James Oliver Horton & Johanna C Kardux. American Studies International. Volume 42, Issue 2-3. June-October 2004.
In the past few years, important history projects on slavery in the United States and the Netherlands have focused public attention on what is for each society a difficult and painful past. This article, by two scholars, one American and one Dutch, seeks to explore the reactions to the public presentation of the history of slavery in each country. For people who value human dignity, a discussion of their participation in human slavery is never easy, and is very much unlike the grand and heroic history typical of national celebrations. Reactions in both societies have been intense, for the history of slavery confronts traditionally positive self-perceptions, forcing a concentration on issues that contradict the sense of national heritage in fundamental ways.
For Americans, a people who see their history as a freedom story and themselves as defenders of freedom, the integration of slavery into their national narrative is embarrassing and can be guilt-producing and disillusioning. It can also provoke defensiveness, anger and confrontation. For the Dutch, who share the American people’s love of freedom and cherish their own nation’s history of religious and cultural tolerance, the Netherlands’ role in slaveholding and slave trading was so irreconcilable with their sense of national identity that it was long erased from public consciousness. The inevitable return of this repressed past in recent years has been painful for both the descendants of slaves and descendants of those who directly or indirectly profited from the Dutch slave trade, giving rise to feelings of shame and remorse, resentment and anxiety. In both countries the history of slavery and its memory has recently spawned public debate and sobering reflection. In the United States, because of slavery’s connection to the Civil War, still the bloodiest war in American history, the debate has grown more contentious, with the South less able to escape its role as central focus. The northern states have followed a path similar to that of the Dutch, attempting to avoid their responsibility, seeking to erase the memory of slavery from its historical memory. On neither side of the Atlantic has this been possible, however. In both the United States and in the Netherlands, slavery and the slave trade have played a powerful role in shaping national history and in each nation its unsettling memory has become difficult to ignore.
In the last decade or so, American academic historians have started to consider what many history buffs, museum professionals, business entrepreneurs, and even city council members have known for generations–history sells. The popular wisdom too often heard at past scholarly meetings in the U.S., that people hate history, has been stood on its head. Not only do people not hate history, they flock to places where they can learn more about the past, especially if they feel connected to the past they are learning about. They come to historical sites and history museums by the millions. They tune into history TV, and they go to historical movies to get in touch with their heritage and to find historical context for their lives. This is, of course, good news for professional historians who are dedicated to the teaching of good history in schools and in public places, but there is a strong word of caution to be added. Visitors most often come to historic sites with preconceptions of the history they will encounter there. Some historic places carry particular significance for them beyond the history found there, as sites of heritage. While history may offer points of interest and even fascination, heritage is intensely personal, connecting individuals to the past through their particular community or their ancestors in ways that help to define their own lives in contemporary society. As any historic site interpreter or any museum curator knows only too well, while the broad public is generally fascinated with history, there are some aspects of history, some interpretations of the past, that are sure to raise public hackles. The problems often arise when, at historic sites, history confronts heritage.
Debates in the United States during the 1990s over such controversial museum presentations as the Smithsonian’s Enola Gay exhibition come to mind as examples of the firestorm that can be provoked when history and heritage collide. In that case, the furor over how to display the airplane that dropped the atomic bomb on Japan during World War II extended to the highest levels of government, as angry exchanges in the halls of the national congress signaled the continuation of what became known as the “Culture Wars.” The heated conversations about the public presentation of the history of slavery and its role in the formation of the American experience is the most recent phase of that debate. With race at the core of any discussion of slavery, this issue is potentially even more volatile than former debates. Surely slavery is one of the most sensitive and difficult subjects to present in a public setting, one almost certain to provoke strong reaction. This is particularly true in the American South where the legacy of the Civil War makes the subject even more complex.
More than a century after the end of the conflict that many southerners still refer to as simply “the war” one can start an argument merely by suggesting that slavery and its preservation was one major cause of southern secession and the coming of the Civil War. Organizations like the United Sons of Confederate Veterans, the United Daughters of the Confederacy, or the Southern Heritage Coalition are dedicated to the preservation of a romanticized memory of the pre-Civil War South which, if it includes slavery at all, does so in the most benign manner. The issue is a lightening rod for these Civil War heritage groups bent on honoring their southern Confederate ancestors who attempted to secede from the United States in the mid-nineteenth century. Even a casual exposure to their rhetoric is quite convincing that for them, the stakes in the slavery history debate are very high. The Georgia Heritage Coalition describes itself as “a group of Georgia citizens taking action to correct the recent abuses of trust by our State government with respect to our heritage.” Its members see an effort to destroy southern heritage, defined as “the fabric that holds our society together.” Many of these groups believe that they are in the midst of what they call “Heritage Wars.” They see themselves as locked in combat against forces outside the South which they describe as “anti-Southern, commercial and special interest groups.”
