The Slavery Papers II: The Story of the Leusden

“Slave Ship Leuden”, the book, is an adaptation of Dr. Leo Balai’s scientific research into the history of the Leusden, one o
“Slave Ship Leuden”, the book, is an adaptation of Dr. Leo Balai’s scientific research into the history of the Leusden, one of the last slave ships of the West-Indian Company (WIC). Available at Amazon.com

According to Dr. Leo Balai, the story of the slave ship Leusden is one of conspiracy and murder. "It was the largest murder case in the history of the slave trade, but no one ever talked about it."

Balai began researching the lost ship ten years ago, wrote about it as part of his PhD thesis at the University of Amsterdam and published a book, The Slave Ship Leusden, in 2013. His work has invigorated multinational interest in locating the ship, on which its human cargo is believed to have been entombed.

Here is the abbreviated tale of the Leusden:

Firstly, it is important to underscore that more than 40,000 ships carried captive Africans across the ocean. Most of these ships were built to serve multiple purposes. Slaving was just one of them. The Leusden, however, was a massive ship designed exclusively for the slave trade. The ship made ten voyages in total, transporting more than 6500 slaves between 1719-1738. On its seventh trip, there was a revolt that resulted in the demise of several crew members. On its ninth trip, an infection wiped out two thirds of its 689 captives. The ship went down on its tenth passage on January 1, 1738. 664 out of 680 African lives were lost. It had departed Ghana with 700 captives; twenty had already died before the wreck occured.

The Leusden was headed to the slave market at Paramaribo, the coastal capital of Suriname. The voyage was remarkably close to its end when it hit an embankment at the mouth of the Maroni River (which flows from the Atlantic Ocean, and serves as a border between the coastal South American countries of Suriname and French Guiana). The captain thought they would wait out the weather, in hopes the ship might free itself from the obstruction, but instead a piece of the ship's rudder broke off and it became apparent the vessel would sink. 

The captives, who were allowed on deck for meals and had been above deck during the wait, were forced and locked below as the hull filled up with water. The ship's 73 crew members nailed the hatches shut, and even sat on them through the night, to ensure none could break free and save themselves. By morning, the last of the captive’s screams and wails had ceased — an awaited indication that all 664 Africans had drowned or suffocated. Only then did the crew abandon ship, resulting in the largest instance of genocide in the worldwide, centuries-long history of the slave trade.

The captain and crew arrived safely at Paramaribo with sixteen Africans to sell, a story to tell, and praises awaiting them for having salvaged a box of gold.

With a death toll almost five times that of the next-largest tragedy in the Atlantic slave trade (the 1781 massacre of 132 slaves thrown overboard from the Zong, a British-owned ship that was transporting slaves from Africa to Jamaica), the sinking of the Leusden is believed to be the greatest single loss of life of its kind. In its number of passages made, captives transported and overall death toll, its known accounts of revolt and deadly disease, its final act of combined wreckage and murder, and its archaeological value if ever located, the Leusden is likely the most significant, horrendous, and notoriously complete symbol of the tragedy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. With 1741 African lives wasted in total, during its nearly twenty year life, the ominous craft stands as the slave trade's bloodiest vessel. 

Why has so little been said about this? Virtually zero in the Americas. There is an African Burial Ground laying at the mouth of Northern South America, a tortured final resting place for 664 souls in coastal tourists waters, and no one has ever sought to find it. Until now.

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