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Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein (born circa 1717; died 1747) was a Dutch Christian minister of Ghanese birth, thought to have been the world's first black minister and the first African to study at a European university. He may also have been the first sub-Saharan African to obtain a doctorate.

Though a former slave, Capitein wrote a dissertation defending the right of Christians to keep slaves.

Contents

Early years

Capitein, whose African name is unknown, was forcibly taken from his parents in present-day Ghana in 1725, at the age of 8, and sold as a slave to a Dutch captain, Arnold Steenhart. That same year, Steenhart gave him as a present to Jacobus van Goch, a trader of the Dutch West India Company.

At the age of 11, in 1728, Capitein was brought to Holland to live with van Goch in The Hague. Van Goch treated him as an adopted son and gave him the last name of Capitein (Dutch for "captain"). Jacobus was placed in school and found to excel in the study of painting, reading and writing, mathematics and the classical languages. Capitein, who was baptized by the Dutch Reformed Church in 1735, let it be known that he wished to return to Africa as a missionary. His adopted father therefore allowed him in 1737 to attend the venerable University of Leiden in order to study theology and become a minister.

Dissertation

During his time at Leiden, Capitein did not challenge the general attitude towards slavery in the Dutch republic. In his dissertation De servitude, libertati christianae non contraria on March 10, 1742, he defended slavery as niet strydig tegen de christelyke vryheid ("not in conflict with Christian liberty"). He stressed that a slave who becomes a Christian does not need to be freed, and that slave owners therefore should allow their slaves to be baptized.

It is not clear whether Capitein actually received his doctorate with this dissertation, as he is not listed in the university's archives.

Missionary

His defense of slavery made him popular with the Dutch East India Company, and he was appointed minister of the fort of Elmina, the hub of the Dutch slave trade along the Gold Coast (present-day Ghana). After a short tour of the Netherlands, where he was celebrated as the "black minister", he left for Elmina. However, his duties as minister and missionary proved difficult. The white slave traders did not like him because he was black and because he did not approve of the slave traders' extramarital affairs. Contact with the other Africans was difficult because Capitein had become too Dutch, and his efforts to baptize the local population proved fruitless. To improve his contact with the Africans, Capitein proposed a marriage with a local girl, but the church did not approve of a marriage to a "heathen" and instead found him a Dutch bride, Antonia Ginderdros, whom he wed in 1745 – the first wedding among the Europeans at Elmina.

Although he had little success as a missionary, Capitein did manage to set up a school and an orphanage at Elmina. His greatest success came in 1744 when Opoku Ware I, king of the Ashanti, requested that Capitein educate his children. Capitein tried to send the children to the Netherlands to be educated, but this was not allowed. However, one of the princes, Gyakye, was sent on a diplomatic mission to the Dutch republic, carrying a gift of ten elephants' teeth.

Legacy

Jacobus Capitein's role in history has long been neglected or dismissed as a curiosity because, as a defender of slavery, he was an unlikely role model for black emancipation. However, Capitein's position on slavery should be viewed in the light of his time. Capitein's views fitted in the 17th century climate in which the church had adapted to the slave trade, which had become one of the pillars of the Dutch republic's powerful economy. A rejection of slavery on principle was not considered an option, although some did decry the excesses of the slave trade.

The primary goal of Capitein's thesis was to encourage baptism of Africans by arguing that African could be baptized yet remain slave. Capitein thereby presented a counterargument to Godefridus Cornelisz Udemans, a Dutch minister who had argued that slaves should be freed seven years after they were baptized. This would have effectively rendered baptism a non-option, because slave owners were eager to keep their assets and would therefore not have allowed their slaves to be baptized.

Trivia

  • Guus Kuijer, a Dutch author of children's books, wrote a novel about Jacobus Capitein's life called The redder van Afrika ("The savior of Africa").

Further reading

  • Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein (2001), The Agony of Asar: A Thesis on Slavery by the Former Slave, Jacobus Elisa Johannes Capitein, 1717–1747. Translated with comments by Grant Parker. Markus Wiener, Princeton, N.J.
  • David Nii Anum Kpobi (1993): Mission in chains. The life, theology and ministry of the ex-slave Jacobus E.J. Capitein (1717-1747) with a translation of his major publications, Boekencentrum, Zoetermeer, ISBN 9023907930
  • Henri van der Zee (2000): 's Heeren Slaaf. Het dramatische leven van Jacobus Capitein, Balans, Amsterdam, ISBN 9050185142
  • André Capiteyn (2001): Ivoorzwart: Hollands glorie en de slavenhandel in West-Afrika: "over de slaverny als niet strydig tegen de christelyke vryheid". Stichting Mens en Kultuur, Gent, ISBN 9072931912
  • David Nii Anum Kpobi (2002): Saga of a Slave: Jacobus Capitein of Holland and Elmina. African Books Collective, Oxford, ISBN 9988812108

Sources

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