Somebody Forgot to Mention that the Ships the Artists Painted Carried Slaves

Culture Watch

The author is completing a book about the variety of her ancestors’ DNA, ancestry and genealogy, and how each intersected with dramatic historical events.

The well-reviewed show of paintings by lesser known artists, “The Golden Age of Dutch Seascapes,” a showcase of paintings by contemporaries of Rembrandt and Vermeer, at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts was a refreshing addition to art history, but a disappointing deletion of history. The omission of a major historical reference and motivation for the paintings stood out. This summer, the show of 17th century maritime art was reviewed by authors in theWall Street Journal: “Painting the High Seas,” the Boston Globe: “Celebrating the Glory of the Sea,” and the New York Times: “When Galleons Ruled the Waves.”

Maritime painting, like other art, informs, enlightens and elucidates, not only as art but as history. Although a number of museums and organizations in Britain, Spain, France, Portugal and the Netherlands have acknowledged the roots of historical events that triggered much of their 17th century maritime art, this dramatic show and excellent catalog and reviews of paintings, organized and lent by England’s National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, failed history miserably. The collection of Dutch maritime art is owned by Holland’s historical rival, England. History is memory and memory should not be erased, especially in this art show. It is reported that the curator said, “These Dutch painters literally invented the genre of seascape. And they achieved perfection from the start.” So let’s look at another historical event that parallels the birth of this art.

The reviews state that England’s King Charles II, in 1672, appointed two generations of painters, a father-son team, to paint “sea fights,” because England and Holland were locked in fierce battles over the sea trade. One of the beauties of a show like this is it gives us an opportunity to include omissions from art and history, but so far, amazingly, no one has reported that, unfortunately, the sea trade of the era, the main commerce, was trafficking in humans. The ships, the mighty galleons carried Africans in the slave trade, in what was called, world’s Triangular Trade, between Africa, America and Europe.

I have a vested interest in the subject, including the art the artists generated in this era, not only as art but as history, because my ancestors participated. The year, 1672, when England’s King Charles II commissioned the paintings was the same year the king granted the royals and nobles a monopoly, exclusive commercial right, to trade humans. The royals and nobles created The Royal African Company. I know both sides of this trade, because both the Europeans and the Africans involved in the trade were my ancestors. Our English ancestors, Sir Gabriel Roberts and his brother, Sir William Roberts, and my Scottish ancestors (their descendants granted me a coat of arms in 2005) were slave traders. They traded my African ancestors from Ghana as slaves.

Sir Gabriel Roberts was a director of the Royal African Company and his brother, Sir William Roberts, was an agent in Jamaica and the other West Indies Colonies from the mid- to late-1600s. Ann Roberts, my African American ancestor who had a child in 1726 with my Scottish ancestor, John Smellie, a noble merchant who did not own slaves or plantations, was their descendant. Ann Roberts was named after both her grand aunt and her great-grand aunt. One of her Scottish cousins was an abolitionist. So I have slave traders, abolitionists and slaves, all blended together in my ancestry. I cannot appreciate the roots of 17th century maritime art without remembering the roots of the history.

So, I speak now about maritime art history and slavery’s history, not only as a descendant of slaves but as a descendant of slave owners in the early centuries. The battles fought between England and the Netherlands for the lion’s share of slaves were fierce.

The English royals who traded my ancestors, and the royal militias and navies of nobles, commissioned officers, and everyday people they sent to track my other ancestors, slaves who escaped slavery in the American Colonies and became Maroons in Jamaica, are intricately entwined in these historical events. They actions are documented in the history, and should be reflected in the historical memory, including in the art and reviews of the era. Their deeds cannot be omitted.

In the Americas, the royals and nobles named my African ancestors, the Koromante Negroes. England’s King James I (Scotland’s King James VI), Charles II’s grandfather provided the money, military and navy, which, from 1624 to 1632, built the Koromante Slave Fort on Ghana’s coast. A Dutch militia financed by the Dutch king attacked and captured the Koromante Slave Fort in 1665. English royal slavetraders built the Cape Coast Slave Fort in 1638; but the Swedish explorer, Heinrich Karloff, employed by the Danish Slave Trading Company, captured Cape Coast Slave Fort from the British Royal Militia in 1652. The Elmina Slave Fort, built by the Portuguese in 1482, was captured by the Dutch in 1637. The Dutch defended it several times against attacks by English ships and navy. There were slave ship rebellions and shipwrecks, some led by African leaders such as Captain Opare, my Ghanaian ancestor and other Africans.

