“ The exhibition “From the Shadows, new light on African servants at Weesper notables,” opened at the Weesp Museum to a small crowd of townspeople on March 25, fittingly one day before the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It aims to confront Dutch people with the possibility that their history contains more nuances than they are probably aware of.” […]
“Another prominent figure who appears in the exhibition is Christiaan van der Vegt, servant in the 18th century to Weesp mayor Abraham D’Arrest. What Christiaan’s African name was and how he ended up in the town is unknown, but he had married a girl from Weesp and they had ten children. “Imagine the surprise of (white) Dutch woman Annemieke van der Vegt when she in 2013 – 250 years later – unsuspectedly decided to research her past and came to find that she is a direct descendant of this African servant.” (Daily Herald Sint Maarten, april 4th 2017)
In the previous parts of my blogseries about Annemieke van der Vegt and her search for her West African forefather (Christiaan van der Vegt, ca.1750-1825) I have already discussed the following topics:
- ROOTS.NL (S1E1): What can be learnt from AncestryDNA when trying to trace African ancestry?
- ROOTS.NL (S1E2): Is it possible to pinpoint a plausible ethnic origin for one’s African bloodline?
In this third part I will attempt to shed more light on the following question: how does Christiaan’s life story fit in the currentday discussions on race relations within Dutch society? I will also include other known cases of African or Afro-descended persons living in the Netherlands before the 1900’s. Specifically I will deal with the hotly debated “Zwarte Piet” topic and the origins of this increasingly contested figure of Dutch folklore. Lastly I will describe the potential role DNA testing might play in uncovering the genetic legacy of the colonial past of the Netherlands. Not only for Dutch people but also across the Afro-Diaspora and even within Africa.
- Seeking a broader context for Annemieke’s research
- Weesp & its Ghanaian connection
- African presence in the Netherlands earlier than imagined?
- Tracing the Roots of “Zwarte Piet”
- Were African servants such as Christiaan the inspiration for Zwarte Piet?
- Dutch Tolerance showing true colours?
- Amsterdam leading the pack (again)?
- My personal perspective on Christiaan’s lifestory
- Dutch colonial legacy revealed by DNA testing & genealogy
- African ancestry among (ethnic) Dutch people
- Dutch ancestry across the Afro-Diaspora
- Dutch ancestry in Ghana
1) Seeking a broader context for Annemieke’s research
“Christiaan van der Vegt, born around 1743, taken away from the Coast of Guinea, brought to Holland, went from the Court to the mayor of Weesp. He was not the only one.” (Annemieke Pinterest page)
Showing one’s “true colours” might be considered one of the overarching themes for this blog post. In more than one way and both literally and figuratively. I normally don’t discuss currentday politics nor any other potentially divisive issues. I do this on purpose as I aim for an objective fact-driven blog which stays on focus. Taking a non-judgmental stance whenever possible. I find Annemieke’s research about Christiaan highly fascinating and educational. Which is why I have already explored it from several angles in previous blog posts. But Christiaan’s lifestory has also touched me in a personal way which I feel necessitates that I speak up on race relations in the Netherlands. Even when this topic might be deemed very delicate and prone to controversy. I do not believe in oversimplifying narratives which seek to assign blame solely on one party. So in my discussion below I will aim to keep things balanced and above-board.
Before I continue I would like to stress that this blog post will indeed reflect my own subjective perspective and my own personal selection of relevant sources. Dutch society has been dealing with increasing tensions and growing polarization for a while now. This will come as no surprise to anyone who has followed the news about the Netherlands. Especially the ominous general elections of 2017. With the threat of far-right populism gaining power being blown off only at the last moment. I therefore fully understand Annemieke’s wishes to prevent any misrepresentation or hijacking of Christiaan’s life story for partisan reasons. Her principal goal is to describe Christiaan’s lifestory in a respectful and dignifying manner. Not portraying Christiaan as a passive victim of circumstance but rather acknowledging him to be a strong-willed individual who always strove to get ahead in life and take care of his family. Furthermore by publicizing details from her ancestor’s life she seeks to not only restore and honour his original African identity but also to help illuminate the forgotten identities and lifestories of other African servants/slaves who also ended up in the Netherlands.
Annemieke’s work is greatly contributing to a much needed reversal of historical erasure about Africans living in the Netherlands. Raising awareness of how the colonial past of the Netherlands still has repercussions in the present. Her research on Christiaan was a major element in the pioneering exhibition held recently in Weesp (a small town nearby Amsterdam) on African servants in the Netherlands (at least four in Weesp itself). Appropriately it was named “Out of the Shadows“. I have visited it myself as well. It was held in the town hall of Weesp (built 1772–1776) which Christiaan must have been very familiar with.
For more details follow these links:
- “What was Christiaan’s name?” (Annemieke’s blog)
- Young Africans with Europeans in 17th and 18th century, 600+ portraits (Annemieke’s Pinterest page)
- Other image collections related to Christiaan (Annemieke’s Pinterest page)
- From the Shadows, new light on African servants at Weesper notables,” (Daily Herald 2017)
- Notabelen uit Weesp verhoogden aanzien met zwarte bedienden (Parool, 2017)
Weesp & its Ghanaian connection
While visiting the exhibition about Christiaan and other African servants, I learnt that Weesp, a small historical town right next to the outskirts of Amsterdam, also shows other historical traces of Dutch involvement in West Africa, and in particular Ghana. First of all Weesp used to be one of the biggest jenever (gin) producers in the Netherlands. Especially during the late 1600’s and 1700’s. In that same time period Dutch liquor was frequently used to buy enslaved Africans during the slave trade era. Remarkably Dutch gin is still a popular beverage in West Africa.
- Dutch gin as a Ghanaian tradition (Radio Nederland, 2002)
- The Rise of Gin in Africa (Leopoldo Coasta, 2012)
- Olaudah Equiano (the famous ex-slave writer & abolitionist) once traded in Weesper Gin (WeesperNieuws, 2015)
Weesp also used to have one of the earliest and advanced cocoa factories in the world. Built in 1850 by the famous Dutch chocolate maker Van Houten. This firm was also pioneering in its advertisements. They are often quite beautiful but at times also including stigmatizing images of Africans. Such as the one shown on this page. The Netherlands, and in particular Amsterdam, still plays a prominent role in the global chocolate industry. Cacao was one of the main colonial exports produced by slave labour in the Americas, incl. former Dutch colony Surinam. Despite official abolition of slavery the use of (illegal) slave labour in cacao production did continue also in the late 1800’s and onwards. Ironically Ghana and the Ivory Coast (both possibly ancestral locations for Christiaan) have been the largest cacao producers since the late colonial era. Sadly also in these countries modern slave labour practices (often involving children) are still being reported.
