by Karen Williams 

The first time that I saw a photograph of the Zwarte Piet celebrations in the Netherlands, the door to questions of slavery in my own life swung wide open. There – right there – looking back at me was the representation of my personal history, and the long history of Dutch slavery that incorporates South Africa and the rest of the world.

Yes, there was the sambo figure in blackface with the signature gold hoop earrings signifying an enslaved African person, but Zwarte Piet was more: an invisible thread to my own history given human form and also contradicting the myth that I have descended from people who were born from benign white and black sexual relationships. Picking up the thread has led me here, astonished at the long silenced history of slavery not only in South Africa, but also across Asia.

Zwarte Piet is not a metaphor combining Dutch Christmas myth with American racial idiomatic expression: the figure comes out of a very real, documented history of slavery perpetrated by the Netherlands. At the same time, focussing on Zwarte Piet solely as a troubling racist figure will ultimately erase and silence discussions on the history that birthed him and maintained his place as a cultural necessity in the Netherlands.

 

Slavery was the foundation of colonialism in South Africa, as it was in much of Asia and the Americas. Jan van Riebeeck, who was sent to South Africa by the Dutch East India Company (the VOC) in 1652 to start a refreshment station as the first colonial project, travelled to Cape Town with two “Abyssinian” slave girls. Within a month of arriving, Van Riebeeck was sending urgent requests to the VOC for slaves and he also proposed selling the South African indigenous Khoi people as slaves in Asia.

Batavia slaves
Tea business in a European home in Batavia, Jan Brandes, 1779 – 1785

Adam from Batavia (present-day Jakarta) arrived in South Africa in 1653 as the first imported slave, but historian Robert Shell writes that the Dutch had supported slavery in their Asian colonial territories since at least 1609. After Adam’s arrival, slaves were imported from the west African transatlantic slave routes, as well as Asia and east Africa. Incidentally, Adam was one of the common ways in which slaves were renamed at the Cape and Adams remains a common surname for the descendants of South African slaves, including Muslim descendants.

Small groups of Africans were living in the Netherlands as early as the 1500s. They were servants, labourers, military servicemen, intellectuals and children who came from the Dutch colonies to attend schools in the Netherlands. But images of black people in Dutch art and social expression already predate that by centuries, and appeared as early as the 1200s.

From the 1600s the Dutch were among the main slave traders in west Africa and in the Atlantic Ocean via the Dutch West India Company (WIC), which transported African slaves to the Americas. Similarly, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) oversaw the slave trade between South Africa and the Indian Ocean world, with its main Asian base in Batavia/Jakarta.

Natives of Arakan (present-day Burma) sell slaves to the Dutch East India Company at Pipely/Baliapal (in Orissa), Jan. 1663; a view from an account of the experiences of a Dutch East India Company surgeon on an expedition 1658-65: 'Wouter Schouten's travels into the East Indies', 2nd ed., Amsterdam, 1708
Natives of Arakan (present-day Rakhine, Burma) sell slaves to the Dutch East India Company at Pipely/Baliapal (in Orissa), Jan. 1663. ‘A view from an account of the experiences of a Dutch East India Company surgeon on an expedition 1658-65: Wouter Schouten’s travels into the East Indies’, 2nd ed., Amsterdam, 1708.

Keeping slaves in the Netherlands was a legal and social grey area. Slave traders from the West Indies regularly brought slaves to Dutch ports and arriving in the Netherlands did not automatically mean that the slaves were freed. Slavery and the slave trade was also legal in the Dutch colonies and through the WIC and VOC trading companies. Historians note that Dutch courts often ruled in the slaves’ favour when they went to court to petition for freedom in Holland, but this was not an automatic right.

In November 1596, the first recorded group of Africans was brought to the Dutch port of Middelburg in the Zeeland region by privateers. A legal dispute over the status of the slaves ensued. They had been taken from a Portuguese slave ship and Dutch authorities ruled that they could not be kept as slaves and had to be freed. However, they were subsequently re-enslaved after the Portuguese were granted a second appeal. Writing about the court case, researchers also refer to Antwerp in neighbouring Belgium as a “market” where “slaves were regularly traded”1, and ask whether some of the slaves might have ended up there.

Hundreds of black African and Caribbean people were also brought to the Netherlands as slaves, servants and students. South African records have instances of Dutch colonists sometimes taking slaves back with them at the end of their service to the VOC, although more often than not, the slaves were sold locally in Cape Town.

