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But it was so long ago: Confronting the Dutch Slave Past, Present and Future in the Classroom

 

The couple approaches the Oosterpark monument hesitantly at first and then more resolutely, a certain recognition of its significance spreading across their faces.  The woman extends her brown hand to the statue, knocking ever so softly, as if afraid that after 140 years the monument can be nothing more than a mirage and will crumble at her touch.  The man watches from behind paled skin and pursed lips, reluctant to join his wife in her enthusiasm.

“It’s been 140 years since the end of slavery,” he says by way of explanation.  “We shouldn’t forget, of course, but there are a lot of other things that deserve our attention.”

The form of the monument seems to confirm his reservations.  A line of slaves, one indistinct from the next, emerges from the archway of the shackles of oppression to embrace freedom.  A plaque reads only, “Shared past, common future, National Monument Commemorating the Abolition of Slavery,” perhaps suggesting that the descendants of all parties involved in the slave system have equal access to status in contemporary society.  Nowhere is there an acknowledgement of the continuing legacy of slavery.  Absent is an implication of the distinctive role the Dutch, themselves, played, or an indication of the humanity of slaves apart from their identity as traded commodity.  These silences sit docile, untapped even by a married couple, the woman Surinamese and the man Dutch, one unwilling to recognize a legacy his color exempts him from experiencing personally, the other ever cognizant of a reality her color forces her to confront.

Artist, actor and director Felix de Rooy, curator of a World Museum exhibit in Rotterdam detailing the history of slavery explains this reluctance to engage with the history of slavery in no uncertain terms.  “There’s been a psychological denial.  If you’re an actor on a stage you can’t just exit in the middle of the play when it was you who set it all in motion…If you rape a girl on the first date it will always be an issue, even if you stay with her for twenty years and have children.  Maybe it’s not an issue for the man—for Europe—but only because they don’t want to make it an issue.”

Making slavery an issue has been the goal of activist Roy Ristie, chairman of the June 30/July 1 Committee, conceived “not to have a monument but to start a process of consciousness, awareness and acceptance” of the Dutch slave past.  Adamant that national reflection was a prerequisite for the erection of a statue, Ristie’s group opposed the Oosterpark memorial.  For the June 30/July 1 Committee, recognition of slavery’s role in the development of a Dutch cultural consciousness cannot be achieved through the finality that stone and metal signal.  Instead, Ristie says, “The Netherlands must take responsibility for slavery and for its slavetrading past.” And, Ristie contends, one of the most effective ways to measure the extent of Dutch resolve to examine its past is to look to how the country chooses to instruct its children on the topic of the Dutch culpability for atrocity of slavery.

In this respect, Ristie’s organization and Sophiedela, the Afro-European women’s organization that was the primary lobbying force behind the creation of the monument in Oosterpark see eye-to-eye.  In fact, the original idea behind the development of the physical statue as promoted by Sophiedela involved a Dynamic Monument—a living memorial to the slave past through educational initiatives.

But despite the work of such pressure groups around slavery education and the renewed interest the 140th anniversary of its abolition has spurred, both educational materials and the schools that use them have remained slow to respond to the trend toward adequate coverage of the slave past, present and future that has accompanied the 140th festivities in other sectors.  Instead, official attempts to reconcile deficiencies in history curricula have been largely rhetorical.

For instance, the former State Secretary of Education Frederick van der Ploeg was largely hailed for delivering remarks at the monument’s 2002 inception that called for a reform in the portrayal of slavery in Dutch schoolbooks.  Saying that in the past “slavery was presented as a side product of the creation of western civilization to schoolchildren for generations,” van der Ploeg painted a portrait of the ways in which the educational system has relegated slavery to a mere “footnote.”  Yet in doing so, the State Secretary belied his own prejudices, reverting back to some of the very same misconceptions exhibited by the very texts he cited.  In presenting the slave experience as “destructive of the African identity of slaves and in claiming that the slavemaster’s ability to name his slaves permitted the wholesale substitution of “a western identity for an African one,” van der Ploeg denied the creation of a completely new “hybrid civilization,” in the words of de Rooy, and instead unwittingly confirmed the notion, propagated by slaveholders, that slaves were a dehumanised commodity.

