Somebody Forgot to Mention that the Ships the Artists Painted Carried Slaves

Culture Watch

The author is completing a book about the variety of her ancestors’ DNA, ancestry and genealogy, and how each intersected with dramatic historical events.

The well-reviewed show of paintings by lesser known artists, “The Golden Age of Dutch Seascapes,” a showcase of paintings by contemporaries of Rembrandt and Vermeer, at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts was a refreshing addition to art history, but a disappointing deletion of history. The omission of a major historical reference and motivation for the paintings stood out. This summer, the show of 17th century maritime art was reviewed by authors in theWall Street Journal: “Painting the High Seas,” the Boston Globe: “Celebrating the Glory of the Sea,” and the New York Times: “When Galleons Ruled the Waves.”

Maritime painting, like other art, informs, enlightens and elucidates, not only as art but as history. Although a number of museums and organizations in Britain, Spain, France, Portugal and the Netherlands have acknowledged the roots of historical events that triggered much of their 17th century maritime art, this dramatic show and excellent catalog and reviews of paintings, organized and lent by England’s National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, failed history miserably. The collection of Dutch maritime art is owned by Holland’s historical rival, England. History is memory and memory should not be erased, especially in this art show. It is reported that the curator said, “These Dutch painters literally invented the genre of seascape. And they achieved perfection from the start.” So let’s look at another historical event that parallels the birth of this art.

The reviews state that England’s King Charles II, in 1672, appointed two generations of painters, a father-son team, to paint “sea fights,” because England and Holland were locked in fierce battles over the sea trade. One of the beauties of a show like this is it gives us an opportunity to include omissions from art and history, but so far, amazingly, no one has reported that, unfortunately, the sea trade of the era, the main commerce, was trafficking in humans. The ships, the mighty galleons carried Africans in the slave trade, in what was called, world’s Triangular Trade, between Africa, America and Europe.

I have a vested interest in the subject, including the art the artists generated in this era, not only as art but as history, because my ancestors participated. The year, 1672, when England’s King Charles II commissioned the paintings was the same year the king granted the royals and nobles a monopoly, exclusive commercial right, to trade humans. The royals and nobles created The Royal African Company. I know both sides of this trade, because both the Europeans and the Africans involved in the trade were my ancestors. Our English ancestors, Sir Gabriel Roberts and his brother, Sir William Roberts, and my Scottish ancestors (their descendants granted me a coat of arms in 2005) were slave traders. They traded my African ancestors from Ghana as slaves.

Sir Gabriel Roberts was a director of the Royal African Company and his brother, Sir William Roberts, was an agent in Jamaica and the other West Indies Colonies from the mid- to late-1600s. Ann Roberts, my African American ancestor who had a child in 1726 with my Scottish ancestor, John Smellie, a noble merchant who did not own slaves or plantations, was their descendant. Ann Roberts was named after both her grand aunt and her great-grand aunt. One of her Scottish cousins was an abolitionist. So I have slave traders, abolitionists and slaves, all blended together in my ancestry. I cannot appreciate the roots of 17th century maritime art without remembering the roots of the history.

So, I speak now about maritime art history and slavery’s history, not only as a descendant of slaves but as a descendant of slave owners in the early centuries. The battles fought between England and the Netherlands for the lion’s share of slaves were fierce.

The English royals who traded my ancestors, and the royal militias and navies of nobles, commissioned officers, and everyday people they sent to track my other ancestors, slaves who escaped slavery in the American Colonies and became Maroons in Jamaica, are intricately entwined in these historical events. They actions are documented in the history, and should be reflected in the historical memory, including in the art and reviews of the era. Their deeds cannot be omitted.

In the Americas, the royals and nobles named my African ancestors, the Koromante Negroes. England’s King James I (Scotland’s King James VI), Charles II’s grandfather provided the money, military and navy, which, from 1624 to 1632, built the Koromante Slave Fort on Ghana’s coast. A Dutch militia financed by the Dutch king attacked and captured the Koromante Slave Fort in 1665. English royal slavetraders built the Cape Coast Slave Fort in 1638; but the Swedish explorer, Heinrich Karloff, employed by the Danish Slave Trading Company, captured Cape Coast Slave Fort from the British Royal Militia in 1652. The Elmina Slave Fort, built by the Portuguese in 1482, was captured by the Dutch in 1637. The Dutch defended it several times against attacks by English ships and navy. There were slave ship rebellions and shipwrecks, some led by African leaders such as Captain Opare, my Ghanaian ancestor and other Africans.

Interestingly, the Africans from Ghana who were transported on these ships, also called themselves the Koromantes, but their name referred to their coastal village, not the slave fort that had been erected there. Each of us sees art and historical events from our own perspective, but one thing that’s important is that the events are seen. And felt.

The titles and settings of some of these paintings refer to events on the African coast, not only those in Europe. “Shipwreck off a Rocky Coast” (circa 1660) could have been on any of the coasts off Africa. “Wreck of the Amsterdam,” reflects European, American and African history. These galleons of the English, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese and others were slave ships, which plowed the waters in the Triangular Trade in humans between Africa, America and Europe.

After the wreck of the Amsterdam, the Amsterdam 2 carried my ancestors and other African slaves from the coast of Ghana. Aboard the Amsterdam 2 on April 27, 1726, 466 African humans were traded, 288 arrived, 178 perished at sea. Aboard on August 16, 1732, 380 African humans were traded, 330 arrived, 50 perished at sea.

Thousands of others -- many historians say millions (one third of the 12 million humans traded) -- perished in the mighty seas. Amsterdam 2 was a small ship, compared to the Groot Bentveld, a slave ship from the city of Amsterdam, which left Ghana’s Gold Coast on June 19, 1728 with 767 humans on board. Shipwrecked, 95 people died. Or compare it to the Leusden, from Holland’s Groninger/Friesland area, which left Africa on November 19, 1737, with 716 on board. Shipwrecked, 700 people died. Yes, the ships in the paintings in this art show represent the wars between the English and the Dutch, but there is much more to the story.

Embracing the totality of the history of the era may be challenging to some, but having done extensive research, and now writing a book, I am assured that this history is not completely lost, nor will the emotional aspects of the memory be erased. Those who recorded the history and the art hundreds of years ago attempted to conceal the reality of the human devastation, but we today should be too emotionally mature to continue to do the same.