Chapter 4 Republicanism and Slavery in Dutch Intellectual Culture, 1600–1800

In: Discourses of Decline
Freya Sierhuis
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In Onno Zwier van Haren’s tragedy Agon, Sultan van Bantam (1769), a play that dramatizes the defeat of the Banten Sultanate at the hands of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), the protagonist, the aged Sultan Agon (Sultan Ageng “the Great” Tirtayasa, 1631–95, ruled 1651–83), retorts with dignity when provoked by the arrogant words of a VOC legate:

The Hollander who seeks to conquer Asia overall

And, in Holland free, will here accept no freedom at all

For whose fleet dominion over the Indies is the design

Has never seen my pennant lowered for his ensign.

And all those Christians who through such travail

For the sake of vile gain to our lands have set sail

Have not exported their quarrels to my domain

And her restive nature here respects me, sovereign.1

Agon’s adoption of a republican language of freedom as self-determination draws into relief the contradiction between the self-image of the Dutch as a freedom-loving people, and the effective reality of Dutch imperial power in the East.* Liberty and slavery are perhaps the fundamental oppositional concepts of republicanism as a political language. And yet, as many critics have pointed out, in Dutch political culture, the rights associated with political freedom were restricted to the citizens of the Republic itself and were not extended to the inhabitants of its colonies. This situation would remain a constant throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries up until the debates of the French and Batavian Revolutions, when the boundaries of the nation and the conditions of citizenship became the subject of intense debate.2

When examining the paradox of Dutch domestic liberty and colonial unfreedom, as many critics have done following Seymour Drescher’s influential article, “The Long Goodbye: Dutch Capitalism and Anti-Slavery in Comparative Perspective,” it is good to remember that the language of law and the language of humanism, as John Pocock argued many years ago, are distinct: virtue, the linchpin of the republican discourse of liberty, is not reducible to right.3 But neither, of course, are the two fully separable. In order to understand the seeming ideological contradiction between republicanism as a political language and the institution of colonial slavery, it is vital to understand the interaction between republican arguments and positions and the wider discussion on empire, citizenship and law. The debate on Dutch colonial history and the role of the Dutch in the transatlantic slave-trade has recently undergone something of a paradigm shift and contributions on anti-colonialism and abolitionism in Dutch political and literary culture have been growing steadily.4 The historio-graphy on Dutch anti-slavery argument is largely centred on the late eighteenth century, usually beginning with the “Patriot Era” of the 1780s, and yet arguments against slavery can be found much earlier and in a much wider range of sources. Within the history of Dutch political thought, arguments against slavery have until recently received only limited attention. And yet many texts that shaped anti-slavery argument were equally vital to the renovation and transformation of eighteenth-century republicanism.5 While necessarily limited in scope, this chapter seeks to make a contribution to this debate by placing republican and anti-slavery arguments in closer conversation.

1 Ideas about Slavery and Equality in the Seventeenth Century

Within the Dutch Republic, anti-slavery arguments first made their appearance in the context of the wider debate on the Dutch colonial possessions in the East and West Indies. The debate on the Republic’s overseas expansion did not so much focus on whether or not the Republic should be a colonial power, but on how her colonial possessions should be administered, on whether the chartered companies should exercise a monopoly over colonial trade or not, and on the question of how she ought to behave towards the inhabitants of its colonial territories. While English republican writers such as James Harrington (1611–77) attempted to reconcile imperial expansion with republican liberty via a complex institutional machinery that was to ensure political stability, Dutch political thinkers such as the republicans Johan (1622–60) and Pieter de la Court (1618–85) set out to obtain the same goal by redefining the Dutch overseas possessions as a commercial empire, rather than a land-based, territorial one.6

These were the debates that framed the discussion on slavery and slave trade. Republicanism, as a classical-humanist political language centred around the struggle between virtue and corruption, did in itself not provide a sufficient intellectual foundation for a principled rejection of slavery and the slave trade. It certainly could, and sometimes was, used to denounce the institution of slavery. Yet as it analyses politics in terms of morality and thus makes positive freedom, the right to self-rule, dependant on the individual’s capacity for virtue, rather than on rights, republicanism could equally be harnessed by those who regarded slaves as inferior, unfit for self-rule, and their own rule over slaves, when exercised with humanity and moderation as not only permissible, but as a virtuous work that saved the slaves either from certain death or a life of misery, and brought them under the influence of Christianity and civilization.

