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Symbolic Objects of Dutch Colonial History in Amsterdam: Monuments, Streets and Other Structures

The Dutch fellows know, and the visiting fellows quickly come to realize, that Amsterdam is a city rich with history in all of its canals, churches, palaces, and leaning houses. Another part of the Dutch history can be found in the monuments, memorials, street names, and other commemorating structures. Many of these figures conjure up images of a just and joyous heritage, places where one can be proud to be Dutch. Over the last few decades, however, many of the people and events symbolized in the structures have been called into question along with the troubling realization of the horrors of the colonial era. Many of the individuals would, in today’s political and social climate, be called war criminals, or at least serious human rights violators. Are these streets, monuments and other structures, which refer to some very controversial aspects of Dutch colonial history, accepted by the general public? And if not, how should the city and nation deal with these remnants of a controversial, if not shameful, past?  

Our investigation has focused on two structures within the City of Amsterdam, namely the Van Heutsz Monument and the Coentunnel. We will explain why the former was revised and renamed while the latter was not. Afterwards, we will compare and contrast the public perception of these structures with the current debate on Dutch identity and the Slavery Memorial Day held annually on July 1st since 2002. 

From Van Heutsz Monument to Monument Dutch East India-Netherlands

Walking from the Valeriusplein, under the arches of the Amsterdam Grammar School, the former Van Heutsz Monument, now called the Monument Dutch East India-Netherlands, towers above the adjacent park. Two twenty meter high columns support a sculpture of a blazing sun and are flanked by two brick walls with sculptures representing the local Indonesian culture. Perpendicular to this centerpiece, the designers of the memorial placed four yellow blocks representing the separation of the two nations as singular entities. 

The Van Heutsz Monument is one of the few public structures that has not survived the public backlash against the colonial epoch. The city renamed it the Monument Dutch East India-Netherlands in 2007, and erased all reference to Van Heutsz. He was the Governor-General of the Dutch East Indies in 1904 and preceded that appointment by ending the long Aceh War in Indonesia. Back home he was called the “pacificator of the Aceh,” but in reality he oversaw the brutal massacre of entire villages of the native population, including the women and children. Historians have estimated that nearly 70,000 Indonesian people perished from the expeditionary army under his direction.

The monument was originally built in 1935 and inaugurated by Queen Wilhelmina. From the start, the Van Heutsz monument was surrounded by controversy because of the popular opinion that the monument was erected out of a political battle between left- and right-wing parties. Throughout the ensuing decades, sporadic defacements and even instances of bombings illustrated the public’s disdain for the monument. In 1997, talks about renovations began but the plans were heavily criticized by the public. A hired consultant advised in 2001 to change the name and semblance of the monument.

In 2007 Van Heutsz was toppled from the center stage. The statue of Van Heutsz was taken away and instead a new statue of a woman was placed. She apparently personifies an abstract concept, unclear to casual observers. Further, a memorial basin was added as well as some sculptures. But even with the recent renovations, does the monument own up to the controversial implications of the Dutch colonial past? After visiting the monument, we had our doubts. The plaque explaining the history of the monument uses the word colonialism only once. In fact, the wording of the plaque mentions the “intimate bond” of the two nations, as if relations had been friendly during the entirety of Dutch control. The sculptures and other images depict a rather utopian version of this former Dutch colony: smoking volcanoes, native Indonesian art, old photos of an interracial couple and Indonesians working on the farmland— very idyllic and romantic. The implication is that the brutal colonization of Indonesia was trivial and hardly worth mentioning. No pictures are included of the Siege of Djakarta or, maybe even more appropriate considering its previous function, the pacification of Aceh. 

From Coentunnel to Max Havelaartunnel?

Jan Pieterszoon Coen preceded Van Heutsz by nearly three centuries, but the former had similar policies regarding trade, war, and colonialism. Coen is credited as having established the Dutch East India Company as a powerhouse in the early 17th century with his aggressive policies. He believed that, as he often put it, “there cannot be trade without war.” He was able to establish lucrative monopolies in mace and nutmeg through the crushing oppression of the local people. In one instance, he had approximately 15,000 individuals killed on one of the islands of Banda because they had reversed their allegiance and had been trading their valuable spices with the British.

