King Billy, Suriname and slavery

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William III and black servant/soldier

Co-chair of the memorialisation task group for the Bristol Legacy Foundation, Cleo Lake has been exploring potential sites for a new memorial dedicated to African ancestors and their contribution to Bristol. Queen Square presented itself as a tranquil and historical option that is near but away from the bustle of the harbourside in the city centre. Dominated however by the statue of William III at its centre, Cleo decided to research further into who he was and discovered an intriguing reference to 200 people of African heritage accompanying the Dutch Prince of Orange (the future king William III) on his landing in Brixham, south Devon on 5 November 1688. Cleo found the reference on a community heritage and oral history project entitled Telling Our Stories, Finding Our Roots which is focused on diverse and multicultural histories from Devon’s towns and cities – past and present. The item speculated thus:

Part of his [William III] retinue consisted of two hundred Black soldiers, dressed most extravagantly. They were probably slaves from Surinam or the Dutch Antilles.

Cleo wondered if the enslaved Africans were from Suriname, or if they were African people from Holland. I put Cleo in touch with BRHGs in-house expert on matters relating to Dutch enslavement, Silu Pascoe. Here’s her interesting and comprehensive reply:

William III’s retinue of 200 African heritage people may well have come from either Surinam or the Dutch Antilles. Suriname was the largest Dutch colony on the north coast of South America and founded in 1667, after Britain exchanged it for Dutch New Amsterdam (now New York City). About 300,000 enslaved people, from mainly West Central Africa (about 21% were from the Guinea Coast/Gold Coast now Ghana) and Congo/Angola region, were bought, sold and forced to work in inhumane conditions on plantations to produce sugar, cotton, coffee and other crops. John Gabriel Stedman’s ‘Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam‘ details the brutal conditions of the lives of enslaved Africans in Surinam in the eighteenth century.

Surinam (part of the Dutch territory marked Hollandoise) on the north eastern coast of South America. De Vaugondy, c1767 [David Rumsey Map Collection]

By the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century, enslaved Africans comprised over 90% of the population in Surinam. With the resultant heightened anxiety of the white planters, social policies were established to discourage assimilation across colour lines. Enslaved Africans were allowed to perform only certain types of labour and were required to wear different clothes from their white masters. They were required to do all the physical labour and, in most cases, forbidden to do any literacy/literary work. Sometimes they were assigned tasks not specifically related to the production process but which had to do with the running of the plantations or the colony itself, for example, erecting and maintaining forts and other defence installations and assisting in the defence of the plantation or the colony.

Surinam is in the eastern part of the Dutch territory marked Hollandoise. De Vaugondy, c1767 [David Rumsey Map Collection]

From its very beginning, the plantation colony was confronted by the problem of enslaved African runaways. Over the years, the maroon threat continued to grow and soon these runaways endangered the plantations and the colony as a whole. From the 1670s, a citizens’ militia was organised to capture maroons and destroy their settlements. In the early eighteenth century, larger military expeditions were organised and employed enslaved Africans. This participation by enslaved men could lead to their manumission.

The preoccupation with Surinam, led to the comparative neglect of the other Dutch Guiana colonies of Berbice, Essequibo, and Demerara where far less enslaved Africans were transported. The Dutch had other smaller colonies in the Caribbean – the islands of Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, Saba, St Eustatius and St Maarten, known as the Dutch Antilles. Under the Dutch West India Company, Curacao became the major centre in the Caribbean for the Dutch fleet, for privateers and for trading. The Dutch sent large numbers of its enslaved Africans to Curacao for sale, especially in the Spanish mainland territories, where it sought not only to fulfil the obligations of its asiento contracts, between 1662 and 1713, but also to conduct contraband trade.

The organisation of the transporting of enslaved Africans was exclusively in the hands of the Dutch West Indies Company (WIC), established in 1621. The company was established in order to protect and regulate the contraband trade then being conducted by Dutch citizens with the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in Africa and the New World.  The Dutch WIC was granted the monopoly on trade in the Atlantic by the States-General of the Dutch Republic. The Dutch government didn’t follow the example of France (1672) and Britain (1698) in abandoning the system of monopoly control and in opening the trade legally to private individuals until 1730 (1734 in the case of the trafficking of enslaved Africans on the Guinea Coast, now Ghana).

