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Whitewashed Slavery Past? The (Lost) Struggle Against Ignorance about the Dutch Slavery History

“ORANGE!…ORANGE!…ORANGE!” In The Netherlands this summer, as elsewhere in Europe and across the world, watching the 2012 Euro Cup was a popular activity, with signs of “Orange Fever” present throughout the country. Although the tradition is generally seen as a part of white Dutch culture, the black community in The Netherlands has played, and continues to play, a larger role in the phenomenon than is often recognized, even by black people themselves. A number of the Dutch team’s best players are descendants of slaves from former Dutch colonies in Suriname and the Antilles. While these men are now considered “Dutch,” at least for the purposes of the game, they were not always, and their skin color serves as one of the many reminders today of the legacy of Dutch slavery and colonialism. 

That history, although discussed infrequently among the Dutch public today, was provocatively highlighted in a newspaper article several years ago, in which Kenneth Renfrum of the Amsterdam Center for the 30th of June and the 1st of July (Stichting Amsterdams Centrum 30 juni–1 juli) referred to legendary soccer players such as Edgar Davids, Frank Rijkaard, and Patrick Kluivert as “slave sons.” Renfrum used the phrase to remind white Dutch society where these players came from. Such a blunt reference to slavery is far from the norm, however, and Dutch society, particularly white Dutch society, remains noticeably quiet on the issue. When asked about the nationality of several famous black Dutch soccer players in an interview, for instance, a white Dutch man in his twenties stated that the black players were not Dutch, but instead “Dutch-Surinamese.” He told us that he didn’t want them to use the word “Dutch” for their identity, even though they were “good soccer players.” 

A similar whitewashing of the Dutch slavery history occurs in discussions about the Dutch Royal Family’s Golden Carriage. The carriage, originally a gift from Amsterdam to the then-reigning monarch Queen Wilhelmina in 1898, is built of gilded wood and painted with depictions of the “allegories of praise.” One of these allegories, “praise to the colonies,” consists of images of slaves bestowing gifts upon the colonizers. Interestingly, the carriage was given to Queen Wilhelmina more than 35 years after The Netherlands abolished slavery in 1863, yet it depicts black people only as slaves and not as full citizens of the country’s colonies. Possibly of greater consequence in the carriage debate, however, is the fact that the Royal Family continues to use the Golden Carriage today despite public debate and criticism that the slave imagery is racist. Similarly, almost all of the white Amsterdammers we interviewed agreed that the Royal Family should be able to continue using the carriage regardless of the images. Most interviewees saw it as a historical artifact that could not be judged by today’s moral standards but instead should be understood as a product of history. One middle-aged white woman expressed shock at the idea of removing the images from the carriage, stating that the paintings are “beautiful; they are real art and you don’t destroy art simply because it celebrates something you’re now ashamed of.”

Criticisms of the carriage as racist or colonialist are often dismissed as an overreaction. But the carriage is just one of many seemingly innocuous yet pervasive depictions of slavery in The Netherlands today. Dr. Dienke Hondius, a history professor and researcher at the Free University of Amsterdam, explains that one of the main reasons for the persistent lack of knowledge about the Dutch slavery past among the public is that “slavery is seen as something that happened overseas…far away and is thus not of personal concern.” Efforts to break this silence and bring the slavery history to the forefront of the public’s consciousness have been made by various actors, but many of these groups have faced, and continue to face, significant challenges. The National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy (NiNsee), a research and educational center established in 2002, is one of the main actors working to strengthen the country’s discourse on racism, slavery, and post-colonialism. However, NiNsee is currently under fierce threat of being silenced. Earlier this year the Dutch government announced funding cuts that will reduce NiNsee’s budget by 90 percent, effectively closing the organization.