One member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans claimed that, as a group, southern heritage supporters are under attack by “leftists, liberals and Democrats.” These groups claim to be open to a broad membership including “Native Americans and conservative black Americans,” yet some of their analysis of their “attackers” is based on race. They single out the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and black political leaders for special comment. An article on the Georgia Heritage Coalition website displays a doctored photograph of Reverend A1 Sharpton, black candidate for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination, dressed in a German Nazi SS officer with the caption, “Elect me and we’ll carry out the Final Solution on these damned Confederates.” This article, authored by Steve Scroggins, identified as a volunteer contributor to the Georgia Heritage Coalition who lives in Macon, Georgia, refers to Sharpton as a demagogue characterized by “hate speech and extremism.”
To these southern heritage groups, any presentation of slavery is potentially threatening, and public historians who attract their disapproval are particularly vulnerable to their ability to rapidly mobilize opposition. For example, when John Latschar, National Park Service Superintendent at Gettysburg National Battlefield, mentioned in the course of a speech at the Department of the Interior that slavery was one of the causes of the Civil War, his comment provoked a shocking response. More than a thousand angry protestors, using pre-printed postcards, petitioned the Office of the Secretary of the Interior demanding the superintendent’s removal.
Any historian who argues for a connection between slavery and the Civil War, as all reputable historians do, is almost certain to attract the opposition of these southern heritage groups, especially if the point is made in public. These groups were particularly upset when, in 2000, U.S. Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr. inserted language into a Department of the Interior appropriation bill, commenting on the state of Civil War battlefield sites. The Congressman asserted that these sites are “often not placed in the proper historical context,” and the provision directed the Secretary of the Interior “to encourage Civil War battle sites to recognize and include in all of their public displays and multimedia educational presentations, the unique role that the institution of slavery played in causing the Civil War.” In reality, over a year before the congressional mandate, superintendents at National Park Service Civil War historic battlefields had decided to reevaluate the history presented at their sites on the question of slavery, so that Representative Jackson’s call simply reinforced efforts already underway.
The reaction of the southern heritage community was predictably intense. To date, the National Park Service has received more than 2,400 protest communications, most in the form of pre-printed postcards and individual letters bearing the language of the preprinted postcards. The messages range from reasoned arguments against considering slavery at Civil War battle sites to epithets hurled at Park Service officials and the Interior Department. One North Carolina man dismissed any claim that the war was fought over slavery. “The war was fought over state’s [sic] rights & for economic reasons,” he argued. “You all wanted our cotton & tobacco.” An Alabama critic wrote, saying to then Secretary of Interior Bruce Babbitt, “you are an ignorant Liberal democrat.” A Florida writer called the secretary a “Socialist, Traitor, Violator of Oath of Office, Liar,” while a Texas critic expressed his feeling more simply; “you are a bigoted pig.” Clearly, the project struck a nerve, and as interpretations of slavery and the Civil War are updated at public history sites, the reaction intensifies.
In 1998 Virginia Governor James S. Gilmore announced, as he and many other southern governors do each year, that April would be designated Confederate History Month. That year, however, the governor added provisions that brought criticism from the southern heritage community that southern governors do not generally receive. Included in his message was a brief mention of slavery:
WHEREAS, our recognition of Confederate history also
recognizes that slavery was one of the causes of the war;
WHEREAS, slavery was a practice that deprived African-Americans
of their God-given inalienable rights, which degraded
the human spirit, is abhorred and condemned by
Virginians, and ended by this war;
Reaction was swift and direct. R. Wayne Byrd, president of Virginia’s Heritage Preservation Association, labeled Governor Gilmore’s reference to slavery an insult to the state and as bowing to what Byrd termed the political pressure of “racist hate groups such as the NAACP.” He took issue with Gilmore’s negative description of slavery, painting instead a picture of the plantation worthy of mid-nineteenth century proslavery apologists. It is alarming that at the end of the twentieth century, in a public statement, Byrd could call the slave plantation of the old South a place “where master and slave loved and cared for each other and had genuine family concern.” Although most of the southern heritage rhetoric does not include such nostalgic admiration for slavery, Byrd’s attitude reflects its general tone. One member of a northern branch of one of these groups, the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, attacked Gilmore’s reference to slavery as “a slap in the faces of the Confederate soldiers, their grandchildren, and the State of Virginia as a whole.”