Such a perspective fitted well with the analysis of slavery found in the work of Hugo Grotius. In his Mare liberum (1609) Grotius had provided the intellectual legitimation of Dutch overseas expansion. His De iure belli ac pacis (1625) provided the agents of Dutch colonial expansion with an account of slavery that could legitimate the buying, selling, and owning of slaves while simultaneously introducing some minimal strictures to accommodate the demands of natural reason and intrinsic justice.7 Although the institution of slavery, Grotius argued, is not found in nature, its presence has been a constant throughout human history, and can be justified on utilitarian grounds as a means of sparing the lives of prisoners of war.8 Grotius’ attempt to provide a secular and rational defence of slavery resulted in a rather problematic distinction between external right, derived from utility, and intrinsic justice derived from natural reason. To accommodate the tension between the two, he was willing to concede that a slave made subject to extreme cruelty would have the right to flight (but not to resist). Similarly, the descendant of a slave that had been taken prisoner in an unjust war would not be found guilty of theft if he should escape. Even with these minimal strictures, it should be clear that Grotius’ account would allow the form of transatlantic slave trade and slave labour that was beginning to be an established feature of Dutch colonial possessions such as East Brazil. Many influential jurists whose work shaped the policies of the States of Holland, such as Grotius’ brother Willem De Groot (1567–1662), and the Frisian jurist Ulrik Huber (1636–94), followed Grotius line of argument, creating what has been called “a slaving discourse with a Christian humanist face”.9 Even a text ostensibly more critical of Dutch colonial politics, Vondel’s long poem Lof der Zee-vaert (In Praise of Navigation, 1623) which chastizes the ruthless actions of the then director of the VOC, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, nevertheless mystifies the cruel realities of colonial labour and transatlantic trade by describing it as a benevolent, civilizing force, to which the indigenous inhabitants of the Americas and the black Africans will submit voluntarily.10

There were also dissenting voices that utilized the resources of Christian humanist republicanism to criticize the institution of slavery. An example is the Rerum per octennium in Brasilia gestarum … historia (1647) of the humanist scholar and Remonstrant theologian Caspar Barlaeus (1584–1648), a one-time ally of Grotius. Barlaeus’ work celebrates the res gestae of Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen (1604–79), who acted as governor of the Dutch colony in Brazil from 1637 to 1644. Barlaeus celebrates Dutch colonial power as an instrument of civilization and Christianisation, yet is also acutely aware of the dangers of empire to republican liberty through the corrupting influence of luxury. His solution consisted of a re-alignment of commercial enterprise with a Ciceronian virtue ethics, joining the utile with the honestum in the service of the commonwealth, an ethical model he had first expounded in his oration on the wise merchant, Mercator sapiens, and of which he regarded Johan Maurits as an exemplar.12 The reality of Johan Maurits’ governorship would prove different from Barlaeus’ idealization. Indeed, as slavery became more entrenched in the Dutch colonial economies in the period between 1647 and 1672, critiques of slavery became fewer as profit, in the words of Markus Vink, gained the upper hand over principle.13

Barlaeus’ rejection of slavery rested on the idea of human equality, grounded in Scripture and Stoic philosophy. The biblical argument against slavery was also heard among a group of Reformed ministers, mainly, although not exclusively followers of the influential theologian Gijsbert Voetius, including figures such as Festus Hommius (1576–1642), Cornelis Poudroyen (d.1662), Georgius de Raad (c.1625–77), Jacobus Hondius (1629–91), and Bernard Smytegelt (1665–1739). These ministers constituted a minority position within the Reformed Church. Defences of slavery based on the idea of the curse of Canaan (Genesis 9:25–27) and the distinction between spiritual and physical liberty were mounted both by moderated Calvinists and by the more “liberal” Cocceian theologians.14

Much more outspoken in their opposition to slavery were the dissident groups outside the public church, such as the Mennonites, Collegiants, and the Quakers.15 In their writings, we find evidence of a more generalized notion of man’s natural equality, founded on the idea of man being created in the image of God, and made free in grace by Christ. Observing the convergence between republican thought, radical religion, and anti-slavery argument during and after the English Civil War, Anthony di Lorenzo and John Donoghue have argued that it was precisely the antinomian convictions of the republicans, based on a conception of natural law grounded in the idea of free grace, that made a break with the English political tradition possible.16 In the words of the Leveller John Lilburne, “All members of civil society” by right derived a “natural propriety” from Christ the King, who had created them in his own sovereign image and endowed them an inalienable set of “just rights” that formed the “prerogative of mankind”.17 While Lilburne’s connection to the Dutch Republic is well known, the influence of the Republic’s political culture on Lilburne’s thinking has only recently drawn attention. Contacts between English and Dutch dissenters, including Quakers, Mennonites, and Fifth Monarchists were intensive, and extended beyond the Channel into the wider Transatlantic.18

In 1659, Pieter Plockhoy, a Mennonite Collegiant from Zierikzee in Zeeland, living at the time in England, published A Way Propounded to Make the Poor in these and Other Nations Happy, a blueprint for a co-operative society to be founded just outside of London. After the Restoration Plockhoy moved back to the Netherlands and from there to America where in 1663 he established, together with a group of followers, a model community called Zwanendael, in the Delaware estuary. The principles on which the settlement would be based included full religious toleration, communal labour, sobriety, and simplicity (the settlers would produce luxury goods, but only for the purpose of exporting them), and a rejection of all forms of religious or social hierarchy. The utopian vision of Plockhoy offered a model to the freethinker Franciscus van den Enden (1602–74), a Latin teacher from Amsterdam, who in 1662 published the Kort Verhael van Nieuw Nederland (Short Account of New Netherland). While Van den Enden did not share Plockhoy’s religious inspiration, and would in fact ban all religious zealots, including Catholics, Puritans, Quakers, and Millenarians from his community, he nevertheless seems to have taken over Plockhoy’s insistence on the abolition of all forms of inequality. Van den Enden in turn influenced Plockhoy, with much of Plockhoy’s Kort en Klaer Ontwerp (Clear and Short Account, 1662), a pamphlet aimed at attracting new settlers to Delaware, echoing Van den Enden’s Short Account. Both men emphatically rejected racial, as well as social, inequality. Van den Enden described slavery as incompatible with justice and human dignity. He would later systematize his ideas on the equality and rationality of all people in Vrye Politijke Stellingen (Free Political Propositions, 1665).19

