Doing right is hard when doing wrong is profitable

THE DUTCH REPUBLIC, formed in the late 1500s by several provinces that had just broken free from Spanish rule, soon established itself as Europe’s leading bastion of religious liberty and personal freedom. Slavery was frowned upon there and never became legal in the country proper.

As Dutch merchants turned their attentions overseas in the early 1600s, they vowed to steer clear of the trade in human beings already common in the Portuguese and Spanish colonies that they hoped to supplant. But that resolve began to give way as Dutch privateers captured ships bearing slaves and sold them off, and the Dutch conquered Portuguese sugar-cane-growing colonies in Brazil that they decided couldn’t function without slave labor. By the late 1630s, the Dutch West India Co. was a leading player in the Atlantic slave trade, and slavery wasn’t ended in Dutch colonies until 1863 — the same year as the Emancipation Proclamation in the not-exactly-on-the-abolition-forefront US.

I learned a lot more than I previously knew about all this at a conference in New York City a week ago on “Slavery and the Slave Trade in New Netherland and the Dutch Atlantic World,” organized by the New Netherland Institute, the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and the New-York Historical Society. I attended because of my long-running interest in the history of New York, which until 1664 was New Netherland, but left wondering about the implications of the Dutch experience with slavery for modern attempts to put moral concerns ahead of worldly ones.

“The moral compass in the 17th century might not have been all that different from today,” said Michiel van Groesen, a history professor at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, “but ideology follows politics.”

Van Groesen’s presentation — based in part on his 2016 book, Amsterdam’s Atlantic: Print Culture and the Making of Dutch Brazil — emphasized the role that a 1638 tract by Dutch theologian Godfried Udemans played in paving the way for acceptance of slavery. In The Spiritual Helm of the Merchant’s Ship, Udemans argued that enslaving Christians was a sin, but heathens were fair game. He also urged that these heathens be treated fairly, converted to Christianity, and eventually freed — and definitely not sold to “Spaniards, Portuguese, or other crude people” — but these instructions were seldom followed.

Criticism of the slave trade did continue within the Netherlands, with writer Jacques Joosten in 1649 comparing slavery in Dutch Brazil to the Ottoman Empire’s enslavement of Christians, “although the Turks in general treat the Christians better.” But the West India Co. and its more famous counterpart, the East India Co. (the world’s first publicly traded corporation), were always able to find defenders and given a mostly free rein to engage in practices overseas that wouldn’t have been acceptable at home.

Van Groesen said he had found a similar dilution of anti-slavery views expressed in England in the first half of the 17th century as the country’s colonial activities grew. By contrast, public discussion remained consistently anti-slavery in less-free France — until France got into the slave trade in a big way later in the century.

This was far from the only theme explored at the conference, where a plurality of presentations were (mostly fascinating) exercises in reconstructing the experiences of enslaved and free Black people in the Dutch Atlantic on the basis of extremely spotty archival information. But it’s the one that felt most relevant to my day job as a business and economics journalist.

Why do US and European efforts to promote human rights, greenhouse-gas reduction, and other ostensibly universal causes overseas so often fizzle? Well, partly because of the — historically well-supported — perception that such Western efforts are self-interested and quickly abandoned when self-interest points in a different direction. Or think of the attempts to steer the development of artificial intelligence in directions that will benefit humanity rather than, say, enslave it — every one of which so far seems to have given way to commercial imperatives.

Nothing will ever equate with the horror of slavery, of course, but the current common practice that seems to me most likely to be looked back upon with some disgust is eating animals, or at least our fellow mammals (and yes, I’m a meat eater). Yet some state legislatures are passing laws banning lab-grown meat because it competes with local cattle farmers, while the alarming spread of avian influenza among cattle has been greeted so far with a relatively laid-back response that is surely shaped in part by the financial interests of the dairy and meat industries.

Doing the right thing when the wrong one is more profitable is just hard. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying or that there has been no progress over the centuries in raising standards of behavior. But the famous 17th century Dutch commitment to freedom wasn’t enough to withstand the temptations of the slave trade, and many of today’s good intentions seem likely to meet similar fates.