The extreme reaction of the southern heritage community to the public presentation of slavery is unusual, but many, perhaps most Americans are uncomfortable with the issue. To Americans, almost by definition a freedom loving people, their national story is a freedom adventure, the narrative of a people steeped in a progressive struggle for collective and individual liberty. From pre-Revolutionary days, Americans have seen themselves as united in a movement in resistance to slavery. When eighteenth century American patriots protested British tax policy they did so in extreme language. “Those who are taxed without their own consent, expressed by themselves or their representatives, are slaves,” declared John Dickinson, of Pennsylvania. “We are therefore-SLAVES,” he concluded. When the founders of America described their greatest fear, it was the fear of being reduced to slaves. The condition of slavery was the most un-American condition that patriots of the Revolution could imagine.
Herein lies the problem for most Americans. It is difficult to reconcile the fact that American founders argued that slavery was antithetical to the laws of nature and an affront to rights given to human beings by God, and at the same time sustained themselves and built a “free country” with slave labor. The difficulty is compounded for many southern-born Americans who trace their ancestry directly to slaveholders who were willing to take up arms against the United States of America, as a means of protecting slavery. It is profoundly troubling to celebrate the Confederate cause if it is admitted that that cause was ultimately the preservation of slavery. Once this is understood, the profound need of some Americans, especially those from the South, to reject slavery as a cause of the Civil War becomes clear. The Southern heritage community refuses to accept the fact that slavery was at the heart of Confederate motivation despite the mountain of evidence based on the words of founding Confederates themselves. In the early winter of 1860, the editor of the Charleston Mercury told its South Carolina readers that “the issue before the country is the extinction of slavery.” It charged that “no man of common sense, who has observed the progress of events, and is not prepared to surrender the institution can doubt that the time for action has come–now or never. The existence of slavery is at stake.” John Singleton Mosby, the legendary Confederate military hero, was most direct. “The South went to war on account of slavery,” he explained candidly. “South Carolina went to war–as she said in her secession proclamation because slavery w[oul]d not be secure under Lincoln.” Then he added as if to dispel all doubt, “South Carolina ought to know what was the cause of her seceding.” This is difficult testimony to refute, even for those dedicated to its refutation.
Northern white Americans do not generally react as strongly to public presentations of the history of slavery because they generally see slavery as a southern institution. Only the minority understand that at the time of the American Revolution, slavery existed in every colony and initially in every state in the United States. Even they are often shocked to learn that Newport, Rhode Island was a major slave trading port, or that New York City was, next to Charleston, South Carolina, the major urban center for slavery in the country. Eighteenth century northern Revolutionaries offer many examples of hypocrisy on the question of slavery. New York’s John Jay, the first Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, was the first president of New York’s emancipation society and a slaveholder. John Dickinson, who compared oppressive taxes with slavery, was Philadelphia’s largest slaveholder. Even Benjamin Franklin held at least one person in slavery. Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, both slaveholders, had many northern counterparts, though generally not in the number of slaves held. For white Americans one thought-provoking and very troubling question might be, is it un-American to be a slaveholder? In the complex and contradictory history of the nation, there are many such troubling questions.
Many African Americans are also uncomfortable with the public presentation of slavery. As the descendants of slaves, the pain and sometimes the humiliation of remembering slavery can be extremely unpleasant. This point became obvious in 1995, when the U.S. Library of Congress attempted to mount an exhibit entitled “Back of The Big House: The Cultural Landscape of the Plantation.” This exhibit, curated by southern folklorist John M. Vlach, featured pictures of plantation life, including one of blacks working in the fields under the watchful eye of a mounted overseer. Black employees at the library registered strong objections to the depiction of what many called the painful memory of slavery. Ironically, the picture of what most saw as an armed overseer guarding slaves, which became one of the most controversial aspects of the exhibit, was inaccurately described. In reality the mounted white overseer was not armed and the picture was taken in the early twentieth century, decades after southern slavery had been abolished. Yet, this picture, erroneously described as the armed containment of slaves, has become part of urban folklore within much of the African American community, affirming the nightmarish vision of slavery which continues to haunt the history of race in America. As one employee put it, referring to contemporary race relations at the library, “We have a very fragile work environment … we still have a lot of healing to do.”
Sometimes, black people would rather not recall or even learn about the horrors of slavery. After a lecture on the history of slavery at Howard University in Washington, D.C a few years ago, a black woman was visibly distressed by the description of institution and the slave trade. During the question and answer period after the lecture, she directed an emotional comment to the lecturer. Her voiced trembled as she demanded that we “put slavery behind us,” not dwell on the painful past, and “get beyond all that.” Hers was an earnest reaction to one of America’s most volatile and tenacious problem. Part of the reason Americans have so much difficulty dealing with the issue of race in the twenty-first century is because they have not really dealt with the history of slavery and its meaning and legacy for contemporary society.