Interestingly, the Africans from Ghana who were transported on these ships, also called themselves the Koromantes, but their name referred to their coastal village, not the slave fort that had been erected there. Each of us sees art and historical events from our own perspective, but one thing that’s important is that the events are seen. And felt.

The titles and settings of some of these paintings refer to events on the African coast, not only those in Europe. “Shipwreck off a Rocky Coast” (circa 1660) could have been on any of the coasts off Africa. “Wreck of the Amsterdam,” reflects European, American and African history. These galleons of the English, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and others were slave ships, which plowed the waters in the Triangular Trade in humans between Africa, America and Europe.

After the wreck of the Amsterdam, the Amsterdam 2 carried my ancestors and other African slaves from the coast of Ghana. Aboard the Amsterdam 2 on April 27, 1726, 466 African humans were traded, 288 arrived, 178 perished at sea. Aboard on August 16, 1732, 380 African humans were traded, 330 arrived, 50 perished at sea.

Thousands of others -- many historians say millions (one third of the 12 million humans traded) -- perished in the mighty seas. Amsterdam 2 was a small ship, compared to the Groot Bentveld, a slave ship from the city of Amsterdam, which left Ghana’s Gold Coast on June 19, 1728 with 767 humans on board. Shipwrecked, 95 people died. Or compare it to the Leusden, from Holland’s Groninger/Friesland area, which left Africa on November 19, 1737, with 716 on board. Shipwrecked, 700 people died. Yes, the ships in the paintings in this art show represent the wars between the English and the Dutch, but there is much more to the story.

Embracing the totality of the history of the era may be challenging to some, but having done extensive research, and now writing a book, I am assured that this history is not completely lost, nor will the emotional aspects of the memory be erased. Those who recorded the history and the art hundreds of years ago attempted to conceal the reality of the human devastation, but we today should be too emotionally mature to continue to do the same.

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More Comments:

Pearl Duncan - 8/27/2009

Thanks to the commenters who clarified and debated the historical points. Writers who reside on college campuses share ideas all the time, but those of us who are no longer on campuses, who now research independently, often do not get enough opportunities to volley views and ideas. I appreciate this discussion; it helped to clarify my views even more crystal clearly. Maybe that's why I enjoy speaking at colleges about this subject and others I've researched. We're always surprised by the questions from young people.

Going forward, the new findings about how DNA research and results have expanded history with change how history is written and discussed. Enjoy the discussion everyone. I look forward to debating Donald Wolberg in the future.

Donald Wolberg - 8/26/2009

explain the Iraq situation?

R.R. Hamilton - 8/26/2009

Why don't you do a history of the biggest and most successful black slave revolt in history?

It happened in Iraq.

Donald Wolberg - 8/25/2009

I may not agree with you, but you have a fan here! I have read Davidson, would love to explore Surinam, and know a bit about DNA.
best regards...

Pearl Duncan - 8/25/2009

I have been to many states but not New Mexico, so I will visit, to speak or debate, and continue this discussion about how historians now reflect on our ancestors and human conquest. I’m interested in how historic stories and knowledge are now being expanded by scientific research, especially by population DNA research. Population geneticists are able to use DNA to trace our ancestors’ origins, conquests and settlements, especially conquests that are imprinted in our DNA.

This new scientific research of course adds a new clarity to historical discussions. I for example, thanks to folk cultures and historical documents that were preserved in Colonial America, know the name of some of my African ancestors who originated in Ghana, know the Scots with whom the Africans blended in slave families in colonial times, and I know the names of more than three dozen African ethnic groups and half a dozen European groups that are blended in my ancient and medieval ancestry. Yes, conquest is a part of all human history, but only some modern people bear the genetic imprints of those conquests in their social, medical and cultural DNA. And their historical reality.

I have researched family names, family history, and DNA. These realities shape my perspective of history, and determine my interests in historical topics. I have researched my ancestors’ history that has been omitted from mainstream art and culture. So It is very important to me that this art show reflect the historical realities of the era.