The Coentunnel provides the necessary link for the “ring highway” that connects the west sides of North and South Amsterdam under the IJ waterway.  The Coentunnel seems to always be sputtering with traffic from the busy commuters en route to the business district, city center, or areas outside of Amsterdam in the province. Local Amsterdamers may wake up to a radio report at 6 a.m. that the traffic is already backed up two or more kilometers from the Coentunnel because the meager two lanes are not enough to push through the heavy traffic burden.  As such, the local and national governments are planning to build the Second Coentunnel to help relieve the pressure on the commuters.  

While the Van Heutsz Monument was renamed, little opposition has been generated over the Coentunnel and even the proposed addition of another tunnel with the same name.  What is different about these two individuals, memorialized in the two structures, to warrant the different responses by both the public and the government?  

We began this search by investigating how, in 1966, the Coentunnel was named. Our numerous phone calls to seven different national and local governmental departments provided no clear answers, and we almost gave up the search entirely. Finally, however, we spoke to the public relations official of the Second Coentunnel project and she relayed to us that the Coentunnel was named after the Coenhaven, a port near the tunnel. When querying for the reasons why the port was named after Coen, we were advised to call the City of Amsterdam. In other words, back to where we started. When pressed further, the official acknowledged that the controversial background of the name was most likely not taken into consideration at the time of the construction of the tunnel. The spokeswoman added, “You have to understand that Coen was just a historic figure for the Dutch in 1966, and it had no controversial meaning back then.”

To dig further, we solicited the opinions of individuals who think differently about this issue. Mrs. Remine Alberts, Chair of the Socialist Party in the Amsterdam City Council, brought forth a proposal to change the name of the Coentunnel back in 2002 during the 400th anniversary of the Dutch East India Company. She wanted to rename it Max Havelaar tunnel, after the famous nineteenth century book on Dutch colonialism and its atrocities by Multatuli. Mrs. Alberts explained: “We need to rethink our history. We need to be like a torch in a dark attic to look at all aspects of Dutch history. Through this proposal I wanted to start a debate.” Her overriding point was that we should remember Coen, but not with monuments. While we cannot hide from the past, neither should we commemorate him by a tunnel after him.

Initially, Mrs. Alberts’ proposal was rejected by the commission on street names of Amsterdam. This commission, composed of seven members, coordinates the street naming activities for the entire city and advises the borough-governments on the addition of proposed names. The reasons for the rejection of her proposal were, according to Alberts, threefold.  First, the Coentunnel is so well known that people would become confused upon a name change. Second, every day there is a traffic jam and the city would not want people to associate Max Havelaar with something as negative as heavy traffic. Lastly, changing the name of the tunnel would mean the city would have to change the name of Coenhaven and Coenplein (square) as well. 

The logic of that rationale seemed, at best, somewhat flawed, so the commission on street names was approached on this subject. The official report on the renaming of the Coentunnel mentions the discussion that took place within the committee. One of the members remarked that Coen did not act in violation of the valid international law at the time. Another member brings up that the name Coentunnel indeed is derived from the Coenhaven, which was named in 1921, implying what the public relations official from the second Coentunnel pointed out earlier.

Mr. Bo van Amstel, the former secretary of this commission, further explained that the commission rarely makes the recommendation to change the name of an already existing street or structure. He relayed that this policy stems from the confusion that could potentially arise from the homeowners who would be essentially “relocated” by the change of their street address. He also notes that street names are in fact doing justice to history at one point in time. Coen was considered a national hero at the time of the construction of the Tunnel; the same is true for other streets and structures in Amsterdam. There are exceptions, though, to the policy of not changing names: Stalinstraat, for example, was renamed Vrijheidslaan (liberty avenue) after the violent repression of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 by the Soviet Army.

Mr. van Amstel continued that the commission advises against the use of names of controversial individuals when new neighborhoods are under construction. As most colonial figures would be controversial these days, Mr. van Amstel believes that nobody will want to name a street after them anymore. Further, he imagines it very unlikely that a nationalist agenda for naming streets and other structures would come into the city administration of Amsterdam in the coming years. It is important to note that in the end, the commissions’ recommendations are not binding. It can be, therefore, a political matter: the city legislature and the city administration always have the final say on naming streets. And so, Mrs. Alberts’ proposal was also brought to a vote in the City Council, but it did not receive enough support from the other parties to get passed. 