Thus, despite the rightness of van der Ploeg’s intentions in exposing the ways in which Dutch textbooks have historically portrayed the slave trade as reflective of entrepenuerial spirit and ingenuity, belittled slaves, themselves, and their descendants as incapable of performing highly intellectual tasks, and referenced the lives of slaves only insofar as their effect on the value of the human property, van der Ploeg and the Ministry of Education he represents, refuse to acknowledge the implication of silencing the voices of slaves, themselves, as well as the role of the Dutch from textbooks.  From this exclusion, not only are future generations of Dutch leaders being taught that slavery is not important enough to warrant space on the pages of their history textbooks, but they are grossly under-equipped to be able to interpret the meaning of a Dutch multicultural society.  

As Dienke Hondius, researcher at the Anne Frank Foundation and professor at Erasmus University recounts her own experience, “Every Monday morning in school we had to bring ten cents for the people in Suriname.  But why we had this connection with the people in Suriname was not at all made clear.”  In other words, without an adequate understanding of the ways in which the Dutch interacted with Africans and Americans, the reality of the black Dutchman today will be inaccessible.  

As de Rooy explains, “The black pages of this Dutch history cannot be silenced anymore because its black children are walking on its streets, sitting in their cafes, and eating their food.” It is precisely this legacy of the perception of race in modern day Holland that requires attention be paid to the subject of slavery.

But how slavery should be approached in school history curricula is a more complicated matter than the admission that is synthesis should be an essential aspect of any examination of Dutch self and national identification today.  Indeed it is a matter whose character has been radically altered by the debate over how best to construct a monument celebrating the 1863 Dutch emancipation of the slaves.  Though it was designed to attract attention to the cause of recognizing slavery through a living Dynamic Monument, the Oosterpark statue has often proved a distraction to proponents of changes in education, seeming to signify that the healing surrounding slavery, and the nation’s reconciliation process were completed when the monument was first exhibited in the summer of 2002.

Ristie explains, “We weren’t ready for a monument yet.” Instead, he suggests, the silences of the past can be atoned for through “a process of emancipation and de-traumatizing” in the form of new history books and documentaries, a project he and his colleagues are busy developing.

But it is unclear whether such projects will have a market.  The Ministry of Education has been giving increasing autonomy to local school districts in recent years, maintaining strict control only over “the subjects to be studied, the attainment targets and the content of national examinations,” according to its website.  And though general standards established by the Ministry of Education are now accompanied by more specific goals within larger disciplines in compliance with the 2002 Commission Kerndoelen’s work, there remains no standardization in regard to how content is taught or emphasized.  Thus, since “institutions are being given greater freedom in the way they allocate their resources and manage their own affairs,” according the Ministry of Education, the burden of how slavery is covered is left at the discretion of individual schools, and, in many cases, in the hands of individual teachers.

For those who teach directly from the prescribed school textbook, the task of demonstrating the contemporary legacy of slavery is difficult.  A quick survey of books contained at a textbook supplier showed that the vast majority of texts did not even provide a listing for slavery in the index.  Even among those books dedicated solely to Dutch history, the Dutch enter into the narrative only as liberators or economics speculators.  “The Spaniards came to the West Indies and took away the Amerindians and enslaved them on other islands.  In the seventeenth century the Dutch conquered these islands,” reads a typical eighth grade text for advanced students (Wilschut et al. 1992).  Strangely, the term “Europeans” is routinely used to describe the dominant power in the Antilles and in Suriname, thereby reducing a collective Dutch consciousness around the issue of slavery to little more than a nagging sense of continental guilt (Wilschut et al. 1992).

In addition to this failure to explicitly implicate historical actors, such texts echo slaveholders’ understandings of the monetary value of slavery and the slave trade, unwittingly serving as apologists for this most peculiar of institutions.  A 1991 textbook for top-level secondary schools justifies harsh punishments for slaves, suggesting that violence was used solely as a means of preventing action against the slaveholder.  The text reads, “Groups of slaves would escape frequently to the forests.  Man would try to avoid revolts or any form of resistance by punishing slaves.  Suriname was in a state of permanent war and in 1770 maroons posed a grave danger.  A European expedition was dispatched to protect the plantation along the coast,”(Schöffer et al. 1991).  

