Tjebbe van Tijen via Chello on Tue, 23 Jul 2013 22:44:53 +0200 (CEST)

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...a regiment of big & ugly poster-holders  standing opposite my house in front of the city hall/opera building (Stopera) of Amsterdam, with images of slavery in the past and slavery now. Slavery in the present represented in a series of aesthetic photographs. Slavery in the past represented by blown up historical pictures, mainly from the West Indies. All these large pictures lifted high up had explanatory captions.

All these caption texts had been kept so neat and overly general, that the actual slave like suffering represented could not be associated with any specific perpetrator, person or organisation. The historical photograph caption were cleansed also, so that any possible critical thought about how the past can be relevant for the present were neutralised. Yes, it was bad in the past. Yes it is still bad in the present, but less so....

This exhibition on slavery has been taken away last week. Although it is the year of the commemoration of the Dutch abolition of slavery, the big panels have been on show for one month only. Just an intermezzo because of the 150 years anniversary of the freeing of Dutch slaves (though for Surinam it took 10 years more to be effected, who cares to mention that!). Soon we will have the good old glorious Golden Age stuff back in the city street propaganda with Rembrandt and an idealised view of the 400 years of Amsterdam City Canals.... (yes those in the know realise that part of the mansions for the more affluent part of the population had invested their overseas slavery based profits to make up these glorified canals with houses and ware houses). (1)

DOUBLE DUTCH HISTORY so to say.... something the Dutch are very good at (think about the usage of Anne Frank her hiding place as a museum, to evade questions about the why of the very high number of Jews that did not survive WWII and the way the Dutch state has been implicated).

The last image of the abolition of slavery exhibition on poles, shown in the right hand photograph is one of the most used pictures on Dutch slavery, showing the extraordinary brutal aspect of Dutch plantation owners in Surinam, taken from the end of the 18th century book of Stedman. (2) There is a good study of the historian Gerd Oostindië trying to dig deeper into how to understand this and similar horrible pictures of tortured slaves: "Voltaire, Stedman en de Surinaamse slavernij". It is a chapter in his book "Het paradijs overzee de Nederlandse Caraïben en Nederland" (3), there could have been with each picture (at least) some web-addres via QR code for mobile phones) for visitors to give information, going deeper into the subject and explaining the possible multiple readings of these images... None of this has been done. Just a slick corporate style series of images with neutralised captions.

Gert Oostindië - in his 1993 aforementioned essay - did try to go beyond the commonly established vies and usage of this kind of historical pictures on Dutch slavery. He traces back several historical sources - including the one of Stedman - to their original context and traces how their meaning has been distributed and sometimes altered, over time. Without using a Marxist discourse, he discovers and explains the class aspects of the slave master relationship in the colonial economy. How, at some seasonal stage, the master, who needed an extra labour effort for the plantation (depending on harvest and the means of water power derived from the rivers), had to appeal to "his" slaves. Such an extra effort by the slave/workers could not be exerted by brutality and punishment only. It had to be negotiated. Negotiations allowing the slaves certain privileges, especially for their dancing and drinking parties, also leaving them some time for their own food production (kostgrondjes) and in some cases allowing them to trade some of that production on the sunday market in Paramaribo. 

The essay also nuances the now common view of the Surinam slavery system being one of the worst in the world, this by a comparison with the system of North America. To mention just one aspect: in Surinam the slaves were bound to a plantation, in America they were bound to their owner (hence the more frequent burden of ripping apart families). 

Oostindie argues very careful in his essay, not making any definite or confrontational statements. He refrains from simplifying his data to fit a certain specific argument. He takes his readers along and let them think for themselves. He proposes an underlying argument nevertheless, that we may need to view slavery not only as brutal force upon wretched beings, that had to wait centuries to finally being liberated by the same powers that had established their state of slavery. 

In a slow 'pre-emancipation' process slaves also manage to establish what Oostindië calls 'slave power'. Though his essay does touches only once at a similarity with the emancipation struggle of the working classes in Europe, he notices the latent aspect of slave struggle, not only of that of the self liberated and warrior maroons, but also as a form of class-struggle within the colonial plantation system. It may explain, Oostindië says at some point, how such a tiny group of colonisers could keep some kind of grip on a majority population of slaves. (3) Such insights do give a different view as to what 'slavery' was and is, a view beyond the state guilt and benevolence of the belated enlightened white man who discovers that his doings in the past were wrong - after all. It makes us realise how much slavery can be seen as a part of our own society, even today. (3)

Even more debatable is the view also expressed in this exhibition, by what is NOT shown, the common habit of limitting the Dutch slave trade to the West Indies, Brazil and Surinam, forgetting about the East Indies (Asia) activities of the Dutch East Indian Company (VOC). National heroes like Jan Pieterszoon Coen (1587-1629) and Willem Ysbrandtsz. Bontekoe (1587-1657), are only two of a whole bunch of merciless sea captains and entrepreneurs who butchered local population that did not want to obey their spice-trading set-ups in the Indonesian archipelago and went off to neighbouring Philippine Island and South China to capture slaves, to do the labour that helped establish the Golden Age in the Low Countries.

These historical facts are -apparently - only known in the appropriate academic circles. In Dutch media and the official ceremonial state guilt exercise (as in the simplified history canon system for schools) the slavery system of the Dutch in the East is mostly absent. Likewise in this huge poster exhibition on Dutch slavery. 

Such selective commodification of historical guilt by a special abolishment of slavery anniversary foundation (1863-2013) with state subsidies ends up to be nothing more than 


(1) A student workgroup history has made a map of addresses of slave owners in Amsterdam at the moment of the abolition, the year 1863. (no English introduction found yet) But this infomration has not been made part of the exhibition in front of the city hall. "Amsterdamse slaveneigenaren in 1863 in beeld", kaart is gebaseerd op onderzoek in het Nationaal Archief en het Stadsarchief Amsterdam, door studenten geschiedenis van de Vrije Universiteit onder leiding van dr. D.G. Hondius

Direct access to the map via,4.894152&spn=0.043441,0.077162&t=m&z=14&vpsrc=1

(2) John Gabriël Stedman (1744-1796) "Narrative of a five years' expedition, against the revolted negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the wild coast of South America; from the year 1772, to 1777: elucidating the history of that country, and describing its productions ... with an account of the Indians of Guiana, & negroes of Guinea"; this is an edition of (1806); the first manuscript edition is from the year 1791, it has been rewritten by a ghost writer for reasons of things being judged not fit for publication and the content has been changed somehow in the process to such an extend that Stedman at first refused to accept the publishers rendering of his work. In 1796 in the end the argument was settled. This link is a full facsimile of a bit later edition, on line at the site of The Internet Archive, in several digital formats.

This is a link from the same site to the 25 MB PDF format

(3) Let me give the link to the book here (Dutch text almost all all pages of this chapter via GoogleBooks on-line): slavernij staatstoezicht slaven suriname&f=false

The Englsih version is published in Slavery & abolition : a journal of comparative studies, ISSN 0144-039X, vol. 14 (aug 1993), afl. 2, pag. 1-34
and there is a digital facsimile of the article/chapter on-line in English in the digital depot of the KNAW (Royal Aacdemy of Science the Netherlabds):
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