In the last few years the memory of slavery in America has been complicated by the rise of the reparations movement. Demands for compensation from governments and private corporations have drawn nervous, sometimes angry, responses. For many American businesses and institutions, from insurance companies, to tobacco companies, to universities, the history of slavery can be embarrassing and its memory particularly costly. Recently, some American descendants of slaves have brought legal action against the British insurance company Lloyds of London, claiming the firm’s underwriting of ships used in the Atlantic slave trade led to the murder of numerous African slaves. The case of the Liverpool-based slave ship Zong illustrates the point. In 1781, its captain Luke Collingwood murdered 133 slaves, throwing them overboard during the course of three days, to claim the insurance. These slaves were sick and Collingwood feared that they would die aboard ship, a loss not compensated by insurance, which did not cover death by natural causes. With deadly calculation the captain estimated the remaining food and water supply, which was running low, and threw fifty-four overboard on the first day, then forty-two the next. He waited two days to check the supply of provisions before throwing twenty-six more human beings into the ocean.
Collingwood made a purely business decision based on the conditions of his insurance coverage. He sought to protect his profits by murdering his human property, but in the end he too lost, albeit only money. British Chief Justice Lord Mansfield ruled that Lloyds of London need not pay the claim because the captain had committed a willful act. The justice drew a parallel to show the horror of what Collingwood had done by comparing it to throwing valuable horses overboard. The modern day suit argues that the companies that insured slaves were well aware of the inhumanity they were helping to finance, and were concerned only with the vast profits to be made in the venture. Since those profits were gained by encouraging the trafficking in human beings that led to the death of millions, the claimants demand compensation for injury they incurred as a result of the suffering of their ancestors. Although no court has yet ruled that reparations must be paid, at least one firm, Aetna Insurance Company, has issued a public apology for its role in the slave trade, and several American state and local governments have passed measures requiring companies to disclose information about any historical involvement in slavery. In 2002, Chicago’s city council passed such a law unanimously, requiring corporations to reveal whether they had benefitted, even incidentally, from slavery. This action was modeled on legislation passed two years earlier by California’s state legislature aimed at insurance companies and other businesses that had derived profit from slavery during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Under these circumstances, facing the memory of slavery can become more than an academic exercise. There are likely to be significant economic consequences, as the reparations debate makes clean Thus, it is surprising that one major ivy league university has begun investigating its own connection with slavery and the slave trade. Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, an institution begun in 1764 as Rhode Island College, was named for the slaveholding Brown family in 1804. Wealthy slave trader and ardent defender of slavery John Brown financed a major portion of the school’s first library. His brother, Moses Brown and other members of the family were staunch abolitionists, but Brown University has faced criticism for its historic links to slavery.
Yet, the university is among the most progressive of the ivy league schools with the second-highest percentage of African American faculty and a graduation rate of 87% of the black students who constitute 6% of the student body. In 2000, Brown University installed Dr. Ruth Simmons, former president of Smith College, as its president. Dr. Simmons thus became the first African American to head an ivy league university. She had held that position less than one year when the history of her institution became the subject of heated campus debate. In the spring of 2001, noted conservative spokesman David Horowitz placed a provocative advertisement in the university newspaper denouncing the idea of reparations with the headline, “Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea and Racist Too.” Angry students protested the advertisement, and demanded an apology. In the fall of 2003, Horowitz spoke to a crowd of 400 people who packed a lecture room in the university’s Salomon Hall under heavy police protection. He charged that Brown students were Marxists and attempted to defend himself against the charge of racism. His appearance on campus and the debate it generated did nothing to cool the situation.
Within a few months of Horowitz’s appearance at Brown, President Simmons confronted head on the issue of slavery in the university’s past, appointing a 16-member committee to study its early links to slave owners and traders, and to provide recommendations as to if and how the university should take responsibility for its history. This bold response to the on-campus reparations controversy at Brown University is one of the most direct efforts to deal with America’s slave-influenced history on record, illustrating again the difficulty all Americans have in facing this aspect of the national memory. Yet, it is essential that the nation do exactly that, if it is to deal successfully with the issue of race in the 21st century.
