African Slavery: The Dutch Connection

Traditional Amsterdam homes.
Amsterdam, Netherlands

The history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade creates some unexpected links between West Africa and Europe. One of those joins Ghana and the Netherlands.

If someone mentions the Netherlands to you today, what comes to your mind? Amsterdam, a great European capital, laced with canals and full of traditional charm? Friendly people with a reputation for progressive politics toward things like marijuana and prostitution? If so, few would argue.

It wasn’t always that way, however. Especially f you were an African.

When it comes to the trans-Atlantic slave trade, other European countries — principally England, France, Spain and Portugal — may rank higher in your consciousness than the Netherlands. Indeed, if we talk strictly in terms of numbers, the Dutch never sent more than 5 or 6 percent of roughly 11 million Africans who survived the crossing into bondage.

But make no mistake. When it comes to the Middle Passage and all the horrors that went with it, the Dutch were major players. And between the 17th and 19th cent uries, it made the Dutch among the richest of nations.

Their focus on the sugar industry in the Americas — and its labor-intensive plantations — all but guaranteed the continuation of chattel slavery in the Americas for centuries to come, long after they had ceded their largest colonial territory, northern Brazil, back to the Portuguese.

Something else they were known for — their relative indifference to the care of their African captives. While they shipped fewer Africans to the Americas than the British or French, they lost more of them to disease and privation — two per 1,000 compared with 1 per 1,000 for the British and 1.5 per 1,000 for the French (SOURCE: Dutch Review).

The first of the “slave forts” built along the west African coast, Ghana’s Elmina Castle, may have been built by the Portuguese, but the Dutch made a point of taking it from them by force and then making it the hub of their slave operations for the next 177 years.

Indeed, the Dutch eventually ran a string of slave forts — warehouses of human misery and degradation — from Ghana to Nigeria, a region that became known as the Dutch Slave Coast. But Elmina Castle remained their preferred “market” for trading in human beings.

Today, you can see for yourself the fruits of that forced, captive labor in the historic merchants’ homes along Amsterdam’s many canals, lovingly preserved and still occupied. You also can see how the Dutch “acquired” the slave labor that generated the wealth to erect those impressive homes, in places like Elmina and Cape Coast castles in Ghana.

In fact, you can do both on a single trip.

Flight connections between Accra and Amsterdam, the respective capitals of Ghana and the Netherlands, are easy and relatively cheap. A one-way non-stop flight can be had for less than $900 for a flight lasting a bearable six and a half hours. Longer flights involving one or more stops can be had for even less.

And informative tours, led by expert guides, are available in both countries.

If that idea stirs your imagination, send me an email at