In 1688, the inhabitants of Germantown, mainly German and Dutch Quakers, drafted a petition against the practice of slavery in their communities. The text of the petition appeals to the idea of natural rights, arguing that liberty of conscience is inseparable from liberty of the body:

Now, tho they are black, we can not conceive there is more liberty to have them slaves, as it is to have other white ones. There is a saying, that we shall doe to all men like as we will be done ourselves; making no difference of what generation, descent or colour they are. And those who steal or robb men, and those who buy or purchase them, are they not all alike? Here is liberty of conscience, wch is right and reasonable; here ought to be likewise liberty of ye body, except of evil-doers, wch is an other case. But to bring men hither, or to rob and sell them against their will, we stand against. In Europe there are many oppressed for conscience sake; and here there are those oppressed wh are of a black colour.20

It is interesting, in view of the natural law argumentation we have encountered earlier, that the petition expressly refuses to condemn slaves who take up arms to reclaim their liberty. The emphasis on inalienable rights in early abolitionist discourse throws up interesting questions concerning the long lineage of the idea of human equality and the discourse of natural rights conventionally associated with the late eighteenth century, and more particularly with the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose fundamental contribution to the debate was, as Annelien de Dijn has shown, to connect classical republican ideas about freedom as political self-determination to a theory of natural rights.21 The explicitly religious inspiration behind the idea of natural rights in the writings of Levellers, Fifth Monarchists, Quakers, and Collegiants points to the intellectual connections between the English Civil War and the radical Enlightenment. As the complex interaction between republican and abolitionist argument in the Anglo-Dutch transatlantic shows, and as the exchange between Van den Enden and Plockhoy suggests, the characterisation of the radical Enlightenment as a predominantly secular phenomenon might stand in need of revision.

2 Commerce, Corruption, and Slavery in the Eighteenth Century

In the opening decades of the eighteenth century the utopian project of the radical Enlightenment began to recede into the background. As the Dutch Republic lost its hegemony in world trade and was overtaken politically, culturally, and economically by England and France, a discourse of cultural decline gained hold. Contrasting the Republic’s present-day situation to its position in the seventeenth century, now construed as the pinnacle of national achievement, members of the Dutch political elite pointed to the corrupting effects that luxury and the fashion for foreign, especially French, manners, had had on Dutch Republican virtues. Luxury and extravagance had replaced sobriety, temperance and frugality, while new ideals of politesse, it was argued, imported from absolutist, court-centred France had eroded traditional, public-spirited values of honesty, frankness and simplicity.22

Critiques of the corrupting effects of the craze for colonial consumer goods were a significant factor in the development of the anti-slavery debate in the second half of the eighteenth century. In 1775, an anonymous author writing for the spectatorial journal De Vaderlander (The Fatherlander) points to the connection between the insatiable thirst for overseas luxury goods such as coffee, tea, sugar and china, and the decay of domestic industry that has aggravated the economic decline of the Republic. He illustrates this by pointing to the languishing trade in traditional Delftware, now considered crude and clunky by fashionable ladies who delight in delicate china porcelain, and the poverty and misery this has created among the workers of this once flourishing trade.23 Honest labour that contributes to the general economic prosperity of the Republic is contrasted with colonial trade and the plantation economy, benefitting only a narrow elite. In this way, the anti-slavery argument appears to play a subordinate role to a more general critique of colonialism and corruption. The luxury goods of the colonial trade, coffee, tea, tobacco and sugar, are a root cause of the nation’s declining physical and moral health.24 The author’s appeal to the readers to return to the simplicity and sobriety of their seventeenth-century forebears is combined with a passionate denunciation of the evils that the production of these luxury goods is responsible for. “Coffee,” the author summarizes, “has led to the depopulation of America, to make space for plantations, and to the depopulation of Africa, for the production of slaves.”25 In order to drive the message home, the author gives a vivid description of the horrors of the slave trade, asking its addressee, a fashionable lady called “Alintera”, to imagine herself in the position of a young black woman who has been sold on the slave market, forced to work on a plantation and bear her master children.26 Rehearsing the abolitionist trope that sugar and coffee are tainted with the sweat and tears of slaves, it closes with an urgent plea to its heroine to join a consumer boycott.

Similar arguments can be heard in the “Letter of Kakera Akotie to his Brother Atta”, published by the minister and playwright Cornelis van Engelen (1726–93) in two instalments in De Denker (The Thinker) between 1763 and 1764, in the wake of the slave rising in the Dutch colony of Berbice (Guyana) in 1761. The letter is written from the perspective of Kakera Akotie, a fictional character based at least in part on a historical fact, who is abducted by Dutch slave traders and brought to Curaçao to work as a slave.27 In vivid detail, the letter recounts the dehumanizing effects of slavery and the miseries of daily life on the plantation. It narrates the backbreaking labour, the punishments and the structural abuse of slave women. It counters, or at least questions, the natural law arguments usually adduced in the defence of slavery. Discussing Christianity, it points to the utter lack of fit between the ethics Christians preach, and the ethic they practice.28 But is also points out the devastating effects of the trade in slaves on African, rather than European societies. The Europeans’ insatiable demand for slaves, Akotie argues, has plunged the nations of Africa in a destructive cycle of fratricidal warfare. And all this misery is caused the desire for luxury items that have nothing to do with the necessities of life their survival, but for luxuries and trifles.29

The eighteenth-century critique of luxury suggests a synergy between republican and abolitionist discourses. To some extent, as we have seen, this was demonstrably the case. Yet other elements of eighteenth-century political argument about commerce and the progress of civilization as found in the work of Montesquieu, David Hume and Adam Smith, worked effectively to emphasize ideas about the superiority of western civilization, and to legitimize the status quo.30 For the purposes of my argument, the example of Montesquieu will have to suffice, as an illustration of the complex way in which these debates were entangled.