Americans are, however, far from alone or unique in their difficulty in confronting a history of slavery and racial injustice. The Dutch have disavowed their nation’s slavery past perhaps even more vehemently. The “essence of a nation,” as the nineteenth-century French historian Ernest Renan said, “is that its people have much in common but also that they have forgotten a lot of things.” As the elaborate, though controversial, public celebrations of the 400th anniversary of the Dutch East-India Trade Company in 2002 showed, the Dutch take great pride in their nation’s glorious commercial history, and still to some extent derive their sense of national identity from the collective memory of imperial greatness in the seventeenth century. Without any sense of irony, the Dutch refer to this epoch as the nation’s Golden Age, when Holland ruled the waves–though a recent poll by the Rijks Museum revealed that sixty percent of the Dutch were unable to say to which century the Golden Age refers. While this ignorance can be attributed to the widespread historical illiteracy that plagues so many of our societies, the virtual absence from public memory of the Dutch participation in the slave trade suggests a willful act of forgetting abetted by a few prominent scholars. Dutch historian Pieter Emmer downplays the importance of the slave trade for the Dutch economy in his book, which received much public attention. Published in 2000, Emmer’s study is highly controversial especially in Surinamese circles and among Dutch Caribbean scholars, not only for its conclusions but also for its insensitive tone. Describing the conditions aboard a slave ship, for example, Emmer writes: “The slaves were packed closely together. Each slave had about the same space as an economy class passenger in a Boeing 747.”
To say that the hole of a eighteenth century slave ship to which slaves were confined for six to eight weeks of ocean crossing, was no worse than an economy seat on a modern-day trans-Atlantic flight is more than insensitive, it is also historically inaccurate. Further, it is rendered ridiculous by the eyewitness testimony of Africans who survived the Middle Passage and of whites aboard the slave ships. Alexander Falconbridge, a ship’s surgeon who made the trip from West Africa to the Americas, explained that when he ventured below decks in an attempt to attend the sick, slaves were so crowded together that he was forced to step on chained bodies, as they covered the entire floor. He reported that each slave was locked in irons attached to a long chain fixed to the lower deck, binding fifty or sixty men to the ship and to one another. In 1788 the British Parliament sought to regulate the space allotted to slaves aboard ship, providing that each adult male should be allotted a space 6 feet by 1 foot 4 inches, each adult female 5 feet 10 inches by 1 foot 4 inches, each male child 5 feet by 1 foot 2 inches, and each female child 4 feet 6 inches by 1 foot. With head room of only four to five feet or less depending on the size of the vessel, air circulation was a significant problem. “During the voyages I made,” Falconbridge recalled, ” I was frequently witness to the fatal effects of this exclusion of fresh air.” Olaudah Equiano, who survived the trip chained below decks, described the conditions in graphic detail. “The stench of the hold while we were on the coast was so intolerably loathsome, that it was dangerous to remain there for any time … ” He further reported that “the closeness of the place, and the heat of the climate, added to the number in the ship, which was so crowded that each had scarcely room to turn himself, almost suffocated us.”
Responding to Emmer, the Dutch-American historian Johannes M. Postma emphasizes that the slave trade and slavery, as part of the entire Dutch colonial system, unquestionably contributed to the nation’s wealth, even if it was not its main source of prosperity. From the early seventeenth century on, Dutch slave traders transported about half a million Africans to the Americas, constituting about five per cent of the total international slave trade. Three hundred thousand of these enslaved Africans were taken to the Dutch Caribbean colonies Curacao and Surinam, where, in contrast with the Netherlands, slavery was a legal institution and slave labor the dominant means of production.
This dark underside of Dutch commercial enterprise and the nation’s cultural renaissance in the seventeenth century, exposing the age as gilded rather than golden, was long kept from public scrutiny. This amnesia was addressed for the first time by a Surinamese slave descendant, Anton de Kom in 1934. In his Wij slaven van Suriname (We Slaves of Surinam), a combined history of slavery in Surinam and anticolonial manifesto, the radical Surinamese labor leader and intellectual De Kom describes how black school children in colonial Surinam learned about the exploits of Dutch naval heroes and freedom fighters such as William of Orange, but looked in vain in their history books for the names of the heroes of Surinamese slave resistance, Bonni, Baron, and Joli Coeur. De Kom describes the psychological impact of the systematic erasure of the history of slavery from the school curriculum on the slave descendants in the Dutch colonies: “There’s no more effective means to instill a sense of racial inferiority than this kind of historical teaching in which only the sons of a different people and race are remembered and praised.” The silencing of the Dutch slavery past continued long after Surinam had become independent in 1975. A brief survey of six of the history textbook series most frequently used in Dutch secondary schools in the 1990s concluded that only half of them discussed this aspect of Dutch national history in some depth, while two failed to mention it at all. One of these textbooks, for instance, titled The Speaking Past, is remarkably silent when it comes to Dutch colonial slavery. Twelve, richly illustrated pages are devoted to slavery, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction Era in the United States, but only one sentence mentions the existence of slavery in the Dutch Caribbean. It is not surprising, then, that even today Dutch students are far more likely to know about slavery in the U.S. South than in their own nation’s former colonies.
