When you see the pastel-colored Handelskade of Willemstad, it’s like being in Amsterdam where the canal houses have been colored in by a child who prefers pastels.
This island is clearly a holiday resort with a relaxed atmosphere but many a Dutch tourist is not fully aware of the dark history behind these islands, which was an important stop in the Atlantic slave trade.
The Dutch shipped half a million slaves from West Africa, being in the top 5 of slave trading nations in the world. The pretty houses on the Handelskade were built with money from the slave trade. I have an unfinished manuscript lying under my bed (not really– it’s sitting on my computer) that I based on the true story of Willem Bosman, a Dutch slave trader who wrote a book about it.
We had a lazy beach day today, which is why I give you a chapter I wrote, inspired by Bosman’s book:
March 7th, 1722
De eeuw is te lekker en te vies in Poëzy.
The century is too salacious and smutty for poetry.
~ D. Havart (a friend of Bosman’s)
On cold, cold mornings when the dew of the meadows mixes with the fog and condensation wafting from the Vecht river, I see her, as I last saw her. Like Demeter, turning away from me but looking back. This has sealed my exile and my loss. When I close my eyes, I can retain her a little longer in my spotty memory: her dark back arched against the ruthless sunlight of West Africa, cradling our newborn son in her arms. “Should I stay, Willem, or should I go?”
This bittersweet memory has been haunting me with a cruel clarity. The tooth of time cannot even make a dent in that. And what’s worse, I cannot justify my silence at the time: the silence of a thousand graves. A man will never forgive himself for the things that he ignored nonchalantly in the past, things that were really crucial at the time but alas, these things are now irreversible. My only unfinished business.
And so I have to reconcile myself with this fate, this failure, this silence. This was the biggest failure in my life. Bigger than all the slaves I have signed off on, on the eve of their departure from the motherland, a country which they would never return to, except maybe in their dreams and death. Numbers are irrelevant. Thousands of slaves and it did not make me cringe, not even for a second, but her singular face, her soulful eyes… She was my queen of the underworld which we both inhabited once.
Her loss has cast a perennial winter over my life which I am condemned to spend in the lowlands. Surely, this is a, or rather my winter of greater perspicuity and a more refined judgement, but a winter nonetheless. As long as my candle sputters, there is hope, but it is fraying at the edges, and I am afraid I have lost her to Hades forever. Without a trace.
You ask me who I am? My name is Willem Bosman. I have been nicknamed “the slave trader” in this provincial backwater of Utrecht, a title which is a misrepresentation, much like calling a cattle farmer a butcher… I once was a soldier but consider myself a merchant, a trader, which is what put Holland on the world map. Risking our own lives, we took risks for the Gentlemen of the West East India Company, who in their protected and warm canal houses merely needed to count guilders and sign stock certificates.
For them, the slave trade was a paper trade. Some random numbers in a ledger. For us, it was a trade in flesh and blood, and while the trade deals of the West India Company weren’t always clean or pure, it could only buy gold, and then slaves, because Africans were willing to sell us the gold, and then slaves. The Africans enslaved their own when debts needed to be paid or losses in war needed to be settled. When we first put our boots on the sandy yellow beaches of Guiana, blacks were already deeply familiar with the slave trade and we did not force them into it. So hold your judgment until I tell you my full story.
In fact, as you, dear reader, may or may not know, I dedicated my earlier work and History to the Lords of the West India Company: I felt compelled to bring things to light but realized while writing that I had to keep my private life (and thoughts) out of it. But leaving them out was like nurturing the festering mental boils in my body, and the pus, the stench became so overwhelming that I had to confess some things here in order to safeguard my health.
This also means that finally, I will tell all– consider this an exhibit of my disloyalty towards my superiors, van Sevenhuysen and the mad La Palma who gave in to immorality and corruption to save their own skins. They never served their stadhouder, country or God, they served, no idolized Mammon, and I hope they burn in hell because of it. I may be delivered the same Fate, but I hope this manuscript will be a form of redemption, so the flames of Hell will only lick at that big corn on my right toe.
But I digress, letting old sores and ill feeling take over this tale. I need to present this cleanly and truthfully, so here we go: The Dutch mentality always has been to work and adhere to the customs of the land and our tolerance bought allies. Unlike the Spanish and the Portuguese, who hit the natives over the head with crucifixes and bibles, as they had once done to us in our own country, we let them be, let them have their superstitions and religions and allowed them to speak their languages and practice their rituals. To win them through tolerance is much easier and cheaper than winning them at the end of a sword or a musket. To create conflict means war and war is bad for business. But I am running ahead of myself.