When asked what NiNsee has achieved in its work to raise awareness about the Dutch slavery past, Dr. Hondius notes that it “is an ongoing process, and the closing of NiNsee after 10 years threatens the furthering of awareness on slavery.” What does it mean that the only organization in The Netherlands working to document, research, and educate people about the Dutch slavery past is closing down just one year short of the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, and merely 10 years after the institute’s inauguration? And what does this mean for the future of the Dutch slavery monument, the annual slavery commemoration festival in Amsterdam, and similar historical memory efforts? 

A National Institute

NiNsee was established in 2002 following Minister Rogier van Boxtel’s expression of remorse on behalf of the Dutch government for the Dutch slavery past at the United Nations’ 2001 Durban Review Conference in South Africa. NiNsee was envisioned as a place for research, education, and commemoration, and seen as a dynamic monument to the country’s slavery past to stand in conjunction with the static, physical monument to commemorate slavery located nearby in Oosterpark in east Amsterdam. The institute was created with the goal of using a variety of perspectives in its efforts to bring the Dutch slavery past to international and national attention. NiNsee ran a museum with permanent and visiting exhibitions on slavery, conducted scholarly research, hosted lectures and other educational events, and worked to document and commemorate the Dutch slavery past, including work on the national Keti Koti Festival on July 1st to celebrate the abolition of slavery.

What does Amsterdam have to do with it?

Over the course of the more than 200 years that The Netherlands was involved in the slave trade and the use of slavery in its colonies, historians estimate that more than 500,000 people worked as slaves in the Dutch colonies. Slave labor created vast sources of wealth for the Dutch in the form of precious metals, sugar, tobacco, cocoa, coffee, and cotton.

The Dutch West India Company (WIC), a chartered company of Dutch merchants, was established in 1621 as a trade monopoly with control over the African slave trade, Brazil, the Caribbean, and North America. The company had offices in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Hoorn, Middelburg and Groningen, among which Amsterdam served an important role as the largest financier. One fourth of the Africans transported across the Atlantic by the WIC were moved in slave ships from Amsterdam.

Following the 1634 capture of Brazil from the Portuguese, The Netherlands became an active player in the transatlantic slave trade. In The Dutch Slave Trade 1500-1850, P.C. Emmer argues that the Dutch played a significant role in the development of slavery during the 17th century partly because of their use of slaves, but also critically because of their promotion of sugar plantations. The labor-intensive harvesting of sugar created an urgent need for slave labor, particularly in the French and English colonies of the Caribbean. 

Dr. Leo Balai, a historian and author of the book Slave Ship De Leusden, stresses the importance of Amsterdam in advancing the slave trade, particularly after it became a co-owner of Suriname in 1682. The city of Amsterdam, together with the WIC and the van Aerssen van Sommelsdijck family, formed the Society of Suriname to run the country’s plantations, bringing increasing numbers of slaves to work there. The WIC also used the nearby island of Curacao as a place from which to sell slaves to other colonies.

Almost all of the money that financed slave plantations in Suriname and the Antilles came from bankers in Amsterdam, just as many of the ships used to transport slaves were built there. Many of the raw materials that were turned into finished goods in Amsterdam, such as sugar and coffee, were grown in the colonies using slave labor and then refined in factories in the Jordaan neighborhood of Amsterdam. Revenue from the goods produced with slave labor funded much of The Netherlands’ Golden Age in the 17th century, a period renowned for its artistic, literary, scientific, and philosophical achievements. Yet the direct and indirect links between that lauded epoch and the concurrent use of slavery in Dutch colonies are rarely discussed. While profits made from coffee, sugar, wheat, and other goods helped to fund the creation of Amsterdam’s beautiful and famous canals and city center, there is little representation of that past in the city today, apart from a few plaques that mark the houses of former slave owners. 

