The Leusden, a Dutch West India Company slave ship, set off from Elmina, Ghana, on November 19, 1737, carrying around 700 African men, women, and children to be sold as slaves in Suriname. It was the ship’s last journey. The ship was trapped in a storm two months into the expedition, on January 1, 1738. Fearing that the African captives would rush for the vessel’s few lifeboats, the captain ordered the crew to close the hold and confine the African captives below deck.
After the ship sank in Suriname’s Maroni River, 664 slaves died from drowning or suffocation at the end of the day. Only 16 of them were rescued and later sold. The crew managed to flee.
The affair has subsequently been dubbed “the single greatest human catastrophe in the history of Dutch maritime history and the trans-Atlantic slave trade.”
According to records, the death toll was over five times that of the Zong Massacre, a notorious 1781 episode in which 133 slaves were thrown into the Atlantic. “The Leusden story was never told in Holland,” historian Leo Balai recently told the New York Times. The Surinamese Dutch, whose ancestors were slaves, added, “It was the largest murder case in the history of the slave trade, but no one ever talked about it.”
Balai’s Ph.D. dissertation was the subject of an exhibition at the Scheepvaart Museum, a maritime history museum, in July 2013. The goal of the exhibition, according to Remmelt Daalder, a senior curator at the Scheepvaart Museum, was to educate people about the slave trade and, in particular, the fate of the victims onboard the Leusden.
“It wasn’t considered as important,” Daalder remarked of the Leusden accident. It was a significant financial loss, but no one seemed to mind that it was also a significant loss of human life. No one was punished, and some of the crew members even received a prize for rescuing a box of gold from the ship.”
No one was held accountable for the African captives’ deaths.
Many people associate the slave trade’s sad history with the horrible experiences that enslaved Africans had while laboring on plantations in the Americas and other parts of the world. For ages, Africans have been seized and chained, forced into ships, and transported to new regions against their will. Some even perished before reaching their new homes as a result of their ordeals aboard the ships, which crammed them in like spoons with no room to turn. It was the start of numerous hours of work on enormous plantations with little food and the constant reminder of their status as property for those who survived.
The slave trade, as well as the trade in slave-produced goods, became the most important source of wealth for the countries engaged over time. The Dutch Republic was one of the world’s wealthiest nations, with much of its income derived from Atlantic slavery. According to one estimate, slavery-related economic activities provided 5.2 percent of the Dutch Republic’s gross domestic product in 1770, with 19 percent of Dutch imports and exports comprising of items produced by enslaved persons in the Atlantic. Holland, the most prosperous province in the Netherlands, had a gross domestic product of 10.36%. The most prominent slave trading cities in the Netherlands at the time were