During that time, black people from the Dutch colony of Suriname as well as the children of Dutch men and black Caribbean and Surinamese women regularly travelled to the Netherlands to attend school.

The Dutch first settled in the Caribbean from 1631 and soon afterward started importing captured enslaved Africans to do the backbreaking manual work of salt mining. Angolan and Congolese slaves were the first group to arrive in Curaçao in 1639. Sugar production also fuelled the transatlantic slave trade, and it was one of the Netherlands’ economic activities in the Americas. Amsterdam’s reputation as a centre of fine chocolate making in the 1600 and 1700s was the result of the importation of cocoa from South American colonies, produced by enslaved Africans.

The Caribbean islands fulfilled the Dutch demand for salt, required to cure fish in the herring industry. The primary salt trade was with Spain, but the Spanish halted the trade in the 1500s after conflicts between the two countries. In addition to being used to conserve meat and fish, salt was also important for Dutch international shipping, fisheries and herring exports.

By the 1640s the Dutch West India Company became the second-largest slave trading power in the Atlantic Ocean. Slave trading by the WIC and VOC was augmented by other European slaving nations, with frequent mentions of slaving ships from as far afield as Denmark recorded in historical documents. The Arab and Muslim slave trade continued simultaneously.

Dutch West India Company ships in Chittagong
Dutch West India Company ships in Chittagong

Many freed and manumitted black slaves in the Netherlands married white Dutch spouses. Africans were also visible in Holland as servants, often depicted in costumes with feathered turbans. These depictions are most visible in the 17th– and 18th century portraits of the royalty and upper classes. Slavery in the Dutch territories was officially abolished in 1838, with slave owners compensated by the Dutch state, but no former slave was compensated. By then, South Africa had been colonised by the British, who abolished slavery in 1834 but slaves had to serve a four-year period of apprenticeship. When the British enforced the abolition of the slave trade on the high seas, slaves captured from other slaving nations were forced into serving an indenture of fourteen years when they were brought to South Africa.

In their landmark book The Dutch Atlantic, researchers Glenn Willemsen and Kwame Nimako note that:

Unlike Britain, which was involved in the abolition and the suppression of the transatlantic “slave” trade and Atlantic slavery, the Dutch were not involved in the abolition and the suppression of the transatlantic slave trade. The implications of this for the Dutch master narrative should not be underestimated. In practice, it means that, unlike Britain, which has national heroes like (William) Wilberforce, the Netherlands has no visible national abolition heroes. This gives rise to different national intellectual traditions. Whereas the British put emphasis on abolition, the Dutch put emphasis on the “slave” trade and downplay slavery and racism. 2

 

Recent protests against Zwarte Piet that have characterised the use of blackface as racist and anti-immigrant have situated him largely as a figure of the 20th and 21st centuries; however, as the history above shows, he has been a living part of Dutch identity and cultural life for centuries. While the response in Holland has been strongly in support of continuing the Zwarte Piet celebrations, deriding him as a racist icon is in fact the easier part of the debate. It is when people start asking where his permanence in the Dutch imagination comes from and why he has managed to remain relevant for hundreds of years that they will start understanding their own place in Dutch society. And perhaps they might also understand why they cannot let go of the cherished slave at the heart of their national life.

 

Sources:

Africana: The Encyclopaedia of the African and African-American Experience, Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates. Oxford University Press USA, 1999.

Children of Bondage: Robert C-H Shell. Wesleyan, 1994.

The Dutch Atlantic: Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation, Kwame Nimako and Glenn Willemsen. Pluto Press, 2011.
1 The Dutch Atlantic: Nimako and Willemsen, G. Pluto Press, 2011.

2Ibid.

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Karen Williams works in media and human rights across Africa and Asia. She was part of the democratic gay rights movement that fought against apartheid in South Africa. She has worked in conflict areas and civil wars across the world and has written extensively on the position of women as victims and perpetrators in the west African and northern Ugandan civil wars.

Indian Ocean Slavery is a series of articles by Karen Williams on the slave trade across the Indian Ocean and its historical and current effects on global populations. Commissioned for our Academic Space, this series sheds light on a little-known but extremely significant period of international history.

This article was commissioned for our academic experimental space for long form writing edited and curated by Yasmin Gunaratnam.  A space for provocative and engaging writing from any academic discipline.