The lack of visual representation of the Dutch slavery past in conjunction with the lack of adequate education on the topic in Dutch schools results in limited awareness and interest in the issue among a majority of Dutch people today. For instance, Balai’s research into the fate of slaves aboard the ship De Leusden highlights a tragic event and huge loss of life of which few Dutch people are aware. The sinking of De Leusden serves, in Balai’s words, as “horrific proof of how the slaves were seen as cargo or cattle rather than as humans.” In 1738 the Amsterdam-owned De Luesden began to sink in the Marowijne River in Suriname. Of the 716 slaves on board, only 16 survived after members of the crew ordered the slaves below deck and nailed the escape hatches shut before abandoning the sinking ship. De Leusden was one of the last Dutch ships to transport slaves after the WIC lost its prominent position in the slave trade in 1713. 

Beginning in the 17th century, enslaved men and women began to visit Amsterdam, and it was not uncommon for wealthy plantation owners to bring their most loyal black servants back from the colonies to visit the city. Afro-Amsterdammers have been a part of the city since then, evidenced, for instance, in the painting of two black men in the 17th century by the famous Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn. However, black people remained an anomaly in The Netherlands in the centuries that followed, a fact made stark by the exhibition of 27 Surinamese “Maroons” at the 1883 World Fair in Amsterdam. The Maroons—former slaves who escaped and lived in the Surinamese bush—were captured and brought to The Netherlands for six months as a public exhibition.

Following the abolition of slavery by The Netherlands in 1863, many former slaves and their descendants came to Amsterdam in search of better opportunities. This process accelerated following the independence of Suriname in 1975, after which a large influx of post-colonial migrants moved to The Netherlands. Many Antillean and Aruban migrants also came for academic opportunities. 

In spite of the presence of a black community in The Netherlands for the past four centuries, however, racism, discrimination, and a whitewashing of the country’s slavery past persist to this day. As Dr. Hondius notes, “racism, discrimination, and inequality are a direct consequence of what happened during slavery, but no one dares to make that connection or to talk about it.” Dr. Artwell Cain, director of NiNsee, notes that the lack of a post-colonial discourse and consciousness in The Netherlands inhibits recognition of the Dutch slavery past. When a large wave of post-colonial migrants arrived in The Netherlands in the 1970s and 80s, the Dutch government grouped them together with labor migrants from Turkey and elsewhere, and made policies focused on integration and citizenship for all of these groups. However, such policies failed to recognize the longstanding history of racism and discrimination against black people in the colonies and the pre-existing economic ties between the Caribbean and The Netherlands.

National Commemoration?

The National Commemoration Festival of the Slavery Past, known as Keti Koti (“Breaking the Chains” in Surinamese), is held annually on July 1st in Oosterpark, where the slavery monument is located. In conjunction with the festival, the National Monument for the History of Slavery was unveiled on July 1, 2002, after a push in the 1990s by the Surinamese activist group Sophiedela. The monument, designed by the Surinamese artist Erwin de Vries, depicts the past, present, and future of slavery and humankind in a three-part sculpture. The back of the sculpture depicts people in chains and represents the oppressive history of slavery. The middle shows people resisting and breaking through the chains in search of freedom, and the front depicts humankind as liberated from injustice in the form of a woman who stands triumphant and taller than the preceding pieces of the monument (and of history).

Establishing such a monument was undoubtedly an important step in commemorating the country’s slavery past. But why is such an important monument, which claims to depict a “shared past, common future,” located in a park that is far from the city center of Amsterdam? Similarly, one might ask why NiNsee, located in a building next to the monument, is not in a location with a stronger historical link to the Dutch slavery past, such as a former slave owner’s house in the city center. According to John Leerdam, former politician and active participant in the Dutch black community, people agreed to the Oosterpark location because they were afraid it was the only way to have a slavery monument. Leerdam argues, however, that to be significant “the monument must be in a prominent place where people can see it.” Similarly, Dr. Hondius notes that “a location with a historical connection would help to make the Dutch slavery past more tangible and in that way more comprehensible for today’s generation.” As a point of comparison she cites the power of the Anne Frank House in commemorating the victims of the Holocaust, arguing that its message is amplified by the museum’s location in the actual house where Anne Frank was in hiding when she wrote her diary.

