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The Struggle for Slavery Education: The Politics of Teaching about the Dutch Slavery Past in the Netherlands.

Introduction: Is there really a problem?

“I don’t know what will become of them.”

Is ignorance really bliss?


Charllotesville Oct 8th 1852 

Dear Husband,

I write you a letter to let you know of my distress my master has sold albert to a trader on Monday court day and myself and other child is for sale also and I want to you let hear from you very soon before next cort if you can I dont know when I dont want you to wait till Christmas I want you to tell dr Hamelton and your master if either will buy me they can attend to it know and then I can go afterwards.

I dont want a trader to get me they asked me if I had got any person to buy me and I told them no they took me to the court house too they never put me up a man buy the name of brady bought albert and is gone I dont know whare they say he lives in Scottesville my things is in several places some is in staunton and if I should be sold I don’t know what will become of them I dont expect to meet with the luck to get that way till I am quite heartsick nothing more I am and ever will be your kind wife Maria Perkins.

To Richard Perkins

This letter, dated October 8, 1852, was used on this year’s history central examination for secondary schools in The Netherlands. It testifies to the selling of Maria Perkin’s son, Albert, to a slave trader and, in effect, their separation. Maria writes desperately to her husband Richard, pleading with him to help her— the two have already been separated. Even though the majority of slaves were illiterate, Maria has apparently had some basic education. Her writing is nevertheless noticeably unconventional and is often reproduced and cited in its original spelling and syntax. On the Dutch central exam, the letter is translated into jilted Dutch as an effort to translate the letter’s specific historical context—slave society in the American antebellum South.
However, this is disappointingly the only question related to slavery on the entire central examination. Furthermore, the questions on the text focused on its credibility as a historic document rather than the content itself. This discrepancy gives rise to a number of questions. Why is such an important aspect of national and world history pushed to the margins of the curriculum? What exactly are Dutch students learning about slavery? Why is there a focus on the slavery in the United States as opposed to the Netherlands?
In her essay Can the Subaltern Speak? Gayatri Spivak uses the term “epistemic violence” as a way of marking the silencing of marginalized groups. Even though censorship of history has always existed, epistemic violence includes withholding, distorting and abusing knowledge in order to dominate someone or some group. Is our silence over the Dutch slavery past a form of epistemic violence, an active attempt to oppress a marginalized group?
To help answer such questions, we spoke to Dutch people involved with different aspects of the education system and slavery education in the Netherlands. Several respectable professors, a parliamentarian, students and activists gave us their thoughts and experiences on the topic of manipulating historical information and the insufficiency of slavery education in high schools.

It Starts in School

How does the Dutch education system work? Where does slavery education fit into this?

Whereas the traditional school trajectory for most United States students is elementary, middle, and then high school, the Dutch educational system only has two divisions—primary school and high school. Children in the Netherlands usually start attending school when they are four years old and the first two years, counted as class 1 and 2, are roughly equivalent to pre-K and Kindergarten. Primary school has 8 classes in total (equivalent to pre-K to sixth grade in the American system), so most students will be around 12 years old when they begin attending high school.

Things only get more complicated from there because Dutch high schools are further divided into three different diploma levels that determine what sort of jobs or higher education a student can seek. Their official names are vmbo, havo and vwo, but many Dutch students refer to them as, respectively, the “low,” “middle,” and “high” diploma levels which reflects their respective class and achievement connotations in Dutch society.

The vmbo takes 4 years and with a vmbo diploma, a student can continue his or her studies at the MBO (Middelbaar Beroepsonderwijs, Middle Vocational Education) level. This level includes education related to administration, nursing, agriculture, the arts, and other ‘blue-collar’ jobs. The second level, havo, takes 5 years and prepares students to go to the HBO (Hoger Beroepsonderwijs, Higher Vocational Education) level where one can do studies in fields like physical therapy, applied sciences, pedagogy and accounting. HBO is focused on developing practical technical skills and prepares students for entering the workforce directly after graduation. The highest level, vwo, lasts 6 years. When one has completed the vwo diploma, they can go directly to university.

At the havo and vwo level, high school is divided into two parts, the first and second phase. The first three years are the first phase and students all follow the same basic subjects, such as math, history, Dutch, and English. This makes the first phases somewhat of a “core” curriculum—all Dutch students in high school in the havo and vwo levels will take the same classes as their peers.