As Wyger Velema has shown, Montesquieu’s L’Esprit des Lois was avidly read by Dutch audiences, translated and commented upon by authors such as the conservative Elie Luzac (1721–96) and the Patriot Dirk Hoola van Noten (1747–1808). Montesquieu’s classification of all political states into three types (despotic states, monarchies and republics, each with their own guiding principle), and his fundamental opposition between despotism and rule of law, redrew the boundaries of political debate. For the Dutch, moreover, his treatment of republicanism, and the difference between the virtue of the ancient republics and that of their modern counterparts, was of particularly urgent concern.31 For Montesquieu, there was a world of difference between the simple virtue of ancient agrarian republics and its pale modern reflection: a virtue based on commerce, on which present-day republics depended. Some among Montesquieu’s Dutch readers, such as Hoola van Nooten and Gerrit Paape (1752–1803), responded to this challenge with a vindication of modern civilized values, and a critique of classical virtue. Hoola van Nooten, who brought out a copiously annotated translation of l’Esprit des Lois in 1784, discussed the institution of slavery in Ancient Rome, and argued that it was not only inhumane, but also incompatible with modern European notions of liberty.32 Similarly, conquest, another characteristic of ancient republicanism, was to be rejected. As Velema has argued, “[T]the fact that the ancient republicans were living in societies largely based on violence, Dutch readers of Montesquieu further observed, had also caused them to entertain excessively martial notions about civic virtue.”33

On the institution of modern-day slavery, l’Esprit des Lois is notoriously ambivalent. In book XV.5, Montesquieu condemns the practice as contrary to nature and humankind’s natural liberty. He follows his general reflections on the subject with a biting satire of arguments in favour of slavery, demonstrating their intellectual poverty and absurdity. This passage would recur frequently in eighteenth century anti-slavery argument, and is for instance quoted in its entirety, as an appendix to the “Letter of Kakera Akotie”.34 At the same time, Montesquieu’s discussion of slavery in the context of institutions of despotic states, and his climatological determinism suggest that he regarded the institution as a regrettable, but perhaps inevitable fact of political life.

The tragedy Agon, Sultan of Bantam offers an interesting example of a how these tensions in Enlightenment thought play out in dramatic form. Van Haren’s play consistently appeals to a republican ethos to articulate its critique of the VOC’s imperial policies. Virtue is here embodied in Sultan Agon, characterized throughout as a wise, moderate and just ruler, who upholds the law and protects the poor. Feeling his strength decline, he has made a plan to divide his realms between his sons Hassan and Abdul. Abdul, as the eldest, will receive the crown domain, Hassan, who will receive the smaller part, will gain the hand of Fathema, a Makassar princess, who has been raised at Agon’s court after the Dutch conquered the kingdom, killing her parents. Agon’s “mistake” lies in trying to be, perhaps, too even-handed, and in not being able to see the murderous ambition of Abdul, an “unnatural” son of the type of Shakespeare’s Edmund.

Corruption comes in the shape of a Dutch double agent, Van Steenwyk, who plots with Abdul to eliminate both his brother and father. With the help of a VOC navy, the city is stormed. At the head of his troops, Agon is stabbed by Abdul. He is carried into the palace and dies a calm, dignified death. Hassan and Fathema die fighting, in a final desperate attempt to safeguard the city’s liberty. Throughout the play, a stark contrast is created between the Dutch representatives of the VOC, characterized as domineering, avaricious, and scheming, and Agon, Hassan and Fathema, who are dignified, honest, and brave. Even the VOC legate Saint Martin, who is initially described as a moderate and civilized man, soon resorts to bullying and intimidation when it becomes clear that his plan to install Fathema on the throne of Makassar as a puppet ruler for the VOC is not finding approval. When Agon asks why he as a sovereign ruler should agree to take orders from the Dutch, Saint Martin responds by enumerating the VOC’s recent conquests. To this, Agon justifiably replies that boasts and brags cannot take the place of reasonable arguments. The Bantanese characters are, on the whole, scathing in their assessment of the Europeans, whose friendship, it is said, is always for the highest bidder, and for who gold is literally God. A particularly pernicious role is played by Van Steenwyck, who plays the renegado, a stage type that embodies the dangers of empire. He is a Dutchman who, it is said, has forsaken his country and religion for gain, and having become corrupted, he becomes a corruptor of others.

