The year 2013 marks 150 years since the abolition of slavery in the former Dutch colonies. It's worth mentioning that the Dutch abolished slavery a while after the British (1833) and French (1848) and, only after much resistance.  

One of the efforts to mark the occasion is ‘The Next Step,” a master class for upcoming films talents and a program for high school kids by Africa in the Picture, an African Film Festival based in the Netherlands. The central question of the ‘The Next Step’ program is: ‘What does slavery mean to you, anything or nothing?’

Young filmmakers and high school students are challenged to make a 150 second film related to this question.While the legacy of slavery should mean something to everyone in the Netherlands, due to the lack of education on slavery, the politics around the commemoration of the abolishment of slavery and the silence of families that became wealthy through the slave trade means that many believe that slavery was really just a ‘black page in history.’ This phrase is frequently used by the Dutch to discuss the legacy of slavery. This is not only a false representation of history but also insulting given that the legacies of slavery are so present today – hiding in plain view.

An additional educational program on slavery is much needed and one hopes many young filmmakers and high schools will start thinking about the legacies of slavery and the role of the Dutch in this history. I say this especially because I have very little faith in the actual Dutch educational system to teach children about slavery. Being schooled in the Netherlands myself, I did not learn about slavery in school until my parents told me about it.

Melissa Weiner, an American sociologist, has done some outstanding and much needed research in this regard. She has studied depictions of slavery and multiculturalism in Dutch primary school history textbooks and norms and practices privileging whiteness in a diverse Dutch primary school classroom. Weiner’s findings, which will be published soon, are quite telling of the Dutch attitude towards the legacy of slavery. This attitude is a mix of denial, ignorance, (supposed) innocence, and misplaced entitlement. Resistance to the dominant Dutch historic narrative is often met with aggression, marginalization and disdain. People that do question the dominant narrative — from activists to scholars — are often subjected to some fine Dutch repression, not only in everyday life but also institutionally. Try get funding as a scholar to research racism in the Netherlands or set up black, postcolonial, “critical race” or any critical studies departments in this country – it will never happen.

Part of the Africa in the Film program was the documentary film, “Traces of the Trade” by Katrina Browne, who discovered that her New England ancestors, the DeWolf family, were the largest slave-trading family in U.S. history:

The story of the DeWolf family is one that probably resembles many stories of Dutch slave trader families in the Netherlands. The legacies of slavery are everywhere around us: from the canal houses, graves of unnamed slaves, the depiction of black people in Dutch paintings and ornaments on the streets of Amsterdam, all the spices that are available to us, to the undeniable presence of people from the former colonies that live here.

Weiner studied 203 textbooks and found that only 96 mention any kind of slavery (47,3%). Only 49 mention black slavery in the Dutch colonies (24,1%). The books barely talk about resistance to slavery; only 10 books (20.1%) speak about resistance of slavery on the plantations. Tula, who was enslaved on Curaçao and was leader of the 1795 slave revolt, is not mentioned once. A Dutch Caribbean film about Tula, ‘Tula: the Revolt’ (the first feature film to portray Dutch colonial history; trailer below) just came out and already stirred up conversations about ownership of legacies and representation back in 2011.

Weiner has also looked into how books speak about slavery. The focus is on what the Dutch colonists, not those they enslaved, had to endure. Any 10-year old student confronted with this past, may very well get the impression that slavery was quite an ordeal for the Dutch with phrases such as ‘the Dutch had a very hard time on the plantations’ or the Middle Passage was ‘a dangerous undertaking [for the Dutch]’. Another writes: ‘The Dutch found slavery very normal for over 200 years.’ It seems they still do. Contemporary legacies of slavery and the commemoration are hardly addressed either. Only 6 books mention Keti Koti, the commemoration of the abolishment of slavery in the Netherlands and Suriname on July 1, 1863.

On a side note, the depictions of Africa and multiculturalism in primary school textbooks do not score high either. Let’s just say that the AIAC tagline is pretty accurate here: Dutch textbooks basically say and show that Africa is one big country, filled with famine and violence from which only UNICEF or Bono can rescue Africans because ‘independence is not always a good thing.’

So yes, extra educational programs are much needed to make sure that kids do engage with the history of slavery and stop thinking that Dutch history is only about World War II (in this instance, the story is one of resistance, rather than the massive compliance and complicity with the Nazis). We should be worried about the fact that the legacies of slavery are so present but are denied, not spoken about and deemed as unimportant because its ‘that long ago’.

What happens after this year that marks 150 years of commemoration (actually it should be 140 years since the end of slavery because it took the Dutch another 10 years to abolish slavery completely) that is filled with special slavery exhibitions, plays and books and projects? And yes, it does matter because the legacies of slavery and racism are real and tangible today, as is the fact that there was a system in place through which people benefited from slavery, which has subsequently influenced their privileged positions in society today.

Weiner found one primary school textbook that mentions racism in the Netherlands today. That comes as no surprise but it does mean that we’ll be needing a lot of 150 second films to tackle the idea that racism has seized to exist and that slavery is just ‘a black page in history’.