- The Cocoa Industry in West Africa: A history of exploitation (Anti-Slavery International 2004)
- Child labor in cocoa production (Wikipedia)
- Slave-free chocolate: a not-so-guilty pleasure (CNN, 2017)
While I was travelling to & from Weesp on my bike (as it is the Dutch way 😉 ), I encountered many black people (some of them also likewise on bicycle). Most of them would probably have been Surinamese-Dutch but quite likely also a few Ghanaians were among them! Not too surprising as I was passing through the Bijlmer, a suburb of Amsterdam on the way to Weesp. It is general knowledge that it has one of the biggest black communities in the Netherlands. Consisting of not only Surinamese-Dutch people and Dutch-Caribbeans but also Ghanaian migrants. Especially the latter tend to cluster in the Bijlmer. According to some estimates around 15,000 Ghanaians are living in Amsterdam and therefore nearby Weesp! All of this made me wonder how Christiaan (possibly also of Ghanaian descent) would have felt if somehow he could travel through time from two hundred years earlier. It really brought home to me how the past still lives on in the present. But also how things can come full circle in a way.
African presence in the Netherlands earlier than imagined?
“The presence of black Africans—soldiers, musicians, dancers and servants—in the Netherlands is evident from the sixteenth century on. Portuguese and Spanish merchants brought African servants to northern Europe, thereby introducing black Africans to white north western European cities in the Netherlands and Germany. ” (Hondius, 2007, pp.85-86)
“When Spanish and Portuguese merchants came to northern Europe, the status of their black African servants, a new phenomenon, was not immediately clear. This ambivalence lasted for many years, and resulted in record keeping in which the visible difference, the blackness of the African servants, is mentioned explicitly.” (Hondius, 2007, p.88)
“[…] symbolizes the presence of black Amsterdammers in the 17th century, a presence which has been mostly forgotten. In december of that same year, 1653, Gabriel Anthony from Cabo Verde married Anna Gabriels from Angola. Two of dozens of Afro-descended people who married in Amsterdam during the 1640’s and 1650’s“. (Ponte, 2016)
‘Thanks to new research by historian Dirk Tang we know how many Black people arrived in the Netherlands coming from Surinam between 1729 and 1775. He has calculated that within that period at least 456 people of colour (men, women and children) resided in the Netherlands” [incl. a few Indians as well as mulattoes; not all of them were enslaved] (Haarnack & Hondius, 2008)
“As indicated in the last blog, the number of child-servants, especially boys, seems to have been considerable, when we judge their presence at the courts of Europe and in well-to-do families from available paintings and records. And as there has been no structured research into the issue as yet, the true character of the presence of African children in Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth century can not be properly interpreted as yet.” (Michel Doortmond, 2016)
“Amsterdam became a centre for this unofficial trade in human ornaments, says historian Esther Schreuder, whose extensive research for her book, Cupido en Sideron, forms the backbone of the exhibition. ‘There was a market in children – present slaves, as they were called, were brought to the Republic where they could be sold or given away. But it wasn’t advertised openly.” (Dutchnews.nl, 2017)
“In the 18th century the Dutch royals employed Jean Rabo, Cupido and Sideron and surprisingly lots about them can be found in the Royal Archives. According to Schreuders research Sideron actually came from Curacao and Cupido from Guinea.” (Dutchnews.nl, 2017)
“True freedom in the 18th century was the preserve of a tiny elite and Cupido and Sideron’s stories are evidence that black servants were not disadvantaged within the household staff. It is too simplistic to call them slaves, says Schreuder.” (Dutchnews.nl, 2017)
As a follow-up to the earlier exhibition about African servants in Weesp a new exhibition is being held (Sept. 2017 – Jan. 2018) about African servants in The Hague, the seat of government for the Netherlands. It is very interesting to note the similarities with Annemieke’s research. In fact also some Dutch descendants of African servants in The Hague have now been traced and DNA-tested. I will revisit their case later on in the third section of this blog post.
Quaco’s story, another African servant taken to the Netherlands by way of Surinam, again shows fascinating parallels with Christaan’s story. Quaco’s case also sheds more light on the ambigious status of African servants/slaves in the Netherlands. Especially in regards to his manumission in 1778 in which the famous writer about Surinam, John Gabriel Stedman, was involved. Two years earlier in 1776 a law was installed in the Netherlands officially ensuring the freedom of enslaved persons living within the Netherlands. However apparently it seems that this law was not always strictly enforced (see also here).
Either way the above quotations should make it abundantly clear that early African and Afro-descendant presence (pre-1900’s) in the Netherlands, especially in and around Amsterdam, may have been less of a rarity than assumed by many people. Along with Annemieke also other Dutch researchers have been steadily uncovering how Dutch slave trading was not limited to just Africa, the Americas and Asia. First Iberian merchants and then also Dutch traders frequently brought Africans and their descendants into the Netherlands, starting from the 1500’s and continuing well into the 1800’s. The early connection with Portuguese and Spanish merchants bringing along their African (often named “Moorish“) servant/slaves might be particularly relevant for the next section dealing with the origins of Zwarte Piet and Sinterklaas (who arrive in the Netherlands on a boat from Spain…).
Further reading on early African presence in the Netherlands (not meant to be a complete overview!):
- The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi (Arthur Japin, 1997)
- Black Africans in Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam (Hondius, 2007)
- ‘Swart’ in Nederland (Buku – Bibliotheca Surinamica; Haarnack & Hondius, 2008)
- Blog about Quaco (Cultuursporen, 2015)
- Strip book about Quaco (Eric Heuvel & Ineke Mok 2015)
- Quaco, the slave of a Scottish plantation owner, stars in a Dutch comic book about slavery for schools. (Slaves & Highlanders, 2016)
- Procuring slave children on the Gold Coast (I): The European position (Michel Doortmond, 2016)
- Procuring slave children on the Gold Coast (II): The Gold Coast position (Michel Doortmond, 2016)
- Orange and black: the forgotten history of black servants at the court of Willem V (DutchNews.nl, 2017)
- African servants at The Hague court – exhibition at the museum (Haags Historisch Museum, 2017)
- Blog about Cupido & Sideron (Esther Schreuder, 2017)
- Een cadeau voor Willem V: een zevenjarig Afrikaans kind (NRC, 2017)
- Gerardus Congo Lowango (ca. 1772-1832, born in Africa, enslaved in Surinam, married & died in the Netherlands) (Verre Verwanten, 2007)
2) Tracing the Roots of “Zwarte Piet”
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“‘We don’t say: “stop celebrating Sinterklaas”. We say: “study the origin of the phenomenon of Zwarte Piet and ask yourself the question if that is still acceptable in today’s world”. (Helsloot, 2012)
“Nowadays it is often assumed that Black Pete is more or less a creation of the schoolmaster Jan Schenkman who wrote a book in 1850: St. Nicholas and his servant. Furthermore, one assumes that he and his illustrators were inspired by paintings of luxurious pages, black lackeys in the service of nobles in Europe .” (Black Pete History)
“There are people who believe that there were no Black Pete characters in the Netherlands more than 150 years ago. But this is not true. There are various sources which tell us otherwise. One very important clue here is the fact that until the 1950’s Black Pete was still known under his various regional names in the Netherlands. The names Pieterbaas and Pieter however have been in use for a long time also. Also there are a lot of pictures available from various places in the Netherlands with Black Petes that very likely have a different background than the book Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht, written by Schenkman.” (Black Pete History)
“For a nobleman in the Dutch Republic, a black manservant was a walking statement of colonial power and status.” (Dutchnews.nl, 2017)
“ Moreover, writing in 1884, Alberdingk Thijm remembered that in 1828, as a child, he had attended a Saint Nicholas celebration in the house of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant and consul living in Amsterdam. On this occasion Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht …, a frizzy haired Negro“, who, rather than a rod, wore a large basket filled with presents.” (Meertens Instituut, 2011)
“‘Whatever his origin may be the present-day image of Zwarte Piet has a strong resemblance to the European stereotypes of African slaves created during colonial times.’ . ‘A black servant with golden earrings and thick red lips cannot be dissociated from slavery, from colonialism” (Helsloot, 2012)
“‘Zwarte Piet didn’t just drop out of the chimney. He derives from our colonial past’. (Helsloot, 2012)
“We should not try to pigeonhole Zwarte Piet by saying: this is where he’s from and it’s like this and that”. Because by doing so we will compromise the truth. The identity of Zwarte Piet doesn’t exist. Instead he has a multi-layered identity [..] but that doesn’t take way the presentday racist connection” (Scientias, 2017)
Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) is a central figure in Dutch folklore and the annual festivities on December 5th around Sinterklaas (the primary inspiration for Santa Claus). Zwarte Piet is Sinterklaas’s jolly servant and cherished as such by the overwhelming majority of Dutch population. But his appearance has been a topic of heated & entangled discussion for a while now. Afro-descended Dutch protesters consider the figure to be an insult to their ancestry while many ethnically Dutch supporters consider the character to be an inseparable part of their cultural heritage. The annual “Zwarte Piet debate” and especially the polarization it has caused seem to be highly symbolic for wider trends in presentday Dutch society. Zwarte Piet has also come under international scrutiny as the Netherlands have been urged by the United Nations in 2015 to stop “racial stereotyping” associated with Zwarte Piet.