The debate about which royal and noble leaders conquered and built fortresses in medieval and colonial Africa, and which settled plantations and organized colonial militias in the Americas is well documented in bibliographies, from Basil Davidson’s “A History of West Africa: 1000-1800,” to Captain J. Stedman’s “Narrative of a Five-Years’ Expedition, Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam in Guiana from the Wild Coast of South America from the Years 1772 to 1777. Vols. I-II. London, 1796,” to Johannes Menne Postma’s “The Dutch in the Atlantic Slave Trade,” to Elizabeth Donnan’s “Documents Illustrative of the History of the Slave Trade to America, Vols I-IV,” so I’m not debating who built what or even who did what. I’m discussing ancestral history and reality that’s been omitted from the popular discussion.

Thanks for your views, but this discussion will continue. It has been absent from art, history and culture for too long.

Donald Wolberg - 8/25/2009

The Dutch did not build the Arab Dhows, nor did they penetrate far inland, nor did they barter among the tribes for human traffic at its source or speak much Arabic. That is history. One canlook at images of the Bismark or the Zero and understand the nastiness of the history in context, but admire the engineering. I did like "I Claudius" and admire the loss of the Legions of Varus in context, but will not wretch eternally over the slaughter of my ancestors at the hands of the Yellow Hoarde. And perhaps somewhere along the way, one of my genetic strand 1900 years agosold an unliked uncle to a passing Roman, but the Empire in context also is the seed for Marcus Arelius. I can dmire the Aztec or Mayan pyramids, pottery and astronomy although wretch at the endless human sacrifices of captives and slaves captured or purchased.

The human condition is frail; the human mind is poorly developed, the loss of context does not help. Rather it degrades into special pleading and dead ends of getting on with life. I suggest leave the ships alone, yet again. If you are ever in New Mexico, let's do coffee and argue in a valley conquered by those Spainards in armor and on horses with Indian helpers, but a culture that emerged better than both that began it all.

Pearl Duncan - 8/24/2009

Donald, It's debatable which views are myopic. So let the debate begin. There is no question that the Dutch not only built their own fleet of slave ships, but their commerce flourished because they built slave ships for other nations, including their main competitors in the trade. Describing the scope of the commerce, and the uses of the ships reflected in the art is by no means shortsighted. The question is why such a straight-forward historical reality of the era was omitted in the show's description and reviews in the first place.

I heard from one reviewer whose review I did not see. Many modern readers are not in emotional denial about the human devastation that ocurred during this era on all continents, so let's hope there are more readers who can face history in all its complexities. The more we can accept historical realities, the less we are likely to repeat previous atrocities. This reviewer of the art show said,

Dear Ms. Duncan,

Just wanted to let you know that I was fascinated and heartened by your essay on "The Golden Age of Dutch Seascapes." I reviewed the show for the Boston Phoenix in June and mentioned that slavery was part of the equation (, but didn't go into the extensive detail that you were able to. Thanks for your insights.


Greg Cook

Pearl Duncan - 8/24/2009

Markus, Thank you for the clarification. There were so many changes in leadership and titles in Africa and Europe during this era, I am still editing. Why? A few book editors deemed this work scholarly, because of the dates and capital names. They said, dramatic story, but please use popular titles and dates that are familiar to readers of mainstream nonfiction.

I love -- and value -- historical accuracy and careful research. Now, putting all the details in dramatic narrative for an audience that's not versed in history is the challenge. Thanks, Pearl

Donald Wolberg - 8/24/2009

The temptation to view the past with modern eyes and perspectives not only distorts the past, it creates false colors in the present as well. Somewhere or other my central European ancestors were ravaged by the Romans, but later adapted and became Romanized until the Mogol hoardes arrived. Oh my--I should remind everyone that goulash may have a hint of Roman spice in it or that my blood type has been tainted by those people on horseback from the East. By the same silly notion, perhaps we need to add to labels in museums with African collections that those folks sold their own to Arab traders who in turn sold them to Europeans on the coast who in turn shipped them to the New World from North America to South America. Perspective is everything, and broad perspectives can entertain so much more knowledge than those that are myopic. Leave the paintings alone.

Markus Vink - 8/24/2009

Pearl Duncan writes:
'A Dutch militia financed by the Dutch king attacked and captured the Koromante Slave Fort in 1665.'
For historical accuracy: there was no Dutch 'king' until 1815. There were instead Stadholders, provincial governors and originally representatives of, first, the Burgundians, then the Spanish Habsburgs. The office was retained even after the abjuration of Philip II in 1581.