In a memorable 1979 Heineken TV ad, a gang of famished slaves sits manacled to the oars of a Roman galleon when they become the subjects of a controlled experiment.
As a slavemaster spurs them on with a whip, the slaves on one side of the vessel are handed foaming glasses of Heineken beer while the others are given a rival brand.
“Stop! We’re going round in circles,” an anxious crewmember cries after descending from the upper deck, before a familiar slogan kicks in: “Heineken truly refreshes the parts that other beers cannot reach.”
While the tone of the commercial is playful, the scene it depicts hints at a darker reality – one that Heineken might prefer to keep quiet.
The world’s second biggest brewer, Heineken will this weekend step up a multi-million-pound advertising and marketing blitz as the official beer and a key sponsor of the Euro 2020 football tournament.
It is unlikely to say much about its own historic links to slavery in the West Indies, which it has failed to acknowledge.
Valued at €59 billion, the Amsterdam-based Heineken Group is today a corporate giant, owning 165 breweries in over 70 countries. With 84,000 staff, its 250 different brands – including Sol, Moretti, Amstel, Tiger, Red Stripe and Bulmer’s cider – generated profits of €2.4 billion euros on revenues of nearly €20 billion euros last year.
But research obtained exclusively by Tortoise Media, using British and Dutch archives, has exposed an uncomfortable truth: it is arguable that at least part of the capital used to buy the brewery by the Heineken family came from slave plantations in the former Dutch colony of Berbice.
It is a story that illuminates the complex historic relationship between the transatlantic slave trade and some leading western companies. Heineken was ranked last year by Interbrand as one of the world’s top 100 brands.
It also sheds light on the way different firms are grappling with these reputational challenges today, amid mounting concerns about systemic racism and the long shadows still cast by slavery.
Unlike other groups with historic links to the trade – including Lloyds of London, the Bank of England, ABN Amro and rival brewer Greene King – Heineken has never publicly acknowledged these potential ties.
It’s understandable why Heineken – a juggernaut that has earned huge profits through judicious management of its brand – might be wary of bringing them to light.
Heineken’s Dos Equis brand is a key sponsor of the US College Football National Championship, which last year became a principal target of protests inspired by Black Lives Matter and the ongoing campaign against US police brutality in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. About 49 per cent of players in the US college football league were Black in 2019, according to the NCAA.
Financially, too, there is much at stake for a company, led by chief executive Dolf van den Brink, in which the Heineken family still retains a controlling stake worth billions of pounds.
Britain’s richest woman and ninth richest person overall is heiress Charlene de Carvalho-Heineken, whose £12 billion fortune, held with her husband, was inherited from her father Freddy’s share of the brewer, according to The Sunday Times Rich List.
“This isn’t ancient history – it’s actually very recent,” says Joshua Virasami, an activist and campaigner for Black Lives Matter. “And it’s an ongoing situation. These parasitic relationships which the Dutch and others created continue to shape the world today and they need to be part of a bigger conversation about the state of the global south.”
Heineken’s origins date to the mid-19th Century, when, according to an official history, Gerard Adriaan Heineken bought Amsterdam’s then struggling Den Hoyberch (The Haystacks) brewery in 1864. He later renamed it Heineken.
What this version omits is the source of the money Gerard used to buy the brewery when he was just 22.
To set the scene, what followed is from a book called The Heineken Story by Barbara Smit, published in 2014 to coincide with the firm’s 150th anniversary:
“The Heinekens lived in relative comfort. The cheese trade had been deftly built up by Gerard’s grandfather and expanded with equal drive by his father, Cornelis Heineken. The household became even more affluent when Cornelis married Anna Geertruida van de Paauw. A plump widow, she brought to the marriage two children and the fortune amassed by her previous husband’s family in West Indies plantations.
“Cornelis and Anna went on to have four children. Their second, Gerard, born in 1841, was their first son. At this time epidemics ravaged Dutch towns, and only three of the family’s children made it to adulthood. They were brought up to honour hard work and Gerard grew into an industrious young man, ‘with a sense of adventure and a good heart’. When his father passed away in 1862, Gerard, then just twenty-one, could easily have spent the rest of his days living from the family fortune. Instead, he left the cheese trade to other family members and searched for a way to make his own name. In June 1863 he spotted a brewery for sale not far from the family home. Gerard quickly organized a meeting with two of the brewery’s directors…”
He then wrote a letter to his mother, Anna, setting out the financials for the purchase. Some have interpreted this as a plea for financial assistance from his mother. Heineken says such an interpretation is incorrect and there is no evidence that his mother provided financial support.