Especially the historical origins of Zwarte Piet are heavily debated. As can be seen in the quotations above as well as in the overview of sources I will provide below. No consensus has been reached yet. I will nonetheless voice my own opinion in this section. In summary: To me the connection with African servants/slaves is crystal clear when reviewing Zwarte Piet’s presentday appearance. Inspite that the Zwarte Piet character obviously has a complex history & multi-faceted origins and may have had multiple manifestations across time & place.
1) As shown in the previous section the early presence of African servants/slaves in the Netherlands is increasingly being uncovered. Thanks to researchers such as Annemieke, the historical erasure about this topic is being undone. The argument (already put forward in 1993) that the presentday Zwarte Piet character would be based on African servants/slaves residing in the Netherlands is therefore being strenghtened all the time.
3) More insight about the early historical context is coming forward as well due to the study of Iberian merchants introducing African servants (“Moors”) in Antwerp & Amsterdam in the 1500’s. Highly relevant as afterall the Zwarte Piet costumes are clearly inspired by Spanish renaissance clothing. As well as the boat of St. Nicholas arriving from Spain.
4) Given that Amsterdam may have been a centre in the trade of African child-servants/slaves. And also given the circumstance that Amsterdam most likely had the largest population of Africans and Afro-descendants in pre-industrial Netherlands. It seems it’s no coincidence that Schenkman, the modernizer of Sinterklaas traditions, hailed from Amsterdam (source). In fact also the earliest reference to Zwarte Piet as played by a man of African descent (1828) is taking place in Amsterdam!
5) Earlier antecedents of Zwarte Piet may very well have been founded on pagan Germanic traditions which managed to survive in rural areas especially. Presentday Zwarte Piet however seems to be an urban reinvention which was spread across the Netherlands due to rising nationalism and modernization from the mid 1800’s onwards. Deeprooted Germanic origins of the Zwarte Piet character are not in contradiction of later adjustments based on African servants living in & around Amsterdam. The instantly recognizable persiflage of African traits and mannerisms is self-evident to anyone who judges presentday Zwarte Piet without bias.
For readers who would like to make up their own mind see below for an overview of sources. Many of the articles provide links to even more references. Naturally this is just a selection as continuing debate and research produces ever more food for thought…
“Pro” Zwarte Piet
- Arguments contra invention of Zwarte Piet by Schenkman (1850) (Black Pete History)
- Arguments contra invention of Zwarte Piet by Schenkman (1850) (Dutch version)(Sint & Pieten Gilde, 2016)
- Concerns about Black Pete: Blackface (Black Pete History)
- Concerns about Black Pete: Blackface (Dutch version) (Sint & Pieten Gilde)
- Open letter to the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination of the United Nations (Sint & Pieten Gilde, 2015)
- Wild Geraas: belangrijkste documentaire over Zwarte Piet van het jaar (nieuws.nl, 2015)
- ‘Zwarte Piet is nooit een slaaf geweest’ (Volkskrant, 2013)
“Contra” Zwarte Piet
- Call for international solidarity for the fight against Zwarte Piet & blackfacing (Stop Blackface)
- Who is (Zwarte) Piet? A Continuing Evolution: Background and Development (St. Nicholas Center)
- Zwarte Piet and Cultural Aphasia in the Netherlands (Helsloot, 2012)
- Dossier: Zwarte Piet (Meertens Instituut, 2013)
- Geen twijfel: ‘Zwarte Piet stamt af van kindslaven’ (Volkskrant, 2013)
- Waar komt Zwarte Piet vandaan? (NPO)
- ‘Wie is Zwarte Piet? Hij weet het zelf waarschijnlijk ook niet!’ (Scientias, 2017)
Were African servants such as Christiaan the inspiration for Zwarte Piet?
Dutch Tolerance showing true colours?
“Caribbean poet Quinsy Gario was arrested in 2011 for staging a silent protest at a Sinterklaas parade. He has filed a complaint to the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the Dutch state violated his basic right to freedom of expression. He now leads campaigns to abolish Black Pete on the grounds that it perpetuates racist stereotypes.” (BBC, 2013)
“An indicator of the fierce tone in the debates on Zwarte Piet is that some participants question the right of others to live in the Netherlands and be part of Dutch society. This is most obvious in comments such as the one presented above: ‘If Black Pete must go, all blacks must go’. In many other statements, black critics of Black Pete are accused of attacking Dutch tradition and told to ‘return to their own country’. Likewise, critics of Zwarte Piet with Dutch origins are accused of being traitors,” (Religionfactor, 2013)
“Dozens of activists have protested against Zwarte Piet on sunday afternoon in front of the Jaarbeurs building in Utrecht. They were shouting ” Shame on you Netherlands!” and “Black Pete is Black suffering”. Thousands of children had come to the Jaarbeurs building in Utrecht where a big Sinterklaas event was being held on Saturday and Sunday. The protesting caused great indignation with the parents.” (Algemeen Dagblad, 2015)
“pro-Zwarte Piet protesters blocked a highway to prevent busloads of protesters from Amsterdam and Rotterdam to enter the town of Dokkum, even though the city had given them permission to march peacefully. According to journalist Frederike Geerdink, who was traveling with the protesters, the police claimed they could not guarantee the safety of the group, and proceeded to escort the buses back in the other direction. Dokkum’s parade, complete with blackface Zwarte Piets, went on as scheduled.” (Washington Post, 2017)
“In what philosopher Baukje Prins calls the politics of “new realism,” speaking freely, without regard for “political correctness,” is a sign of virtue, of egalitarian and characteristically Dutch bluntness. Humor and irony allow the speaker disavow racist utterances as mere jokes, to “have his cake and eat it too.” (The Nation, 2017)
“[…] non-Western allochtonen, or those “originally from another country.” In practice, this bureaucratic euphemism means people of color, who are never quite considered echt Nederlands or real Dutch, even if born in the Netherlands; those who take issue with Zwarte Piet, for example, are told by their prime minister that if they don’t like it, they can leave” (The Nation, 2017)
“Really this debate is implicitly about how the Dutch can hang on to their complacent, self-congratulatory self-image. What is at stake here is not just the sense of discrimination felt by black Dutch people, but also the acknowledgment of the institutional, systematic and symbolic aspects of racism in the Netherlands”(Wekker, 2014)
“Zwarte Piet each year exposes the Dutch hypocrisy. We are not as tolerant as we tell the world we are. We have a race problem and we will have to deal with it one way or another,” says Jerry King Luther Afriyie, a Ghanaian-born Dutch citizen” (BBC, 2013)
The increasing polarisation within Dutch society is extensively being reported and analyzed. Also in international media. The Zwarte Piet debate is just one aspect but does appear to be highly symbolic of this phenomenon. It might seem that the battle lines are drawn: for some, Zwarte Piet is a cultural icon, and not up for discussion; for others, he is a racist symbol, and cannot survive in a multicultural society. It is important to keep in mind that extremists in both camps tend to get most of the media attention. Also new developments in social media may have tended to magnify the divisions. I do not intend to villainize in this section. Furthermore I prefer to be cautious in labeling something as “racist”. As I believe that overusage of such emotionaly loaded terms may erode their meaning and stands in the way of having a constructive dialogue. However applying the same Dutch bluntness which is so dominating in today’s debate (instead of Dutch common-sense…) I will speak out about the way I see things myself.
