Between Liberty and Slavery. Debates on republicanism and abolitionism in the Dutch Patriot and Batavian Revolutions, 1760-1800.
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Although Dutch Patriot and Batavian republicans argued for political liberty and against political slavery in their revolutions, their usage of political servitude in their writings has been deemed ‘rhetorical’ and ‘metaphorical’ in historiography, as republican ideas were thought to have never been applied to chattel slavery. In the years leading up to the revolutions, however, a growing body of antislavery discourse was taking hold in Dutch public discourse. Previous scholarship has primarily focused on explaining the absence of a Dutch Abolition Society, and has therefor missed an opportunity to investigate the symbiosis of the period’s dominant political language and discourse of abolitionism. This thesis therefore investigates how Dutch antislavery discourse combined with republican ideas and language in Dutch periodicals, intellectual treatises and speeches during the Patriot and Batavian periods (1760-1800). In 1760s and 1770s, a debate on the unvirtuous nature of wealth and luxury became prominent in both republican and antislavery discourse, even though the two strains of thought did not definitively combine in this period. Nonetheless, as international abolitionist publications were translated into Dutch in the 1790s, some authors – including prominent (future) Batavian revolutionary republicans – did seek to combine their antislavery ideas with the dominant political ideas of republicanism, not only through antiluxury, but also in highlighting the similarity between the master-slave and tyrant-subject relationship. Many revolutionaries published antislavery treatises, spoke out against the slave trade, or wrote poetry on the topic during both the Patriot and Batavian revolution. This overlap between the fight of some Batavians against political and chattel slavery reached its peak in two debates in the Batavian National Assembly in 1797 on (gradual) abolition. These debates, although officialy on the topic of slavery, should be interpreted as a discussion on the most fundamental political ideas of the Batavian Republic. Representatives were fully aware that, whilst they debated the issue of slavery, their words touched upon the core principles of their most fundamental political ideology: republicanism. Despite the fierce resistance of representatives such as Pieter Vreede, the members of the National Assembly eventually chose to limit the scope of republican liberty, influenced by fears of societal collapse and pre-imperialist arguments. However, especially the idea that Africans still occupied a 'natural state' of man - an idea brought into the centre of republican thought by social contract theorists such as Rousseau - made a universal interpretation of republican liberty impossible. Despite their eventual defeat, this thesis shows that a number of Dutch republicans, although at times halted by internal derogatory ideas on the African Other, did connect their ideas on political slavery to the colonies in the late 1790s. The observations in this thesis are therefor particularly relevant for the history of the concepts 'liberty' and 'slavery' in (Dutch) republicanism - which extended beyond simple 'rhetorical' usage - and are also interesting for further (international) comparative research or investigations into the relationship between republicanism and abolitionism in the nineteenth century.