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How a little Dutch statue explains the American economy

A few months ago, I was idly clicking around on Google Maps around Feijenoord, Rotterdam. I had read an article about the area’s immigrant community and was trying to get a sense of the place. But I stumbled upon a charming cobblestone plaza with a humble statue of a man – he looks like a tourist if you’re not paying attention – named Lodewijk Pincoffs


I was intrigued: the statue wasn’t grand enough for him to be a titan of industry. He clearly wasn’t one of those founders of Dutch commerce, and he obviously wasn’t Rothschild-level wealthy. It was too humble a statue for that. But he obviously was important enough, to somebody, to make a statue of.

Courtesy of  Voorouder.nl

Courtesy of Voorouder.nl

The story I found was more interesting than I expected. Instead of the story of a rich man who rose to power, it’s a bit more complicated. Lodewijk Pincoffs, a 19th-century merchant, is a window into the sins of our ancestors. It’s a story about how the theft and violence of the colonial era still shape today’s economy. And I don’t say that to excoriate the Pincoffs family, but rather: this is the history of wealth, in the United States and throughout the world, in the 21st century. And that’s something we need to wrestle with.

Much of what’s written on old Lodewijk is in Dutch, but the Poortgebouw has a run-through in English. In short, he was born in Rotterdam in 1927 and rose to the top of city society through hard work, a newly secular order (Pincoffs was Jewish), and membership in a masonic lodge. He becomes the first Jew in the Dutch Senate and is one of those who put Rotterdam on equal footing with Amsterdam. Now the busiest port in Europe and fourth-busiest in the world, much of oceanic Rotterdam was built with the wit and grit of Lodewijk Pincoffs.

Unfortunately, there’s an “unfortunately.” A few, actually. First, is where that wealth came from: One of Pincoffs’ major ventures was the Afrikaanse Handelsvereeniging (African Trade Company). Founded in 1849 (when Pincoffs was 22 years old), it was one of the last slave trade companies to operate in West Africa, not only over the Atlantic but also in intra-African trade in enslaved humans. The company also worked at the mouth of the Congo, beginning what would later become Belgium’s great atrocity—the Congo Free State. Pincoffs, his company, and his city made much of their wealth off of plundering African lives and materials.

The Poortgebouw was built to be the headquarters of one of Pincoffs' companies. But after he fled, it fell into disuse. It later became a squat and a social space, a century later in the 1970s. Image  courtesy of Roman Godorejckij, CC .

The Poortgebouw was built to be the headquarters of one of Pincoffs' companies. But after he fled, it fell into disuse. It later became a squat and a social space, a century later in the 1970s. Image courtesy of Roman Godorejckij, CC.

Also, Pincoffs was cooking the books. The Company were not very profitable at this plunder, and falsified their accounts to the tune of $100 million in 2010 US Dollars. The company went bankrupt. Pincoffs fled to New York with his family. Anti-Jewish protests and marches occurred in Rotterdam, according to the Jews of Rotterdam webpage, but what did Pincoffs care? He was one of millions of Jewish Europeans who took a boat from Rotterdam to New York City.

But the story doesn’t end there, it merely changes tone. Lodewijk was a failure of a businessman in the US as well, but his children were a bit more successful (and didn’t have their name attached to the debt, bankruptcy, and intrigue of their father). The middle son, Maurits/Maurice, particularly stumbled into luck; opening an agricultural trading concern in Chicago in 1880.

Courtesy  The Rice Journal , 1924.

Courtesy The Rice Journal, 1924.

Chicago, of course, was a booming metropolis in the late 19th century, the Rotterdam of the next generation. There’s no reports of Maurice being the sort of booksharp his father was, but there was also little need. He had an office in Lincoln Park, then set up in Galveston Bay, on the Gulf of Mexico in Texas, 20 years later. Pincoffs was one of the first international commodities traders in the city as it steadily became a world capital of rice, cotton...and later oil.

Maurice Pincoffs Company was integral to the rise of Houston, the United States, and the system of sourcing, outsourcing, invoicing, and importing that took this country from a cotton empire to a logistics empire. And it wouldn’t have been possible had Maurice’s father not run off with his money stolen twice: once from African lives and again from Rotterdam taxpayers.

This is not to incriminate the Pincoffs company, which I did not contact while writing this blog post. It is only to say: the courses of today’s economy were constructed with the violence of yesterday’s plunder. There is no exemption from imperial violence and enslavement, even for the Americans who came to this country after 1865 or who do not trace their ancestry back to individual plantation owners. We all are participants in this extractive practice that we can call the United States.

The question, for me, is what can be done about this. And I am not going to pretend I have straight answers about the next four or five steps towards a more equitable economy. But I suppose step one is: admitting this violence. Embracing the fact that our grandparents were part of a racist and extractive system, and that we are privileged by the outcomes of this system.

And it is also to say, and to quote Teju Cole: “‘we’ who?” I use the first-person plural here mostly to implicate myself in these systems. I don’t know who the reader is, and I won’t pretend to know how they are implicated. But admitting that participation in the economy is participating in a system that was built on extracting resources through theft and plunder, is a way to start thinking about what an alternative economy, and alternate methods of participation, may be. Embracing the violent past as a way to come to grips with the violent present is not to tolerate the thievery by men like Lodewijk Pincoffs but to acknowledge that these actions are historical actions with present-day implications. Like, the very economy of the country’s third-largest city.

So I find the begrudging little statue in Feijenoord kind of fitting. This was not a great man. This was not even a good man. On the plaque of his statue, it says: "A Spectacle of so much Glory, and so much Shame."

But his blood runs through the economy of three global cities—Rotterdam, Chicago and Houston. And his sins are the basis of an economy which must work more inclusively than anything that little man could have ever imagined.