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4 thoughts on “Zwarte Piet is a product of the Netherlands’ long involvement in the slave trade

  1. Sorry but christmas and Zwarte Piet?

    It is they other way round, sinter klaas is much older than santa claus. And …. zwarte piet is much older than …. sinterklaas. The black man does not come originally from the Netherlands, it does come from Slavic countries, Austria, Germany to the Netherlands.

    In those countries the black man tradition was more important than sinter klaas. The churches did not like it, zwarte piet was a pagan tradition, so in Germany and in Netherlands sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet were joined.

    But … Zwarte Piet is known to have a large bag where he puts white children in. Zwarte Piet, the black man is so old tradition, it is slavery from Slavic countries to the Middle East. The word slave come from people of the slavic countries. in the past the word slave means a white man ….

    And slaves in the Netherlands? It was illegal in the Netherlands to keep slaves, except foreigners could take slaves with them for max 6 months. Main problem, Netherlands small country, so people from Spain …, most of them where government people, like corps diplomatique now. In fact, Netherlands has been occupied by Spain, France.

    However, slave trade was not illegal, …. that did not happen in the Netherlands … But slavery was seen in the Netherlands as immoral.

    But yes, there were some big companies, and those were very active. First some cities in the west of the Netherlands became very rich. And the slave trade did bring a lot of money in the country, and that was great for economy, they call it the Golden Age.

    Now the west still profits a lot of dirty trade, and in those days, the Netherlands made a lot of money with dirty trade. But it was seen in the Netherlands as dirty trade, just like lots of people now do not like that some metals are dug by children, but still buy mobile phones. Same with dresses and shoes.

    And there were never lot of black people in the Netherlands, people from Indonesia, yes, but most since the Netherlands had to set Indonesia free.

    I’m 50 years old, very familiar with people from different cultures, and 50-15 years ago, everyone enjoyed sinterklaas and zwarte piet. He changed from a monster (Austria) to someone who helped sinterklaas, but as child you must be nice, otherwise Zwarte Piet will take you with him, and since 30 years or so, he is the biggest friend of children.

    Children were sometimes afraid of the old man, but Zwarte Piet, they loved him.

    But some much data is incorrect. “Writing about the court case, researchers also refer to Antwerp in neighbouring Belgium as a “market” where “slaves were regularly traded”1, and ask whether some of the slaves might have ended up there.”

    Belgium? In 1596? Researchers? There has never been a Belgium before 1831. Antwerp did belong to the Netherlands and slaves were not allowed in the Netherlands, except foreigners could take slaves with them, maximum 6 months.

    “Involved in the abolition” Erasmus? Already in 15th century?

    And there was a problem Netherlands had, and UK did not. Netherlands was occupied by Spain and France. The governments of the colonies just went on. In the beginning of the 19th century the Netherlands had to get rid of France first.

    And …. where does abolition in UK come from? part same as the Netherlands, the normal person did not slavery.

    But …. there was also something as US ….. And US and UK speak both English. And yes, there were a lot of discussions going on between US and UK.

    And since when can a normal man in the Netherlands vote? 1917.

    VOC, perhaps known, had its own army and fleet, bigger than the army and fleet of the Netherlands. And …. a lot of them located in the colonies, with own governments, influenced by the VOC.

    So tell me, a country where the people took care that slavery was illegal, while they had no voting rights, what could they do in the colonies?

    And the clothes of Zwarte Piet … lots of people could not afford it. The slaves the dutch people did see … where the slaves that did come with their “master” and those slaves were of high standard. Not normal slaves, very dangerous to take normal slaves to the Netherlands, if they would go to court …. Good chance, they were set free. Hardly any slave went to court … Why would they? They were high standard slaves.

    And I know the discussion is going on, I am against Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, I do not like that adults lie to children. People can arrange a nice party, without telling them that Sinterklaas and his Piets bring them from Spain.

    But … I know a lot of people of different cultures, all those years hardly heart any issues. In fact, most telling me that I must not be principle about Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet.

    But … since the extreme right comes up …., then the discussions came.

    And now, a lot of people tell me i have to be ashamed for my forefathers? On both sides, poor people, coming from sections in the Netherlands were it was tough work.

    Is the world crazy?

    Countries? There are no borders, people invented borders.

