Speech by Minister Dijkgraaf (OCW) at the NiNsee conference
‘Listening to the many voices of the past’
Good afternoon everyone,
And to everyone watching or listening in a different time zone:
Bun morgu, Bon dia, Goedemorgen.
Last year, I paid visits to both the Windward and Leeward Islands. Next week, I’ll be visiting Suriname. I’ve also had numerous discussions back in the European Netherlands. Every time, I’m heartened by the rich diversity of communities and the many personal stories. But I also see, every time, how the past continues to leave its mark on the lives of so many people. And that affects me deeply.
On Sint Maarten, a woman told me that when she heard about the upcoming year of commemoration, her first response was: “It’s great that you’re having a party! Can I come too?”
Painful. But also understandable. Just like the year of commemoration is itself a painful occasion. It’s not a recurring anniversary. And it’s certainly not a party. It has taken a long time for the apologies to come. And the commemoration definitely won’t be over in the space of the year.
Yet despite this, some fundamental changes are happening that can no longer be halted. We’ve started something that, for far too long, we dared not even countenance. We’re attempting to take an honest look at the pain of the past. We’re searching for the right words, for each other and for a shared history.
It’s an honor for me to be allowed to address this symposium today. On the stage and in the audience – here in Utrecht and everywhere else connected to us today – I can see so many people who’ve spent years knocking at a locked door, secured with ten locks. They came with facts and with emotions and did so with dignity. Until finally, much too late, the door was tentatively opened. Slowly and haltingly, creaking gradually open.
We remember the apologies from Prime Minister Rutte on 19 December. We look forward to the year of commemoration that will start next month. It marks the next stage in an ongoing process as we move forward. A process that I hope will be full of thoughts and new ideas. Because you can never draw a line under the past.
Today, I’d like to talk about the importance of knowing about our history. And how, by learning about the history of slavery, we can also get to know each other and become better acquainted with ourselves. And how that can help us to move forward together into the future.
History is alive and kicking. It’s popular on TV, in bookshops, in archive study rooms and even in the latest media. People love delving into the past of their own family, home city or country. Because it tells you more about yourself: how you became who you are and where your roots lie.
Historical stories, films and podcasts take you back to a time that has passed. They are representations of the past. Quite literally: re-presentation. They make what no longer exists present again. But they are also a representation in another sense of the word. While some people may be represented in the historical narrative, many other people aren’t. And that’s something you need to be aware of.
Which voices have dominated the narrative, which voices have been understated or even omitted? Which voices once shouted out loud, but were deliberately not heard, refused a platform and silenced? That gaping silence and emptiness in history is not there by accident. Behind it lies deliberate, willful action. Just as painters depicted the most luxuriant plantations, but deliberately excluded from view the very people who did the work in inhumane conditions. Their existence was airbrushed out.
So, with awareness of all of this, let’s take a critical look at the prevailing narrative of the Dutch past. If we do so, we can see that this narrative is incomplete, one-sided and not representative. Because people’s lives have been deliberately swept under the rug. In that narrative – I learnt it at school, as I’m sure many of you did too – the seventeenth-century Republic was represented as the world’s first modern economy. As a Golden Age, crowned by such jewels as a powerful fleet, beautiful cities and flourishing art and science.
But that’s not the whole story. All this pomp and splendor was associated with systematic trade in enslaved people. And a high price was paid for it. But much of that dark past remained unchronicled. When it was included, often in the margins, it was easier just to look away. It didn’t match many Dutch people’s image of themselves. And the violence that persisted for centuries was downplayed and passed off as a dark chapter in history, as an exception. Surely slavery in the Netherlands wasn’t that bad, especially compared to other countries?
It was that bad. At one time, the Republic was the world’s largest slave trader. And which country was one of the last to abolish slavery in Europe? It was the Netherlands.
We need to tell the whole story. The story of how, for more than three centuries, Dutch slave traders committed crimes against humanity across the whole world. They dragged people from their homes, tore them away from their families and robbed them of their dignity. People were used like goods for trading, transported like livestock, treated as expendable resources.
