Into the triangle trade

A history of human trafficking, pursuit of profit and distressing archival documents from the collections of the Zeeland Archives


This is a story on human trafficking. It begins in Middelburg, the Netherlands. Once the office of the Middelburg Commerce Company (MCC) stood in this street named Balans. Nowadays it is a memorial site to the abolition of slavery. A place where people come together to commemorate and celebrate, especially on July 1.

Logo of the United Commerce Company of the city of Middelburg, From the collection of: Zeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives
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During the 18th century the MCC or United Commerce Company of the city of Middelburg specialized in human trafficking.

The MCC merchants bought human beings in West Africa and sold them across the Atlantic Ocean.

The administration of the MCC is kept in the Zeeland Archives in Middelburg, the Netherlands.

UNESCO Memory of the World, From the collection of: Zeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives
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The MCC archives have been preserved entirely.

The documents provide a detailed overview of 18th-century trans-Atlantic slave trade.

They also give a rare insight into the daily life of the slave traders and their human cargo.

Triangular trade, From the collection of: Zeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives
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On a trans-Atlantic slave voyage, a ship left the European homeport loaded with goods for the West-African coastal region. There, goods were traded for Africans, ivory and gold.

The ship would then sail across the Atlantic to the colonies in the Americas. The Africans were sold to plantation owners and faced a future of enslavement, working at one of the sugar, coffee, tobacco, or cotton plantations.

Once the Africans were sold, the ship returned home to Europe, loaded with goods from the colonies, gold and ivory.

This triangular trade took place between the 16th and 19th century. The MCC sold approximately 30.000 Africans during the 18th century.

Snow ships MCCZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

Enslaved Africans were transported ...

... in these ships of the Middelburg Commerce Company (MCC).

About 300 human beings were packed like cargo.

Men, women, boys, girls, babies.

Reconstruction of the slave ship The Unity in 3DZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

Slave ship The Unity

Let us follow the slave voyage of MCC ship The Unity in 1761-1763 by way of the authentic archival documents.

The partition midships, right behind the main mast, tells us that this is a slave ship.

The African men were kept prisoner on and below the waist deck. The women were imprisoned in the stern.

The partition prevented the African men from entering the stern and protected the crew.

The booth aside the stern is the latrines for the women.

The latrines for the men on this ship were aside the waist deck at starboard.

Seal of captain Jan Menkenveld, From the collection of: Zeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives
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The master of the ship and the trade is the captain.

Jan Menkenveld was the captain of The Unity.

This is his seal. It shows a captain, an anchor (hope) and a tree (fortitude).

Textile sample in a letterZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

In order to buy enslaved Africans on the coast of West Africa the captain had to offer the right kind of trade goods, such as a specific range of textiles.

Cargo goods for West AfricaZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

In fact the captain defined what trade goods had to bought and brought to the coast of West Africa.

He was a trade expert and knew the demand in the coastal regions.

Sea map of the coast of Guinea, West AfricaZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

The coast of West Africa was known to Europeans because of its trade in slaves, ivory and gold.

This sea map tells it all.

Near the coastline, the anchorages are shown.

The outback reveals the names of the African tribes and their trade such as slaves and gold.

The map is titled The Gold Coast. On the left dust gold is melted. On the right a European merchant sells his goods. The monkeys measure the gold weight.

A bundle of administrative papers in its original appearanceZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

The archives of the MCC give details on almost every aspect of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. The archival documents tell the story.

This is an appendix to the accounts of a slave voyage before being digitized by the Zeeland Archives.

Trade book of The Unity Trade book of The UnityZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

Trade book

The captain kept a record of all conducted trade in his trade book, including the purchase and sale of enslaved Africans.

Trade book of The Unity Page 4Zeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

The 'cargazoen' is the cargo with which the ship left home. The 'armazoen' is the cargo with which it crossed the Atlantic Ocean.

In the case of a slave voyage it was a human cargo...

The words 'slaven' or 'slaaf' were used to indicate that these human beings were not free.

A slave is the posession of someone else.

Trade book of The Unity Page 8Zeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

The purchase of a man

Captain Menkenveld purchased the first African, a man, 9 December 1761 in Caap Monte (Monrovia). He made an entry in the trade book on the goods that were traded: guns, gun powder, liquor, textiles, wineglasses, tobacco, etcetera. The name of the slave was not registered.

Top 5 trading locationsZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

The captain bought enslaved Africans on several locations on the coast of West Africa.

