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Johan Maurits and his role in the history of international slavery

The Mauritshuis was built for Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen. The Dutch Republic began to take part in the transatlantic slave trade while he was Governor of the Dutch colony in Brazil (1636-1644).

Sugar Cane

In 1630 the Dutch West India Company (WIC) conquered Portuguese colonies on parts of the Brazilian coast. Those areas were significant because of their numerous sugarcane plantations - sugar could be very remunerative in Europe. In 1636 the WIC appointed Johan Maurits as governor of the new colony. He received a salary and a percentage of the income from trade.

Fort Elmina

When Johan Maurits arrived in Brazil, he quickly realised that there was a lot of work to do on the plantations, but there were not enough labourers. He sent a fleet to West Africa, and conquered Fort Elmina on the Gold Coast (now Ghana). That fort was built by the Portuguese to secure their mined gold. But Elmina was also an important centre for the slave trade; African men, women and children were captured there to be sold in South America as slaves.

Triangle trade

A system called the 'triangle trade' was established after the conquest of Fort Elmina. Weapons, gunpowder and drink were shipped to West Africa on Dutch ships. Boatloads of African men, women and children were taken to South America as merchandise to work on colonial plantations. The Dutch ships then took sugar, coffee, cocoa, tobacco and cotton back to Holland. While Johan Maurits was governor, thousands of enslaved Africans were shipped to Brazil - we estimate the total number to be about 23,500. The Dutch share in the international slave trade increased even further after this time. The Netherlands officially proclaimed the end of slavery in 1863, one of the last European countries to do so.

Research project

The Mauritshuis has been preparing a major research project about Johan Maurits-van Nassau Siegen’s governorship in Brazil, in particular about the history of slavery in Dutch Brazil, as well as his reputation in his own time. The project has been gestating since last year, and will be carried out in collaboration with researchers at the University of Leiden.


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