There are of course historical reasons why it has been easier to forget the history of slavery in the Netherlands than in the United States. Slavery had been banned from Europe since the Middle Ages and was only legal in the overseas Dutch colonies, where it was introduced and institutionalized at the end of the seventeenth century. Apart from the crews of the slave ships and the slave traders in the Dutch slave fortresses on the West African coast, few Dutch people were ever directly exposed to slaves and the colonial slave system. Moreover, the majority of plantation and slave owners in Surinam were not Dutch but French, German, and English. Many Dutch owners of slaves in the colonies lived in the Netherlands, and never visited their plantations or saw a slave, leaving the operation of the plantation to overseers and administrators. In fact, most of them owned only shares in plantations and thus in slaves. Even those who directly profited from slavery and the slave trade, then, had little or no first-hand experience of its everyday reality.
The Scotsman John Gabriel Stedman’s Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796), a searing indictment of the exploitation of slaves in Surinam, came out in Dutch translation in 1799, and was often reprinted and widely read. Its popularity seems to have had more to do With the lurid appeal of its almost pornographic illustrations of cruelties inflicted on slaves than with the persuasiveness of its antislavery message. Half a century later the Dutch translation of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin caused self-righteous indignation about what one Dutch reviewer called the “cancerous disease” of slavery in the United States, but only few reviewers concluded from the novel that slavery should be abolished not only there but also in the Dutch colonies. In fact, Stowe’s novel was generally read allegorically as first and foremost an indictment of human sinfulness: in the words of one evangelical reviewer, “Thousands of people are subjected to … spiritual enslavement.”
To be sure, some liberal intellectuals spoke out against slavery in the Dutch Caribbean colonies, but the slave trade was only abolished under British pressure. There was never a strong abolition movement in the Netherlands, as there was in England, and slavery was never the kind of divisive political issue that it was in the United States. The only thing the mercenary Dutch bickered about when the abolition of slavery in their West Indian colonies became inevitable was the amount of compensation the planters were to receive for the emancipation of their slaves. After debating the issue for fifteen years, the Dutch parliament finally decided to pay the slave owners 300 Dutch guilders for each emancipated slave. Since the compensation fees, totaling 10 million Dutch guilders, were paid through tax revenue raised in the Dutch East Indian colony Java, it was not the Dutch tax payers but the exploited native population of another Dutch colony who bore the financial burden of the abolition of slavery. Long after England abolished slavery in 1833 and France and Denmark followed suit in 1848, and half a year after President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the Netherlands finally emancipated the roughly 45,000 slaves in Surinam and the Antilles on July 1, 1863. The former field slaves were required, however, to continue to work as wage laborers on colonial plantations until 1873.
The remoteness of the slave trade and colonial slavery from everyday life in the Netherlands was one reason why this chapter in Dutch history did not enter public memory and failed to appeal to a collective sense of responsibility, let alone shame or guilt. Another reason was that the Dutch history of slavetrading and slaveholding conflicted with the deeply ingrained tradition of freedom and tolerance, which the Dutch claim as one of the most valued aspects of their cultural heritage and a defining element of their national identity. In fact, when the American revolutionaries described their quarrel with Great Britain in terms of resistance to slavery, they may well have borrowed this image from the Dutch. The Akte van Verlatinge, the 1581 Dutch declaration of independence from Spain, which historians have argued was a model for the American Declaration of Independence, justifies the revolt against the King of Spain by arguing that “God did not create the People Slaves to their Prince.” Like the Americans, the Dutch conceived of the foundation of their nation as a rejection of slavery. This national self-conception was so irreconcilable with the nation’s active engagement in the slave trade that this historical fact had to be erased from public consciousness.
The equally cherished tradition of cultural tolerance was put to the test when the Netherlands found itself being gradually transformed into an immigrant nation in the last three decades of the twentieth century. This transformation began in the mid-1970s with the arrival of hundreds of thousands of postcolonial migrants, who wished to retain Dutch citizenship after Surinam became independent in 1975 and were seeking better economic opportunities. The process of change accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s, as Western Europe was confronted with millions of asylum seekers and economic immigrants from the Middle East, Africa, Eastern Europe, and Asia. Since among the migrants from Surinam and the Netherlands Antilles there were about three hundred thousand descendants of slaves, the Dutch slavery past at last was literally brought home.
