St Georges castle in Elmina is said to be the oldest European building in sub-saharan Africa. Like many of the impressive forts that dot the coast of Ghana, it was used by Europeans to trade in gold and slaves. Many people know that, during the two and a half centuries of Dutch colonial presence there, thousands of slaves were shipped from the harbour to the Americas.
But hardly anyone in this bustling fishing village – or anywhere else for that matter – has heard about the Java connection. Radio Netherland’s Hélène Michaud attended the opening of the Elmina-Java museum in Elmina.
Descendents of the so-called Black Dutchmen weep as they realise the fate their ancestors narrowly escaped – a stay in the dark, cramped slave dungeons in St Georges castle, and, if they survived the long journey at sea, a life in servitude in the Americas.
Instead, the three thousand or so Black Dutchmen sailed eastwards, to Java. Most of them former slaves, they were recruited to serve as soldiers in the Dutch East Indies Army in the 19th century. Some returned to Elmina, but most settled in Java where they founded close-knit communities. Eventually almost all the Indo-Africans were repatriated to the Netherlands in the 1950s.
Known as Belanda Hitam, “Black Hollanders” in the Dutch East Indies, today they are scattered over four continents, but the Java connection is almost unknown in Holland and in Elmina – now a bustling fishing village.
With the opening of the Elmina-Java Museum, the saga of the Black Dutchmen comes full circle, for it was here on the Guinea coast that recruits embarked on their voyage to the Dutch East Indies.
For the first time in history, the main actors in the saga of the Belanda Hitam were reunited in Elmina, at the official opening of the museum on February 15, 2003. A group of six descendents of the Black Dutchmen were guests of honour, along with local chiefs and an envoy sent by the Ashanti King.
During The Netherlands’ 300-year relationship with Ghana, the Ashanti were important allies and important suppliers of slaves for the slave trade. They also delivered the men who were bought free by the Dutch and then enlisted in the colonial army in the East Indies, where they served to pay back their manumission. Whether this was a covert form of slavery is still matter for discussion. Certainly Great Britain, Holland’s biggest rival on the coast, thought so and protested frequently until 1872, when it took over Dutch possessions on the West African coast.
Tourism and education
The museum in Elmina is a gift of the Ulzen family from Ghana. Manus Ulzen was amongst the first Africans to volunteer to serve in the Dutch East Indies Army in 1832. He was wounded in fighting and returned to Elmina. But the Ulzens go back even further. Dutch historian Ineke van Kessel has managed to trace the Ulzen family back to Jan Ulsen who left Holland in 1731.
Ten generations later, Thad Manus Ulzen, now living in North Carolina, USA, wants to ensure that the story that wedded the fate of Elmina with the Dutch and the Ashanti kingdom will never be forgotten. The museum is a philanthropical endeavour that will support tourism and educational projects. The proceeds, the family feels, should be given back to the people of Elmina, where the story of the Belanda Hitam started.
For more information: radionetherlands.nl