What does Bob Marley, the legendary reggae musician who rose from grinding poverty in Jamaica, have to do with the over-the-top wealth of the great trading city of Amsterdam? A lot, it turns out. I just watched a fine documentary called Marley, streaming on Netflix. The film, directed by director Kevin Macdonald and released in 2012, must be the definitive life story of the musician. He somehow rose from extreme poverty to superstardom. Bob Marley died of cancer at age 36, in 1981. But his music lives on, and the family he left behind continues what he started.
The National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam holds 500 years of the seafaring history of the city. Last time I was in Amsterdam, in the fall of 2013, the city was celebrating the beginning of the canal system that allowed a great trading center to be built on hundreds of islands and swampy ground adjoining the North Sea. Kids try sailors’ hammocks and pretend to eat in the officers’ mess. A restored ship docks outside in the harbor. Inside the museum, displays chronicle the glorious history of Dutch seafarers.
But there is a darker story, During my visit, the Maritime Museum hosted a stunning exhibit that frankly exposed the shameful secrets of the slave trade that contributed heavily to the city’s wealth.
On a video inside the exhibit, a lady abolitionist scolds those who profit from the slave trade. She looks quaint, but brave. It took many years of determined efforts by people like her to put a stop to the slave trade.
The profits that built the canal rings and the grand houses on Amsterdam’s canals came largely through trade in products from Dutch colonies–sugar, coffee, cacao, tobacco. Production of these lucrative products required slave labor. The slaves were shipped from West Africa to the Dutch East and West Indies as part of the “triangular trade” that poured huge riches into Portugal, France, England and Holland.
Ships would pick up cargoes of slaves in Africa and deliver them to work on plantations in the Caribbean. From those islands, the ships would load up on products such as sugar, indigo, cotton, and coffee. In the ports of Liverpool, coastal France, Lisbon, and Amsterdam, the ships would in turn load up on manufactured goods like textiles, utensils, gunpowder, guns and alcohol. These products, scarce in Africa, fetched high prices for merchants and shipowners. And another cycle began. The “Middle Passage,” between Africa and the Caribbean (and also the Americas) inflicted unimaginable misery on those captured and used as slaves.
Bob Marley’s ancestors arrived in Jamaica as slaves and remained there after slavery was finally abolished. They were “free” to live in poverty. He grew up making music in his little hardscrabble town in the hills, using homemade instruments along with the odd guitar. Eventually he and his friends were able to parlay their musical talent into world fame, but he died young.
The Amsterdam exhibit appeared to be a momentous occasion in Dutch history. The entrance was separated from the rest of the museum by heavy doors, and carried warnings that the exhibits were graphic. Schoolchildren in somber groups were taking in the exhibit. There was very little of the running and jumping and joking that usually go along with kids on a mandatory school field trip. The adults were equally serious.
In Amsterdam, I visited some of the grand canal houses built by wealthy merchants and bankers. I strolled the beautiful, tranquil canals. I marveled at the treasures of the Rijksmuseum. It was good to also acknowledge some of the painful history behind the Dutch Golden Age.
Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe.
English: Modified version of en::Image:World map.png, which was created by John Monnpoly
|Date||21 September 2005 (first version); 2007-05-26 (last version)|
|Source||Modification made by SimonP. Transferred from en.wikipedia|
|Author||SimonP at en.wikipedia|
(Reusing this file)
|CC-BY-SA-2.0; GFDL-WITH-DISCLAIMERS; Released under the GNU Free Documentation License.|