Not only does this picture avoid a condemnation of the morality of slavery, itself, but it implicitly condones torturous punishment and constant surveillance used in the spirit of “protection” and not aggression.  Furthermore, such language simultaneously confirms stereotypes of the brutal African savage who evokes fear and suggests that slaves and the white power structure controlling them operated on similar power levels.  By presenting the situation as one of war and not one of conquest, the text provides an alarming justification for the rightness of Dutch actions in regard to slavery.

Other attempts to minimize the magnitude and horror of slavery come in comparative models that rationalize the enslavement of Africans because the concept of human bondage was not foreign to the newly enslaved population.  A one-page unit entitled “Africa and the Slave Trade” begins, “The slave trade happened in many places around the world.  When the Europeans started the Atlantic slave trade in the 1500s, there were many slaves being traded within Africa for a long time already,” (Wilschut et al. 1992).  Nowhere is there a description of what constituted the daily experiences of life under each system, the obvious power discrepancy in the African/European model, or the use of slavery as punishment for failure to comply with the law, or as retribution in a war victory.  Instead, the student is left believing that slavery is the logical consequence of interactions between civilizations and that the mass enslavement of Africans by white Europeans was not exceptional.

Furthermore, even when texts acknowledge the wrongness of the slave system, they often use such past abuse as implied justification for later colonization.  One text cites historians’ views on the consequences of the slave trade for Africa.  One historian attributes Africa’s failure to develop economically to the fact that “the Europeans bought the best people…The people that could have built Africa left as slaves.”  Another historian in the exchange writes, “The slave trade and other kinds of trade between Africa and Europe destroyed opportunities for Africa’s political and social life (Wilschut et al. 1992).  The implication of such statements is clear; since Africa’s citizens are incapable of taking care of themselves, it is up to European powers to do so for them.  It is this type of paternalism toward the issue of slavery that underscores many of the textbooks being used by Dutch schoolchildren today.

Such misleading portrayals of slavery in textbooks put teachers in a bind.  Largely reliant on the textbooks their respective schools choose to endorse, and beholden to the guidelines in topics covered as prescribed by the Ministry of Education, most teachers do not have much leverage to advocate for official change outside of their own innovations in teaching.  However, a growing number of teachers in the Netherlands is supplementing the traditional textbook treatment of slavery with their own student-specific approaches.

Recognizing that slavery constitutes an important aspect of Dutch history and not just of black history, Alfred Buitenkant, a secondary school history teacher at the prestigious and predominately white Barlaeus Gymnaesium School in Amsterdam says he appeals to his own students’ societal positions in order to make his point.  “Some of the students are living in nice houses and some of those houses were built with money from the slave trade. So the students can see the consequences of that,” Buitenkant says. Furthermore, he asks students to take responsibility for their own privilege, intoning, “It’s very important that they’re aware of this, especially of the Dutch role, in that it’s not something to be proud of.  However, despite the effectiveness of Buitenkant’s message in raising consciousness with his students, he still must preface his critique by acknowledging that it is his and his alone—a political statement of motives that textbooks are exempt from making.  As Buitenkant says, “I’m very explicit about this being my own vision.”

This type of political massaging is also necessary when teaching slavery in predominately minority or immigrant Dutch schools, but in a different way.  While the general public perceives slavery as an essential aspect of the personal (but not the national) heritage of the student population in so-called “black schools,” it uses history as a means of reaffirming racial stereotypes, depicting enslavement as a civilizing project.  An examination of the images used in texts confirms this vision of the savage.  In one text, the sole picture depicting the brutality of slavery in Suriname shows a slave beating another slave with an iron stick (Wilschut et al. 1992).  Nowhere is there mention of a white presence or an explanation of the reasons behind such a humiliating and savage act.

