The ex-slave-turned-missionary Jacobus Capitein was a Ghanaian writer, poet, minister, and missionary best known for being the first person of African descent to be ordained as a minister in an established Protestant church and his university dissertation which defended slavery.
Capitein was born in Elmina (present day Ghana) and was captured by invaders and sold into slavery at a young age of 7. He was subsequently presented to a Dutch West India Company (WIC) employee named Jacobus van Goch, who took him to the Dutch Republic in 1728. Capitein remained with van Goch when he moved to Hague.
While living in The Hague, Capitein expressed an interest in studying theology, and with the support of van Goch started studying at the Gymnasium Haganum in 1731. In 1737, after his graduation, Capitein won a scholarship to study at Leiden University, joining the university’s theology department.
Capitein, who was most likely studying a master’s degree at Leiden University, 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, which was immediately published as a treatise after it was given under the title of Is Slavery Compatible with Christian Freedom or Not? was a proslavery work which supported Dutch involvement in slavery.
In the dissertation, Jacobus argued that slavery was a necessary institution for the economic development of the colonies. He also argued that enslaved Africans were better off in the Americas than they would be in Africa, and that slavery was a form of charity that brought civilization to the “uncivilized” people of Africa.
In another brief but seminal argument, Capitein also 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. Many religious leaders in the Americas and Europe used the Bible to justify the enslavement of Africans and other peoples. However, Capitein’s defense was notable for its intellectual rigor and its thoroughness. He was one of the first people to attempt to provide a comprehensive biblical justification for slavery.
Capitein’s defense of slavery was not well received by all. Many abolitionists and anti-slavery activists saw his arguments as deeply flawed and a perversion of the gospel. They pointed out that the Bible taught equality and love for all people, and that slavery was a form of oppression that violated the dignity and freedom of human beings.
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.