First of all a common argument being used against the Zwarte Piet protesters is that they are merely “Black Lives Matter” copy-cats. And also that recent black migrants from other places than former Dutch colonies (Surinam & Dutch Caribbean) are overrepresented in their ranks. In light of this blogseries on Christiaan it’s noteworthy that also a prominent Ghanaian-born activist is among them: Jerry King Luther Afriyie. I suppose if Christiaan was indeed of Ghanaian descent, this would actually imply some degree of continuity of Ghanaian presence for atleast 200 years in the wider Amsterdam-Weesp area. Very minimal of course. But other African childslaves/servants living in the Netherlands but originating from the Gold Coast should then also be taken into account (see section 1). Either way a possible explanation might be that especially the older generations of black Dutch people were firstmost concerned with carving their niche in Dutch society and “not rocking the boat”. However it’s a different story for newer generations.
I would agree that a fully Americanized mindset can never do justice to the localized Dutch context. A strictly black-or-white way of thinking may rather aggravate things than provide any long-term solution. An often voiced concern about unnecessarily involving children while protesting against Zwarte Piet also seems valid (but also goes for pro Zwarte Piet activists!). I am in no way a xenophobic myself but I am also not in favour of blindly following the blueprints set by other nations. Let alone the USA, which is already so pervasive across the world. Nonetheless more activism by anti-Zwarte Piet protesters and their “shaking things up” has atleast resulted in greater awareness of the issues at hand. Also concepts such as “historical erasure” and “othering” are perfectly applicable in non-American settings and therefore also to be put on the agenda in the Netherlands. Still eventually I would hope the consensual Dutch poldermodel will prevail instead of further antagonization along American lines.
A failure to truly listen to the valid complaints being voiced about Zwarte Piet, is something which might bind the greater part of the pro-Zwarte Piet camp. Instead a group defence mechanism seems to have been activated. Fired on by the general impression of Dutch identity being under attack by outsiders as well as the already existing discontent about the role of migrants in Dutch society. The reasoning being used by Dutch people in favour of maintaining Zwarte Piet often merely consists in beating around the bush. Misrepresenting and abusing the complexity and entangled origins of Zwarte Piet to stand by their own ground. Being argumentative and even pedantic about irrelevant details just for the sake of it. In line with Dutch character some might say. But also in contradiction of the much praised Dutch open-mindedness. As well as hypocritical given that according to the Dutch themselves they are always the first to take a moralizing stance towards the outside world. But in this case they are apparently not able to receive & process any well founded criticism themselves.
The blind spot and self-denial among many Dutch about the racially stigmatizing aspects of Zwarte Piet is very apparent to most foreigners when they visit the Netherlands. And it is also causing much aggravation for many Dutch people of African descent. It seems that more is at stake. According to Gloria Wekker, a Surinamese-Dutch anthropologist, it is nothing less than the complacent self-image many Dutch people have about their country being a small but righteous nation, colourblind and free of racism. How can Dutch be racist therefore when they are such well-meaning people?
The last couple of years have however definitely shattered that image! And not only in regards to Zwarte Piet. Common decency and respectful discussion is becoming increasingly rare in the Dutch public domain. Name calling has become rampant and not only by extremists. But it seems especially revealing that only “real” Dutch people are accepted as suitable discussion participants. Afterall if people of recent migrant descent do not agree with the Dutch mainstream they should just feel free to move elsewhere. Small wonder that Dutch people of migrant descent are now starting to form their own political parties…
A slowly growing segment among Dutch people seems to be sincere when they say that all they want is for Sinterklaas to be an inclusive feast. And in order to achieve this some of them say they might even be willing to “sacrifice” any “unintentionally” demeaning aspects of Zwarte Piet. A step in the right direction, but on second thought this might also be considered a form of yet again self-congratulatory and patronising behaviour. Fitting within the “politics of compassion” as described by Gloria Wekker.
There is no need for any “favours” being extended or any pity being felt. What is needed is the realisation that Netherlands has a colonial past which still has repercussions in presentday society. Even without any black or Afro-descendant minority living in the Netherlands it would be well-befitting to thorougly investigate, identify and digest any possibly racist tendency within Dutch society. In regards to Zwarte Piet the clear connections with African childslaves/servants – historically known to have lived in the Netherlands – should just simply be acknowledged. As well as the the malign effect it potentially has by ingraining stigmatizing images about black people from early childhood onwards. Regardless of any good intentions…
Follow these links more details & resources:
- Calling time on Black Pete fun in the Netherlands (BBC, 2013)
- Zwarte Piet: Is ‘Black Pete’ a racist Dutch custom? (BBC, 2013)
- Clashes at Dutch Black Pete protest in Gouda (BBC, 2014)
- Grimmig protest bij Zapp Sinterklaasfeest Jaarbeurs (AD, 2015)
- Our Colonial hangover (documentary) (VPRO, 2014)
- Sinterklaas in perpetual motion. (Stipriaan, 2015)
- Sinterklaas, Zwarte Piet and the Ethics of Public Debate (Religionfactor, 2013)
- The Netherlands’ racist blackface tradition needs to go (Washington Post, 2017)
- The story of Black Pete and St.Nicolas (sinzzer, 2016)
- U.N. Urges the Netherlands to Stop Portrayals of ‘Black Pete’ Character (NY Times, 2015)
- White Innocence and the Dutch Elections (The Nation, 2017)
- Who is (Zwarte) Piet? A Continuing Evolution: Growing Controversy (St. Nicholas Center)
- Zwarte Piet en het zelf-feliciterende zelfbeeld van de kleurenblinde Nederlander (Wekker, 2014)
Amsterdam leading the pack (again)?