A reader familiar with the eighteenth-century debates on the influence of climate on political institutions, might be surprised to find a republican language of liberty and virtue adopted by Indonesian princes. Asia is not traditionally described as a bastion of liberty in Western sources. Van Haren was no doubt familiar with Montesquieu’s analysis of the impact of geography and climate on political moeurs. The tragedy alludes directly to enervating effects of the tropical climate on political liberty, reflected in Agon’s dying words: “Virtue and bravery have from the East been banned/ And I leave the craven Orient prey to its tyrants.” And it would seem that the “tyrants”, refers not, or at least not exclusively, to Oriental despots, but to the Dutch VOC overlords. For the play reveals how, even while Saint Martin is negotiating with Agon, a Dutch fleet is nearing the harbour, ready to resort to arms when diplomacy fails, making clear VOC rule in the East is based on might, rather than right and on violence, rather than law. Even so one should be wary of reading Agon, Sultan of Bantam as an anti-colonial text in a straightforward sense. Rather, the play registers the conflict between the love of liberty and a historical and climatological predisposition to political subjection and resolves it via the resources of tragedy. Freedom-loving Asian princes can be accommodated in this framework, but only in nostalgic, backward-looking mode, as latter-day Brutusses, tragically predetermined to glorious defeat.35

Yet regardless of the tragic perplexities of Van Haren’s Agon, the reception of Montesquieu in the closing decades of the eighteenth century suggests that Montesquieu’s insistence that slavery was incompatible with the institutions and ethos of republics resonated with his Dutch audience, and appears to have forced them to confront the contradictions between a republican language of liberty and the defences of slavery based on utility, climate, and history, or natural law. This can be discerned in Hoola van Noten’s annotations on Montesquieu’s text, which often put a radical gloss on his critique of slavery. Van Noten also voices his disappointment that Montesquieu, following his wholesale condemnation of slavery in book XV.5 had found it necessary to discuss the institution so extensively – it would have been better, he argues, if the author had just left it there.36 He counters Montesquieu’s argument that in certain states, because of the degenerative effects of the climate and lack of political liberty, slavery is less in contradiction to reason. For while a measure of subordination is essential to all political societies, there can never be any social utility to the complete subordination of one person to another, as it is contrary to nature.37 Hoola van Noten refutes the pro-slavery arguments found in the natural law tradition, for instance the individual’s right to sell himself into slavery. Instead, he adopts a modern notion of individual rights derived from Rousseau’s Du contrat social that insists, against Grotius, that personal liberty is inalienable.38

A similar constellation of ideas can be discerned in the anti-slavery arguments of “Philalethes Eleutherus”, alias Jan van Geuns (1764–1834) and Willem de Vos (1738–1823), who cite with equal ease from Cicero, Montesquieu, Rousseau, as from the gospel of Matthew. Their Over den slaaven-stand (On the State of Slavery, 1797) argues that what had been said on the subject of slavery in the natural law tradition was at once so nit-picking and so utterly lacking in substance, that the authors had decided not to bother with it.39 They concurred with Hoola van Noten who, contrary to Grotius and his followers but in line with the petition of the Germantown Quakers of 1688, insists on the corollary of an inalienable right to freedom, namely the right of the slave to resist their master.40 A sign of the times was Raynal’s Histoire philosophique et politique des établissemens et du commerce des Européens dans les deux Indes (1770), which contained a fiery passage calling for a new Spartacus, “who will not find his Crassus”, to vindicate the liberty of the black slaves.41 These words are echoed in Betje Wolff’s 1777 adaptation of Mercier’s utopian novel L’an deux mille quatre cent quarant (Holland in het jaar 2440) that speaks of a coming avenger of the New World, who will help African slaves and native Americans to regain their inalienable rights, given to them by nature.42 Yet it characterizes the ambivalences many felt on the issue that Pieter van Woensel (1747–1808) decided to drop this passage from his abbreviated version of Raynal’s text.43

An examination of the historiography of slave resistance, moreover, shows the highly negative response of French, Dutch and English audiences to slave rebellions and the maroon warfare. Slave uprisings occurred throughout the early modern period but increased in frequency in the second half of the eighteenth century, giving rise to protracted conflicts, such as the rebellion of François Mackandal, a Haitian Maroon leader and houngan (voodoo priest) burned at the stake in Port-au-Prince in 1758.44 The Haitian Revolution of 1791 equally provoked largely hostile responses among European commentators. The lawyer and publicist Pieter Paulus (1753–96) who chaired the Holland Assembly of Provisional Representatives insisted that the events on Saint-Domingue had demonstrated the wrongheadedness of revolutionary France’s “abrupt” liberation policy. Giving the African slaves equal rights could of necessity only be done gradually.45 In the historiography of Dutch abolitionism, attention has often been focused on the way in which the needs of the colonies framed and limited the discussion of slavery in the Netherlands during the Batavian Revolution. René Koekkoek has argued how Enlightenment theories of civilizational progress were used throughout the 1790s to exclude black slaves from citizenship, and to insist on a gradual, rather than immediate abolition of slavery. Hardly any abolitionist, Koekkoek reminds us, was in favour of immediate emancipation.46 In the final section of my argument I will argue how such ideas found their way into the abolitionist drama of the period.