In the second phase, students choose a specialization profile and focus their education in particular aspects of society. There are four profiles that students must choose from: culture and society, economics and society, nature and health or nature and technology. History is a compulsory subject for all students during the first phase. In the second phase, only students choosing the culture and society or economics and society profiles take history as a subject. This means that history is not a compulsory subject for many Dutch students in the last two or three years of their high school education.

In the Dutch system, students must pass central examinations in their final year to obtain a diploma. These examinations are the same across the entire country and are taken nationwide at the same date and time, so that everyone who graduates high school will have the same level of knowledge and in that way the quality of the school system is protected. The central examinations count for 50% of a students’ final grade and the other 50% comes from the grades acquired during the second phase.

In 2010, a pilot was implemented to alter the central examination method for history in the second phase. In the current system, each year has two central themes around which questions are asked. These themes alternate every year, with one theme remaining the same and the other theme changing every year. The new system makes some radical changes—there are now ten time periods and 49 characteristics. Beginning in 2015, all schools will use this new system onwards.

The new system makes history an especially complex subject. Toine de Kok, a teacher at the Mill-Hill High School in Goirle, explained that in order to prepare students properly for their final examinations and to discuss all 49 characteristics properly, not much time is left to deal with other topics or to spend more time on certain characteristics.

How do we teach slavery in the Netherlands? How much education on slavery is there?

Toine de Kok is a high school teacher at the Mill-Hill College, a medium-scale high school in Goirle, a small town in the south of the Netherlands. We arrived at the school just as some last students were finishing their recent exams and were excited to finally start their school holiday. In the history office, a pile of  exams were waiting to be corrected. De Kok’s school has been participating in the new history pilot program since 2004 and he has been teaching according to the new method. In these teaching methods, slavery is indeed introduced, for the time period number 7 spanning 1700 to 1800. However, in the textbooks, slavery only takes up a few pages and is addressed together with the abolition of slavery. The time period is summarized as the “expansion of European power, with which slavery is connected, and the abolition of slavery.”

De Kok believes combining slavery and the abolition of slavery has a detrimental effect on what he can teach. He says, “This means that whenever I get to teach about the slavery past, I immediately also have to teach about the abolition of it, brushing over the important things that happened during the slave trade and the role that the Netherlands has.”

Dutch colonies other than Indonesia are also rarely given any significant attention in the curriculum. “Suriname never really is in the picture,” says de Kok, “It is maybe a footnote at most.” In the pilot program, colonization is also not given a theme of its own. “It would be great if colonization would be a separate theme, not tied to a specific time period but rather talking about the changes over time, slavery, decolonization and finally how these things have an impact on our current day society.”

“I remember more about your slavery.”

We sat with Shalev Tal, 18, and Liran Tal, 15, in the comfort of their home in the Bijlmer. Sisters and students at the same high school, the two discussed what they learned about the Dutch involvement in slavery. Shalev has just finished her high school career in a geography-focused profile, whereas Liran will be starting her first year of the history profile in the fall. “There was more about colonization than slavery,” explains Shalev. “We learn about when we got there in Indonesia, how we used their land, what the benefit was for us, what the impact of the colonization was for them.” Indeed, the colonization of Indonesia is an important aspect of the Dutch history curriculum. Even in Shalev’s chosen profile of geography, they dedicate an entire year to the geography of South East Asia, covering the impacts of colonization and globalization on the region’s trade networks.

Nevertheless, this impact seems relatively benign and refrains from strictly focusing on Dutch Indonesia. In Shalev’s textbook, Gebieden Zuidoost-Asië in beeld (Southeast Asia Regions in Focus), the one page on Dutch colonies in Indonesia conveys ideas such as, “The colony was very efficiently governed and everything was centrally directed from Batavia.”

Of course, even within this limited attention to Dutch colonization in Indonesia, slavery seems to be the forgotten piece of the puzzle. Both Shalev and Liran agreed that they never studied the history of Dutch slavery in colonies such as Suriname and the Dutch Antilles. Liran denies having learned anything about Suriname in the three year history curriculum required of every student before advancing to a specialized profile. Shalev remembers learning about sugar coming from Suriname, but not the means through which it was produced. “We did talk about Suriname I think... but it’s really small given our connection with it,” she says.

