In recent years, there has been a shift in focus of academic research into the European involvement with transatlantic slavery. For decades there was little interest in the European involvement with slavery. The few scholars that wrote on the topic often focused on the role Europeans and their enslavement of Africans played in Africa and the America’s. These scholars often wrote primarily about the various slave trading companies. The history of slavery was, in other words, externalized and institutionalized.
Not only has the interest in slavery increased over the years, the academic gaze has also turned from the West, to Europe itself. People like Nicholas Draper and Madge Dresser in the United Kingdom, and the Mapping Slavery project in the Netherlands, showed that there were many tangible connections to slavery, often very close to home. They also often focused on the individuals involved with slavery, rather than just the institutions. For example, the Legacies of British Slave-ownership project, with which Nicholas Draper was involved, identifies individual families and people who were compensated when slavery was abolished. This compensation was for the loss of their slaves, who formed the living “furniture” of the plantations they held stock in.
Thus, in recent years, the history of transatlantic slavery has gone from externalized and institutionalized, to internalized and individualized. While this is indeed progress, there is a risk that comes with the focus on the individual: the involvement with slavery could be interpreted as something that “only” a few individuals were involved in, while it was in fact something widespread and systemic. With my Research Master’s thesis, I aimed to show exactly that. I studied networks of kinship around transatlantic slavery in the province of Groningen, the Netherlands, from the establishment of the local chamber of the Dutch West India Company (WIC) in 1622, until the abolition of Slavery in the Dutch American colonies in 1863.
The province of Groningen was quite peripheral, and not as heavily involved with slavery as, for example, Amsterdam or Zeeland. There was a substantial group of people directly involved with transatlantic slavery, however. Most of them through the local chamber of the WIC, often as bewindhebbers (directors). Many others invested in plantations, or worked for the WIC in Africa and the America’s. The most striking fact about these people is that they were nearly all related to each other.
When I started my research I had just finished a research assistantship working on the Mapping Slavery Groningen project. I noticed that many of those involved with slavery were from the same families, all part of the local urban elite, the rural nobility and the provincial sub-elite. I decided to make a genealogical database of all those involved with slavery, and soon started noticing that the various families started to connect with each other and form clusters. And then the clusters started connecting, until eventually nearly everyone was part of one huge network. The ones not connection were the exception. Their isolation could often be explained by a lack of sources – some of these should probably connected, as they share family names with others, but I just haven’t been able to establish how; or their isolation was due to the fact that they were outsiders, who sometimes did not have the possibility to enter the kinship network. I made an interactive visualisation of the network which can be explored by clicking through it, or using the search function. The cluster is divided into many sub-clusters or communities. These communities have relatively more connections between them, than they have with the rest of the network. You can find a description of these communities in the description.