The unusual story of Jacobus Capitein
Enslavement, theology and a literary legacy
Enslavement, theology and a literary legacy
In 1742, a missionary called Jacobus Capitein gave a lecture at the University of Leiden arguing that Christianity makes people free - spiritually - and so was not incompatible with enslavement. His lecture, originally in Latin, was translated into Dutch and was so popular it was reprinted five times in its first year. He provided biblical and theological justification for the West India Company’s ongoing involvement in enslavement.
What’s unusual about this is the fact that Capitein himself was African and Black. In fact, he had been enslaved himself.
Taken from his family in present-day Ghana at the age of around eight, Capitein was first sold to a Dutch captain and then given as a present to Jacobus van Goch, of the Dutch West India Company, who brought him to live in The Hague, the Netherlands. Van Goch sent him to school and allowed him to follow his own interests and thus Capitein felt that he was treated well. Capitein describes van Goch as ‘someone who will have my filial affection right up to the grave’. Capitein, whose original name is unknown, studied theology and became a minister.
Whilst Capitein’s justification of enslavement is pretty uncomfortable, remember that at the time - in the mid-1700s - rejection of enslavement was difficult. Capitein’s goal was to have more Africans baptised, and his philosophy - that enslavement and Christianity were not incompatible - could help with that.
There was opposition to slavery as early as 1600s and the very first anti-enslavement petition was created by Dutch-speaking Quakers in 1688s in North America. This extended to the Quakers network in Great Britain banning all Quakers from participating in enslavement. Hendrik L Bosman mentions that despite several voices arguing for the abolishment of enslavement, Capitein argued in favour that baptism still allowed enslaved people to remain enslaved, supporting slave traders to allow conversion.
His argument countered that of Godefridus Corneliszoon Udemans (1581–1649), a Dutch minister who had argued that enslaved people should be freed seven years after they were baptised. This would have discouraged enslavers to allow enslaved people to be baptised in the first place. Following Capitein’s philosophy, people could be both baptised and continue to be enslaved.
Hendrik L Bosman notes that Capitein was strongly influenced by his adopted country and family and was filled with gratitude for his freedom and education. But organisations that benefitted from enslavement, such as the West Indian Trading Company, also used Capitein as an example to justify enslavement.
Jacobus Capitein was one of the first sub-Saharan Africans to study at a European university. Studies complete, he became the first Black minister of the Reformed Church and then returned to Elmina (in present-day Ghana) to work as a chaplain and missionary, as a well-paid employee of the West Indian Trading Company.
Whether or not he really wanted to do so is unclear, as he says, ‘I admit that I do not clearly remember whether I disclosed to anyone that such an idea appealed to me.’ But he took on the challenge nonetheless. He was not liked by the white enslavers - because he was Black - and nor was he trusted by the Africans - because he was too Dutch. So his mission to baptise the local people did not go very well.
Despite this, it is clear from his letters that he tried to understand and bring together the multiple cultures that existed in Elmina. He cared about the local community and wanted to understand the perspectives of others but seemed to be hampered at every turn by unsupportive authorities.
Capitein did have some successes. He revived a local school and in one of his first letters, we hear how he expresses his delight about his new intake of students: ‘As concerns the zeal, natural intelligence, and progress of this small group of schoolchildren, to this point we are astonished and thoroughly satisfied.’
And he has another legacy too. Capitein’s translations of the Lord’s Prayer and Ten Commandments and other biblical texts into Mfantse - a language spoken around the Gold Coast at the time - were some of the first examples of the written word in Ghana.
Not long after arriving in Elmira, Capitein wrote to his church (the Classis in the Netherlands) that he wished to marry ‘a young negress’ who has ‘shown herself to be fitter for and better capable of education than most’. This match would help Capitein integrate into the local community. It seemed he genuinely liked her. Her parents gave permission, but the Church did not. He was not to marry ‘a heathen’. And so in May 1746, Capitein married a ‘young European Christian girl’ who it seems had been sent to Elmira by the church authorities.
Capitein died just five years after returning to Elmira, in 1747 aged around 30. He had failed in his mission to convert the local population to Christianity, and made himself unpopular with both the African and European populations there. He had also run up debts of almost 9,000 guilders, which, for comparison, was almost 20 times the annual salary of a master carpenter at the time.
In 1745, Capitein wrote to the West Indian Trading Company (his employer) of his wish to leave. It took them two years to reply and, when they did, he was denied and then told off for errors in his biblical translations. Capitein, by this time, was no longer interested in this kind of discussion and was instead more concerned about supporting his community, and feeling thoroughly let down.
Did Capitein’s time in Africa change his perception of enslavement? It seems so. He is reported to have said in a sermon that had he not been as lucky, he would have ‘wasted my tender years and age in bodily slavery’. Academic Christine Levecq ends her paper on Capitein with the observation that, ‘All the signs before his death indicate that he wished the same kind of luck to all the young Africans growing up around him.’