Category Archives: Portugal

Bob Marley and the Dutch Golden Age


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.

ShipHammock AmstShipTable

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.

Triangular Trade, Creative Commons GNU Free Documentation License

Triangular Trade, Creative Commons GNU Free Documentation License

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.

Thinking About “Columbus Day”


Monday, October 13 is Columbus Day across the United States.  However, not everyone feels like celebrating the “discovery” of continents where well-developed civilizations already existed.  In Minneapolis, where I spend a lot of time, the City Council voted in April 2014 to substitute “Indigenous Peoples’ Day” for Columbus Day.

Thinking about controversies surrounding Christopher Columbus, I went back and watched a great film, The Mission. The British film was made in 1986 from a script by Robert Bold, directed by Roland Joffe. It won the Palme d’Or at Cannes and an Academy award for cinematography.  It’s a somewhat-fictionalized version of events that actually took place in the 1750s, in the mountains of Paraguay. The story is taken from the book “The Lost Cities of Paraguay” by Father C. J. McNaspy, S.J., who was also a consultant on the film. For me, the story dramatizes some of the heartbreaking conflicts between missionaries and politicians in the colonial period. Conflicts surrounding the exploitation of native lands and peoples continue in our time.


The main character, Father Gabriel, is played by Jeremy Irons.  The character is based on a real-life Paraguayan Jesuit, Father Roque Gonzalez de Santa Cruz, who became a saint. After a priest in his charge is martyred by a Guarani tribe above a perilous waterfall, Father Gabriel climbs up the steep stone face carrying nothing but a flute.  Warriors surround him as he sits on a rock and plays.  It turns out they love music; they let him stay, and he develops a mission that helps them in material as well as spiritual ways. They are not exploited. Instead, they prosper.

The outside world arrives in the form of a mercenary soldier played by Robert de Niro. He has a lucrative sideline in the slave trade.  He sets a huge net as a trap in the jungle; soon he has a netful of tribe members, and he hauls them off like so many rabbits, to be sold into slavery. Soon afterward, he murders his brother in a jealous rage. Although he is acquitted, he experiences remorse for the first time in his life.  Father Gabriel, on a visit to the city, challenges the mercenary to atone for his sins and change his life.  As penance, the mercenary hauls his net, loaded with all his armor and possessions, tied to a rope and dragging behind him.  He climbs up to the mission above the falls, fully expecting to be shunned or even killed.  He is amazed and humbled when the tribe members forgive and welcome him; over time, he becomes a Jesuit himself. Liam Neeson is excellent as a young Jesuit, in one of his earliest roles.

The rest of the movie concerns further encroachments of the outside world.  Father Gabriel’s mission–and six others like it–are under the protection of Spain, which outlaws slavery.  In 1750, the Treaty of Madrid gives part of Paraguay to Portugal, which encourages slavery. Suddenly, the missions are ordered to close. The Church cannot risk allowing the Jesuits to violate the treaty; the Spanish could shut down their order entirely if they resist. Other religious orders could be barred from the colonies.

Father Gabriel and his Jesuits have to make agonizing choices.  A joint army from Portugal and Spain is ordered to clear out the missions in Portuguese territory. Should the missionaries abandon their mission and the Guarani people they have come to love?  Should they help the Guarani resist, using modern warfare techniques?  Should they resort to peaceful resistance? Would peaceful resistance have any chance? If not, should they sacrifice themselves by trying peaceful resistance anyway?

"The Mission" poster

“The Mission” poster

The film is available at Amazon. The story of the colonization of the “New World” is complex, The great colonial powers of England, Spain, France, and Portugal set out explicitly to exploit whatever they found in the “New World,” people and resources alike. But the members of the various religious orders set out for the colonies with a sincere desire to improve the lives of the people, however misguided their methods were at times.  They were able to do a lot of good that remains to this day. A film like “The Mission” invites us to share in the moral quandaries of times past, and to think about those of the modern world.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe!