Whose Commemoration

The trouble with the official Dutch commemoration of the abolition of slavery. It leaves out the descendants of victims altogether.

Slave huts in Bonaire, an island territory of the Netherlands, off the coast of Venezuela’s coast. Image: Wiki Commons.

On July 1st, 2013, the Netherlands officially commemorates the 150th anniversary of the abolishment of slavery in its former colonies and dependencies, like Suriname and the Dutch Antilles. The mayor of Amsterdam considered it a good time for a celebration. So he decided to think big and invited the US First Lady Michelle Obama, writers Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and former black panther activist Angela Davis. However, looking at the politics around slavery and its commemoration, one may wonder whether we should cheer for this step taken or if we should question why exactly these African American speakers are invited. Don’t get me wrong; I would love to see these admirable women in Amsterdam, but where are the prominent speakers from our communities?

The Dutch politics around slavery and its commemoration are rather sketchy. For one, the country’s only research institute based in Amsterdam, the Nederlands Instituut voor Slavernijverleden (Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy — also known as the NiNsee), has experienced heavy budget cuts last year and was not able to carry out its main activities any longer. Luckily the local government came to the rescue and ensured funding until the end of this year. The timing is — and I am putting it mildly — unfortunate as, again, 2013 marks the 150-year commemoration of the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands. Dr. Artwell Cain, former director of the NiNsee, explained to me that the institute has been silenced through this move. Dr. Cain identifies a strong political trend in the Netherlands that seeks to regulate what is being said about slavery and by whom and sees the heavy cuts as a testament to this claim.

The Dutch government formally abolished slavery in the Dutch colonies, Suriname and the Dutch Antilles, on the 1st of July 1863. This day is widely known as “Keti Koti,” which means “breaking the chains” in the Surinamese language. Every year the NiNsee co-organizes the so-called Keti Koti Festival.

But through inviting prominent guests such as Michelle Obama to speak on slavery, the Dutch continue to distance themselves from their own history in which slavery played an important role. The ‘Golden Age’ and the Dutch East India Company (VOC) are glorified in the dominant historical narratives, TV shows and museums, hardly ever mentioning one word about slavery.

The legacies of slavery and the commemoration processes in the US cannot be compared to those of the Netherlands; yet through inviting these speakers it seems that a connection is being made.

Until recently slavery was not even included in the national historical canon and you would be lucky to learn anything about it in school. The NiNsee in collaboration with other schools contributed two chapters to the official historical canon, which they hope will be incorporated in the curriculum soon. It should be noted here too that slavery and its history are often only connected to Suriname and the Dutch Antilles but — as I mentioned in a previous post on the history of African Art in the Netherlands — people seem to forget that the Dutch were also rather active in Ghana and South Africa back in the day. The Cape Settlement in which the VOC played a major role is still often perceived as a mere pit stop.

Luckily we now also have an alternative and historical Black Heritage Tour in Amsterdam that teaches us about the contributions of the African Diaspora to Dutch society, dating back from the 16th century to the present. Historian Sandew Hira has heavily criticized the knowledge production around slavery in the Netherlands because of its ‘Eurocentric perspective’. In the Netherlands, we never seem to focus solely on the history of Dutch slavery. Popular culture, debates, plays and manifestations continuously connect Dutch slavery history to modern slavery and by doing so the actual history — which we know so little about — is being dismissed. For instance, Hira criticized a Dutch TV series called ‘De Slavernij’ (The Slavery) because by linking Dutch slavery to modern slavery in general it made two mistakes. First, the Transatlantic Slave Trade was sanctioned by states and not by private entities. And second, modern slavery today is not the foundation of rising world economies.

The question of a formal apology and reparations for slavery remain contested issues here. Many wonder whether the government does not offer an official apology because of the possibility of subsequent legal implications — but this is not the case.

Some also perceive it as problematic that the Surinamese government is not welcome to the commemoration. The Dutch government does not approve of Suriname’s democratically elected president Desi Bouterse, who is a former military ruler and has been accused of killing 15 top opponents of his military government in the 1980s. And on top of that he has been sentenced in absentia to 11 years for being complicit in smuggling cocaine to the Netherlands. Although Europol has issued an international warrant, being head of State, Bouterse enjoys immunity and has not been arrested.

It is clear that slavery, its legacy and its commemoration are not high on the public agenda. Dutch-Caribbean cultural critic Egbert Alejandro Martina shared his views with me as he is not impressed by the commemoration events, or the lack thereof, organized by the Dutch government. “There are very few events taking place, and most of them, like the one in Rotterdam, seem haphazard and ill advised. What is more, this year also marks the 200-year anniversary of the Dutch Kingdom — and the events planned to celebrate this occasion have already eclipsed the commemoration events in honor of the abolition of slavery in the Dutch West Indies (Suriname and the Caribbean islands were part of this). Perhaps I am being overly cynical, but I think that there’s so little being done because there’s nothing to gain, nothing to feel good about, for the dominant culture.”

The main problem seems to be that we are not sure what exactly we are remembering or forgetting on the 1st of July. There is a strong focus on the abolition but we seem to know very little about what actually happened before, during and after that. Martina reminds us of the history lessons we never got when he questions why slavery was abolished in the Dutch West Indies 3,5 years later than in the Dutch East Indies (what is now Indonesia). “Slavery in the Dutch West Indian colonies was abolished simply because it was not profitable to continue it.” Since the abolition had nothing to do with nations and slave owners ‘feeling guilty’, Martina stresses the importance of commemorating ancestors. “Abolition did not restore our, nor grant us, humanity. Our ancestors had to work for another 10 years — for free — under some bogus apprenticeship. We had to fight for our humanity.”

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