“Amsterdam’s welcoming ceremony for Sinterklaas is the biggest in the country. It is organized by the municipality and the Stichting Sinterklaas Intocht. Pam Evenhuis, from this foundation, argues that most people will be able to adapt to gradual changes. In his view, the problem is the extreme positions: “The extremes are ten percent on both sides. The eighty percent in the middle, that’s what counts. And in Amsterdam, we focus on that eighty percent.” For Evenhuis, the only reasonable transformation for Zwarte Piet is the “Chimney Piet,” because it matches the story better, but this does not mean that the story itself cannot change. What matters at the end is that as many people as possible can take part in the celebration.” (Piet Magazine, 2015, p.27)
“It’s changing in a typical Dutch way, not by a rule being laid down by some court or government, but by people learning and changing their habits gradually. It feels too slow for those who want the change and too fast for those who love the existing tradition, it will be controversial for a while yet. Even so within a few years I believe Sint’s helpers will all be Piets.” (notourist, 2016)
“Support for the traditional blackface version of Zwarte Piet is declining and more people are now open to change, according to a poll of 55,000 people for television current affairs show EenVandaag. The poll shows that 68% of the population back keeping Zwarte Piet black, while 26% are open to change. In 2013, the traditional version of Sinterklaas’ helper had 89% support, last year 74%.” (Dutchnews.nl, 2017)
“Changing Black Pete and the direction this should take, should take into account the feelings of all people affected by this change and their respective history. To claim that Pete is racist without taking anything else into account even denying other explanations of the character are incomplete and can therefore never be “the truth“. (Black Pete History)
“For most people Zwarte Piet doesn’t depict anything sensitive, for others his current appearance poses a problem. This should be put right without damaging the further history of the Sinterklaascelebration and the figures of Sint and Pete. Just a few smudges here and there or colourpetes isn’t going to do this.” (Black Pete History)
“the Pete problem has not yet been solved. The number of communes with Sooty Petes in their procession has actually gone down, from 21 last year to 20 this year. The main changes have been made in larger cities, those with sizeable non-white populations. But in smaller cities and towns, AD says the Sinterklaas committees indicate the Pete problem “is not an issue”. Most people don’t ask for ‘different’ Petes, some sponsors even insist on ‘traditional’ ones.” (BigThink, 2017)
As shown by the quotations above there are some encouraging signs of gradual change in regards to Zwarte Piet’s appearance. In particular Amsterdam seems to take the lead in this movement (along with other big cities in the Netherlands). Replacing the traditional Zwarte Piet with a less controversial character: the socalled Roetveeg Piet (Chimney Pete or also Sooty or Smudgy Pete). Amsterdam being the center stage of these changes seems appropriate given not only that St. Nicholas is the patron saint of Amsterdam. But also because historically speaking the presentday manifestation of Zwarte Piet most likely originated in Amsterdam. Afterall Schenkman, the man who is credited with the renewal of Sinterklaas traditions in 1850, was an Amsterdammer. Amsterdam probably also hosts the biggest black community within the Netherlands (in the Bijlmermeer). And perhaps even more important Amsterdam has been home to Africans and Afro-Diasporans atleast since the 1500’s. More research needs to be done but possibly (according to Esther Schreuder) Amsterdam also played a key role in the trade and further distribution throughout Europe of African childslaves. Given as presents and used as servants by European elites, similar to Christiaan’s case (see section 1).
At the same time it seems that there is still a long way to go as a majority of Dutch people still find the presentday manifestation of Zwarte Piet harmless. Especially in areas outside of the socalled Randstad. It is ironic for example to note that this year in Weesp (just outside of Amsterdam and once home to Christiaan) still traditional Zwarte Pieten were being used in the official parade (see this newspaper article). This debate is therefore poised to continue for many years still. Enforcing change from top-down is not preferable and might even provoke a backlash by disgruntled Dutch people who feel left out in the process of designing & implementing any changes (see this article). The need for these changes seems to however already be acknowledged in wider circles (see Sint & Pieten Gilde). Also the idea that Sinterklaas represents a tradition which has always gradually adapted itself to changing times seems to be acceptable to an increasing number of people. Ultimately nothing is transfixated in time or as the old Greeks used to say: panta rhei.
An increasing number of Dutch people are nowadays trying to be part of the solution rather than the problem. To unite rather than divide and aim for inclusiveness of all Dutch people. In accordance with Netherlands population composition in the 21st century. It will take a lot of raising historical awareness and increasing mutual understanding. For the younger generations, especially the children, this will undoubtedly be easier. Respecting and maintaining the basics of the age-old Dutch Sinterklaas tradition while at the same also reforming some of its racially stigmatizing aspects. This might in fact also be an opportunity to reinvent Dutch Tolerance. Giving more voice to the silent majority who are willing to compromise rather than the loud extremists on both sides.
For more details & sources follow these links:
- A makeover for Zwarte Piet? (notourist, 2016)
- Amsterdam changes helpers’ costumes in attempt to address racism in Sinterklaas tradition (Euronews, 2017)
- Amsterdamse Piet krijgt roetvegen en Andreaskruisen (Parool, 2017)
- Hoe nu verder met Zwarte Piet? (Sint & Pietengilde, 2017)
- Meeste gemeenten houden piet bij intocht zwart (of bruin) (AD, 2017)
- Piet magazine, een handboek voor een moderne sinterklaasviering (2015)
- Support for traditional Piet declines, Dutch paper calls for a truce (Dutchnews.nl, 2017)
- The Netherlands still struggles with Zwarte Piet stereotype (Dutchnews.nl, 2017)
- This Sinterklaas Season Too, Black Pete Stays (Mainly) Black (Big Think)
- Who is (Zwarte) Piet? A Continuing Evolution: Change Becomes More Widespread (St. Nicholas Center)
- Zo kwam Sinterklaas aan in Amsterdam (Parool, 2017)
- Zwarte Piet is nog springlevend (Parool, 2017)
My personal perspective on Christiaan’s lifestory
“In the Netherlands, interracial marriages were not uncommon in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. And in most documented cases such liaisons did not encounter much attention, either legally or socially. A telling case in this respect is that of the Africa-born Christiaan van der Vegt, who married the Dutch girl Kaatje de Bas in the Dutch Reformed church of the town of Weesp on 8 May 1779. ” (Doortmond, 2015)
“In her blog on her African ancestor, Annemieke van der Vegt lists numerous public accounts in which skin colour played a role. And also with the children of Christiaan and Kaatje skin colour played an important role in their lives ” (Doortmond, 2015)
“also had the Honour and pleasure of Your Royal Majesty being a child to carry you several times on the arm, which pleased His Illustrious Prince Willem the Fifth very much, Your Royal Majesty didn’t fear humans with a strange colour but on the contrary in the presence of her father showed a lot of pleasure.” (letter from Christiaan’s daughter adressed to the Dutch King, 1830)
“[…] Eventhough i am covered with a black skin, i do carry a heart which is as warm of love & loyalty for the Royal House as well as Your Majesty as the heart of the mightiest person in the kingdom” (third letter from Christiaan adressed to the Dutch King)
“Eventhough i am black as soot, my intentions are good” (translation of traditional Dutch song about Zwarte Piet: “Want al ben ik zwart als roet, ‘k Meen het toch goed.”)