    And black people in the Netherlands? Those big companies traded them everywhere but not to the Netherlands. Asiatic people, people from Morocco, Turkey, but most of them came after 1950.

    When a black man cam to the Netherlands, he came with a rich man, and he himself was a high standard slave. Sinterklaas, a rich man, did come from Spain (in fact not correct, St. Nicolaas lived in Turkey), and came with high standard slaves.

    But yes, all those discussions …. raise of extreme right, I want to thank everyone (this is meant sarcactic).

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  2. I appreciate the discourse on the Dutch involvement in the slave trade, but the imagery of Zwarte Piet precedes the transatlantic slave trade. This article is well-intentioned but is also also very damaging when it comes to the legacy of Africans in Europe. Unlike stated in this article, besides remnants of ancient populations found in the British Isles, a large number of Africans lived in Europe from the Dark Ages through the Middle Ages due to their presence in the Iberian Peninsula from 711 A.D. When the Spanish Crown expelled them and the Jewish population from Spain in 1492, some went into the interior of Europe all the way to Russia. Being that they were the learned population in Europe at that time, many of Europe’s leading families had African/”Moorish” progenitors, hence the large number of old family crests with African representations on them. Until the time of the transAtlantic slave trade, depictions of Africans in European popular media represented wealth and academic prowess due to the extreme rich of the West African empires of Mali and Songhai out of which the books and gold that supported the Moorish Empire in Europe, and it spreading of learning first in Spain through the establishment of the University of Salamanca, then later the 16 major schools of learning throughout Europe. The “Moor” was prevalent image in medieval Europe, and was the model in terms of cultivated humanity that was aspired towards. From France to Germany to Italy to England to Russia people of African descent playing prominent historical, social, intellectual and cultural roles in Europe at this time. It was only at the advent of the transAtlantic slave trade that even the word “black” began to have a negative connotation. It was only when necessary to justify the savagery of European treatment of African peoples that a new lexicon and set of images began to be created in order to prevent dissonance in the mind of Europeans viewing themselves as civilized and bringers of light to the world. If not for the African’s contribution to medieval Europe, Europe might still be in the Dark Ages, as after the collapse of the Roman Empire, the only people left able to read in Europe were the Irish. It was only because of the trade in learning between the University of Sankore in Timbuktu, Mali and the establishment and later supplying of texts to University of Salamanca in Spain that the tradition of learning returned to Europe. Even the Greek texts, whom for some reason, Western Europeans trace their intellectual origins from, were lost in Europe. The Greek texts had to be translated from Arabic in scrolls brought from Timbuktu and translated into European languages by Jewish scholars in Moorish Spain. If not for those people, whom the image of Zwarte Piet was modeled after, Europe would have never had a Renaissance, and, as such never, would have had its “Age of Exploration” and subsequent Age of Colonization.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would love to know your sources of information because your reply has given me information I never knew.

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    2. Has it occurred to anyone in Holland to ASK AN AFRICAN how they might want to be depicted if this is such a positive image? Perhaps the answer is a radical change in the image instead of removal of it. When I first saw Zwarte Piet it was on my first visit to Amsterdam. It loomed large over a department store from the ceiling. My Dutch hostess did not understand why I froze in horror. I explained that such images were highly offensive in the U.S. And I suggested to her that they were just as offensive to any
      African living abroad as well. I imagine that if the image was changed to an African man in chains, the Dutch would be more likely to change their tune about it being a harmless happy icon.

      My brother’s Dutch boss in the U.S. once gleefully (and ignorantly) showed a video of Zwarte Piet at an office Christmas party attended by Black employees. You can imagine the reaction. What world could you possibly be living in, what hole in the sand is your head thrust down into that you do not understand that such an image is offensive? Or that the Dutch have a horrific history of enslavement of African people?

      I agree with Karen Williams that the issue of the origin of the image is just as important as its current relevance and impact. But on the whole, no one wants to admit to benefitting from their ancestors institutionally harming anyone. It’s too messy and complicated, so what we get worldwide is the “It’s Over” dismissal. And as usual the “victor” decides how history will be written and remembered, even visually.

      Imagine if you will a German depiction of Jews that pre-dates the Nazis (but was also subsequently used by them hundreds of years later) being acceptable as an iconic celebratory image. I think not. You cannot divorce the complexity of the past from the present, no matter how fun it is to stick with old traditions that you were not aware were derisive, cruel or insensitive.

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