This does not mean that slavery is not taught at all. On the contrary, general facts about the slave trade, the horrible conditions on slave ships, the proceedings of slave auctions and the types of products exchanged were common knowledge to both Shalev and Liran. However, there is a discrepancy in terms of knowledge about just how many slaves were sold in the Western Dutch colonies and the extent to which the Dutch West India Company dealt in slaves. “Slavery was definitely on the central examinations for the first three years [the first phase], but we do more about American slavery— I remember more about your slavery,” Shalev posits, gesturing to the American member of our group.

Slavery education, pride and prejudice

Even when slavery is discussed in the history textbooks, most of our interviewees agree that it is done in a glorifying manner, especially in context of its abolition. Hodan Warsame, the host of a local radio show and member of the Evert Vermeer Foundation, related her experiences with slavery education to us on a bumpy bus ride in Amsterdam Noord. For such a public setting, we shared an intimate atmosphere across the seating aisle. “[My education on slavery] wasn’t contextualized, it was fragmented, limited, it wasn’t connected to larger issues in society. It was something that just happened in the 1600s and 1700s,” she says, as the bus jerks back and forth. Her experience with learning about colonization is not much better: “The focus was on Indonesia and India because they take the most pride in that particular project. You do learn some things about the atrocities of slavery and colonialism, but you don’t learn anything about uprisings, revolutions, or resistance that came form the slaves or the colonized.”

Toine de Kok is not surprised by such accounts. He uses the term “Eurocentric” to refer to a bias towards making Europe and the Western world the center and focus of world events. The other regions of the world thus take a backseat role in influencing world history. He argued:

"There is a general focus on what the Netherlands was good at. The history curriculum is also very Eurocentric; anything that happened outside the Netherlands or Europe is often not much discussed... It is not for nothing that the best history books about the Netherlands are still written by foreigners. We keep trying to make our role in history positive only. Personally, I try to stay critical and teach my students that this is a Eurocentric view of history. I also constantly try to make the connection to current day, by letting them write about news articles. But with the time pressure, there is only so much you can do."

Dries van der Vlerk, a retired sociologist and educational designer for the Anne Frank Foundation in Amsterdam, said, “The group of historians have made a very specific way of thinking about Dutch history and it’s really hard to change that. “They’ve created a chronology that is impossible to change that goes from one Eurocentric period to another. For example, Arabs have hugely influenced Europe but people don’t want to hear that.”

Why is Slavery Taught in this Way? Why Focus on the American Situation?

Historian Pepijn Brandon welcomed us into his office at the Universiteit van Amsterdam after working hours on a Thursday afternoon. All of his colleagues had apparently already clocked out—the building was a ghost town—but he instead elected to sit with us to talk about Dutch slavery. Books and papers were piled on his desk, but we gathered gezellig (an untranslatable Dutch word that describes the warm and fuzzy feeling you get amongst friends, roughly “amicably”) around a coffee table to chat about epistemic violence.

Quite paradoxically, slavery in the American South forms the majority of slavery education in the Netherlands. Brandon gave us a logistical and a political explanation for this. According to Brandon, the logistical explanation has everything to do with the lack of sources: unlike the wealth of English-language narratives recorded by white abolitionists in the United States over the course of the 19th century, the Netherlands never saw large scale immigration of Surinamese or Antilleans until the 1970s. Coupled with the denial of education to slaves in the Dutch colonies, the result is an absence of a physical archive of these narratives in a specifically Dutch colonial context. “What you get is not many sources from enslaved persons in the Dutch colonies, but sources from mostly slave holders.” The reasons behind a slaveholder’s silence over slave conditions hardly needs elaboration. “Too few people are actually researching,” argues Brandon, “What we need now is a good amount of source-based research in the archive.”

Politics in Education: “It’s all based on a Need to Make the Netherlands Important in World History”

Brandon’s political explanation has its roots in a desire to, “trace back to a Dutch national identity that is fixed.” He noted, “You have the good and bad events in [Dutch] history but you can only have the glory.” Resistance to this has largely been the onus of activists and educators who push against Eurocentric and nationalistic history. This fact largely contributes to key differences between slavery education in the US and the Netherlands. Brandon explained to us that whereas the debates about the slavery past in the UK and the US were dominated by rather large black communities and movements focused on commemorating a particular black heritage in these countries, the Netherlands only saw its first black communities arriving in the 1970s. Thus, whereas people whose ancestors were enslaved wrote about the legacies of slavery in the US and the UK, the Dutch discourse was mostly shaped by white academics and politicians. Dutch society saw no community movements to change the discourse on slavery until relatively recently compared to the US.

