The sinking of the Dutch slave ship Leusden may have been the worst catastrophe of its kind in the Atlantic slave trade. Near the coast of Suriname 680 Africans were trapped in the hull and drowened as a result.
In a new book entitled "Het Slavenschip Leusden" ("The Slave ship Leusden") the author and researcher Leo Balai explores this piece of relatively unknown Dutch history. In September the story was also televised in an episode of the Dutch TV series "The Slavery".
On January 1, 1738 the greatest disaster occurred in the history of Dutch slavery. 680 Africans were deliberately killed when the slave ship Leusden sank in the mouth of the Maroni River in Suriname.
"An example of exceptional barbarity," called Balai the action of the captain and the crew of Leusden. When it appeared the ship would sink, the prisoners who were on deck at that time for a meal, were ordered to go below deck to the slave hull. The shutters were boarded up to prevent their escape. 16 Africans who were elsewhere survived the disaster.
Box with gold
The report shows that the crew had closed the shutters, because there were afraid that the prisoners would come on deck to murder them. After studying the records Balai didn’t believe it. The West Indian Company (WIC) has never questioned the fact if more prisoners could have been saved. The disaster was dismissed as "a sensitive damage to the company." Most attention was given to whether the crew should receive salvage pay for rescuing a casket of gold.
The tenth and last voyage of the Leusden began on November 19, 1737 from Elmina (Ghana), carrying 700 captured Africans. The intention was to sell these people as slaves in Suriname. The ship was already 19 years old and had served all its life as a slave ship for the WIC. The trips of the Leusden were destined for St. Eustatius, Suriname and Berbice.
Although Leusden was a slave ship, Balai deliberately calls the people prisoners and not slaves. Because they had not yet been in the hands of an owner.
Balai encountered during his research that free Africans were employed as supervisors. They were employed by the WIC. It is difficult to determine exactly who these people were, because they were not mentioned by their real names. The deployment of bombas for the supervision of prisoners was only used on Dutch ships, discovered Balai.
No research vessels
The researcher noticed during his study in The Netherlands and abroad, that very little research has been done on slave ships and the conditions on board. He finds it remarkable because without these ships the transatlantic slave trade would have been impossible.
No construction drawings
Too bad, but we will probably never know how Leusden looked like. There are no drawings or models left of Dutch slave ships. There are also no known archaeological finds. To get a picture, the VOC ship Amsterdam (which is docked at the Dutch Maritime Museum) can be used as an example. But beware, says Balai, it probably looked very different.
The way the prisoners were killed is to Balai the most important aspect of the sinking of the Leusden. Not so much that the ship landed on a sand bank and sank. It is certain a difficult job, and yet it is the wish of Balai that the people who were drowned still receive "a proper" funeral.
Leo Balai received his PhD on Friday, October 21 at the University of Amsterdam on the history of “the one and only real slave ship " of the West Indian Company (WIC).
On the photo, Leo Balai near the VOC ship Amsterdam, which is docked at the Dutch Maritime Museum. (Photo by Sam Jones.)
The disaster of the Leusen was also mentioned in the book "Dutch in the Atlantic Slave Trade (1990)" and in the Dutch TV series, "The Slavery", which sparked controvery with the video "Slavery the Game". A snippet from the book with pictures of the series.
"On January 1, 1738, however, just a few days before reaching its destination port in Surinam, the ship was caught in a vicious storm that stranded it on rocks near the river Marawin."
On the photo is explained that the Captain of the Leusden made a mistake, he took the wrong river mouth.
"According to the reports of surviving officers, as the storm raged, the ship began to tilt to one side and take on water, making rescue of the human cargo impossible. In order to avoid a scramble for the lifeboats, the crew closed the hatches and locked the slaves below decks, where they all drowned or suffocated before the storm ended a few days later.
Because of the enormous financial loss, West India Company directors were keenly interested in the disaster and ordered all officers of the ship to make depositions. The officers claimed that if they had released the slaves, a fight over the few lifeboats would most likely have killed everyone."
On the photo, the coast the of Maroni River in Suriname where the slave ship sank. The exact place is still not discovered.