3 Sentimental Theatre and the Rebellious Slave

In the closing decades of the eighteenth century, a roll-call of slave liberators takes to the Dutch stage and to the pages of the sentimental novel. Many of these works were adaptations from works published in French or German.47 Yet there were also many, like the poet Paul François Roos (1751–1805), who denounced the rebellious slaves and their white sympathizers.48 One of the few original Dutch contributions to the genre of the abolitionist theatre play is Monzongo, of de Koningklyke Slaaf (Monzongo, or the Royal Slave, 1774).49 Its author was the Amsterdam indigo merchant and poet Nicolaas Simon van Winter (1718–95), who often co-wrote his plays with his second wife, the Remonstrant poet Lucretia van Merken (-1789).

While the play was written, as Van Winter writes in the introduction, in response to the brutal suppression of the slave rising in Berbice, the play transposes the action to the relatively “neutral” time and space of Hispaniola in Brazil in the age of Spanish conquest. Despite this rather cautious approach, or perhaps because of it, the play seems to have been popular, being staged almost every year between 1780 and 1810, and after that, with intervals until 1846.50 The play opens with the King of Veragua, Monzongo, captured in war and now known by his slave name “Zambiza”, gathering gold from the mines for his master, the conquistador Cortes. Separated from his family, he has been given a wife by Cortes, Semire, with whom he has two children. When Cortes departs for Mexico, the pair’s relative security is threatened by the appointment of the cruel and haughty Alvarado as Cortes’ deputy. Alvarado has long begrudged Zambiza the favour in which he is held by Cortes and is seeking to orchestrate his fall. Matters are further complicated by the arrival of a delegation from a royal house whose princess, Melinde, has for years been searching for her lost husband. After an emotional scene of recognition between Monzongo and Melinde, the two women, who realize that neither of them carries any guilt, pledge each other their friendship. Meanwhile Alvarado has prepared to take Monzongo prisoner on accusations of conspiracy. After many turns and reversals, the captured Monzongo and Melinde are brought before Cortes, who, despite himself, is impressed by their bravery, loyalty to each other and contempt for death. The scene is interrupted by the news of a revolt, orchestrated by Semire and Monzongo’s friend Quantimoc, and supported by all the slaves who have been moved by Monzongo’s plight. In the tumult, Semire is mortally injured by Alvarado. Carried into the palace, she pleads for the life of her husband and his first wife, commends herself to both, confesses to be a Christian and dies. Moved, Cortes decides not just to liberate both Monzongo and Melinde, but to restore them to their rightful throne.

While there are some powerful moments of dialogue, as when Monzongo challenges Cortes’ argument that the Spaniards have conquered America to save its inhabitants from idolatry, the play approaches the problem of slavery through sentiment, rather than through legal argument. In line with the demands of the theatre of sensibility, the play uses intense emotion to un-shell (“ontbolsteren”) the spectator, to re-sensitise them, and make them receptive.51 In the same way as Cortes, the audience is moved, and gains insight. Yet the play also employs emotion to make abstract concepts like natural rights tangible. When taunted by Alvarado with his slave status, Monzongo retorts that we are all by nature free:

Zambiza (bravely) Your people brought me by force to this lowly situation

I was free, and used to be esteemed in my own nation

But just as quick, even as one is born as a slave, Nature

Will make the voice of love of spouse and children

Be heard in every honest heart. Look at Cortez and his wife

Alvarado (mocking) You think that you are their equal?

Zambiza Oh yes. In this sense:

Even though I lie in slavery

I am a man, so is he,

No dominion or servitude ever quells the plea of feeling

Nature, who makes every mortal heed this voice

Makes every pledge to which she binds precious to us

Were my state yours, you would have found this to be true.52

This is how the play operates throughout: Catharina recognizes Semira’s love for Monzongo because it mirrors her own love for Cortes; Cortes recognizes Monzongo’s inborn bravery and nobility, and so on. The emphasis of this play, and other instances of abolitionist literature, is as much on the moral education of the slave-holder, as on the plight of the slaves.

Monzongo, Or the Royal Slave illustrates many of the reasons why much abolitionist literature, with its investment in the idea of the “good” slave-owner, who can be reformed and redeemed and its voyeuristic interest in the potential torture and degradation of human beings makes uncomfortable reading. Its essentially paternalist stance insist that the Indian characters need to prove themselves worthy of liberty. Only after both Semira and Monzongo have demonstrated themselves capable of almost superhuman feats of nobility and self-denial does Cortes grant them the freedom the play otherwise insists is theirs due by nature. And even then, it appears conditional. After they have been restored to royal dignity, Monzongo and Melinda accept Cortes as their “protector” and “father”. Yet the play does nevertheless illustrate something interesting about the complex interaction between a republican idea of liberty, revolving around a binary opposition between liberty and slavery which thrives on moral heroics, and a political language based on natural rights, in which liberty is inborn and inalienable, and a cultural and moral ideal that insist that while equality is natural, individuals nevertheless need to prove themselves capable and worthy of freedom.

4 Conclusion

A long view of the interaction between republicanism and abolitionism demonstrates that the paradox identified by Drescher many years ago was in fact, remarked on by contemporaries. As early as the 1650s, a range of groups including godly republicans, Fifth Monarchists, Collegiants, and Quakers can be seen drawing on a theology of free grace to defend a theory of natural rights. In Dutch political debates on slavery, a secularized version of the idea of natural rights became dominant from the 1770s onwards. Yet the interaction between a republican language of virtue and abolitionist discourse remains, throughout this period, complex. The eighteenth-century discourse on the Republic’s cultural and economic decline certainly lent force to the critiques of Dutch colonial power and the trade in goods produced through slave-labour. At the same time, the development of a complex set of theories concerning the different stages of progress of civilizations, imposed limits on the political application of newly articulated ideas concerning the natural rights of slaves. Such tensions and prevarications are made manifest in the contemporary vogue for stories of rebellious slaves. The emphasis on moral education towards liberty and citizenship in spectatorial literature, and in the sentimental novel and theatre play, with their complex strategies of moral and political education registers these tensions with particular clarity.



