Why These Slave Women in an Asian Setting Were Important to Dutch Trade 

Image of the Week: Ornate pictorial tiles were used by the Netherlands in a short-lived attempt to establish a trading colony in Brazil.

Dutch, possibly from Delft. Oriental scene with black figures, 1700-20, 179 cm. Polychrome tiles. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

One of the first initiatives of the government was the chartering of the Dutch East India Co. Founded in 1602, the private mercantile partnership soon established trading bases in far-flung areas of the Far East. From these fabled lands came luxury goods such as silk cloth, exotic wood and spices, as well as the elegantly shaped and decorated porcelain ceramics produced by the imperial potteries of China. 

Less than 20 years after the Dutch entry into the Far East trade, a similar venture was begun in the New World by the corresponding institution of the Dutch West India Co. In addition to settlements in North America, plantation colonies were established in Brazil and the Caribbean. Coinciding with these events was the capture by the Dutch of the major slave-trading post of Elmina on the coast of Ghana, which facilitated the shipment of slaves to the newly established Dutch sugar plantations across the Atlantic.

The introduction of the black figures in the tile panels is directly owed to a short-lived but intense attempt by the Dutch West India Co. to establish a trading colony along the northeastern coast of Brazil. Between 1637 and 1644, the effort was led by the colonial governor Johan Maurits, count of Nassau-Siegen. His most lasting achievement, as it turned out, was the vast survey of the natural wonders and settlements set amid the tropical landscape. Among the artists employed were painters such as Frans Post and Albert Eckhout, and the soldier-turned-naturalist Zacharias Wagener. The wealth of visual information that returned with these artists to Holland largely defined the European view of this exotic new land for some time to come.

The female figure at center left in the Rijksmuseum panel has a typical Dutch clay tobacco pipe stuck in her sash, similar to that carried by the black woman painted by Eckhout in his series of the indigenous people of Brazil, which in this case included slaves brought from Africa. The dancing black woman at the bottom resembles a figure found in the work of Wagener.

The tile panel in the Rijksmuseum encodes a concise, deceptively picturesque evocation of Dutch maritime trade in both the East and West Indies. Disseminated throughout the artistic vocabulary of European decorative arts, the extensive catalog of naturalistic imagery from Brazil provided a new, preferred face to European colonization, featuring healthy, vigorous people in the fertile, untroubled environments of the New World.

The actual situation of those most disadvantaged beyond the European horizon was far less idyllic, however. The price of sugar and other commodities enjoyed in the pleasure palaces of Europe came at a staggeringly high cost in human lives and suffering. The situation would come to be redressed in part by the more egalitarian views of the Enlightenment. With this change in the European mindset, the elegant fictions of the tile panels lost much of their appeal and gradually disappeared from view.

The Image of the Black in Western Art Archive resides at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, part of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. The founding director of the Hutchins Center is Henry Louis Gates Jr., who is also The Root’s editor-in-chief. The archive and Harvard University Press collaborated to create The Image of the Black in Western Art book series, eight volumes of which were edited by Gates and David Bindman and published by Harvard University Press. Text for each Image of the Week is written by Sheldon Cheek.

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