That letter to his mother about purchasing the brewery for 50,000 guilders was written on the night of 30 June 1863.
So where did the money come from? While Gerard’s father Cornelis had indeed built a successful business in the cheese trade, there was another source of wealth in the family’s coffers.
Dutch national archives show that, in 1829, Gerard’s mother, Anna Getruuida van der Paauw, had married Pieter Jacob Schumacher van Oudorp.
Records held in the Amsterdam Archief and the UK National Archives at Kew confirm that several members of the Schumacher family were joint owners of slave plantations in Berbice, now part of Guyana in the West Indies.
Ancestry records show that Anna and Pieter had one son, Johannes Gerrit Schumacher. In 1833, aged 28, Pieter had died, so Anna was left to manage the estate on behalf of their son Johannes. But he also died, in 1857, leaving Anna with the full inheritance.
Records at the National Archive in Kew include details of Berbice’s plantations and their slaves. One was called “Schumacher’s Lust” and it is listed as belonging to the “heirs of Jan Schumacher” – presumably including his son Pieter and Pieter’s wife Anna.
In fact, UK archives compiled by University College London provide direct evidence that Anna was the recipient of payments derived from interests in at least two slave plantations inherited from her late husband.
Slavery was legal across the British empire until 1807, when the physical trade in human beings was outlawed. It wasn’t until a quarter of a century later, in 1834, that the Slavery Abolition Act banned the actual use of enslaved people, rather than simply the trade. Even then, it took years for the practice to be stamped out. Many former slaves remained trapped in different forms of highly abusive bonded labour, where they were effectively enslaved.
For researchers, a collection of British Parliamentary Papers from the period offers a goldmine of information about the complex connections between the West Indies plantation system and the Western European economy of the day.
These records of the UK’s Slave Compensation Commission provide a detailed census of slave-ownership in the British Empire in the 1830s, including in Berbice.
They were drawn up to catalogue the £20 million paid out to slave owners – not slaves – as “reparations” following the Act, which abolished slavery in most British colonies, freeing more than 800,000 enslaved people in the Caribbean and South Africa.
It took effect on 1 August 1834, and the papers, which are 365 pages long, provide a list of every individual who received compensation, including absentee owners living in European cities like London, Bristol, Liverpool – and Amsterdam.
They refer to “A.G. Vander Paaw” or “Anna Geertruida Vander Paaw” as the recipient of two financial awards, totalling £993, related to slaves owned on two plantations in Berbice known as Rotterdam and Gelderland.
Rotterdam was a 500-acre coffee plantation located east of the River Berbice. Gelderland is described as a plantation on the River Berbice.
The UCL research also refers to the Schumacher’s Lust plantation, also located on the River Berbice, as “not yet traced” in the slave compensation records.
Five years after Pieter’s death in 1838, Anna married Cornelis Heineken. As Anna’s son from her marriage to Pieter had already died, it is arguable that this wealth may have helped fund the purchase of the Heineken brewery, as some may think it unlikely that solely one side of the family (the righteous cheesemakers) financed the son – with no recourse to the very substantial wealth of the mother and her plantation links.
Shortly afterwards, Anna and Cornelis’s son Gerard Heineken went on to oversee construction of a new, state-of-the art brewery at a new site in Amsterdam. Although brewing there ceased in the 1980s, it remains the firm’s flagship building to this day and welcomes thousands of visitors for a so-called “Heineken Experience”.
It is true to say there is no direct evidence concerning how much of the original purchase and expansion of the brewery was financed using the proceeds from slavery. Heineken says none, but there remains a reasonable view that the wealth inherited by Gerard’s mother from slave plantations in the West Indies played a role in the acquisition.
Nonetheless, in a statement, Heineken disputes this version. It claims that the funding to buy the brewery came purely from an inheritance from Gerard’s father linked to the family’s cheese business.
Heineken says: “Our research indicates that Cornelis Heineken (Gerard’s father) was a successful cheese trader. He died in 1863 and he left Gerard an inheritance. In the following year, 1864, Gerard bought the Heineken brewery. Based on that, we deduce that Gerard used this inheritance from his father’s cheese business to buy the brewery.”
