The unseen slave

'Koopman met slaafje' uit de collectie van Het Vrouwenhuis in Zwolle. Tot 2022 te bezichtigen in het Rijksmuseum
'Merchant with slave' from the collection of Het Vrouwenhuis in Zwolle. On display in the Rijksmuseum until 2022

I search and find another painting of a Dutch merchant with a slave. According to the caption, the scene is set in Dutch Guiana. But this is not the Paramaribo waterfront. With the branch in the river, it looks more like the harbour of the town of Nieuw Amsterdam on the river Berbice in present-day Guyana, which was founded by the Zeelanders in 1627 and was in Dutch hands until 1815. The plantation owners Dessé in my book The Doorsons transported their products from Nieuw Rotterdam in the Nickerie district in Surinam to Nieuw Amsterdam for sale in other countries.


The slave boy – it could also be a young girl – is depicted in less detail than his master. And the ‘richly decorated’ ribbons around his waist, as the caption states, consist of a strip of printed fabric. The spangles the slaves wore around their ankles and upper arms—the Maroons of my youth still did—were made of metal, usually copper. Slaves did not possess gold jewellery. If there was a gold collar, the symbol of possession, then the wearer would have been obliged to return it to the owner.


What creates more meaning is the fact that the child is almost naked, which serves to accentuate the rich and elaborate garments worn by the master, because as mentioned, it is he who pays the bill. The merchant or planter is in full dress, even with a wig. He points with satisfaction to his merchandise: the barrels of sugar, rum and molasses.


Around 1800, Surinamese house slaves were fully clothed when in the presence of the master, such as on their way to church. That suggests that they had come to be seen a little less as an object. This lad, depicted with ornaments for the occasion, is doubly disadvantaged. He is in no position to pay because as the owner’s property he is poor, and he is yet to acquire the status of a man. And from that point of view, you can see a simple strip of cloth around the loin as a rich decoration.