“Probably every black person in the Netherlands has been called a “Black Piet” at least once in his or her life. […] After all these years I have finally figured out why it is distressing to me when referred to as Black Piet. And now that I know, I can’t express this, for I would upset white people’s feelings.” (Thoughtleader, 2011)
Christiaan’s lifestory is evocative in many aspects. And naturally therefore people might pick up on different things for personal reasons and form their own opinions about it. I like to be transparant about this as I believe it may be helpful in clearing the air and improve mutual understanding. So while keeping in mind Annemieke’s wishes about a respectful treatment of Christiaan I will now describe what triggered me to contemplate writing this blog post:
- Christiaan’s succesful attempts to “fit in” within Dutch society despite having been formerly enslaved
- Dutch perception of racial difference in regards to not only Christiaan but also his children and even grandchildren
The first remark is based on Christiaan’s socialization after no longer being a servant to the major of Weesp. After his baptization Christiaan married a Dutch woman and started a numerous family. Also he seems to have been able to apply himself well in several professions and was accepted into the local Weesp militia as a musician. He had atleast one long lasting friendship with a former Dutch co-worker. So generally he seems to have been well-adjusted to his Dutch surroundings. I find it fascinating to compare his experiences with the current day assimilation and integration of migrants and their descendants within Dutch society. It is often claimed that these processes are not going fast enough. Which contributes to the social unrest the Netherlands is facing nowadays. Obviously there are many context-dependent differences. Firstmost perhaps that Christiaan, despite not being the only African in Weesp, was relatively speaking more isolated because Dutch society would have been far more homogenous still. Also Christiaan being merely a child when arriving in the Netherlands would have helped his acculturation process.
The second aspect which caught my attention is arguably speculative. Racial bias during that age can be assumed to have been rampant given not only Dutch involvement in the Trans Atlantic Slave Trade but also just due to general ignorance about non-Europeans. But on the other hand we can only imagine what ordinary Dutch people really thought about Christiaan and how his appearance might have impacted their treatment of him. Especially for people close to him other personal considerations might very well have been far more important than his skin colour. What I found very striking though is that Christiaan in his old age was employed by a travelling funfair or carnival. And apparently his main selling point was his “exotic” appearance as well his flute playing skills. Which made him equipped to play not only the role of a “Moorish king” but even the “King of Kandya“! A reference to a former kingdom in Sri Lanka!
Furthermore also two of his biracial daughters were travelling alongside him. One of them playing the role of an “Indian” acrobat. Intriguingly also two of Christiaan’s grand children ended up making a living in entertainment. They were known as the “little Japanese“. In reference to their ambigious racially mixed appearance which apparently also reminded people of either Indonesian or even Eskimo traits! Naturally we should be careful in jumping to conclusions as this curiosity for “exotic” appearances might just be part of human nature. Also in fact these were paid jobs. And atleast Christiaan’s role as a king does not seem to have been degrading per se.
Nonetheless from a 21st century perspective also other associations come to mind. Such as the exhibition of Africans during the late colonial era as some kind of rarity for entertainment purposes. All in all it seems racial perception did play a role in Christiaan’s life and also for his children and grandchildren. Based on their unusual looking appearance they would have been regarded as “different” despite their attempts to participate as fullfledged citizens within Dutch society.
Just to provide more clarification on my perspective: I was born and bred in the Netherlands myself. My father is ethnically Dutch and my mother is from Cape Verde. This automatically makes me a socalled allochtoon, which is the official term the Dutch goverment (up till recently) used to apply to both migrants as well as their offspring. Eventhough I consider myself to be Dutch, I do experience being “othered” on a regular basis. Just like many other people of recent migrant descent in the Netherlands. Dutch identity seems to still correlate strongly with being “100%” ethnically Dutch. Regardless of a person’s actual degree of assimilation or integration within Dutch society.
I am not mentioning this to be accusatory or anything of that nature. I do not have any victim mentality which I find to be counterproductive. I am a pragmatic person and I fully realize that (perceived) difference of any kind may play a role in social interaction within any given society around the world. It was nevertheless a revelation for me to find out that already in pre-industrial Netherlands Christiaan and his mixed-race descendants had to endure various forms of “othering”, and most likely even worse. Previously I had not imagined Africans and people of mixed-race living in the Netherlands in earlier centuries. Because of Christiaan’s lifestory I now know better.
It might be said that the detoriation of Dutch social relations began after the turn of the 20th century. Atleast that’s when it became a heavily publicized item. In particular the socalled drama of multi-cultural society. Because of the way this issue was hyped by Dutch media as well as the increasingly sharp tone people were using to debate this topic I found myself quickly to be numbed by it or just generally indifferent. All the more because I had already foreseen much of what was being discussed in the early nineties. While my Cape Verdean grandmother (RIP) already was awoke to the upcoming unrest in the early 80’s during her first visit to the Netherlands!
A turning point for me proved to be the blatantly racist uproar in 2016 surrounding Sylvana Simons, a Dutch media personality of Surinamese descent. She was targeted for making a stance against Zwarte Piet and having political ambitions. I do not agree with her political ideas per se. However these events were really an eye opening moment. It has now become very apparent to me that Dutch Tolerance also has an ugly side to it.
What can be done to improve things? This is of course a huge question. To be sure it will take more empathy, mutual understanding, soul-searching, education etc.etc. by all parties involved. However it also starts with getting rid of indifference, becoming more involved and speaking up. Raising awareness is dependent on providing properly researched and sufficiently contextualized information in an unbiased manner. In my own modest way I would hope that this ROOTS.NL blogseries on Christiaan may be of some contribution. Christiaan’s life story is linked to Dutch race relations in various ways. Sometimes surprisingly so as the Ghanaian connection to Weesp seems to be a consistent theme. Personified in the anti-Zwarte Piet activist Jerry Afriyie who is of Ghanaian descent but ever since early childhood lives in Amsterdam Zuidoost (Bijlmer), right next to Weesp!
