New exhibition sheds light on Dutch slavery history
IN 1881 SOMEONE donated an antique brass circle to the Rijksmuseum, the Dutch national museum of art and history. The object (in the photo) is a bit of a nonsense. Engraved with a heraldic shield and the year 1689, it bears no indication of its usefulness. Museum staff listed it as a dog collar.
They could have investigated further. Scattered throughout the collection of the Rijksmuseum, paintings show similar collars worn not by dogs, but by young black men. Called “Moors,” they were regularly kept as servants in wealthy 17th-century Dutch households, on the fringes of the vast European human trafficking operation that transported millions of African slaves to the Americas.
Slavery was not a distant memory in 1881. On some Dutch colonial plantations, it had ended a decade earlier. Yet a Rijksmuseum curator apparently failed to make the connection. Had Dutch society really forgotten such objects? Or was he trying not to see them?
The necklace is on display in the museum’s new exhibition on the history of slavery in the Netherlands and its former colonies. (King Willem-Alexander opened the exhibit in May, but the museum remains closed until June 5 due to covid-19 restrictions.) This is part of a large movement to reexamine the country’s colonial past . The Netherlands ruled over Indonesia, Suriname, Curaçao and several other Caribbean islands from the 1600s until the mid-20th century, first through its East India and West India Companies. VOC and GWC) and later directly. Slaves worked the coffee, spice and sugar plantations until the 1860s. During their golden age of painters and tulips, the Dutch were among the world’s foremost slavers, conquering forts in Africa from the West to seize the Portuguese trade.
In modern times, the Dutch have played down this story. But this has become more difficult as the Netherlands has become more multicultural. The largest Dutch immigrant communities come from Morocco and Turkey, but those from Suriname, the Caribbean and Indonesia make up around 5% of the population. Arguments over “Zwarte Piet” (a blackface tradition associated with the feast of St. Nicholas) and Black Lives Matter have torn Dutch politics apart. For the Rijksmuseum, showing the other side of the colonial past is a condition for remaining relevant.
One of the challenges of organizing a slavery exhibition is the lack of physical materials. “The slaves were not allowed to own things, they were not allowed to write, they were hardly ever represented,” says Valika Smeulders, chief historian of the Rijksmuseum from Curaçao. The museum remedies this by discovering traces that have gone unnoticed in its collection. In Bartholomeus van der Helst’s painting of an Amsterdam Shooting Company from 1639, an unidentified black youth stands in the center. The opulent portraits of Rembrandt by Marten Soolmans and Oopjen Coppit are well known; less is that their wealth came in part from the slave trade in sugar.
A second technique involves examining everyday objects from the slave economy, such as plantation bells. For slaves, they could be a relief or an omen, signaling the end of the day and the weighing of the harvest, which could presage a beating if the quota was not met. The logo of the GWC, a nostalgic view of old canal houses in Dutch towns, takes on a different aura once you see it on a branding iron used on humans. Other objects testify to the perseverance of the slaves: the samples of a botanist from Suriname in 1687 include sesame and okra, African crops that must have been planted by captives. Oral history adds another layer. Songs from Suriname, Curacao and South Africa (originally a Dutch colony) sound like lullabies, until you hear the translations. Shon ta bende nos, mom, katibu ta galina: “The owner sells us, mom, the slaves are chickens.”
The exhibition revolves around the stories of ten individuals, five linked to the functioning of the slave system and five embodying resistance against it. The direct testimony of Wally, a slave in Suriname, exists because he was questioned in court. He and four others were horribly executed in 1707 after fleeing into the jungle to protest the strict new work rules. The works of Dirk Valkenburg, a painter sent by the absent owner to Amsterdam to record his plantation, provide visual context. Valkenburg’s depiction of what feels like a holiday celebration is stunning: revelers leap from the canvas, individual and compelling. It is all the more shocking to read that this seemingly empathetic painter condemned Wally, calling him a “troublemaker.”
Part of the history of the exhibition is innovative. The Dutch tend to identify slavery with the Americas, but another important branch of trade shipped captives from the Ganges Delta to Indonesia, from where they could be sold to South Africa or sometimes the Netherlands. themselves. The attention paid to African and Asian slaves in Holland is also new. Slavery was illegal in the Dutch homeland, but the slaves who were brought there remained in bondage, perhaps because they had few options.
Some have nevertheless found their place in Dutch society. One was Paulus Maurus, a servant of the wealthy Nassau La Lecq clan, an offshoot of the Dutch royal family. Parish registers show that he became a cavalry drummer in the regiment of the Commander-in-Chief of the Netherlands, that he married a Dutch woman in 1684 and that he had a child. A Dutch cavalry painting decades later shows such a mounted black drummer, wearing what appears to be a metal collar. Indeed, the shield engraved on the brass collar of 1689 seems to belong to the house of Nassau La Lecq. The case is circumstantial, but it may have been Maurus who wore it.
What drove this system was the money. The exhibit would need a little more savings, but it’s clear the financial incentives were immense. In 1621, Jan Pieterszoon Coen, officer of the VOC, massacred 14,000 of the 15,000 inhabitants of the Moluccan Island of Great Banda, at the time the world’s main source of nutmeg, and replaced them with imported slaves. He did so to secure a monopoly on a spice that was selling hundreds of times more in Europe than in Southeast Asia.
It is all sinister, but it is also fascinating. This makes the relative ignorance of the history of slavery, a central aspect of European colonialism, even more difficult to explain. Many Europeans think slavery is getting too much attention, that it happened a long time ago, and has nothing to do with it. Resentment betrays the game. In colonial times, the voices of slaves were silenced because hearing them risked upsetting the socio-economic system. They were later silenced because hearing them makes the heirs of this system feel guilty. Yet, as psychotherapists know, the truth is more interesting than the silences and fables under which it hides. ■
This article appeared in the Books & Arts section of the print edition under the title “Le retour du refoulé”