Awareness around Dutch Colonial History

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Awareness around Dutch Colonial History: is it heightened? Or has it always been like this?

I have never been taught lot about slavery or the Dutch colonial history either in high school or elementary school. It is only since a few years when I started educating myself, mostly, that I actually began to understand why debates about blackface, racism and importance of diversity are still held. I do feel as though more and more Dutch traditions are being looked at critically within the public debate, but does that really mean that the awareness around our colonial past has been growing? For instance, it has been only three or four years since I have first heard about the “Zwarte Piet debate”, which I had never heard anyone talk about before. This does not mean that the issue has not been brought up before. (“Zwarte Piet” is a caricature during Dutch Christmas time, who is explained to be black because he goes through the chimney to bring the children their presents. The debate is about the racist stereotype that Zwarte Piet embodies, and how he should no longer be part of the celebration in his current form of blackface.)

After having just heard about this debate for the first time, another big issue popped up in the Dutch news: there was commotion surrounding the “Gouden Koets” (The “Golden Carriage). This is a carriage used by the Dutch royal family once a year on a special occasion called “Prinsjesdag”. The commotion is about the illustration the carriage depicts: on the side of the carriage black (enslaved) people worshipping and bringing gifts/offers to the “White Virgin” are depicted.

The most recent debate, however, was in January 2015, about the movie Michiel de Ruyter. On the one side it is argued that the movie is both ahistorical and glorifying its representation of Michiel de Ruyter (a Dutch admiral who played a key role in the trade of African enslaved people, see: ), while on the other hand it is argued that he was a national hero, and that his role within the slave trade was not so big it should be shown in the movie

The big issue at hand here, is how the Dutch are dealing with their own colonial past. Many aspects of Dutch culture are influenced by this past, from old traditions (such as the Sinterklaas festivities) to new media (such as movies like Michiel de Ruyter). While these protests and arguments are nothing new, there is a feeling that they are growing in intensity and quantity. The three examples above all show different aspects of Dutch culture coming under scrutiny and being criticized for their insensitivity or ignorance towards the brutal Dutch history of slavery and colonialism. But do they actually show a pattern, a new state of awareness within the broader public? Is there actually a noticeable heightened awareness of our colonial past and its implications in current days? Or have these discussions always been around, but I have just never heard of them? There are all kinds explanations, and while I do not expect to find full answers, I would like to investigate these questions a bit more.


What do we know about the way Dutch deal with the slavery past?

During the research to answer my questions, I came upon some works of the historian and professor Alex van Stipriaan, who is an expert in the Dutch Afro-Carribean history and developments in cultural heritage. I got a lot of information, and was able to answer both questions I did but also had not even asked. What Van Stipriaan emphasizes is that a majority of the Dutch citizens had no idea about the Dutch slavery past until very recently. This is a very interesting statement to begin with, and could make one think about why this past was unknown to many Dutch citizens. The first thing that comes to mind is a lack of education. But also aspects such as media representation or lack of public debates could be key as to why people had no idea about the Dutch slavery past. We do, however, see a change occurring. For instance, as van Stipriaan pointed out, there is a yearly survey done by a high standing Dutch history magazine (Historisch Nieuwsblad), where people (through sampling) are asked to name the most embarrassing episode of Dutch history, according to their own account. While in 2000, only 7% put slavery on the top of their list, in 2004 this was 16% and in 2008 this number had risen up to 24%! Clearly, this should be an indicator that slavery is beginning to become a subject about which the public dares to talk and think about.

However, while awareness might have risen, not all opinions are the same. Not everyone thinks we should deal with it the same way, and not everyone finds it as embarrassing a period in history. These clashing ideas come back in many of the discussions mentioned before. The debate about Michiel de Ruyter especially, is very telling in how both sides tend to deal with the Dutch colonial heritage. Thus, I will put some of the arguments used for and against the movie, and will contextualize the arguments in the bigger debate surrounding awareness about Dutch colonial history.


So, how can we contextualize these arguments?

In the case of Michiel de Ruyter, the public debate is mostly about how we tend to re-tell and reinterpret stories from the ‘Golden Age’. What comes under scrutiny, is not only how but also who is telling the story about whom and for whom. Because how a story is being framed has everything to do with who the makers are and who intended audience is. As mentioned before, the movie is about a Dutch admiral, saving the Dutch people from the French and English military. The movie is thus mainly intended for a Dutch (white) audience who is proud of their national heritage. The movie was not intended for an audience that was looking for historical accuracy, or who look beyond Michiel de Ruyter as a national hero. This is why the movie never speaks of his key role in the trade of African enslaved people. In a Dutch debating programme called “De Stelling van Amsterdam” (“The Statement of Amsterdam”), Frits de Ruyter de Wildt (from the Michiel de Ruyter foundation) talks to filmmaker Guilly Koster and historian Alex van Stipriaan. This talk really articulates the broader arguments in the Dutch debate. For instance: while on the one hand Koster and Van Stipriaan argue against the filmmakers’ choices of excluding the part about the slave trade, De Ruyter de Wildt argues that it was merely a “cinematic choice” to tell only a story about this part of Michiel de Ruyter’s life. What stood out most, was that De Ruyter de Wildt had a lot of arguments that were based on misinformation about the life and career of Michiel de Ruyter. This misinformation became clear to be the main reason for the two parties not agreeing with each other. For instance, one of the arguments was that the movie was only depicting one aspect of Michiel de Ruyter’s life, and thus should not be obliged to mention slavery. However, even during the war against the English and the French, Michiel de Ruyter conquered forts like Fort Elmina in West Africa, where enslaved people were held captured. This would mean that even during “this part of his life” he would have still been active within the slave trade. Another misconception that came to light during the debate was the argument that Michiel de Ruyter would have been against the idea of slavery because he has freed several enslaved people. These people, however, were not African, but rather white and Christian. This debunked the argument that Michiel de Ruyter would have been “against” slave trade – since he only freed white slaves (partly with money from the Church), but still helped in the trans-Atlantic trade of African slaves in many other ways. Michiel de Ruyter has devoted his career to militarily defending and even expanding the very structures that were necessary to keep the trans-Atlantic slave trade alive.

What we see is that the side in favor of the movie tried to keep the idea of Michiel de Ruyter as a real national hero as much alive as possible. Unfortunately, these arguments are often either incomplete or inaccurate – which makes for an inaccurate image that is being constructed of Michiel de Ruyter, and thus an ignoring of the actual horrible facts of the Dutch involvement in slave trade.


To conclude: what can we take away from this discussion?

This perfectly encapsulatesany broader Dutch debates about colonial history: while both sides think to be talking about the same and having the same knowledge, they both have in fact different starting points. A lot of misunderstanding, I believe, thus derives from misconceptions and miseducation. While I believe we can see more awareness surrounding these topics, I also believe that there is still a lot of educating to do. Next time I will be looking more into the education of colonial history in Dutch schools, and see where all these misconceptions might come from to begin with. Until then, however, I think it is safe to say that while we (as a “Dutch nation”) do talk more about colonial historical issues in public, the tone is not always as open/friendly and the knowledge behind the arguments might not always be 100% accurate. However, the fact that we see a rising trend in the knowledge and involvement in Dutch slavery history is already a very positive note to end with, and I hope that this trend will keep up and that more debates will lead to more knowledge being spread.