However, it is unclear whether such a strong visual connection to the Dutch slavery past would be accepted or welcomed in a more central location in Amsterdam. One young man we spoke with stated that slavery and racism belong to previous generations, but not to the present day. Beyond arguing that slavery is a relic of the past, others we interviewed were quick to note that “all of Europe is to blame, and the Dutch were only minor players” in the slave trade. By taking the attention off of the Dutch and putting blame on all of Europe, or by relegating slavery to a distant chapter of history, the Dutch public fails to draw connections between its own slavery past and present day racism and inequality. Furthermore, the lack of awareness of, or interest in, this past makes efforts to commemorate the slavery past more difficult, as evidenced by NiNsee’s pending closure.

One young man we interviewed failed to see the point of historical memory initiatives and argued that black people should “just get over it.” While his words are not likely representative of all Amsterdammers, they are emblematic of a recurring sentiment that commemoration of the slavery past is either something that is already complete or that is exclusively a matter for the black community. Many white Dutch people do not see their own role in the history of slavery, hampering efforts by groups such as NiNsee to increase awareness. Dr. Cain, the director of NiNsee, notes that denial surrounding the Dutch slavery history is pervasive among both white and black people. In The Netherlands, he argues, people don’t use the word “race,” but instead speak of “ethnicity.” Without the word “race,” you can’t have racism, making “Holland the only country in the world without racism,” notes Dr. Cain with irony. Many Amsterdammers are reluctant to acknowledge the existence of discrimination against black people. For instance, one middle-aged white woman we interviewed avoided discussing discrimination based on race, highlighting instead that women are still discriminated against even though they had their emancipation movement decades ago.

“Commemorating slavery is important as a matter of responsibility,” says Quincy Gario, activist and founder of the “Black Piet is Racism” movement. “The 1st of July,” notes Gario, “is not a national holiday and is hardly taught in schools,” limiting larger awareness-raising efforts.

Challenges to Raising Awareness: “We Must Learn to Unlearn in Order to Re-learn”

In discussing the Dutch slavery past, Dr. Cain brings up what he calls the “three D’s”: denial, demands, and distance. Denial typifies how the white Dutch community looks at the slavery history. Ignorance of the past coupled with a lack of interest leads to this group’s generally harsh and often racist views towards the Dutch black community. Demands for justice, reparations, remembrance, and acknowledgement of the past characterize the Dutch Surinamese population. The descendants of Surinamese slaves identify strongly with their past and work diligently to promote awareness in The Netherlands in order to achieve greater acknowledgement from the white Dutch community about the role their ancestors played in the shared slavery history. Lastly, Cain identifies Dutch Antilleans with a preference for distance from the slavery past. Dutch Antilleans often identify not as black but as “Dark White and mixed with Jews, Latin Americans, Portuguese and many others” (Cain, 2012). Such a position is often driven by shame and the desire not to be related to a group that has been historically oppressed. In considering how to reconcile the “three D’s,” Dr. Cain argues that we must “learn how to unlearn in order to re-learn.”

The difference between demanding and distancing highlights a lack of cohesion within the black Dutch community that can be detrimental to efforts for greater recognition of the slavery legacy. Without a post-colonial discourse and informed historical background, white Dutch people are often ignorant of why they have Surinamese, African, and/or Antillean neighbors in The Netherlands. They often perceive black people as poorly educated and reluctant to work, as if they have come to The Netherlands to feed off of its wealth. Few know of the historical labor relations between their own ancestors and those of the black community in producing this wealth. 

Commemoration of the slavery past is overwhelmingly perceived as an issue of the black community. The invisibility of race and the Dutch slavery past is because the Dutch black community “lacks a power structure” through which to bring these issues to the forefront of a mainstream agenda (Hondius, 2012). While black people are present in Dutch society, they have limited economic power. While other minorities, such as Turkish, Moroccan, and Chinese migrants, own shops and take part in commerce, many black Dutch people are excluded from these activities. While undertaking his dissertation research on the social mobility of migrants in The Netherlands, Dr. Cain found that there were almost no black people in positions of power in health care, the arts, or government. He concluded that a lack of economic power among black people leads to a lack of political power. Without political power, it is much harder for the black community to put matter such as race, class, and the slavery legacy on the political agenda. 