Writing Windhoek
There is no liberal tradition in South Africa
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Chandra Frank

Writes on feminism, slavery, colonialism and cultural heritage. Follow her on Twitter

11 thoughts on “Hiding in plain view: Dealing with the legacies of Dutch slavery

  1. I am also interested in the silence about the legacy of the Dutch in South Africa – the development of Afrikaans, the Malay cape slaves and so on… In museums in Amsterdam mention Indonesia, but not the Cape… Why?

  2. As a Dutch person I can only agree with this blog. Unfortunately I had to go to Elmina, Ghana to find out, the Dutch had their slave castle there. It makes me ashamed of my past. It’s also true that the Dutch history with South Africa is never mentioned.
    I also have to mention that Dutch are very poverly educated about history at all. It’s not only the colonial history that’s ignored, also almost the complete history between Willem of Orange and the 19th century is left out, including all the wars the Netherlands had been part of through the ages.

  3. As a Dutch person, this rings absolutely true re. Dutch attitude towards the legacy of slavery.

    “This attitude is a mix of denial, ignorance, (supposed) innocence, and misplaced entitlement. Resistance to the dominant Dutch historic narrative is often met with aggression, marginalization and disdain. People that do question the dominant narrative — from activists to scholars — are often subjected to some fine Dutch repression, not only in everyday life but also institutionally. Try get funding as a scholar to research racism in the Netherlands or set up black, postcolonial, “critical race” or any critical studies departments in this country – it will never happen.”

  4. Until the 50′s the Dutch were quite proud of their ties with South Africa, but when Apartheid came, they started to feel ashamed of their kinship. The people who hung on to their love of SA were shut out of public debate. Criticism of Apartheid was the dominant discourse; all other aspects of our mutual relationship were thought to be irrelevant or, at least, to be of less importance. After Apartheid disappeared, there was simply nothing left to debate or celebrate.

    • I think that we are actually in a neo Apartheid era. Many South Africans of all races have been socialised into being ‘good Neo Nazis’. Their educational syllabi, the right wing media, their social groups all help make many of them of all races incredibly right wing. They don a ‘liberal’ facade when it suits them.
      The Neo Nazis of the previous era still have a very strong influence on what is happening today in South Africa from the newspapers, the radio, the educational syllabi and so on. They often had the skills because they usually had access to the best education that were indispensable to the new order.
      Even the old Apartheid Special Branch (secret police) and the National intelligence operatives (some of whom had often tortured and killed our resistance people) have, been absorbed into the new Special Branch etc.
      The ANC offered a retirement package (at great cost) to our senior (and often best) educationists. The standard of education in South Africa plummeted after that.

  5. It is good to have a fair knowledge of the past as it has lessons to be learnt, but history is just that “His Story”, and as you’ve all pointed out, it is always biased towards the writer. I must say that I disagree with the fact that you want to continuously force all “white” people to wallow in the “white guilt” that you feel. I, for one, do not suffer that guilt, why should I? What does bother me though, is the fact that you don’t mention teaching the children about the on-going slavery in Africa! Why would that be? Is it because the Dutch are not involved which means you accept it? Could it be that it is black on black slavery and therefore you dont care? It is good to know the past but it is better to fix the present!

  6. I came here because I was looking for some more point of views on the reason why the Dutch would refer to slavery as a black page (#zwarteblz). It should at least be a whole chapter or section.

    I totally agree about the need for more education about the “real” historical facts, even the ugly ones, but every country, nation and people has those. That doesn’t make it right, but it’s a simple human trait to remember the good and glorious times (even in your own memories).

    But, I always wonder, what if we have all the text-books corrected. All the kids know about the real grim historical facts and how it was a large part of our Golden Age. They all know the date of the largest shipwreck in Dutch history that killed 702 slaves (January 18th 1738). We have more Keti Koti remembrances. The Dutch slave trade history gets all the recognition. And each year we have the WW2 and the Keti Koti remembrances (and perhaps festivities).

    Is that the end of it? Or is there more? And this is an honest question. One that I cannot answer from my point of view.

  7. Or, we could choose to discuss the high standing many moors achieved in Europe during the renaissance, not least in Netherlands, as described in literature and portrayed in paintings, as humans and personalities, without clichés and stereotypes, by famous painters such as Jordaens, Rubens, Durer.
    I find this subject endlessly fascinating and less talked about than the slavery of the centuries that followed,

  8. Now I came to think of “Max Havelaar”, the anti-colonial book written in 1860 by a Dutchman with the pen name Multatuli. A book that contributed to end Dutch colonialism.
    I saw the movie with the same name in the 70s, and was intrigued about what it wanted to tell me – a story I wasn’t aware of. (I am Swedish, not Dutch).
    But the book doesn’t specifically address slavery, as it is focused on Indonesia. Is this book still well known to the Dutch people, even of younger generations?

    If Europeans institutionalized slavery and developed the transatlantic slave trade, it should also be said that Europeans ended slavery.True, we haven’t been entirely successful even to date, but when slavery was abolished it was an important first step. Slavery was common in the Ottoman empire long after it was banished in the West, and in Africa and the Arab world it still goes on.

    We could cast away any sense of guilt over the distant past even as we are constantly reminded of what happened, and be proud of our centuries long fight against racism and abuse. This is the real story and the one that is written into our constitutions.

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