Thus, teachers from schools composed largely of racial minorities are faced with nearly insurmountable challenges.  Published resources often implicitly deny any direct legacy of slavery, instead painting the 1863 emancipation of the slaves as the end marker of organized racism.  Colonialism is seen not as a direct descendant of slavery, but instead as a neutralizing agent in the face of an abolished trade.  Students of slave lineage are left questioning their family allegiances.  Furthermore, race is largely aligned with class, generating under-resourced schools that have few options for providing supplementary resources about slavery.

“I have to follow what’s in the textbook.  If the textbook [for my class] happens to teach slavery, I teach it, but otherwise, my hands are tied.  Currently it’s not required that I teach slavery, but I hope that changes,” says Wim Aerns, a history teacher at the Open School Gemeenschap Bijlmeer, a predominately minority school in Amsterdam.

Solutions to how to better represent slavery in school curricula have been slow in coming.  Though the Ministry of Education has contributed to several projects around the theme, it has no mandate to require schools to participate in such initiatives.  Thus, there is little opportunity for a serious curriculum overhaul.  Instead, smaller-scale projects, especially in relation to the 140th anniversary of the abolition of Dutch slavery are the norm.  Student participation is limited to brief exposure to aspects of black cultural identity through artistic modes.  And while these encounters encourage students to think about slavery outside of the traditional vision of dehumanization, assigning agency to slaves—a concept inconsistent with the framework presented by most textbooks, they are generally seen as supplemental field trips rather than substantive aspects of the standard curriculum of most schools.

Examples of these types of initiatives are vast and varied.  The most promising are more formally affiliated with the Ministry of Education, thereby enhancing their chances of exposure and distribution.  The materials developed and research conducted by the Nationaal Instituut Nederland Slavernijverleden en Erfgoed (NINSEE) represents the most substantial breakthrough in slavery education in the Netherlands in recent decades.  Scheduled to open later this summer, the organization was founded as a concession slavery monument activists interested in establishing a living tribute to slaves through research and education.  

As Aspha Bijnaar, a sociologist and researcher at NINSEE explains the mission of the partially governmentally sponsored group, “Textbooks generally provide the white perspective.  NINSEE wants to put an emphasis on the black perspective through slave narratives and oral histories.  The ultimate goal is empowerment, to show that slaves still have an identity apart from their victimization under slavery.”  Thus, NINSEE serves a crucial role in changing general misconceptions regarding slave agency through its materials.

Additionally, NINSEE has a role to play in changing the standards by which slavery is taught.  In conjunction with School TV, a provider of educational multimedia information to half of all secondary schools across the Netherlands, NINSEE developed a documentary video depicting the slave past.  The establishment of curriculum frameworks was established, with certain aspects of the slave experience recognized, including resistance and current legacies of the slave past.  According to these new framewords presented on the School TV website, students should be able to “recognize the contemporary meaning of the Dutch slave past” and “argue their own point of view in relation to this past.”  Due to the recent release of these guidelines, it is unclear how many schools are benefitting from exposure to these subjects and methods, but their very existence is promising.

Though less institutionally based, other projects addressing slavery education are slowly emerging.  One of the most interesting is the Slavernij Mo(NU)ment (Slavery Monument Now) in Amsterdam.  A theater exposition depicting various historical actors in the slave experience, it is designed to convey ïndividual stories” according to organizers.  “The public can experience the personal experiences of slave traders, the middle passage, the hard work on plantations, Dutch forts on the African coast and the Zeeuwse enterprise,” reads the press release for the event scheduled for later this summer and fall.  Organizers hope that such an experience will generate interest from schoolchildren who visit the exposition, but without any formal requirement of attendance, it is unclear how many schools will consider taking their classes on such a trip.

The same is true for the Imagine Identity and Culture exhbit on slavery, described as an opportunity for participants “to describe their history and culture by means of various activities,” using “these stories to create exhbitions, audio-visual programs and digital productions for both newcomers and residents,” according to the group’s website.  Just like de Rooy’s comprehensive World Museum exhibit and substantive treatments at both the Tropical and Suriname Museums in Amsterdam, though no doubt presenting a compelling narrative of the slave story, this exhbit does little to change institutionalized perceptions of slavery in classrooms around the country.