I would like to thank Joris Oddens, Arthur Weststeijn and the anonymous reviewer for their helpful comments and suggestions, which have made a substantial improvement to this chapter. I would also like to thank Wyger Velema for the inspiration of his scholarship and conversation.


Onno Zwier van Haren, Agon, sulthan van Bantam, ed. by G.C. de Waard (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1979) Act 3.1.11, 641–49.


Angelie Sens, “La révolution batave et l‘esclavage. Les (im)possibilités de l’abolition de la traite des noirs et de l’esclavage (1780–1814),” Annales historiques de la Révolution française 326 (2001): 65–68; René Koekkoek, The Citizenship Experiment: Contesting the Limits of Civic Equality and Participation in the Age of Revolutions (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 7.


Seymour Drescher, “The Long Goodbye: Dutch Capitalism and Antislavery in Comparative Perspective,” American Historical Review 99, no. 1 (1994): 44–69, reprinted in Fifty Years Later: Anti-Slavery, Capitalism and Modernity in the Dutch Orbit, ed. by Geert Oostindie (Leiden: KITLV Press, 1995); John Pocock, Virtue, Commerce and History. Essays on Political Thought, Mainly in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011 [1978]), 47.


A.N. Paasman, Reinhart: Nederlandse literatuur en slavernij ten tijde van de Verlichting (Leiden: Nijhoff, 1984); Angelie Sens, Heiden, Mensaap Slaaf. Nederlandse visies op de wereld rond 1800 (The Hague: SdU, 2001); Simon Vuyk, “‘Wat is dit anders dan met onze eigen hand deze gruwelen te plegen?’ Remonstrantse en doopsgezinde protesten tegen slavenhandel en slavernij in het laatste decennium van de achttiende eeuw,” Doopsgezinde bijdragen, nieuwe reeks 32 (2006): 171–206; Kwame Nimako, The Dutch Atlantic: Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation (London: Pluto Press 2011); Dutch Atlantic Connections, 1680–1800: Linking Empires, Bridging Borders, ed. by Gert Oostindie and Jessica V. Roitman (Leiden: Brill, 2014); Pepijn Brandon and Karwan Fatah-Black, “‘For the Reputation and Respectability of the State’: Trade, the Imperial State, Unfree Labor, and Empire in the Dutch Atlantic,” in Building the Atlantic Empires: Unfree Labor and Imperial States in the Political Economy of Capitalism, ca. 1500–1914, ed. by John Donoghue and Evelyn Jennings (Leiden: Brill, 2015), 84–108; Sarah Adams, “Slavery, Sympathy, and White Self-Representation in Dutch Bourgeois Theater of 1800,” Early Modern Low Countries 2, no. 2 (2018): 146–68.


Exceptions include Karwan Fatah-Black, “Orangism, Patriotism, and Slavery in Curaçao,” International Review of Social History 58 (2013): 35–60; Markus P.M. Vink, “Freedom and Slavery: The Dutch Republic, the VOC World, and the Debate over the ‘World’s Oldest Trade’,” South African Historical Journal 59, no. 1 (2007): 19–46; Arthur Weststeijn, “Republican Empire: Colonialism, Commerce and Corruption in the Dutch Golden Age,” Renaissance Studies 26, no. 4 (2012): 491–509.


Arthur Weststeijn, Commercial Republicanism in the Dutch Golden Age. The Political Thought of Johan and Pieter de la Court (Leiden: Brill, 2011).


On this topic, see Martine Julia van Ittersum, Profit and Principle: Hugo Grotius, Natural Rights Theories and the Rise of Dutch Power in the East Indies 1595–1615 (Leiden: Brill, 2006).


Grotius discusses slavery in many places in De iure belli ac pacis, especially in II.5.27-30 and III.7 and III.14. See also David Brion Davis, The Problem of Slavery in Western Culture (London: Penguin Books, 1966), 133–35.


Vink, “Freedom and Slavery,” 33–34.


Joost van den Vondel, Twee zeevaart-gedichten, ed. by Marijke Spies, vol. I (Amsterdam: Noord-Hollandsce UItgevers Maatschappij, 1987), 25 (verses 417–21).


Weststeijn, “Republican Empire,” 505.


Ibid., 504.


Vink, “Slavery and Freedom,” 30.


Ibid., 25.


Ibid., 32.


Anthony Di Lorenzo and John Donoghue, “Abolition and Republicanism over the Transatlantic Long Term, 1640–1800,” La Révolution française 11 (2016),


Ibid., 2.


William I. Hull, William Penn and the Dutch Quaker Migration to Pennsylvania (Swarthmore: Swarthmore College, 1935); G.A.F. Nuttall, “English Dissenters in the Netherlands, 1640–1689,” Dutch Review of Church History 59, no. 1 (1978): 37–54; European Contexts for English Republicanism, ed. by Dirk Wiemann and Gaby Mahlberg (London: Routledge, 2016); Jason Peacey, “Print and Principles: John Lilburne, Civil War Radicalism and the Low Countries,” in John Lilburne and the Levellers Reappraising the Roots of English Radicalism 400 Years On, ed. by John Rees (London: Routledge, 2017).


