Dutch exhibit grapples with nation's historical links to slavery

A new exhibit titled “Slavery” at a museum in Amsterdam takes an unflinching look at Dutch involvement in the international slave trade. Many European countries are owning up to the brutality of their colonial past in light of the Black Lives Matter movement.

Peter Dejong/AP
A box gifted to Stadholder William IV as the new governor of the Dutch West India Company with decorations depicting trade in gold, ivory, and people, is displayed at the exhibition, "Slavery," at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, May 17, 2021.

The delicacy of one of the first objects in new exhibition at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum belies its brutality. At the end of a thin iron rod are the artistically interwoven letters GWC – used to brand the initials of a Dutch trading company onto enslaved workers.

The stark contrast between finery and brutality, wealth and inhumanity is a recurring pattern at the museum’s unflinching exhibition titled, simply, “Slavery,” that examines the history of Dutch involvement in the international slave trade.

Nearby, a huge wooden set of stocks and heavy iron chains and locks used to constrain enslaved people stands close to a small box, intricately decorated with gold, tortoiseshell and velvet celebrating some of the valuable commodities traded by the Dutch West India Company in the 18th century: gold, ivory and human beings.

The exhibit, being opened Tuesday by King Willem-Alexander, tells the story of slavery by drilling down into the personal stories of 10 people, ranging from enslaved workers to a wealthy Amsterdam woman.

“We wanted to make the case, that this is a history that speaks to anybody in the Netherlands. It belongs to all of us, so that’s why we chose a personal approach,” Valika Smeulders, head of the museum’s history department, told The Associated Press.

The exhibition opens – belatedly and mainly online because of the COVID-19 pandemic – at a time when scrutiny of many nations’ brutal colonial history has been spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement that swept the world last year after the death of Black man George Floyd.

School children will be able to visit the museum beginning this week, but the exhibition will not open to the general public until the Dutch lockdown eases further, possibly in June.

Amsterdam had a significant role in the global slave trade – the stately mansions lining its canals attest to the fortunes made by Golden Age traders often with the use of slave labor. That history has led to calls for a formal apology from the current municipality.

“Well, apologies are in the air, absolutely. And I think that, with this exhibition, as a museum, what we are adding to that is that we bring this story in the most honest way possible for us at the moment,” said Ms. Smeulders.

The Dutch show is part of a broader movement to re-examine colonial histories. In neighboring Belgium, the Africa Museum near Brussels re-opened a few years ago after a major renovation and shone a light on the country’s dark colonial history in Congo.

Germany is returning hundreds of artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes that were mostly looted from West Africa by a British colonial expedition.

The 10 stories featured in the Amsterdam exhibition span 250 years of Dutch colonial history and four continents – Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa.

Among the stories is that of Wally, an enslaved man forced to work on a sugar plantation in the colony of Suriname. In an audio presentation, his history is narrated by former kickboxing world champion Remy Bonjasky, whose ancestors worked on the same plantation.

Wally became involved in a conflict with the managers of the plantation in 1707. He and other enslaved people fled before they were recaptured, interrogated, and executed.

Wally and his fellow escapees would have been burned alive, Mr. Bonjasky says in the online narration. “Their severed heads would later be displayed on spikes as a warning.”

The “might” shown by Wally and the other enslaved men “is still in my blood,” Mr. Bonjasky says. “It has been passed down through generations and is one of the reasons why I was able to become kickboxing world champion three times.”

Another story in the exhibition that provides a glaring contrast to the horror of Wally’s short life is that of Oopjen Coppit, the widow of Marten Soolmans, whose father owned Amsterdam’s largest sugar refinery, processing crops harvested by enslaved men and women in South America.

In the exhibition, she is a personification of the wealth generated for a privileged few by enslaved workers. In a full-length portrait painted in 1664 by Rembrandt van Rijn, she wears a long black, lace-trimmed dress accessorized a pearl necklace and earrings.

“That we’re able to use Rembrandt to speak about the history of slavery is really exciting and really new,” Ms. Smeulders said.

Oopjen’s second husband, Maerten Daey, also had links to the slave trade. Before their wedding, he served as a soldier with the Dutch West India Company in Brazil, where he kidnapped and raped an African woman called Francisca, fathering a daughter in 1632, according to church records cited in the exhibition.

“The lives of Marten, Oopjen, and Maerten are intertwined with the history of slavery,” Rijksmuseum Director Taco Dibbits says in an audio tour of the exhibition. “They owed their wealth to the slave labor in Brazil. It is an example of how the history of slavery and the history of the Netherlands are bound together.”

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to Dutch exhibit grapples with nation's historical links to slavery
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today