He bought them from African merchants and at the fortress Elmina in Ghana, from European merchants.

Slave trade coast West AfricaZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

The captain bought as many Africans as possible where prices were low.

Purchase on the coast of West Africa, From the collection of: Zeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives
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Besides human beings, he bought ivory and gold.

Trade book of The Unity Page 38Zeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

The last purchase of Africans

Five months after purchasing the first enslaved African he bought the last slaves, 10 men from Elmina, Ghana. They were brought on ship board May 8, 1762. The next day the ship left for the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean. Aboard were 130 African men, 130 women, 34 boys, 22 girls and 6 babies.

Longitudinal cross section of The UnityZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

On leaving Africa for the Caribbean the ship was overcrowded with people and barrels of drinking water.

The average crossing took almost 2 months.

At night the African men were imprisoned on the ‘tween deck in the fore body (h); the African women on the 'tween deck in the stern.

At daytime the men were allowed on the waist deck (d) and the women in a wooden 'tent' that was put up on the stern (k).

Cross section of the slave ship The Unity with view on the 'tween deck with bunks for African menZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

Cross-section of the Unity with view of the bunks for the slaves on the ‘tween deck.

The partition can be seen above the ‘tween deck behind the main mast.

During the voyage the slaves slept between decks. Extra space was gained by putting up bunks halfway the ‘tween deck.

Tween deck with bunks on the slave ship The UnityZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

This is a reconstruction of the 'tween deck of the MCC ship The Unity. It had a height of 1.4 metres (4.6 feet).
The ship's longitude was approximately 23 metres (75 feet) and width 7 metres (23 feet).

Surgeon's journal Surgeon's journalZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

The journal kept by the surgeon informs us on the enslaved Africans aboard…

Surgeon Petrus Couperus made a description of all of his patients, including the enslaved Africans.

Surgeon's journal Page 12Zeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

The first enslaved Africans already died while the ship was still at the coast.

April 6, 1762 the surgeon retrieved an enslaved African from below.
He understood that the man had been kicked and suffered pain. Though the surgeon treated the patient as best as he could, the man died the next day.

The following week a girl slave died from scurvy.

Surgeon's journal Page 13Zeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

An African woman died of sorrow after the ship had left Africa.
The surgeon presumed she had a child that was kept by the African traders that had sold her.

Surgeon's journal Page 15Zeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

Most Africans died during the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean.

Slave and crew mortalityZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

Causes of slaves and crew mortalityZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

Cliffs at the coast of French Guiana, From the collection of: Zeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives
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After 59 days the crew spotted land. The ship had reached the coast of Brasil.

The voyage went on to Berbice in Guyana.

Trade book of The Unity Page 47Zeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

Auction of human beings

captain held the first auctions in Berbice, Guyana. The enslaved Africans were
sold to the highest bidder. The captain deemed the prices too low and ceased the

The sale of the enslaved Africans was registered by listing the sold person as:
- a man
- a woman
- a boy
- a girl
The person's name was not registered.

And furthermore:
- the name of the buyer and his guarantee.
- the price

Account for holding the slave auction, including expenses for consumption of visitors of the auctions.Zeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

The public attending the auction received free drinks and free tobacco and pipes. This is the account for beverages during the auction of July 21, 1762 in Berbice.

Trade book of The Unity Page 47Zeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

Lot number 19 was a woman with a small child. They were sold to Jan Broer for 205 guilders. The child did not represent any value.

Small children on boardZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

The log book and the trade book of The Unity reveal that there were small children aboard the ship.

Trade book of The Unity Page 49Zeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

All Africans sold

The captain ceased the auction in Berbice and sailed the ship to Essequibo, Guyana. All remaining enslaved Africas were sold here.

Length of stay of slaves on boardZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

The enslaved Africans had been kept prisoner aboard The Unity for a long time.

Prices and revenue of the public auction of slavesZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

The captain maximized the profit by leaving Berbice and selling the remaining enslaved Africans in Essequibo.

The governor of Essequibo wrote a letter to the directors of the MCC congratulating them with the high prices.

Revenue of the sale of slavesZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

Almost all of the enslaved Africans were sold by public auction. Some of them were sold privately.

Map of the river and colony Demerara in GuyanaZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

The Africans faced a future as a slave on one of the many plantations.

This map shows the plantations in Demerara, Guyana, in 1759. Below are the names of the plantations and their owners.