It will take much more than a one-time visit to an slavery exhbition--no matter how extensive or compelling its arguments--to make inroads in improving secondary education surrounding slavery.  The stark constrasts in reaction among the man and woman approaching the Oosterpark memorial to the abolition of slavery illustrates how deeply entrenched attitudes toward slavery’s inclusion in the curriculum are for different groups professing Dutch nationality.  Integrating these approaches is difficult indeed, but one thing is for sure: Until slavery is taught, free from stereotypes, and with honesty about Dutch complicity, making sense of the new multicultural society and the racism it engenders will be impossible for the next generation of Dutch leaders.

 

References

 

Interviews:

1. Wim Aerns, history teacher at the Open School Gemeenschap Bijlmeer, June 25, 2003.

2. Aspha Bijnaar, sociologist and researcher at the Nationaal Instituut Nederland Slavernijverleden en Erfgoed (NINSEE): June 24, 2003.

3. Alfred Buitenkant, history teacher at the Barlaeus Gymnaesium in Amsterdam: June 18, 2003.

4. Felix de Rooy, artist, actor, director and curator of a slavery exhibit at the World Museum in Rotterdam: June 21, 2003.

5. Dienke Hondius, researcher at the Anne Frank Foundation and professor at Erasmus University: June 20, 2003.

6. Roy Ristie, Chairman of the June 30/July 1 Committee: June 17, 2003.

Websites:

1. http://www.minocw.nl/geschiedenis/hoofdstuk1.doc (1998 report on the adjustment of history standards at the Ministry of Education)

2. http://www.minocw.nl/english_oud/edusyst/edn101.htm#i2 (description of the Ministry of Education’s governance of local schools)

3. http://www.aob.nl (Dutch teachers’union)

4. http://www.kit.nl/tropenmuseum (Tropical Museum in Amsterdam)

5. http://mmbase.teleacnot.nl/schooltv (interactive project on slavery geared toward teachers and students—part of the School TV initiative)

6. http://www.tolerantescholen.net (school curriculum based on the concept of creating a tolerant society)

7. http://www.imagineic.nl (multimedia project involving oral histories and modern-day perceptions of slavery)

Documents:

1. State Secretary F. Van der Ploeg’s speech at the dedication of the National Monument Commemorating the Abolition of Slavery, June 30, 2002.

2. “June 30 Manifesto,” June 30/July 1 Commission, Amsterdam: 2002.

Books:

1. Schöffer, van der Wee and Bornewasser, De Lage Landen 1500-1780, (Amsterdam: Agon Witgeverij Maatschappij, 1991), 288-290 by Schutte, I.

2. Stedman, John Gabriël, Reize Naar Suriname: Door Den Capitain John Gabriël Stedman, (Zutphen: De Walburg Press, 1987 reprint).

3. Van Dijk, Teun A, School Voorbeelden van Racisme, (Amsterdam: Uitgeverij SUA:, 1987).

4. Wilschut, Loggen and van der Gengten, Sporen 2, (Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff, 1992), 130-140.

Also consulted (with no mention of slavery):

1. Van Manen, Idzard and Mietema, Wietske, Memo: Geschiedenis voor de tweede fouse, (Den Bosch: Malmberg, 1999).

2. Van Manen, Wietske and Kropman, Memo (Havo), (Den Bosch: Malmberg, 1999).

3. Ulrich, Hans and Heij, Joop, Memo: Geschiedenis voor de Bovenbouio, (Den Bosch: Malmberg, 1995).

4. Wilschut, Loggen, van der Geugten and Gelens, Sporen 3, (Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff, 1993).

Special thanks to:

1. Roger van Boxtel, Former Minister of Integration and Urban Policy

2. Aranka Kellermann, National Bureau Against Racism

3. Gert Oostindie, Professor at Leiden University

4. Rudy Speer, City Councilman for the Bijlmeer district, Amsterdam

5. Alex van Stipriaan, Professor at Erasmus University, Rotterdam

6. Luus Veeker, Ministry of Education

7. Tino Wallaart, Journalist

 

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