But the role history has in building a nation and national identity might be equally important reasons to explain these trends. “It’s all based on a need to make the Netherlands important in world history,” says van der Vlerk, and smiling he adds, “We only talk about this little country.” High school teacher de Kok agrees. “History is always about making choices what story to tell. We keep trying to make our role in history positive only.” The historians agree that those choices are mainly political. “We for example still call the colonial war in Indonesia ‘police actions’ and information about the sometimes negative past of the monarchy is hardly discussed,” De Kok adds.

Parliamentarian Tanja Jadnanansing shed some light on the politics behind the education system that might also contribute to the narrow teachings on slavery. “In politics, this is a very fragile debate. The problem is that a couple of years ago commisie Dijsselbloem [a Dutch politician] wrote a report with the main conclusion that politicians shouldn’t tell teachers what they should teach. So this makes it very hard, because every time I want to raise an issue there will be this tendency of “don’t tell teachers what to teach.’” Jadnanansing also identified the fear that certain people might seek financial compensation as an opposing factor to including more slavery education in the curriculum.

But more importantly perhaps is the changing political context and the search for a Dutch identity. Telling is the speech by Rita Verdonk in which she presented her new political party Trots op Nederland (Proud of the Netherlands) and exclaimed: “They want to take away our Sinterklaas tradition. They want to erect slavery monuments everywhere!”   This ongoing search for a national identity might explain best why the Dutch did not and still do not devote much attention to their involvement in slavery. The tightening debate on immigration, Islamophobia and a multicultural society made and continue to make changes very hard.

There are many political forces behind these biased interpretations of history. New, non-traditional (as van der Vlerk refers to them as) interpretations usually undermine established national myths upon which national identities are based. Full of heroes and villains and few shades of gray, Eurocentric interpretations of slavery focus on the abolition movements led by whites in the United States and Western Europe. Dries van der Vlerk also relates the issue of Eurocentrism to education and argues, “For history, kids should understand their interaction with the rest of the world – that must be in a central examination. But there is no big movement to change things. We have to make a multicultural society, but for the moment, conservative forces are on the front.

Why is Education about Slavery Important?

There may not be as much attention given to Dutch slavery as to other topics and it might demonstrate a Eurocentric attitude—but is it important to change this? Some people argue that we need to move past this issue. But our interviewees could all think of reasons why it is important to change the way the Dutch educate about the slavery past. “I don’t mind speaking in English, but I do have a Surinamese accent in English,” Tanja Jadnanansing said. Jadnanansing is a Dutch politician from Surinamese decent, currently an MP, focusing on vmbo and mbo education. On a more serious note she starts talking about her experiences with this topic. “I am personally not angry about our slavery past. It is not about pointing the finger to others. But we do need to let people know what the past is about, what horrible things happened. We need to know the history in order to cope with it and in order to be able to move on.”

Although learning about national history is valuable in itself, larger issues such as racism and the multicultural society relate to this issue as well. “Only teaching about slavery is not enough,” says van der Vlerk. “Instead, we should explain the lasting impacts of slavery.” These lasting impacts are closely connected to racism, white privilege and—according to Brandon—the multicultural society. Comprehensive education is necessary to spark debate about these topics. “I want to open up the debate, really talk to each other. Take zwarte piet. I don’t think we should abolish this tradition, but I do think it is important that white Dutch people understand why December 5th is not a fun day for many black people. But at the moment even trying to explain that feeling meets a closed door.” The connections between education about slavery and important national debates are many. For instance, De Kok questioned, “Is it the task of history to demystify those things that we perhaps rather don’t want to talk about?”

Change: What are the Obstacles?