The company suggests that the letter from Gerard to his mother, in which he seeks her approval and writes that the price is “much better than I expected”, had been misinterpreted – but provides no further evidence that her family’s wealth had played no part in the acquisition.
Heineken says: “To the best of our knowledge, there are no other letters or further evidence that exists that references the purchase of the brewery.”
The company adds: “We agree that it’s important to understand the origins of the company including its funding.”
Although Heineken was a successful enough company during its early decades, it was after the Second World War that it began its march to global domination, under the astute leadership of Alfred “Freddy” Heineken, grandson of founder Gerard.
Embracing the colour green and tinkering obsessively with Heineken’s logo, it was Freddy, more than any other person, who built Heineken into a colossus, largely by pouring huge sums into cutting edge advertising campaigns – and a rigorous defence of Heineken’s reputation.
As part of this, in 1964, Heineken began sponsoring a series of prestigious prizes for distinguished scientists and academics. From 1990, this included the Heineken Prize for History, awarded every two years to a prominent historian.
But the company’s interest in history seems to have limitations.
At first glance, a Dutch brewer like Heineken might seem like an unlikely company to potentially have links to the slave trade. The banks and insurers that helped to finance the expansion of trade with the New World as global commerce opened up in the 17th and 18th Centuries, powered to a large degree by slavery and plantation agriculture, are more obvious candidates.
The paper trail that links such firms is easier to trace through detailed banking records which survive.
But Heineken’s links illustrate the deeply complex relations between slavery and many modern firms, which may have benefited in more nuanced ways.
In 2012, the company implemented its human rights policy, which includes passages on modern slavery:
“Our policy is aligned with international standards including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights… and incorporates the following 10 key human rights standards: Health and safety. Non-discrimination. No forced labour. No harassment and violence. Child protection. Freedom of association and collective bargaining. Rest and leisure. Fair wages and income.”
But no mention of the conection between Gerard Heineken’s mother and slavery is made in any of the company’s historical material.
A small mention is included on the company’s Wikipedia page, but someone appears to be trying to remove this. It was deleted in November 2020, before being reinstated by an editor.
It is not clear who was responsible, but other negative information has been wiped from the company’s Wikipedia page before.
In 2014, an entire “Controversies” section was removed, which included accusations of racism. It featured references to a row in the mid 1990s after Heineken had complained that there were too many “negroes” in the audience of a new British TV show it was sponsoring, Hotel Babylon.
Bob Geldof, the founder of the TV production company behind the show, said at the time that Heineken could “go fuck themselves… It is our programme not Heineken’s.”
A different controversy came in 2018, over an ad for Heineken Light which the company subsequently pulled. It depicted a bartender sliding a bottle of Heineken Light past several Black people before it reached a paler-skinned woman. The tagline: “Sometimes lighter is better.”
Heineken later apologised, saying the brand had “missed the mark”.
On one level, Heineken’s reluctance to more rigorously scrutinise its history seems odd. After all, Heineken is hardly alone among prominent Dutch organisations in having alleged historic links with the plantation system.
As was the case with British cities such as Bristol and Liverpool, slave labor in the West Indies showered great wealth on the group’s home city of Amsterdam – money that financed construction of many of its canal-side mansions and palaces.
The Dutch West India Company operated ships estimated to have traded 500,000 slaves in the 17th and 18th Centuries. The city of Amsterdam itself was a major shareholder in the colony of Surinam, where thousands of slaves were held in bondage on hundreds of plantations. Utrecht has also acknowledged that it invested directly in slave plantations.
Karwan Fatah Black, assistant professor at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, says: “These ties are very clear and very direct. Merchants and investors from Amsterdam remained very involved in plantation agriculture and a group of them lobbied against the abolition of slavery. They actively stalled the process.”
He adds there was growing scholarly interest in the role that profits from slavery played in powering the industrialisation of the Dutch economy in the 19th Century.
Heineken’s position on the issue stands in contrast to other Dutch firms.
“As a bank with a history going back 300 years, ABN Amro too is aware that there may be some episodes in our past of which we cannot be proud,” the bank said last year, adding that it was unclear how long the study would take.