The reclamation of slavery’s past first took public form as Dutch black communities were preparing for the 130th anniversary of the abolition of slavery on July 1, 1993. A group of Afro-Surinamese people in Amsterdam started an organization that aimed to call public attention to the historical amnesia with respect to the Dutch slavery past by proclaiming June 30 as an annual day of reflection and July I as a day of celebration, the counterpart of the Surinamese national holiday Keti Koti (“Day of Broken Chains”). The organization’s chosen name, the 30 June/1 July Committee, was deliberately confrontational, being modeled on that of the National Committee 4 and 5 May, which organizes the annual national commemoration of the Jewish and other Dutch victims of World War II on May 4, during which the entire nation observes two minutes of silence, and the celebration of the nation’s liberation from Nazi occupation on May 5.
The overt message was clear, slavery is as much part of Dutch history as World War II. The implicit message was more provocative: slavery was also a holocaust, one in which the Dutch were not victims but perpetrators. “Our holocaust lasted 350 years,” said Barryl Biekman, chair of the national platform of slave descendants in an interview. From the annual gatherings the organization held in Amsterdam from 1993, which were mainly attended by members of the local Surinamese community, emerged the plan for a national monument to commemorate the Dutch slavery past. This grassroots initiative gained momentum in 1998, when, in response to a petition by a group of black women, the newly appointed Minister of Integration and Urban Policy, Roger van Boxtel, took up the cause of a national slavery monument and made it a spearhead issue in his effort to promote the social integration of ethnic minorities. On June 30,1999, Minister van Boxtel formally endorsed the plan in the presence of Prince Claus, Queen Beatrix’s husband. The purpose of a slavery monument, he said in his endorsement speech, is “not to buy off feelings of guilt, but to restore slavery to its rightful place in Dutch history. The monument should be a symbol of a truthful writing of history, making sure that slavery is not forgotten.” The endorsement speech had great symbolic significance: for the first time, the Dutch government publicly acknowledged responsibility for its slavery past, thus declaring what Pierre Nora has called its “will to remember.” The Netherlands was finally ready for a confrontation with its slavery past.
In the following two years, the government gradually expanded the meaning of the slavery memorial project to include the idea that the Netherlands is a multicultural society, perhaps even an immigrant nation–a national self-image that is far more contested in the Netherlands than in the United States. This required a redefinition of the Dutch traditions of freedom and tolerance, one that included a collective historical consiousness. As Van Boxtel put it in a speech he delivered during the presentation of a new edition of Anton de Kom’s Wij slaven van Suriname on November 25, 1999, “We are a multicultural society. In order to better understand ourselves, to respect each other, to learn about each other’s backgrounds, values and identity, we need to reflect on the past and the meaning it has for our present.” The memorial project’s official motto was “joined by freedom,” symbolized by a colorful chain of dolls. This demands “more than equality, tolerance, or respect,” the project’s website explained. “It demands that we show interest [in each other’s culture and past].” Only when Dutch people from different ethnic backgrounds come to terms with slavery’s painful past, will they be “joined by freedom.”
The “joined by freedom” motto was controversial in Afro-Dutch circles,
however, because it was felt to deflect attention away from the monument’s commemorative function. Moreover, although the government’s entry into and funding of the monument project gave it momentum it was a source of division in the black community. While the government collaborated with an umbrella organization representing a broad spectrum of Afro-Dutch groups, the Amsterdam-based 30 June/1 July Committee refused to join this so-called “National Platform” of slave descendants. A spokesperson for the committee argued that, as long as most Dutch people were unaware of their nation’s colonial past, a national monument was “untimely” and the government’s efforts little more than a “political show.” At stake was more than slavery’s past, committee chair Winston Kout explained in an interview. The Dutch government owed an apology and possibly reparation payments to its former colony and the descendants of slaves. Both inside and outside the Afro-Dutch community, many argued that the past should be left behind. On the discussion platform of the website the ministry opened for the memorial project, one (apparently white) respondent argued that to claim that the descendants of slaveholders are responsible for the sins of their fathers is a variation of the “insane” Calvinist doctrine of original sin. Like several other white respondents, he felt that Afro-Dutch people should not indulge in their role as victims of a distant past, but work on a common future.
Nevertheless, there was wide support for the memorial plan, which, it was decided at an early stage, should consist of both a “static” and a “dynamic” element: a monument and an institute dedicated to the study, documentation, and public education of the history of Dutch slavery, modeled on the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Cultures in New York. When the monument was finally unveiled in Amsterdam’s Ooster Park on July 1, 2002, the memorial project came to a dramatic closure. Expecting to witness the unveiling in the presence of the queen, Dutch prime minister, and members of the Dutch, Surinamese cabinet, the crowd of perhaps seven hundred people, mostly black and predominantly female, discovered they could follow the inauguration only on a large video screen that was put up in another section of the park. The secluded memorial site was kept from the public view by means of high fences covered with black plastic and guarded by mounted police and security personnel. The security measures might not have been unreasonable, given the fact that only six weeks earlier the Dutch populist political leader Pim Fortuyn was assassinated, ten days before the national parliamentary elections he was slated to win on an anti-immigration platform–the first political murder in the Netherlands in more than three centuries. But the emotional explosion the discovery of the security measures triggered among the crowd was evidence of the emotional meaning the memory of slavery has for the descendants of the enslaved. Deeply angered, many slave descendants felt “humiliated;” “slavery is not yet over,” “blacks are oppressed again,” several shouted, calling the blacks among the invited guests “traitors” of their race. Intended as a gesture of inclusion, the inauguration of the national slavery monument was experienced by many in the Afro-Dutch community as a sign of continued exclusion, showing that the wounds of slavery have not yet healed.
