Marjoleine Kars is a professor of history at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Her book, Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast, about a massive slave revolt in 1763 in Dutch Guyana, was the winner of the 2021 Cundill History Prize.
I was a little girl, all of three years old, taking the train with my mother in Holland when a man of African descent boarded. “Zwarte Piet,” I yelled loudly, pointing at him to my mother’s great embarrassment. I was referring to Black Pete, the clownish servant who helped Sinterklaas deliver presents to well-behaved children every Dec. 5, and who Dutchmen impersonate by wearing afro wigs and gold ear hoops, drawing on exaggerated red lips and blackening their faces during the holiday season. I don’t remember how the man reacted, and neither does my mother. But the incident shows the psychological damage (his and mine) from what many in the Netherlands continue to perceive as an innocent tradition. This racist stereotype shaped my early perceptions of people of colour.
The Dutch have acquired a liberal reputation through policies legalizing recreational drugs, prostitution and homosexuality. Yet the country has proven markedly less liberal in facing its colonial past, particularly with slavery. Unlike in the United States, where slavery took place at home, for the Dutch, it happened in faraway places, in the colonies. Until quite recently, most white Dutch people were barely aware of their country’s deep involvement with forced labour in the Americas, South Africa and Asia. Informed of the past, people shrugged their shoulders. Why should we worry about events so long ago? Priding themselves on Dutch tolerance, they considered racism an American problem.
But, like the Dutch Sinterklaas tradition, this is changing. Thanks to the activism of immigrant communities with ancestral ties to slavery, white complacency is being challenged. The murder of George Floyd in the U.S. and Black Lives Matter protests in the Netherlands have accelerated this process. Last May, King Willem-Alexander opened the first-ever slavery exhibit in the Rijksmuseum, the national museum of art and history in Amsterdam. In July, the Mayor of Amsterdam officially apologized for the city’s role in slavery and the slave trade. Other major cities have commissioned studies of their role in slavery and further apologies may follow. New slavery walking guides are increasing local awareness. A recent podcast exploring the shared plantation roots of two women, one Black and one white, was named the best Dutch podcast of 2020. A national slavery museum is being discussed. Streets are being renamed. People are debating what to do with colonial monuments.
Progress has not been smooth. When the Amsterdam Museum decided to scrap the (marketing) term “Golden Age” (Gouden Eeuw) in its materials because it glossed over colonialism and slavery, Prime Minister Mark Rutte called the decision “nonsense.” The Secretary of Education deemed the discussion “tiresome.” The government has been unwilling to apologize for slavery, though it has expressed “remorse.” While a small majority of Dutch people agree that Dutch slavery was “serious,” they overwhelmingly reject a national apology.
Historians have played an important role in the debate. Their research chronicles not only the foundational role of slavery in Dutch history but also reveals the lives of the enslaved and their resistance to slavery. Most historians of colonialism and slavery have urged confronting its legacies. There has been some backlash, those who charge that their colleagues have lost objectivity and become political “activist historians.” And they have received outsized attention for their often deliberately provocative views. “You are not allowed to say it these days, but colonialism introduced modern civilization,” Piet Emmer, a retired professor of slavery, recently proclaimed.
Of course, one can argue Dr. Emmer is right, though not in the way he intended his comment. Colonialism did shape today’s world. This is precisely why reckoning with slavery also requires reckoning with present-day racism. This has proved harder. People question the ties between slavery in the past and today’s racist practices. Others deny that institutional racism, microaggressions or white privilege are significant problems in Dutch society. Studies show differently: Landlords who do not want people of color, employers who don’t hire people with non-Western names, and teachers who steer kids of a migrant background to less academic schools are just the obvious examples. A Dutch court recently ruled in support of racial profiling at the border. A slavery museum is one thing; changing centuries of white hegemony is another.
Meanwhile, Zwarte Piet is becoming a new person. About a decade ago, young Afro-Dutch activists proclaimed “Zwarte Piet is racism.” They organized a “Kick out Zwarte Piet” campaign that inspired demonstrations, counterdemonstrations and, for a few, serious soul-searching. By late 2020, almost half of all Dutch were done with Pete in blackface. Less because they see Black Pete as racist than because they are tired of the divisive discussion. They want to get on with the party without protests. More than half of Dutch municipalities no longer tolerate Sinterklaas parades that include Black Petes. For the moment the most popular alternative seems to be the “Soot Pete,” whose face is streaked with ash from climbing up and down chimneys to drop off kids’ presents.
In 2020, King Willem-Alexander, on a state visit to Indonesia, apologized for the “excessive violence” of Dutch soldiers who fought the pro-independence movement in the Dutch colony after the Second World War. Many are hopeful that an apology for Dutch slavery and slave trading will soon be forthcoming. Some have put their hopes on 2023, when it will be 150 years since slavery in the Dutch colonies was finally abolished. It remains to be seen whether such an apology would lead to any fundamental change.
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