The establishment of NiNsee in 2002 was seen by many in the black Dutch community as a step toward breaking the silence. Its closing in 2012—only 10 years later—is a bitter topic, as it seems that the organization has only just started to “scratch the surface of the invisibility and ignorance regarding the slavery history” (Cain, 2012). Closing the institute on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the country’s abolition of slavery makes one wonder whether it might be “a political move to get rid of the voice of NiNsee” and, if so, why? (Cain, 2012). If it’s not political, does the closure demonstrate a complete lack of awareness or sensitivity on the part of the government? John Leerdam offers his personal view that the silencing is political and based on government fear of the black community on this issue, where it sees “too many emotions that could lead to unrest and trouble.” Leerdam informed advisers working on budget cuts in the Ministry of Education, Culture, and Science (which funds NiNsee) about the impact of its closing on the eve of the anniversary, and noted that the advisers were previously unaware of the poor timing. The ignorance and insensitivity of these policymakers is emblematic of the longstanding whitewashing of the country’s slavery past.

Overwhelmed with its efforts to secure funding to continue its work, NiNsee’s actual mandate has fallen by the wayside. Its research and its efforts to commemorate 150 years have suffered as a consequence. Dr. Cain laments that “as a scholar, I would rather spend my time doing research, talking to scholars, organizing events, organizing exhibitions, discussions, lectures, getting people involved... Instead of that I spent the whole year writing documents and having meetings to try to keep the organization going.”

Not everyone has jumped to save NiNsee, however, and its record has been criticized by some within the black community. Activist Quinsy Gario is critical of NiNsee’s nine years, arguing that: “the problem with NiNsee was that they weren’t active enough in society. They were more focused on the past and the academics of studying history. They didn’t reach out and discuss current issues of discrimination and racism through the lens of history.” Gario’s criticism raises the question of what role NiNsee should serve. One might also ask whether NiNsee or similar groups can ever really combat the whitewashing of the Dutch slavery history and the pervasive racism still present in Dutch society today.

The Future of Commemoration Efforts for the Slavery Legacy

As the closing of NiNsee looms closer, there has been no major public outcry against it, meaning that people are either not familiar with NiNsee, do not know of its closing, or do not care. In speaking with white Amsterdammers from several different generations, it is increasingly clear that there is little awareness of, or interest in, the Dutch slavery past. Interviews also revealed a lack of compassion for and understanding of the black community. Many interviewees see the commemoration of slavery as an exclusively Surinamese and Antillean issue. The closing of NiNsee coupled with a lack of knowledge about the slavery history across Dutch society enables the concealing of that history and provides little hope for increased awareness about the past.

Amidst this climate of indifference and ignorance, there is still some cause for cautious hope. John Leerdam argues that “even though it looks poor, we should stay optimistic about the future of the slavery memorial. It’s up to the black community.” Leerdam advocates that the white community as well as the black community in The Netherlands “must come to terms with themselves.” In particular, the black community must form a solid front to let their voices be heard. The current lack of solidarity can be traced back to practices used during slavery to pit different groups and individuals against one another and undermine black resistance.

While NiNsee’s doors may be closing there are a variety of smaller initiatives taking place in The Netherlands to continue to shed light on the past. Leerdam is currently involved in a government commission for the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, which plans to hold a series of events linking the slavery history to the 200th anniversary of the Dutch Kingdom and the 400th anniversary of the Amsterdam canals. In this way the commission hopes to embed the slavery past in the country’s larger history and highlight previously unrecognized connections between Amsterdam’s wealth and its use of slavery. Their plans include films, documentaries, a concert, an opera, and projects to visit schools and teach about slavery.