DNB, the Dutch central bank, also said it would examine its role while ING is taking similar steps to study its archives.
Across the North Sea in England, rival brewer Greene King – which was founded in 1799 by Benjamin Greene, owner of three plantations in Montserrat and St Kitts – has also admitted to its slavery connections and apologised, pledging to help fund a mentoring scheme for young people from Black and other minority backgrounds.
While many are sceptical that such steps are sufficient to offer redress, they do at least represent a start of a reconciliation process, says Professor William Pettigrew of the University of Lancaster.
“Pressure has been building on companies with similar links to examine them and this has built the expectation that material, reparative, compensation is a constructive way to confront this history.”
Diane Primo, Chairman of Purpose Brand, a Chicago-based agency that advises brands on their reputations, says that firms are better off being proactive and openly admitting to such links.
“You can’t hide in this world. A brand is an intangible asset and if you understand that you are interested in protecting that asset. If you do things that are in conflict with the values of the public then you place your reputation at risk.”
What was life like on slave plantations in Berbice in the mid 19th Century? Randy Browne, associate professor of history at the Xavier University in Ohio and the author of Surviving Slavery in the British Caribbean, says conditions were among the worst anywhere in the West Indies.
A swampy, coastal region straddling the mouth of the Berbice River in Guyana, Berbice was a Dutch colony from 1627 until 1815, when it was ceded to Great Britain. The British subsequently merged it with two other Dutch colonies, Essequibo and Demerara, to form British Guiana in 1831. In 1966, British Guiana gained independence as Guyana.
Such administrative tinkering made little difference to the appalling reality of life for the enslaved people of Berbice, where low-lying land, poor drainage and incessant rain compounded the misery of a back-breaking work schedule and brutal treatment by owners and drivers.
Daily punishments in the 1820s and early 1830s would have included floggings, confinement to public stocks, branding with hot irons, and the use of metal collars. Serious crimes, including insurrection, were punishable by decapitation. Slaves caught practising Obeah or other banned African religious practices faced mutilation or dismemberment, with their body parts placed in prominent locations to terrorise others. In earlier times, castration was commonplace.
To make matters worse, slaves in Berbice faced frequent outbreaks of diseases such as yellow fever and malaria. Gastrointestinal epidemics ripped through the colony because many people had no access to clean drinking water; their water was instead often drawn from the same source used for latrines. Access to healthcare was virtually nonexistent.
As well as gruelling 12-hour days of work cutting and processing sugarcane and other crops, plantation slaves – who rarely wore shoes and had minimal clothing – were forced to clear forest and dig drainage trenches.
All of this meant that the colony, where the biggest town of New Amsterdam had no more than a few hundred people, struggled to maintain a stable population, especially after the end of the slave trade ended the supply of raw recruits from Africa for plantation work.
“Berbice had one of the highest death rates in the Americas because of the disease environment,” says Browne, who adds that the prevalence of sugar cultivation, where work was especially tough, compounded the problem. “People are getting worked to death without adequate food or clothing… This was a ramshackle, frontier colony.”
According to Keith McClelland, a researcher at the Centre for the Study of the Legacies of British Slave-ownership at UCL, the enslaved population of the British Caribbean at the point of abolition in 1834 was about 310,000 in Jamaica, 84,000 in British Guiana and 83,000 in Barbados. These three colonies together accounted for 71 per cent of the whole enslaved population.
But it was Berbice that had the highest male-to-female ratio – another yardstick of social stability – and the highest Black-to-white ratio of any British colony in the West Indies, of about 95:1.
All of this fostered an atmosphere of terror and mistrust, fuelled by the constant fear of rebellion among plantation owners who felt as though they had to use greater violence to maintain control. Many slaves chose to escape for a life of freedom in the bush.
A major slave uprising had taken place in Berbice in February 1763, in which nearly 2,000 people died. It took the Dutch ten months to regain control of the colony and many plantations up-river were permanently abandoned.
Unsurprisingly, many plantation owners preferred to be absentees in Europe, collecting their dividends while leaving the unpleasant job of day-to-day management of their estates to local drivers and agents on the ground. Anna Getruuida van der Paauw and most members of the Schumacher family appear to have fallen into this category.
British records show that Rotterdam and Gelderland had nearly 300 enslaved people working on them in 1831.