Mrs. Alberts, responding to the question of why the Van Heutsz Monument has changed and the Coentunnel has not, offered: “This part of history is not in the hearts and minds of the people; the general public does not take as much of an issue with it.” We tested this assumption by asking people about Coen and the tunnel named after him on the streets of the Bijlmer, an Amsterdam neighborhood resided in by many minority groups. Truly, most people were not aware of this part of Dutch colonial history. An often heard reaction was: “if this is true, they should definitely change the name of the tunnel, because it would be inappropriate and disrespectful towards minorities.” But the same people did not seem to be willing to take a firm position, because they admitted to feeling that they do not knowing enough about it. Some interviewees, mainly white, native Dutch, even claimed that the atrocities took place such a long time ago that it was time to let the argument rest. While they did agree with the assertion that what Coen did was wrong, they did not see the point of changing the name as they considered it symbolic and of little consequence. From this tension in responses, we draw the conclusion that some native Dutch are unable to empathize with people from non-native Dutch origin, especially those from the former colonies. 

National Monument on Slavery

With the existence of the previous structures perhaps seen as negative aspects of Dutch remembrance, we proceeded to investigate the public involvement in one of the more positive structures erected to remember colonialism and slavery. Slavery Memorial Day is held every July 1st at the Slavery Monument in Oosterpark. We had the opportunity to attend this year’s ceremony, which was also attended by the Dutch Prime Minister Mr. Jan-Peter Balkenende, the Mayor of Amsterdam Mr. Job Cohen, and many people from former Dutch colonies. 

The National Monument for the History of Slavery was designed by Erwin de Vries and represents the past, the present, and the future in three separate parts. The rear symbolizes the dramatic and oppressive history of slavery. In the middle, mankind breaks through resistance and taboos. Mankind has found the strength to liberate itself from the chains of an unjust society and to be a complete person. The front underlines the urge for freedom and a better future inherent in every individual. 

The monument was inaugurated by the Queen in 2002. The ceremony was quite controversial that year because only special guests were allowed near the memorial during the service. Other attendants were allowed to visit the site only after the ceremony took place. People from the former colonies claimed it was an all-white event. A year later, Rita Verdonk, the popular right-wing former cabinet minister for immigration and integration, was prevented from laying a wreath on behalf of the government when some youngsters threatened her and blocked her way to the monument. 

There was no such controversy in this year’s event. After a ritual prayer by a Surinamese priestess and some speeches, the Prime Minister, the Mayor, and various ambassadors and other dignitaries laid wreaths near the impressive monument. Dr. Edward Campbell, director of the National Institute for the Dutch Slavery Past and Heritage (NiNsee) argued in his speech that the Dutch population should link current racism in the Netherlands with the slavery of the past, because the former springs from the latter and these practices are based on the same line of thought. The service ended with some songs and an official reception nearby the monument.

Many of the individuals we spoke with after the memorial indicated that they were pleased with this year’s service. They feel that it is very important for these communities of people who have a legacy of being enslaved. But one person, a middle-aged woman from Suriname, told us that she did not care that much about the memorial. “This is more for old people, who still remember, not as much for me. I know my ancestors were enslaved, but it did not happen to me; it is part of my culture, not of myself.” A woman in traditional Surinamese dress, Hannah, told us she really appreciated the Prime Ministers’ presence and she agreed with Balkenende that there should be more attention paid to this aspect of Dutch history in classes, as he stated in his speech.

We also interviewed people about the Coentunnel and again nobody knew much about who Coen was. Interestingly, Hannah thought the tunnel should remain named after the Governor-General, because then people would continue to be reminded of him. When it was pointed out that many people do not know who Coen is, she agreed that citizens first have to learn who he was and what he did.  We also were able to speak with Ms. Aspha Bijnaar of the slavery research division of NiNsee. When informed about the Coentunnel, she pointed out: “During the days of the VOC (Dutch East India Company) people argued that the goal justifies the means, so that is probably why he was considered a hero in history. But if this is true, I would call naming a tunnel after such a person as Coen short-sighted.”