Although enough reasons exist to change the way the Dutch teach and talk about their past involvement in slavery, the path forward is not as clear and has many hurdles. Politically, topics surrounding immigration, minorities, and multiculturalism are controversial. The political environment of the Netherlands has undergone many changes in the past 15 years. In 2002, the politician Pim Fortuyn provoked controversy and discussion with his views on multiculturalism, immigration and Islam in the Netherlands. He publicly made statements that Islam was a backwards culture and that the Dutch borders should be closed to Muslim immigrants. His assassination in 2002 was a huge shock for the country. In 2004, film director and producer Theo van Gogh was murdered after making a movie criticizing Islam and the treatment of women in Muslim cultures. These events changed the Dutch political landscape drastically. In 2005, the PVV (Partij voor de vrijheid, Party for Freedom) was founded by Geert Wilders, a populist politician who vocally criticized Islam and the idea of a multicultural society in the Netherlands. Despite being labeled an extreme right wing fringe politician, Geert Wilders still has a large group of supporters.

In this political environment, it is hard to talk about issues such as racism and slavery, explains Jadnanansing. “Minorities are still underrepresented in Dutch politics. There are far more politicians with a Eurocentric upbringing. It is not easy to address minority issues in that environment. At best people will listen. More likely they will sigh and look away.” Her opinion of Dutch society and the infamously untranslatable word gezellig, which refers to something like cozy or sociable, is perhaps characteristic for Dutch society at large. Although the Netherlands is portrayed as one of the most tolerant societies around the world, discussion and debate about racism are often evaded. “When I want to bring up these kind of issues people would sometimes say, ‘let’s not go there, we don’t want to talk about this, let’s keep it gezellig.”

Moving Forward

Despite the hurdles and the harsh environment, the interviewees did have suggestions to perhaps change the current situation regarding education on slavery.

More research

In order to change the current education and debate (or lack thereof) on slavery, it is important to first have more information and more research the Dutch involvement in slavery. “Too few people are actually researching. What we need now is a good amount of source-based research using the archives,” says Brandon. De Kok echoes this sentiment, “When we get a better view of how that time really was like, I am hoping this will also slowly get incorporated in the history curriculum. But we need more information. Don’t forget that the story is also very complicated: with more and clearer information about the bigger picture of the Dutch slavery past we can tell the story in a clear way.”

To have more information, it is important that universities start paying more attention to the topic of slavery. Brandon’s course on slavery at the history department of the University of Amsterdam seems a good start, although it is unclear if this course will continue to exist after this year. But with 45 students choosing this course this year, it seems that there is interest and eagerness from students to learn more about this topic. “But I also feel that historians and the study of history is becoming increasingly specialized,” says De Kok. “Many historians become specialized into a particular topics and there are less historians who have a more general overview of the important events happened in our history and the effect they had on our current society.”


“We shouldn’t put pressure on teachers, we should try to inspire them.” Jadnanansing has clear ideas about how education can be reformed, but also explains the necessity to inspire rather than pressure teachers. In 2008, Committee Dijsselbloem presented a report about education at the high school level and pointed out that politicians shouldn’t be involved in telling teachers what they should teach. This complicates the issue further, “because every time I want to raise an issue there will be this tendency of ‘don’t tell the teachers what to teach.”

Educational Institutions

Activism on these topics is gaining importance. The attention devoted to the 150 years abolition of slavery is a clear portrayal of this sentiment, according to Brandon. But the organizations and activists out there might also be too fragmented. “There must be an educational institute that is active on this issue.”

Conclusion: Dangerous Education?

Pepijn Brandon alluded to the two main battles being fought in the plight for more slavery education in Dutch society. “The first is to get slavery on the agenda and the second is to ensure that once it gets there, that it is not taken over by nationalist thinking.” Just how grave and subtle is this danger?

We would like to return to Shalev and Liran, the young scholars, who very much represent the next generation of knowledge producers in the Netherlands. Shalev was very adamant that not learning about slavery, “is a bad thing because there are a lot of Surinamese here and people from the Dutch Antilles here. Of course it was terrible that it happened but it’s better to teach it more to show that everyone is the same, and to show how its better now.”Thus we are presented with the hints of a potential danger that has always been present in the education on slavery. Whereas currently the discussion of slavery focuses on the history of its abolition (thanks to white Americans and Europeans), more attention to its atrocities could dangerously serve as a comparison to race relations today. Indeed, conditions and rights for people of color have tremendously improved since the decolonization movements post-World War II. However, is the mere absence of slavery enough to prove full racial equality It is clear that education on slavery cannot be truly complete without discussions on how the racial tensions and inequalities of today are influenced by slavery’s legacy.

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HIA Program:

Netherlands Netherlands 2013


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