Denis des Granges bought 3 men, 2 women, 3 boys and a girl from the captain of The Unity.

He owned a large plantation called ‘Des Granges’ on the west bank of the Demerary River.

Plantation ‘Des Granges’ is no. 5 on the map. The red color indicates that coffee was cultivated.

Chances are that the 9 enslaved Africans Denis des Granges bought would have worked here.

Sugar was the main product of Demerara. The sugar plantations are indicated in brown. The sugar mills are shown on the map with circles and crosses.

An enslaved African after a flogging, From the collection of: Zeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives
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The enslaved Africans had a hard life on the plantations. They were maltreated and abused.

Return cargo in gross weightZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

After selling the enslaved Africans the captain bought as many plantation products as possible.
Sugar was the main produce he bought.

Announcement for the tobacco auction 2 May 1763. The tobacco was part of the cargo of the ship The Unity.Zeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

The voyage completed

After arrival in Middelburg, the Netherlands, the cargo was auctioned at the Balans, near the office of the MCC. May 2, 1763, the tobacco brought by The Unity was put at auction.

Duration of the voyageZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

The average duration of a trans-Atlantic slave voyage was 1,5 years.
Time spent on trade accounted for over half of the total travelling time.

Profit and loss, From the collection of: Zeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives
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Eventually the voyage resulted in a profit of 13.320 guilders.

Earnings of the high officers of The UnityZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

The high officers of The Unity also made a profit.
Next to their salaries they received a bonus for each enslaved African that was sold, and a share of the profit.
The captain clearly stands out.

MCC voyages; return voyages and triangular voyagesZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

The slave voyage of The Unity in 1761-1763 is only one out of the 114 trans-Atlantic slave voyages made by MCC-ships.

The MCC sold approximately 31.000 enslaved Africans during the 18th century.

The MCC archives contain the administration of not only the trans-Atlantic slave voyages but also the return voyages to Africa and the Caribbean, as well as the letters by the director and their worldwide correspondents and many more documents.

The knot that ties the administrationZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

Let us visit the past for a better future

For many people the trans-Atlantic slave trade is unknown or perhaps just a distant concept. There are however countless individuals for whom the legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade is an integral part of their cultural identity. The Zeeland Archives has used its archival materials to let the past speak in order to foster a better understanding of our shared heritage. To share this mutual past and to enable historical learning, everyone should be able to learn what triangular trade was. There are no eyewitnesses who can tell us about trans-Atlantic slave trade. We are left with oral history, historical sites, memorial landscapes - and archival documents. To let these silent witnesses speak the Zeeland Archives designed a blog and an educational website. Both showcase the trans-Atlantic slave trade from the perspective of the slave voyage of The Unity. We invite schools and institutions worldwide to use our blog and educational website. We invite scholars worldwide to use the fully digitized contents of the MCC archives. Together we can foster a better understanding of our mutual heritage. Let us visit the past for a better future.

Follow the blog on the slave voyage of The UnityZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

The Zeeland Archives has digitized and published online the entire adminstration of the Middelburg Commerce Company (MCC):

Inventory and scans of the MCC archives

For educational purposes the Zeeland Archives launched a educational website for primary and secondary school teachers. It offers lessons and assignment, linked to The Unity's blog:

Educational website

The voyage of the ship The Unity and a daily report of the events taking place aboard via a blog with interactive map and timeline:

Blog on the slave voyage of The Unity 1761-1763

Slave trade by MCC Ship the UnityZeeuws Archief | Zeeland Archives

Trailer showing the 3D reconstruction of The Unity

Credits: Story

This exhibition was made by the Zeeland Archives.
• Concept and creation: Zeeland Archives, Roosanne Goudbeek
• Infographics: DATBureau, Amsterdam
• 3D-reconstruction & trailer: DPI Animation House, The Hague

We would like to thank those who have supported the Zeeland Archives in reaching a wider audience for the archives of the MCC:
• Metamorfoze, the Dutch National Programme for the Preservation of the Paper Heritage - Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW)
• Mondriaan Fonds
• Prins Bernhard Cultuurfonds
• VSBfonds
• United Nations Human Rights Council
• UNESCO Memory of the World
• Google Art & Culture

Zeeland Archives
Hofplein 16, Middelburg, the Netherlands
P.O. box 70, 4330 AB Middelburg, the Netherlands
T +31 (0) 118 67 88 00

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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