In August of 1664, the WIC-chartered ship Gideon arrived in New Amsterdam with 290 enslaved men and women on board. Although the Gideon was not the only ship to bring African captives to the colonial town, it was unusual for such a large number of enslaved people to arrive at once. In fact, according to some calculations, the enslaved population in New Amsterdam doubled in size when the ship arrived. Yet, we know almost nothing about the men and women on board the ship or the circumstances that brought them to New Amsterdam. Moreover, we know very little about the harrowing journey that they somehow survived.
Even though the Dutch were major actors in the Atlantic slave trade, very little has been written about the lived experience of the people they traded, and their experiences on board these ships remain largely unexplored. Certainly, the limited sources that can give us insights into their experiences make it challenging to write their stories, but through a close examination of the Gideon’s journey we can begin to gather some information on these people and their experiences on board this ship.
The Gideon’s journey had started nine months before the ship arrived in New Amsterdam. On November 15th, 1663, Captain Simon Cornelissen Gilde finalized his contract with the Amsterdam Chamber of the Company to bring these African captives to the Dutch colony. Gilde was tasked with bringing as many enslaved people as possible from Angola to Cayenne and Curaçao. From there, he had to bring at least 300 of these enslaved men, women, and children to New Netherland.
Before the month of November was over, the Gideon left Amsterdam for West Africa, with a brief stop at the Dutch island of Texel. Within a month of its departure, the Gideon stopped at the Dutch factory in Elmina. After the ship was restocked, it made its way to West Central Africa where Gilde purchased 421 captives. The exact location where these men, women, and children were forced to embark the ship remains unclear.
These captives were likely enslaved West Central Africans who had been captured in one of the local conflicts that occurred in that region at the time. Most of them were men and women, but there must have been children on board as well. While we do not know how many children were forced on board the Gideon, we do know that it was not uncommon for children of all ages, even those who still nursed, to be transported across the Atlantic onboard slave ships. In fact, the initial contracts for the Gideon’s journey detailed how much “sucklings” on board the ship would be worth.
From West Central Africa, the Gideon continued to Curaçao. When the Gideon finally arrived there in July of 1664, 348 of the men, women, and children were still alive. Thus, about 18% of the people who were forced to board the ship in West Central Africa did not survive this Middle Passage. Most of them likely perished due to a variety of illnesses and scurvy in particular, while some of them may have taken their own lives. Their diseased bodies would have been thrown overboard. Undoubtedly, the people who made it to Curaçao had survived a traumatic journey.
Many of those who made it to Curaçao were ill when they arrived, mostly because they were suffering from scurvy. Caused by a lack of vitamin C, scurvy was the number one cause of death on most slave ships. Vice-director Matthias Beck suggested that they exchange some of the very weak people on board the ship with men and women who had arrived in Curaçao previously, and thus had been able to regain some of their strength. After they completed these exchanges, the Gideon left the Caribbean island with 160 enslaved men and 140 women on board, 290 of whom were still alive when it arrived in New Amsterdam on August 15th, 1664. And although this was a much shorter trip than the one across the Atlantic, it still caused great harm to the people on board the ship. The men and women who survived this journey from Curaçao were apparently in such poor health when they arrived that several officials afterwards complained that many of the resources they needed to feed the soldiers went to the recovery of these enslaved people.
These are some of the earliest findings on the Gideon and the African captives it transported across the Atlantic. Their stories are not easily found in the archival records, but a close read and additional research can help tell their history.
Andrea Mosterman is associate professor in Atlantic History at the University of New Orleans. In her work, she explores the multi-faceted dimensions of slavery, slave trade, and cross-cultural contact in the Atlantic World. She has published her work in, among others, the Journal of African History and Early American Studies, and she curated the digital exhibit Slavery in New Netherland for the New Netherland Institute. Her forthcoming manuscript Spaces of Enslavement and Resistance in Dutch New York is under contract with Cornell University Press.
For additional readings on ships in the transatlantic slave trade:
Robert Harms, The Diligent: A Voyage Through the Worlds of the Slave Trade (New York: Basic Books, 2002)
Marcus Rediker, The Slave Ship: A Human History (London: Penguin Books, 2007)
Linda Heywood and John Thornton, Central Africans, Atlantic Creoles, and the Foundation of the Americas, 1585-1660 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007)
Stephanie E. Smallwood, Saltwater Slavery: A Middle Passage from Africa to American Diaspora (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008)
Sowande' M. Mustakeem, Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2016)