvinck and Sara Hinlopen. In the early 17th century, these merchant families were actively trading with Spain and Latin America and had established the Dutch West India Company (WIC). Not only had they traded in products from tropical plantations, but also they were a significant corner stone in the transatlantic slave trade. Their fortunes brought influential positions in the city government, which was enhanced by the fact that these oligarch families tended to intermarry into strong family networks.

To secure their position, the Amsterdam city government, together with the WIC and a relative of the Stadtholder’s family, created the Society of Surinam in 1683. This public-private company was geared towards establishing a favourable investment environment for the growth of plantations in Surinam. This included also the supply of labour force, which was materialised by shipping slaves from West Africa. Albert Geelvinck, who had built the Geelvinck Hinlopen Huis in 1687, was one of the first directors of the Society of Surinam. Documents show he actually ordered transatlantic slave trade. Involvement in the Surinam affairs is characteristic for the following generations, who lived in the house well into the early 19th century. By then the Nederlandsche Handel Maatschappij, today known as ABN Amro Bank, had replaced the Societet van Suriname.

Common household products, such as sugar, coffee, tobacco and especially cacao, still are significant commodities for metropolitan Amsterdam as a trade and transport hub. The city also houses a large minority with Afro-American roots. Unfair farm and labour conditions, including child labour and occasional outright slavery, are still existent in the global market for these commodities. Since recently, the major industries strive towards sustainable production and processing, as well as fair farm and labour conditions.

We advocate fair trade with the producers of these products like sugar, cacao etc, and support the efforts to reach better standards of sustainability in production and social responsibility in the regions of origin.

The exhibition

The exhibition ‘Swart op de Gracht’ shows the historic impact of this transatlantic trade connected to the plantation system on the rich life in the Amsterdam Canal District. The visitor is invited to explore the history of these common products, such as sugar, coffee, chocolate and tobacco. The exhibition is aimed to create awareness about the shared global history and connects the contemporary Amsterdam port city with its past. It tells the story of changing life styles, of luxury goods, which now are common mass products; all of which had come in reach by an effective, though inhumane plantation system, based on slave labour. The exhibition sheds light on how this affected city life and how the first Afro-Americans, who settled in Amsterdam, were viewed. The exhibition treats the subject as ‘shared history’ and avoids ‘naming and shaming’. Connecting the past with the present, creates awareness of shared social responsibility. 

The Geelvinck Hinlopen House and family

The house was built by Albert Geelvinck in 1679, on the occasion of his marriage with Sara Hinlopen, both from wealthy merchant families, active in the East and West Indies Companies. Moreover, Albert was appointed one of the first Directors of the ‘Societeit van Suriname’, the public-private enterprise to administer the slave trade and plantation economy. In this function, Albert Geelvinck participated in slave transports destined for the plantations in Suriname. Till the end of the 18th c., also marking the end of the WIC in 1792, the families after Albert and Sara, were connected with the Societeit van Suriname, as director or in other positions, This makes the Geelvinck Hinlopen Huis a ‘lieu de memoire’ of this episode of Amsterdam and Dutch colonial history.

In our exhibition ‘Swart op de Gracht’, we will clarify how these merchant families, most of them living in each other’s close vicinity, on the Herengracht and Keizersgracht, were interconnected by commercial, social and marital relations. Investing in and having positions in the WIC, was a common career in this network of upper-ten circles and was considered a decent way of acquiring wealth.

The story of slavery is also the story of the changing life style in these households on the canals. The products of slavery, like sugar, coffee, tobacco have had tremendous influence on habits of daily life consumption; then newly introduced as nouveautés and highly appreciated goods, but now inextractable part of our common way of life.

A  till now very little researched theme is the presence of black and Creole household servants, who probably must have lived in these mansions or in the vicinity (Rembrandt has painted a few blacks he had encountered). It was a token of wealth and prestige to depict yourself and your family on paintings, with attributes of colonial trade, including a black servant boy at your side. Black pages in the service of the Dutch Stadtholder’ family are known, as well as a few black students at universities of Amsterdam and Leiden.

The exhibition focuses on how these luxury products like sugar, coffee, cacao and tobacco from far away, became the most common items and consumer goods in our daily life, in our kitchens and on the table.

We do not aim to accuse the actors in this episode, but treat it as shedding light on our common past, in fact as ‘shared history’ of the Dutch and the descendents from the slave trade.

Products of Slavery: Coffee, Tobacco, Cocoa and Sugar

Today, coffee, tobacco, chocolate and sugar are part of our daily routine; life seems unimaginable without. Is there still an awareness of the slave labour that made these tropical commodities the basis of our most common consumer goods?

During the Dutch Golden Age in the 17th Century, Amsterdam developed into one of the main ports for international trade in tropical commodities worldwide. Especially lucrative was the sugar trade. Over 400 sugar refineries operated in Amsterdam at the time. Cane sugar was the main product of the plantations in South America.

The plantations could economically exist due to cheap labour force: slaves from Africa. By efficiently routing the cargo ships for the tropical commodities, during the first part of the trip these served to transport slaves from Africa to South America. Thus, the strategically located Caribbean island of Curacao, which the Dutch occupied since 1643, could develop into the main transatlantic trade hub for African slaves during the late 17th Century.

Cocoa beans, tobacco leaves and, from the 18th century onwards, also coffee beans became important global commodities. To secure the supply of these commodities, the city of Amsterdam stimulated the development of plantations in Surinam. An Amsterdam based public-private company ran this Dutch colony. Albert Geelvinck was one of its first directors.

The oligarch families, which governed the city of Amsterdam, were nearly all related by shared business interests and by marriage. Their homes were the grand mansions along the Herengracht and the Keizersgracht canals. They were the main stakeholders in the trade of sugar, cocoa, coffee and tobacco. However, the whole city population of Amsterdam has economically profited enormously.


Black Heritage Tours

For more information about Slavery, the African Diaspora and the Dutch Society in the 16th Century, join the Black Heritage tours through Amsterdam: www.blackheritagetours.com.