Jonathan Israel, Radical Enlightenment, Philosophy and the Making of Modernity 1650–1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 177–78. On Plockhoy, see also Henk Looijesteijn “‘Born to the Common Welfare’: Pieter Plockhoy’s Quest for a Christian Life (c. 1620–1664)” (PhD thesis, EUI, 2009).


Germantown Friends’ Protest against slavery, 1688, See also Katherine Gerbner, “Antislavery in Print: The Germantown Protest, the ‘Exhortation’, and the Seventeenth-Century Quaker Debate on Slavery,” Early American Studies 9, no. 3 (2011): 552–75.


Annelien de Dijn, “Rousseau and Republicanism,” Political Theory 46, no. 1 (2018): 59–80; Keith Michael Baker, “Transformations of Classical Republicanism in Eighteenth-Century France,” The Journal of Modern History 73, no. 1 (2001): 32–53.


Wyger R. Velema, Republicans: Essays on Eighteenth Century Dutch Political Culture (Leiden: Brill, 2007), chapter 4, “Polite Republicans and the Problem of Decline,” 77–91.


“De Oorzaak der Slavernij,” De Vaderlander 1 (1775), 339.


Ibid., 337–38.


Ibid., 340.


Ibid., 341–43.


“Brief van Kakera Akotie, een Fantynschen Neger aan zynen Broeder Atta op de Kust van Guinea”, De Denker no. 82 (1764): 234–40 and no. 83: 242–48.


Ibid., 242–43.


Ibid., 237–38.


Davis, The Problem of Slavery, ch. 13: “The Enlightenment as a Source of Anti-Slavery Thought: The Ambivalence of Rationalism,” 423–55; Jonathan Israel, Enlightenment Contested: Philosophy, Modernity, and the Emancipation of Man, 1670–1752 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), ch. 23: “Race, Radical Thought and the Advent of Anti-Colonialism.”


Velema, Republicans, 98–100.


Montesquieu, De Geest der Wetten, trans. by Dirk Hoola van Nooten, vol. I (Amsterdam: Willem Holtrop, 1783), 612.


Velema, Republicans, 85.


“Brief van Kakera Akotie,” 247–48.


On the performativity of republican virtue, see Pocock, Virtue, Commerce and History, 44; see also Amber Oomen-Delhaye, De Amsterdamse Schouwburg als politiek strijdtoneel. Theater, opinievorming en de (r)evolutie van Romeinse helden (1780–1801) (Hilversum: Verloren, 2019).


De Geest der Wetten, 144.


Ibid., 125.


Rousseau, Du contract social I.4, in Oeuvres completes, vol. III: Du contrat social. Ecrits politiques (Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1964), 355–59.


Philalethes Eleutherus over den slaaven-stand (Leiden: Mortier, 1797), 45.


De Geest der Wetten, 119.


Guillaume-Thomas François Raynal, Wysgeerige en staatkundige geschiedenis van de bezittingen en den koophandel der Europeanen in de beide Indiën, vol. IV (Amsterdam: Schalekamp, 1776), 239.


Inger Leemans and Gert Jan Johannes, Worm en donder. Een geschiedenis van de Nederlandse literatuur 17001800: de Republiek (Amsterdam: Bert Bakker, 2017), 572.


Pieter van Woensel, Précis de l’histoire philosophique & politique des établissemens & du commerce des Europiens dans les deux Indes (Amsterdam: J.F. Rosart & Comp., 1782).


Mavis Campbell, The Maroons of Jamaica 1655–1796: A History of Resistance, Collaboration & Betrayal (Granby, MA: Bergin & Garvey, 1988); Richard Price, Maroon Societies: Rebel Slave Communities in the Americas (Garden City, NY: Anchor Press, 1973); Crystal Nicole Eddins, “Runaways, Repertoires, and Repression,” Journal of Haitian Studies 25, no. 1 (2019): 4–38; Jenna Gibbs, “Toussaint, Gabriel, and Three Finger’d Jack: ‘Courageous Chiefs’ and the ‘Sacred Standard of Liberty’ on the Atlantic Stage,” Early American Studies 13, no. 3 (2015): 626–60.


Koekkoek, The Citizen Experiment, 79–80.


Ibid., 81, 85 and passim.


Paasman, Reinhart, 136.


Ibid., 137–38.


Nicolaas Simon van Winter, Monzongo, of de koningklyke slaaf: treurspel, in Nicolaas Simon van Winter and Lucretia Wilhelmina van Merken, Tooneelpoëzy, vol. I (Amsterdam: Pieter Meijer, 1774).


According to the Onstage Online Datasystem of Theatre in Amsterdam from the Golden Age to the present,


Cornelis van Engelen, Eene wysgeerige verhandeling over den schouwburg in ‘t algemeen (Amsterdam: Pieter Meijer, 1775), 34–35.


Van Winter, Monzongo, of de koninkyke slaaf, Act 1.6.

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Discourses of Decline

Essays on Republicanism in Honor of Wyger R.E. Velema

Series:  Studies in the History of Political Thought, Volume: 17