Researcher and historian Dienke Hondius continues to investigate the houses of former slave owners in Amsterdam and will present a map of those houses to the Amsterdam city archive later this summer. Hondius created the map using archived documents from the Amsterdam slave owners who filed to receive compensation for their slaves following the abolition of slavery in 1863. The map, created on a Google platform, will be a starting point for additional mapping projects, including an iPhone application. The iPhone “app,” currently under construction, will hopefully be part of a larger effort to create a walking path of important markers of the slavery history through the city center of Amsterdam with the goal of making the slavery past more tangible.

While iPhone apps can be created and Google maps developed, however, it is unclear how successful these efforts will be in reshaping the discourse on the Dutch slavery past among a majority of Dutch people. There has never been a widespread awareness of the slavery past and at present there are few signs of this changing. Few Dutch people today, particularly white Dutch, connect their own position in society (or the wealth of their country) with its slavery roots.

The lack of multiple visual representations of the Dutch slavery history in Amsterdam and the displacement of the slavery monument to Oosterpark (instead of a more central location) contributes to a lack of awareness about the Dutch slavery past among Amsterdammers. The efforts to commemorate slavery that seemed promising only ten years ago—including the establishment of NiNsee, the unveiling of the slavery monument, and the formal recognition of the Keti Koti festival—seem in retrospect more of an effort to appease the black community and deter further demands for recognition. Instead of opening a dialogue on the issue, the 2002 commemoration initiatives seem to have contributed to the idea that slavery is now a closed chapter in Dutch history. 

Even as there are some critcisms of NiNsee’s work from within the black community, its closing will be a setback to spreading awareness and furthering knowledge about the Dutch slavery past. The fracturing of this organization’s work will lead to fewer and more disparate efforts to fill the void it will leave behind. Those who work to continue its efforts on a grassroots level may lack the legitimacy of this “national” institute to produce research and/or educational programming, and thus have fewer achievements and a more limited impact.

Quinsy Gario argues that we “need new instruments to talk about slavery and colonialism and that the conversation on slavery and commemoration must be changed. One of the ideas to do it is to start talking about present-day issues and how these are related to our past of slavery.” While this paradigm shift seems necessary to effectively address the country’s slavery past, it seems unachievable in Dutch society today. While soccer and the 2012 Euro Cup are reminders of how a game can bring the Dutch people together under the common color of orange, so too can soccer reveal the divisions and prejudices lurking just beneath the surface. When asked about Dutch soccer players of Surinamese descent, for instance, one young Amsterdammer angrily recounted how the junior national Dutch soccer team displayed a Surinamese flag following their victory at the Euro championship several years ago. The interviewee referred to the players’ actions with a scowl, saying: “That’s not OK. That’s not Dutch. They’re not Dutch.” 

References

“Amsterdam and Slavery” map. Alex van Stipriaan (Tropenmuseum); Frank Dragtenstein, Maria Reinders-Karg, and Amy Abdou (NiNsee). 

Balai, Leo. Historian. Interview. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 20, 2012.

Cain, Artwell. Director, National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy (NiNsee). Interview. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 20, 2012.

“Dutch Slavery Past Made Visible: Breaking the Silence.” National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy (NiNsee). www.ninsee.nl.

Emmer, P.C. The Dutch Slave trade 1500–1850. Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2005, and accompanying review by Dr. Leslie J. Price: http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/review/545.

Gario, Quinsy. Activist and Founder of the “Black Piet is Racism” Movement. Interview. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 21, 2012.

Hondius, Dienke. History professor. Interview. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 19, 2012.

Klein, Herbert S. The Atlantic Slave Trade. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. 

Leerdam, John. Politician. Amsterdam, Netherlands. Interview. June 21, 2012.

Street interviews with people along Amsterdam canals. Amsterdam, Netherlands. June 20, 2012.

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