For more details see:
- Dutch race hate row engulfs presenter Sylvana Simons (BBC, 2016)
- Gordon: No More Chinese Jokes (NL.Times, 2014)
- Holland’s Got Comment (NRC, 2013)
- ‘Look, a Black Piet!’ (Thoughtleader, 2011)
- Marriages between White and Black in the Netherlands: Legal and social issues from the early nineteenth century (Michel Doortmond, 2015)
- Never be indifferent: 400 years of Dutch Colonialism (Gloria Wekker, 2016)
- ‘Twijfel aan Zwarte Piet is mij al genoeg’, zegt Zwarte Piet-activist Jerry Afriyie (NRC, 2017)
- What is “Othering”? (There Are No Others, 2011)
3) Dutch colonial legacy revealed by DNA testing & genealogy
***(click to enlarge)
“Weesp was no exception to the habit rich Dutch people had back then to hold African servants. There could have been about seven of these men here in the 18thcentury. Consider that these men married Dutch women and fathered children, which would make them the direct ancestors of many white Dutch people. That casts a whole new light on the Dutch history,” (Daily Herald Sint Maarten, april 4th 2017)
“ At his wedding he was announced as ‘a servant in the household of the prince of Oranje-Nassau and a moor’, with no reference to his origins. Later that year Catharina gave birth to a daughter, Sophia Wilhelmina Cupido (two other children died before reaching adulthood). Schreuder traced Sophia’s family tree and found dozens of direct descendants living in the Netherlands today.” (Dutchnews.nl, 2017)
“On old pictures of my great-grandmother i could see that she had a colour. Not like Cupido, but more as if she had been from Indonesia. Anyways i never gave it much attention, because such a scenario would not be that surprising [given Netherlands colonial rule & settlement in Indonesia]. But now all of sudden it turns out i am a descendant of a black slave. A little kid from the Coast of Guinea..[…]
Laughing: “I have always been in favour of Zwarte Piet, so i think it’s wonderful that such an amazing black man is hidden inside of me“ (79-old descendant of Cupido) (AD, 2017)
Christiaan’s lifestory has already proven to be very illustrative of various aspects concerning Dutch race relations. In this last section I will focus on his genetic legacy and people like him. Afterall Christiaan married a Dutch woman and had 10 children who in turn also had plentiful offspring. As already discussed in section 1 Christiaan was not the only African to leave Dutch descendants. The above quotations also shed light on a very similar case in regards to the descendants of Cupido, an African servant in The Hague. Annemieke has furthermore blogged about a valuable source for other yet to be explored cases (potentially 114, born in Africa, Indonesia and Surinam). Colonial derived ancestry is still leaving genetic traces in Dutch DNA. Of course usually strongly diluted and only appearing for a small minority of the total Dutch population. Especially when excluding traces of more extensive Indonesian admixture (such as for the extreme-right politician Geert Wilders). But still in absolute numbers Dutch people of partial African descent (dating from before the 1900’s) might be a quite sizeable group.
This type of genetic evidence combined with genealogical research is definitely helping to undo historical erasure of early African presence within the Netherlands (1500’s-1800’s). Given the novelty of DNA testing in the Netherlands further cases are to be expected. Annemieke has been very sensible and respectful in regards to her minor African ancestry. Performing her admirable research with pride in her African roots and wishing to restore the dignity of her African ancestor. She has been present at the annual Dutch memorial of Abolition of Slavery for instance. And also visited Ghana to pay hommage to Christiaan. Her example will hopefully be followed by others.
I find it interesting how apparently the diluted African DNA for some Dutch Afro-descendants was being mistaken for partial Asian admixture instead. I already discussed this for Christiaan’s daughter and grandchildren in the previous section. And again it is being mentioned for one of Cupido’s descendants. I wonder if there are any parallels to be drawn with the similar confusion about presumably Native American admixture in the United States for people of mixed African & European descent. Subjective perception as well as social prejudice might both have been of influence.
In the last quote above we can also see a compelling combination of how the Dutch colonial past has left behind both cultural and genetic repercussions. The referral to Zwarte Piet might be deemed inappropriate. Although personally I do not believe it was done with any real malintent, given the age and social conditioning of this elderly Dutch descendant of Cupido. Still it’s telling how the association is quickly made. Based on the discussion in previous sections Zwarte Piet in its presentday manifestation might be considered a perpetual mocking and persiflage of African servants who once lived in the Netherlands. These African servants do not only represent ancestral relatives for people of Dutch-Surinamese, Dutch-Caribbean or Dutch-Ghanaian descent. They are also the direct ancestors of a yet unknown number of ethnically Dutch people who are not aware yet of having diluted African DNA. Ironically, due to lacking historical awareness, many of them might be likewise in support of Zwarte Piet.
I would find it very regrettable if this blog post is only selectively read to find validation for someone’s preset beliefs and add more fire to their dogmatic identity politics. Instead I hope to have conveyed a much more nuanced overview which I believe corresponds with complex realities. Dutch tolerance might indeed have been overrated and its colonial past has clearly not yet been fully processed. But I am personally convinced that a greater majority of Dutch people, regardless if they happen to have any African admixture or not, are well-intentioned and decent people. Reconciliation and mutual learning are the way forward I would say. Aside from painful aspects of enslavement and loss of original African identity within Christiaan’s story we can also find several elements of meaningful emotional bonding between Africans and Dutch people. It would be fascinating if future research also manages to find examples of any detectable cultural blending as a result of early African presence within the Netherlands. As I will discuss in the next section Dutch creolization has been quite influential for other parts of the Afro-Diaspora.
Follow these links for more details & sources:
- Dutch AncestryDNA results (Tracing African Roots)
- Dutch Slavery Heritage (mappingslavery.nl)
- ‘Ik blijk dus van een zwarte slaaf af te stammen’ (Algemeen Dagblad, 2017)
- Nazaten van Willem Frederik Cupido in Nederland (Esther Schreuder, 2017)
- Ook geboren op de Kust van Guinee (Hoe Heette Christiaan?)
- “What was Christiaan’s name?” (Hoe Heette Christiaan?)
Dutch ancestry across the Afro-Diaspora
***click to enlarge)
***click to enlarge)
South Africa (Kleurling)
“‘I belong to different worlds and that is also what i want, says André Mosis. ‘It would be too onesided to limit myself to only one world” (Groene Amsterdammer, 2016)
“Did you know that the famous African American abolitionist Sojourner Truth was formerly enslaved and spoke Dutch until the age of ten? Or that the Dutch brought enslaved Africans to North America in the merchant ships of the West India Company? This eye-opening guide focuses on traces of the Dutch presence in New York city and state. Dutch rule in New Amsterdam and New Netherland (1609-1664) was short, but it has had a lasting cultural impact.” (LM publishers, 2017)
“The Pinkster King and the King of Kongo presents the history of the nation’s forgotten Dutch slave community and free Dutch-speaking African Americans from seventeenth-century New Amsterdam to nineteenth-century New York and New Jersey. It also develops a provocative new interpretation of one of America’s most intriguing black folkloric traditions, Pinkster.” (Upress, 2016)
As the name already implies this blog is dedicated to Tracing African Roots. However many if not most Afro-descendants actually also have additional non-African ancestry. And for some people this part of their DNA might also be interesting to research. As they might be curious to learn about their complete genetic make-up and how this might define them. In fact there can be several valid reasons to also explore the European origins of Afro-Diasporans in a neutral and unbiased manner. Ironically in the process you might often also acquire more details about African ancestors linked to your European ancestors as well as their biracial offspring.
In light of this blog series I think it’s relevant to know that it’s not only a few Dutch people who might have ancestral ties to Africa it’s actually also the other way around: many Afro-Diasporans could have some partial Dutch ancestry. In particular this goes for former Dutch colonies. Obviously Surinam and the Dutch Caribbean come to mind first. However it is often overlooked how earlier Dutch settlements which have been discontinued or taken over by other European powers might also have left a genetic legacy. This goes especially for South Africa, New York & New Jersey states in the USA, as well as Guyana and the Virgin Islands.
As the map above shows the Dutch have also left behind a cultural legacy which often was blended and fused by their contact with Africans, resulting in creolized cultures. Aside from obvious Dutch influences also often very insightful and specific African retentions can be distinguished. Regrettably many of these Dutch-based Creole languages are now extinct. There are however still many valuable echoes of the past to be studied. Not generally well known perhaps but this also potentially affects many African Americans with ancestral ties to New York or New Jersey states.