The humiliation many slave descendants experienced during the official unveiling of the national slavery monument seems to have contributed to a radicalization in the Afro-Dutch community. The 30 June/1 July Committee’s call for reparations and an apology from the queen was a lone voice in the 1990s; however, when around the time of the 2001 antiracism conference in Durban, South Africa, a journalist asked Van Boxtel about the possibility of financial compensation for slave descendants, the Dutch minister said the issue had never come up in his negotiations with representatives of the Afro-Dutch community. However, when the National Institute of the Netherlands Slavery Past and Legacy (NinSee), the “dynamic” element of the national slavery memorial, was officially opened on 1 July 2003, one of the first events it organized was a debate about reparations (attended by the two authors of this article). The invited key speaker at this debate was Ray Winbush, the American reparations advocate from the U.S., whose radical position on the issue found wide acclaim among the almost exclusively black audience, including board members of the institute. His position would almost certainly have been resented by the majority of white Dutch people, who tend to react as emotionally to the idea of financial reparations as Afro-Dutch people to the issue of slavery. Since the institute is wholly funded by the national and city governments, this radicalization and the fact that only a handful of white Dutch people were present at the debate raises questions about the national character of the institute, an institute that most people in the memorial debates saw as the most important part of the national slavery memorial. Of equal concern is the fact that a sizeable group of Surinamese people in Amsterdam boycotted the annual commemoration ceremony at the national slavery monument in 2003, holding their own at a rival slavery monument in the city’s Surinam Square.
Although these signs of potential separatism are problematic, the gains of the slavery memorial project are undeniable. The project inspired the editorial boards of the three most widely read Dutch history journals, including that of the national organization of history teachers, to devote a special issue entirely to the history of Dutch colonial slavery. This is bound to have an impact on the way this history will be taught in Dutch schools in the twenty-first century. Moreover, the Maritime Museum in Amsterdam and the World Museum in Rotterdam have organized special exhibits on the Dutch slave trade and slavery history, and other exhibits are scheduled to follow. In 2003 nearly all Dutch sixth-graders watched a documentary series on slavery on national school television. Moreover, the public debate about the national slavery monument that was conducted in numerous meetings and symposia, as well as in the more than three hundred articles on the monument and slavery that have appeared in the Dutch print media since the spring of 1999 constitutes itself a discursive monument to slavery’s past, a modern form of public memorial activism. In the end, the best memorial to slavery may not be the monuments, museums, or historical heritage sites, but what James Young has called, “the never-to-be-resolved debate over which kind of memory to preserve, how to do it, in whose name, and to what end” that has finally broken the silence that has so long reigned over the historical catastrophe of slavery.
On both sides of the Atlantic the memory of slavery has caused embarrassment, anger, and pain. For black people it has too often been, as African American writer and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison has remarked “a silence within the race,” a source of shame, reinforced by the omission of slavery’s past from the history curriculum. The modern civil rights movement began to change that curriculum, challenging all Americans to rethink their history and reevaluate their historical heros. It had a tremendous consciousness-raising effect on black communities throughout the Atlantic world. Slavery is now reclaimed by Surinamese and Dutch people of African descent as paradoxically both black cultural heritage, a source of black pride, and a deeply traumatic episode whose legacy still endures in the form of racial prejudice and negative black self-conceptions. In both America and the Netherlands it is no longer easy to ignore and each society is attempting to deal with this tragic aspect of its history in its own way. The history of over 600,000 Americans killed in a Civil War that almost destroyed the nation makes the history of slavery harder to erase from the national memory and makes it a source of contention. In the Netherlands the erasure of slavery’s past from the national history has been more complete, but with 300,000 descendants of slaves now living in the country, it is likely to remain so. In different ways and to different degrees slavery and the racial consequences of its existence have greatly influenced the social, political and economic history of both nations. Despite the discomfort and the anguish, each society must face this aspect of its past in order that it might successfully deal with the critical issue of race in its present and its future.