In 1646, João Mina, an enslaved sugar plantation worker from West Africa in what was then Portuguese Brazil, fled to Dutch Brazil, where the Dutch West India Company interrogated him to try to get intelligence that would give them leverage over Portugal. João was just one of many people enslaved during this time of global conflict between these world powers.
He also happens to share my last name — not by choice but by force, and we never learn his birth name. João Mina is a cousin not by blood or marriage but by colonization. And while I am not aware of slavery in my specific Filipino ancestry, Spaniards practiced it across the archipelago. I’m aware of the way that people of many different cultures in what we now call the Global South were swept up into various forms of slavery, forced labor, segregation, and coercion so the powers that be could get their sweets.
João Mina is one of 10 portrait subjects in Slavery: Ten True Stories of Dutch Colonial Slavery, a show at the United Nations curated and arranged by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It was hosted in partnership with the UN’s Outreach Programme on the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Slavery and opened in observance of the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. An adapted version of a 2021 show hosted at the museum in Amsterdam, it holds particular resonance in this context, especially given that the Outreach Programme, intended to raise awareness around the transatlantic slave trade and its ongoing legacy, was established only in 2007.
The centerpiece is a tronco, the Portuguese word for “tree trunk,” that was discovered in the 1960s in Zeeland, in the Netherlands. Resembling a larger version of those kitchen tools for measuring spaghetti, it was meant to hold enslaved people’s legs in place to prevent them from escaping. We see an illustration of the device in action in the section of the exhibition dedicated to João.
The other nine stories present a cross section of society at the time. Some, like Oopjen, an affluent woman in Amsterdam, benefited greatly from the slave trade. Others, like Surapati in Java, Indonesia, and Tula in Curaçao, rebelled against it. The exhibition includes illustrations, artifacts, and paintings that can help us understand the lives of the individuals featured. They’re arranged on mirrored walls, as if striving to remind us that we are all, in some way, a part of this chapter of human history, whose legacy continues today.
Which brings me to what I found missing in the exhibition: slavery’s ongoing legacy. I wandered over to a UN exhibition next to the Rijksmuseum show, dedicated to data and stories about Least Developed Countries (LDCs). Many of these countries were directly impacted by the slave trade, and perhaps there was an opportunity to highlight this relationship more overtly given that they occupied the same space in the UN lobby.
That said, UN’s Outreach Programme on the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Slavery does exactly this. As their 2023 Remembrance Programme notes: “The racist legacy of the Transatlantic Slave Trade reverberates today in harmful prejudices and beliefs which are still being perpetuated and continue to impact people of African descent across the world.” I would love to have seen that made more explicit in the Rijksmuseum show, given the symbolic importance of the exhibition site.
One person in the exhibition who might have had the power to place João Mina’s legs in a tronco is Dirk van Hogendorp, an enslaver. Influenced by the ideals of the French Revolution, he advocated for the end of slavery as a playwright. His cash books tell us another story: while employing free workers, he ended up purchasing enslaved people anyway, pointing out that free workers weren’t sufficiently loyal to his business operations at his coffee and orange plantation.
His story reminded me of the lyrics of a song from Curaçao featured in the show. The music sounds lovely, and in translation, its words are considerably more honest than Mr. van Hogendorp’s sentiments:
Slaves are chickens, mama Slaves are chickens The landlord sells us, mama Slaves are chickens.
Slavery: Ten True Stories of Dutch Colonial Slavery continues at the United Nations New York headquarters (405 E 42nd St, Turtle Bay, Manhattan) through March 30. The exhibition was organized by the Rijksmuseum. It will travel to different UN headquarters internationally through 2024.