Jacobus Capitein: A Complex Figure in History Who Defended Slavery Despite Being a Former Slave
Jacobus Capitein was a remarkable figure in history, best known for being the first person of African descent to be ordained as a minister in an established Protestant church.
Born in Elmina, present-day Ghana, Capitein was captured and sold into slavery at a young age of 7.
He was subsequently purchased by a Dutch West India Company employee named Jacobus van Goch, who took him to the Dutch Republic in 1728.
Capitein remained with van Goch when he moved to The Hague, and it was during this time that he expressed an interest in studying theology.
With the support of van Goch, Capitein began studying at the Gymnasium Haganum in 1731. In 1737, he graduated from the school and won a scholarship to study at Leiden University, joining the university’s theology department.
Capitein, who was most likely studying for a master’s degree at Leiden, studied there for three years. His final examination involved presenting and defending his dissertation in a formal setting before the university’s professors.
The dissertation, entitled “Is Slavery Compatible with Christian Freedom or Not?” was a proslavery work that supported Dutch involvement in slavery.
Capitein argued that slavery was a necessary institution for the economic development of the colonies, and that enslaved Africans were better off in the Americas than they would be in Africa.
He also argued that slavery was a form of charity that brought civilization to the “uncivilized” people of Africa.
Who was Jacobus Capitein, and what was his background and accomplishments?
Jacobus Capitein was a former slave from the Gold Coast (now Ghana) who was brought to the Netherlands by his owner, Arnold Steenhart.
He was subsequently sold to Jacobus van Goch, a trader in the Dutch West India Company, who provided him with a solid foundation in the Dutch language and education in painting, catechism, Latin, Greek, and Hebrew.
After expressing his desire to show his people the way to salvation, Capitein was urged by his catechism teacher to access good schooling in preparation for the ministry.
He enrolled in the Latin school of The Hague and eventually entered the University of Leiden to study theology.
Upon completing his studies, Jacobus Capitein delivered a public speech on “The Calling of the Heathens” and was appointed as a minister at St George D’Elmina on the Gold Coast from 1742-1747.
Despite controversy about his status as “Doctor of Theology,” there is no doubt that Capitein was a person of considerable erudition and well respected by his peers.
Reports on his ministry vary, with some suggesting he achieved little success in converting local populations to Christianity, while others suggest he backslid and became a “blind servant of fetish.”
Nevertheless, his story is considered significant as the first African to be baptized in the Netherlands and as an early example of an African who was able to rise to a position of influence and education despite his background as a slave.
In addition to his defense of slavery, Jacobus Capitein argued that Africans were predestined by God to be in servitude to Europeans.
He linked blackness and slavery to the curse of Ham, stating that “because Ham mocked his father’s nudity, the descendants of Ham, who had this miserable condition imposed on him before his brothers, would bear the mark of perpetual punishment, so that he would be a ‘slave of slaves to his brothers’.”
Capitein’s defense of slavery was not unique in his time, as many religious leaders in the Americas and Europe used the Bible to justify the enslavement of Africans and other peoples. However, his defense was notable for its intellectual rigor and thoroughness.
He was one of the first people to attempt to provide a comprehensive biblical justification for slavery.
The third chapter of Capitein’s “dissertation” presents the argument that Christianity and slavery are not necessarily incompatible.
Although Jacobus Capitein draws from a wide range of biblical, classical, and philosophical sources to support his argument, he notably does not make any direct reference to the Old Testament in this chapter.
Instead, he briefly mentions the golden calf episode in passing, as an example of the Old Covenant.
Capitein juxtaposes the letter of the Law of Moses, which was transgressed by the Israelites when they worshipped the golden calf at Sinai, with the spirit of the love of God according to 2 Corinthians 3:6, “with the aphorism, the letter kills, but the spirit gives life.”
Capitein also engages in critical reflection on the nature of slavery, disagreeing with Aristotle’s claim that it is introduced by natural law (ius naturae).
Instead, Capitein argues that it is introduced by oppression, chance, or the law of nature, ultimately opting for chance as “accidents of fortune” necessitated by social and political stability.
He concludes in chapter three that “slavery in no way contradicts Christian freedom.” Interestingly, Capitein notes that the Netherlands repealed slavery “not because of divine law” but “out of some sense of benevolence and clemency or for political expediency.”
Scholars have pointed to Stoicism as a major influence on Capitein’s argument for the compatibility of slavery with Christianity.
For example, Capitein cites Cicero’s “De Officiis” to support the idea that the universe is an orderly “rational totality” and that human beings can achieve happiness when they live in accordance with this universal order.
Similarly, Seneca defines a slave as “one who serves unwillingly” and notes that the “slavery of the soul” is more important than “physical slavery.”
Capitein’s argument thus suggests that slavery has existed since time immemorial, is precipitated by “fortune” rather than natural law, and is a part of societal order that should not be tampered with, but slave owners must take the dignity of slaves into account.
Despite the apparent defense of slavery in Capitein’s “dissertation,” some scholars argue that it should be viewed as a “rite of passage” that bridged his academic training with his career as a minister or missionary teacher.
In this view, it was also a means for Jacobus Capitein to promote Christian mission to West Africans on the Gold Coast.
This raises the question of whether Jacobus Capitein was a champion for slavery or a resisting mimic, or perhaps both at the same time.
Ultimately, Capitein’s arguments highlight the complex and often contradictory attitudes towards slavery and Christianity during the early modern period.
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Despite the controversy surrounding his views, Capitein’s writings had a lasting impact on debates about slavery and abolition. His arguments were widely read and discussed, and they were used by pro-slavery advocates to defend the institution in the decades that followed.
After completing his studies at Leiden University in 1742, Capitein was ordained as a minister in the Dutch Reformed Church on April 6th of that year. He was then sent to West Africa’s Gold Coast for missionary work.
During his stay, Capitein devoted several years to serving the Akan community, where he immersed himself in their language and culture, and translated religious texts into the Akan language.
Despite his efforts, Capitein faced challenges in his work as a missionary, as the Akan people held their own religious beliefs and practices, making it difficult for him to gain their acceptance.
While serving as a minister in Elmina, Capitein received a meager salary from the West Indies Company.
To make ends meet, he was expected to engage in additional business ventures, but these ventures left him deeply in debt. As a result of his financial struggles, Capitein passed away on February 1st, 1747, at the young age of 30, feeling bitter and frustrated.
The life and work of Chaplain Jacobus Capitein has been controversial and debated. Capitein argued for the compatibility of Christianity and slavery, which made him either neglected or scorned by scholarship during the past century.
However, taking into account his eighteenth-century context, especially the extent to which slavery was prohibited in the Netherlands but allowed in the overseas Dutch trading posts, his evaluation becomes more ambiguous.
Capitein’s life can be perceived either as a sell-out to the mercantile interests of the Dutch West India Company or as someone who used his cultural “hybridity” and intellectual ability to further the education of children from the Gold Coast (Ghana) in a school and take care of the local destitute children in an orphanage in Elmina.
Capitein revived the school at Elmina Castle that ceased to exist in 1661 and established a school that provided education for the much-neglected local population.
Capitein advocated at length that baptism still allowed the baptized to remain slaves – this ingenious argument countered the policy amongst slave owners not to allow their slaves to be baptized because that would inevitably lead to their manumission.
There seems to be enough evidence that Jacobus Capitein was not an unqualified champion for slavery in the Netherlands during the eighteenth-century.