Dutch Identity 

The current political climate in The Netherlands is characterized by an ongoing debate about the Dutch identity and migrant issues, centered especially around Islam. Criticism of the Dutch colonial past and how it is dealt with is generally not well perceived among native Dutch citizens. Most people we talked to did not feel that it was a necessary dialogue to have in the public sphere. Perhaps, even, it is seen as a threat to the national identity. Rita Verdonk, kicked out of her former party and government power, attacked this discussion during the presentation of her own brand-new political party, Proud of the Netherlands. She claimed, “They want to build slavery memorials to make us look bad.” Verdonk neglected to identify who “they” are and disregarded the fact that the Netherlands has only one official memorial on slavery. But her rhetoric seems to do well among Dutch voters, as she currently polls around 15 percent of the popular vote, mostly because people see eye-to-eye with her nationalism. Her and her followers’ assertion could be as follows: immigrants already form a danger to Dutchness with their odd habits and their foreign religions, and now we have to rethink our Golden Age because we have to adapt to their oversensitivity regarding colonialism. With this in mind, we wonder how the Dutch are to deal with the past in light of the current political discourse. 

We cannot give a final answer to that question, but we have some preliminary thoughts after our interviews, readings, and discussions. We assert that The Netherlands should take the current search for Dutch national identity seriously, but great care should be taken to accomplish the learning and transmission of all aspects of history—not only the positive side. Responsibility to understand this identity, therefore, should reside not only in the hands of historians and politicians, but all citizens. We posit that this could result in the creation of a more subtle identity, which will avoid the same kind of ultra-nationalism that the world saw during the Holocaust and other genocides.

Related to this discussion on identity, throughout our interviews we noticed heavy criticism of Dutch history education, in which many individuals mentioned too little time is contributed to the bleak realities during the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic. Mrs. Alberts, besides her work as a local party leader, is also a previous history teacher. She recognized the importance of a well-rounded historical education for students to better relate to the good and bad of Dutch history. For instance, she noted how the Dutch Canon, a list of fifty priorities on Dutch historical education made by prominent academics, was wholly supportive of a nationalistic identity. Additionally, many people in the street acknowledged the lack of inclusiveness of the history curriculum in schools, based on their personal experiences during their childhood.  

Discussing Means Knowing

It is time to provide answers to the questions we asked ourselves at the beginning of our report: Are these streets, monuments and other structures, which by name refer to some very controversial aspects of Dutch colonial history, condoned by the general public? If not, how should the city and nation deal with these remnants of a controversial if not shameful past?  

As for the first question, most people have little in-depth understanding of the Dutch colonial past. But when further explained, people did have a negative view toward the practice of naming commemorating structures and streets after controversial colonial figures. On the other hand, while not condoning the actions of these individuals, some respondents wished to keep these names so they remain in the public dialogue. This appears contradictory because if people do not know the history of colonialism and its main actors, how is the nation supposed to have a discussion about it? 

This draws us to the answer of our second question. We think it is necessary to provide a well-rounded education on Dutch history in schools and other educational mediums. Children can have the possibility to grow up and identify themselves with the Dutch nation, but they will also be aware of the shadowy side of their country’s past. Additionally, by talking about all sides of Dutch history, it is possible to better include non-native Dutch persons in the society, as they are afforded the opportunity to identify with a nation which does not deny the injustice done to their ancestors. 

Readers may question why we bothered pursuing research on a topic that most people would not find terribly important, at least in light of other current human rights crises. But by posing questions about remnants of the past, a contribution can be made to the debate on history. To quote a member of the Dutch Parliament, John Leerdam: “One who doesn’t know the past, won’t be able to understand the present. Somebody who doesn’t know about Dutch history on colonialism and migrant issues is not able to understand the rapid changes we see in the major cities in terms of ethnic background.” Perhaps changing street names and monuments is merely a symbolic gesture, and often not feasible in the public eye, but it is still worth discussing to come to a deeper understanding of Dutch history.





Street interviews in Bijlmer, Amsterdam, June 27, 2008
Street interviews in Oosterpark after a Memorial Service, Amsterdam, July 1, 2008
Mrs. Remine Alberts, Chair of the Socialist Party in the City Council of Amsterdam
Mr. Bo van Amstel, Former secretary of the Commission on Street Names of Amsterdam
Mrs. Aspha Bijnaar, National Institute for the Dutch Slavery Past and Heritage


De Lange, D, Controversiële Monumenten in de Hoofdstad, Galapas, Independent Magazine of the Department of History of the VU University Amsterdam, No 28-2, December 2007/January 2008
Leerdam, J, Slavernijmonument helpt wel degelijk tegen het alledaags racisme, De Volkskrant, June 28, 2008
City Atlas of Amsterdam
Minutes of the Commission on Street Names of Amsterdam concerning the Coentunel, November 21, 2002.
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Netherlands Netherlands 2008


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