Some records do survive regarding conditions on Rotterdam, where the plantation manager in 1826, a Mr M Lankhorst, was recorded as having inflicted an average of three punishments per month on workers. That was about average for the colony, although some plantations claimed to have fewer. One known as Hermitage recorded 25 per month.
Despite passing into British hands in 1815, many of Berbice’s plantations remained under Dutch ownership and the records of the Slave Compensation Commission are peppered with payments to Dutch owners based in Amsterdam or other cities in the Netherlands.
And while slavery was abolished on Berbice in 1834, the practice remained legal in the Dutch empire, including in the neighbouring colony of Surinam, until 1863. In Cuba, it remained legal until 1886, and in Brazil until 1888.
This encouraged some plantation owners in Berbice to invest heavily in steam power and other new technology, which helped to reduce the sheer number of people required to work on them.
The other solution, widely adopted in Guyana and Trinidad, was the use of indentured labour – a practice which led to the influx of large numbers of South Asians, mostly shipped from British India, to work on plantations that had previously relied largely on enslaved Africans.
Historian Hugh Tinker has described this form of indentured labour as a “new system of slavery”.
“It was an extremely brutal system,” says Keith McClelland of UCL, who explains how most labourers were contracted to work for a fixed seven-year term. “You had to stay for that period with minimal wages and housing, but once there it was very difficult to leave.”
As the Black Lives Matter protests engulfed the US and cities around the world last summer, protesters in Amsterdam vandalised several statues of historical figures linked to the slave trade and called for their removal.
At the time, Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema said the campaign had led to an inflexion point, “an unstoppable new people’s movement”.
Some firms, it is true, have begun to examine their records more closely. But the debate over the legacy of slavery in Holland is still in its infancy – a fact reflected perhaps by the reluctance of one of the country’s biggest companies properly to confront it.
In the Netherlands, as in many western countries, the ties with slavery run deep, adding to the challenge. When the Dutch monarch conducts ceremonial duties, such as the annual Budget Day procession to make a speech in the Hague, the King or Queen travels in a golden carriage, which depicts on one of its panels images of Black slaves making submissive gestures to the royal family.
Karwan Fatah Black says: “There is a bigger reckoning with colonial history. The Dutch no longer have a colonial empire to protect, and people have become curious about what was really going on. There is a clear push for greater transparency.”
As in Britain, opponents of such a historical audit say that making a formal apology for crimes committed over 150 years ago in another era sets a dangerous precedent – one that opens the door for financial compensation for taxpayers who themselves bear no responsibility. Others say no real progress can be made until there has been a fuller reckoning with history.
Last year, UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet called on wealthy nations to make amends for “centuries of violence and discrimination” by paying reparations. “Behind today’s racial violence, systemic racism and discriminatory policing lies the failure to acknowledge and confront the legacy of the slave trade and colonialism,” she said.
Hilary Beckles, the chairman of a reparations commission representing Guyana, Jamaica, Barbados and other Caribbean nations, last year reiterated calls for countries including the UK and Holland to offer financial compensation.
No European nation has yet been willing to seriously enter such a discussion, amid concerns a formal apology would open a Pandora’s Box of claims and legal action. Nevertheless, Randy Browne, an expert on Berbice, says it was vital for individual companies to study and recognise their own past.
He said: “A minimum first step is a real honest engagement with their company’s history. They have an ethical and moral responsibility to go further than that if some of their money came partly from enslaving other people.”
Joshua Virasami of Black Lives Matter agrees: “It’s incredibly important that they answer for that set of conditions that they continue to profit from. The more we raise public consciousness about these issues the better.”
Exactly what happened to the Schumacher family’s plantations remains unclear but one partial clue is an announcement in the London Gazette from 1846. It advertises details of an auction to be held on 1 September of that year for a…
“…one eighth share in the coffee plantation Rotterdam… on the east bank of the river Berbice. One twenty-fourth share in the coffee plantation Gelderland… [And] one undivided twenty-fourth share in the plantation Schumacherslust, formerly a coffee plantation.”
No further details of the sale can be traced.
Today, the old slave plantations beside Guyana’s muddy Berbice river have vanished – just another forgotten corner of one of South America’s poorest countries, thousands of miles away from Wembley stadium and this weekend’s festival of football, beer and marketing.
11 July 2021: Some parts of this story have been amended since initial publication.