In Africa, my nickname was Bushman, as I was willing to leave the safe zone of the fort and venture into the interior, which did not come without risks. I was born as Bosman though, in the Dutch annus horribilis of 1672 when Holland was cornered by France and England. The two regent brothers Johannes and Cornelis De Witt were blamed for this and dragged out of the Gevangenispoort, hung by their feet and flayed alive…as pale chicken breasts, they were hanging and withering in the wind, across from the houses of Government.
My mother, a scullery maid, and pregnant with me, saw it all happen, hastened home and went into early labor, breathing her last, and leaving my father a widower. And a drunk. Mother was the heart and soul of the family and with her gone, my father quit his job and drank himself to death. And so I ended up in an Utrecht orphanage. While I was learning my abc’s, the nobles replaced the regents and another William of Orange was hoisted into the saddle to run the country like it had been under his ancestors William the Silent, Maurice and Frederik Hendrik.
With it came the greed for overseas riches to feed the wars which had to be waged, as the Oranges believed that to defend ourselves at home, we needed to first be able to conquer our enemies in wars abroad. After the model of the East India Company, which had brought in great capital through the spice trade, the WIC was meant to get furs from North America, sugar from South America and gold from Western Africa, which soon turned into black gold (slaves).
Greed was good and practiced partly under the flag of God, or rather, we thought we had God on our side, for wasn’t our success a clear indication of the chosen people that we were? But the hunger of a greedy person can never be satisfied, or as my good friend Havart warned us in my first book:
[Gold] is for a wise man an insecure pawn
A wise man should never pawn his heart to gold
But live with what he has, until he’s old
It’s a sure thing (one cannot let it be)
The more gold one wants, the less one is truly free.
Havart was right, for colonies just led to greater needs and greed and when they needed workers on the plantations in the Caribbean and North and South America and the local Indians wouldn’t do as they were dying from smallpox and other diseases brought there by the white man, the gold trade changed into the slave trade: slaves, young men and women who had to be healthy and who could reproduce.
Once a slave, always a slave. A child engendered by slaves, is a slave the moment he exits the womb. We sold slaves, sent them off shore but we never realized that we were the start of enslaving entire generations and that, to me, may have been good for the colonial business and settlements but it was a law of unintended consequences that I never fully realized at the time.
Admittedly, looking back I also have to confess that when I lived in Africa as a young naïve man, I worked and lived as if in a dream; I was intoxicated by climbing the career ladder and getting distracted by pity or morality stood in the way of a solid career promotion. Plus the world of the Guianans was diametrically opposed to ours– a world where superstition was so sacred that you almost became a believer and would throw over board what you had learned in Europe.
African society was our world turned upside down, and Guinean rituals and superstitions were so far removed from the rational thought, or rather radical thought from Spinoza and that Frenchman Descartes I heard people whisper about in Holland that it was in fact easier to live in a complete state of “verstandsbijstering”, or mental alienation, if not retardation. Only the unenlightened white man could trade in people, black or otherwise, and have a good night’s sleep. And it worked. While arriving as a soldier, in less than ten years, I had worked myself up to being the Chief Merchant, or Second Person on the Coast and then alas, I became soft and was forced to leave in disgrace.
After having been so many years removed from that pestilential mosquito coast, the palm wine and the emotions from yonder at the time, I now see everything in a more transparent but also more vulnerable and fragile light, which makes my story so hard to tell. Or maybe I am still torn about it all, who is to say but God almighty?
But to come back to my humble beginnings, the WIC needed people, lots of manpower to man ships and forts abroad, so when I was 16, I wanted out. Away from the drab orphanage grounds, the thin soup and moldy bread. The WIC was my ticket out: when they came calling, looking for soldiers to sail to Africa and recruiting from orphanages and prisons (yes, the dregs of the nation), I signed on. Where in Africa? I didn’t care. The sea air was to be preferred to the stale air of the sleeping quarters of the orphanage. No need to look back or be homesick: there simply wasn’t anything to look back on. I was alone in the world, without kin or friends.
It was the year 1688, shortly after William of Orange landed at Torbay, near London and proclaimed himself king; it was the first and last invasion of England since the Norman Conquest in 1066. You might declare me daft, for was this Glorious Revolution not reason enough to make me want to stay and make a career at home now that Holland’s luck had turned?
Maybe so, but the truth of the matter is that I did not begin to live, or feel life consciously until I set foot on those beaches of Western Africa. New beginnings are always better than old remainders and, well, the Old World had only deprived me. It was high time for the New World to give me something back. What that was, I did not know yet then, but now I know it gave me a taste of heaven to make earth forever look mundane, second-hand and and grey, especially in these swampy lowlands where even the sun is watery and the cold rains thin the blood and sicken the soul.