During the years 1623-26, Dutch privateers captured 23,000 enslaved Africans from Spanish slave ships. Some of these enslaved Africans were sent to New Amsterdam (now New York City) NOT the Netherlands. Unlike other European countries, the Dutch didn’t tend to bring enslaved Africans to the Netherlands, as slavery was illegal in the country.  In theory, enslaved Africans brought to the Netherlands had to be freed if they petitioned the authorities. In reality, owners were not forced to free them, in the absence of such demands.

There was a very noticeable rise in the number of black people in the Netherlands after Surinam was taken over by the Dutch Surinam Society. The ‘Society of Suriname’ was a Dutch private company established in 1683 (during William III’s time in the Netherlands), to profit from the management and defence of the Dutch Republic’s colony. This company had three owners, with equal shares in the costs and benefits of the society – the City of Amsterdam, the family van Aerssen, Lord of Sommelsdijk, and the Dutch West India Company. Although the organisation and administration of the colony was limited to these shareholders, all citizens of the Dutch Republic were free to trade with Suriname. The Society was nationalized by the Batavian Republic in 1795. However, during the course of the eighteenth century, hundreds of enslaved Africans and freemen came with their masters or employers to the Dutch Republic.

Black people taken to the Netherlands were probably favourites of their masters and were more likely to receive privileged treatment. The Stadtholder’s court included black servant boys who were attired in contemporary noble costumes but with feathered turbans. In 2013, I met a researcher in the City Museum of Amsterdam, who was searching the archives to find black people who were in the Netherlands during the Dutch ‘Golden Age’ (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries). He had found evidence of a black presence during this period. His view was that the Dutch royal family, merchants, planters, and employees of the Dutch West India Company would be the likely people to have brought enslaved Africans to the Netherlands. As in England, black people are evident in Dutch architecture and paintings and black servants and statues were status symbols in merchant houses and royal palaces.

A bust of a black servant/enslaved African of William III in the Kensington Palace collection.

I began to wonder about the word, ‘entourage’. Did this mean servants or did Africans have other specific roles in the royal household such as bodyguards? Rysbrack’s equestrian statue of William III in Bristol looks like a Roman Emperor. Could his entourage include Africans who performed the role of a Praetorian Guard?

Statue of William III erected in Dublin in 1701 (blown to pieces by the IRA in 1928) shows ‘King Billy’ in Roman attire.

On receipt of further information from Cleo, I had further thoughts about the 200 Africans. The extract about the Prince of Orange’s entrance into Exeter translated as, ‘200 Blacks brought from the plantations of the Netherlands in America… attend the horses’. This suggests to me that the 200 black people were probably from the Dutch Guianas, Surinam, in particular. Dutch ships were regularly sailing to and fro between the Netherlands and their colonies in the Caribbean. Given the role that some enslaved men in Surinam performed in the defence of the plantations and the colony itself, they could have easily been transported to join William’s retinue as troops to look after not only the horses but also augment the army.

Prince William of Orange had already benefited financially from involvement in the Dutch WIC, when he came to England in 1688. In 2021 members of the Dutch parliament 2023 ‘filed a motion demanding an independent national investigation before the end of 2023 into “what took place [in the Netherlands] at the time of slavery, on behalf of whom and how”’.  The subsequent study ‘State and Slavery‘ was published in 2023. It is the first to quantify the financial value to the Dutch House of Orange-Nassau of colonial trade that included enslaving at least 600,000 African men, women and children and between 660,000 and 1 million people from Asia. The study reported the colonial profit for William III (also King of England, Ireland and Scotland), Willem IV and Willem V to be £465m (in today’s money).

In July 2023, King Willem–Alexander of the Netherlands apologised for colonial-era slavery. He spoke at a ceremony marking the 160th anniversary of the legal abolition of slavery in the Netherlands (this was at the annual Keti Koti festival), including its former colonies in the Caribbean. In December 2023, King Willem-Alexander commissioned research into the Dutch royal family’s involvement in transatlantic slavery. This was a year after the former Dutch PM, Mark Rutte, apologised on behalf of the Dutch government for the past actions of the Dutch state, to enslaved people in the past and their descendants.

Perhaps when the independent research commissioned by the Dutch king is published in 2026, we may know more about William IIIs entourage of 200 Africans?

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