DNA testing and in particular DNA matches can be very illuminating in revealing these connections. Dutch people often assume that they would have distant relatives mostly in places like Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the USA and South Africa. All major destinations of Dutch migration (mostly late 1800’s and 1900’s). However earlier Dutch migrants also settled in other places and intermingled with other people, incl. Africans! This Afro-descended segment of the Dutch diaspora is not often fully acknowledged or realized. For example looking at South Africa Dutch people might be inclined to assume they are related only to white Afrikaners. Although they may be hesitant to claim such ancestral ties because of the Apartheid association (regrettably one of the most internationally well known Dutch words aside from Santa Claus). However also South African Kleurlingen or Coloureds in fact have a great deal of Dutch ancestry and also a very intriguing hybridized culture!
Although several other ancestral scenarios might apply (to be confirmed by thorough genealogical research) many African Americans also receive Dutch matches which may be traced back to the shortlived but still highly influential Dutch colony New Netherlands, centered in presentday New York & New Jersey states. An intriguing example is provided by Sojourner Truth, a famous African-American abolitionist and women’s rights activist from New York state. Inspite of the deplorable role of Dutch slave trade and Dutch enslavement I would say it pays to be openminded about these ancestral connections. As proper research might also uncover positive or atleast useful details about your family history.
In my AncestryDNA survey I have sofar regrettably not been able to include any great number of either Surinamese or Dutch Caribbean results. DNA testing in the Netherlands is still very much a novelty however it is increasingly becoming more popular. I would therefore like to reach out to anyone of Surinamese or Dutch Caribbean descent to partake in my ongoing AncestryDNA survey in order to get a greater insight into their ancestral make-up: Als je een AncestryDNA test gedaan hebt en je bent bereid om je resultaten te delen, neem dan contact met mij op! In order to increase awareness of the Dutch colonial legacy I intend to devote more blog posts to former Dutch colonies and will also eventually dedicate a separate blog post on the AncestryDNA results of South African Coloureds.
Follow these links for more details & sources:
- Dutch-based creole languages (Wikipedia)
- Dutch Diaspora (Wikipedia)
- List of English words of Dutch origin (Wikipedia)
- Presenting Dutch New York Histories (mappingslavery, 2017)
- Rootsreis naar West-Afrika: Trots is de trend (Groene Amsterdammer, 2016)
- South African AncestryDNA results (Tracing African Roots)
Dutch ancestry in Ghana
Ghanaian-British actor Hugh Quarshie goes in search of African and Dutch roots
“The Netherlands has not only left behind various ruined forts in Ghana: hundreds of Ghanaian families descend from unions between Dutch men and African women […] For African Americans, Dutch Caribbeans and Surinamese their pilgrimage to West Africa is often a deeply emotional experience. Ghanaians on the other hand are far more relaxed about their European forefathers and their involvement in slave trade”
“In Ghana, Hugh also begins to learn more about his Dutch ancestry. Anna, Hugh’s great-grandmother, was the son of Pieter Kamerling, a Dutchman who bought land in Abee for his relatives. Having basked in African heat, Hugh’s next stop is chilly Den Haag, home to the Dutch national archives where he sees records relating to Pieter’s service overseas. It seems he was an adventurer, a restless civil servant who volunteered to go abroad, returning home to Europe only when he became ill. Later, he asked to be sent back to an area then known as Dutch Guinea, but his request was refused.
Having feared that Pieter was an “exploitative, ugly European” who took a local wife, only to abandon her, it now seems that Pieter wanted to be reunited with his African family.” (BBC, 2010)
Arriving at this final part of my ROOTS.NL blogseries I thought it would be only fitting to return to Ghana. As afterall it’s very likely that Christiaan was shipped from this country, then known as the Dutch Gold Coast, or Coast of Guinea. Throughout this blogpost we have already encountered several not always widely known links between Ghana & the Netherlands:
- Firstly of course the deplorable Slave Trade transactions taking place between Ghanaian and Dutch merchants, centered in Elmina. This not only resulted in forced migration of enslaved Africans to the Americas but also in some cases to the Netherlands itself.
- Dutch Jenever (Gin), also formerly produced in Weesp, is still very popular in Ghana. This goes back to Dutch trading on the Gold Coast since the 1600’s.
- The Dutch chocolate processing industry, centered in Amsterdam & formerly in Weesp, has always been globally prominent. While Ghana, alongside Ivory Coast, has been the biggest producer of cacao for many decades already.
- The Ghanaian community in the Netherlands form one of its biggest African migrant groups. They are mostly living in Amsterdam Zuidoost, nearby Weesp. A well-known Dutch person of Ghanaian descent is anti-Zwarte Piet activist Jerry Afriyie.
- Not yet mentioned but also the Dutch waxprint textiles are a fascinating aspect of Dutch-Ghanaian history. Additionally providing a connection with Indonesia (formerly colonized by the Dutch) by way of the Batik technique as applied by Dutch companies such as Vlisco. See also links further below for more details.
Given this long & intimate shared history between Ghana and the Netherlands it is perhaps not so surprising afterall that actually also Ghanaians are discovering they might have partial Dutch roots! Eventhough many fascinating studies are available it might still not be widely known among the general public that colonial Dutch presence in Ghana lasted till 1872! Especially around Elmina many Ghanaian-Dutch relationships therefore developed. And as can be seen in the quotations above as well as the links provided below, Ghanaians are often interested in exploring these ancestral connections and many do not seem to hold historical grudges.
A pragmatic and open-minded stance instead of constant indignation might benefit anyone’s research in fact. Without downplaying any of the horrors of the Slavery period I strongly believe that personal family histories are bound to sometimes deviate from the assumed narrative. I also think it is self-defeating to allow generalizations (often ideologically charged) about European admixture to determine how you should feel about your own unique DNA makeup. Especially without at least having done any basic genealogical & historical research of your own in advance.
Looking both at the broader context as well as trying to understand localized realities from the perspective of someone who actually would have lived in that time & place. Going for a personalized version of your own ROOTS story instead of relying on preconceived notions. You might then of course still encounter both negative and positive aspects. However also often unexpected details might turn up enriching your research and making it more insightful. Things are often far more complex, inter-connected and intricate than you might assume at first. Annemieke’s findings about her African forefather, Christiaan, provide an excellent example of this.
Follow these links for more details & sources:
- Dutch-African Wax Prints (Wikipedia)
- Frederik Willem Fennekol (mixed Dutch-Ghanaian, b. Elmina 1761) (Hoe Heette Christiaan)
- Ghana and the Netherlands – Historical Notes (Michel Doortmond)
- Ghanese nazaat van een Nederlande slavenhandelaar (NTR, 2011)
- Ghanezen op zoek naar Hollandse voorouders (van Kessel, 2001)
- Gold Coast DataBase (Michel Doortmond)
- Hollandse Afrikanen (Slavernij en jij)
- How the Dutch peddle Indonesian-inspired designs to West Africa. (Slate, 2012)
- Made in Holland: The Chanel of Africa (messynessychic, 2015)
- Merchants, Missionaries and Migrants: 300 years of Dutch-Ghanaian Relations (ASC Leiden, 2002)
- Who Do You Think You Are? Hugh Quarshie Episode (BBC, 2010)