In West Africa, adults and children were kidnapped and dragged across the Atlantic Ocean in ships. The places they were taken included Suriname, Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, Sint Eustatius and Sint Maarten. All of them now former Dutch colonies. On plantations, they were forced to do grueling slave labor. The same fate also faced the indigenous people who had lived there long before the Europeans established their colonies. These enslaved people and their hard labor satisfied the growing hunger overseas for luxury products such as sugar, coffee and tobacco. On the other side of the world too, in Asia, the Netherlands was a key player in slavery.
As the year of commemoration approaches, the silenced are increasingly making their voices heard. Not listening to them may seem comfortable, but it is actually impoverishing. Because you are denying yourself valuable knowledge. Because you are refusing to seize the opportunity to learn lessons from the past. And, above all, because you are separating yourself from all of the people who have always felt the pain of the past. These people have this knowledge: my ancestors come from Africa and they were shipped away by force and put to work, as another person’s possession. In their family stories, songs and rituals, the echoes of slavery continue to resonate.
As the representation of the past becomes more complete, richer and more varied, something else is emerging into view. And that is the resistance. Small-scale and large-scale resistance. The colonial powers preferred to airbrush the stories away, but failed to do so. And as a result, we now know and commemorate Virginia Dementricia on Aruba, who ran away from the plantation and resisted police arrest.
And Tula, who led an uprising on Curaçao. Inspired by the fight for freedom on Haiti in the wake of the French Revolution, his thinking was this: now that the Netherlands has become French territory, why are we on Curaçao not yet free? Tula’s story clearly demonstrates that, even in 1795, people and events were connected to each other worldwide, like links in the chain of history.
We commemorate the freedom fighters Jolicoeur, Boni and Baron in Suriname. And revere the name of the courageous One-Tété Lohkay on Sint Maarten. She escaped from the plantation and opposed the system.
But there are also countless others who put up resistance, sought freedom and yet remain nameless. As a result of all these acts of resistance, whether silent or outspoken, slavery ultimately became no longer tenable.
The heroic courage of all of these people continues to be awe-inspiring or a source of pride. They also provide inspiration as we look forward to the future.
This is why it is good to continually develop new perspectives on the history of slavery. But the past can often be like an impenetrable forest. Dutch slave traders and plantation owners kept careful records of their work. But the whip hand of the oppressor was the same hand that recorded and selected. The same hand that determined what should be remembered and what forgotten.
Details of relevance for the status and value of enslaved people included their names, dates of birth, sex, and contagious diseases. For the purposes of business operations, all of this factual information was recorded from the cold accountant’s perspective of the plantation owner. Ultimately ending up in the archives, providing a glimpse into the past, albeit through a distorted lens.
In April, I visited the Saba Heritage Center. In their attempts to trace their ancestors there, people can often be confronted by a genealogical brick wall. It could be because their surname has changed in the course of the family’s history. These Dutch people are unable to trace their ancestors because they were deliberately made unknowable. It was then and there that I truly understood what it means to be cut off from your past. When your lifeline has been brutally severed and your roots are impossible to find in a different continent.
And the painful thing is this: when you come from a population group which has been the focus of deliberate attempts to limit documentation, the past can be the heaviest burden to bear. The limited information you can find about your ancestors only serves to confirm your sense of victimhood. Instead of all the other deeply human aspects of love and pride and hope and courage. It makes you even more motivated to dig deeper in the search for struggle and resistance.
The fact that the past can be difficult to access is also due to the colonial tendency to separate, in thoughts and in actions. Not merely to differentiate between people, but actually to create a difference between people through their actions, such as subordination and exclusion. Even the meaning of the word ‘discriminate’ has shifted in meaning from ‘differentiate’ to ‘treating unequally’. But this tendency to differentiate was a justification for treating people differently and not as equals. It was a key condition that actually enabled the evil of slavery to exist. This is how it came to be that, for Christians, black people were not seen as neighbors in the Biblical sense, and for adherents of the Enlightenment, were no longer even regarded as fellow men. White people even attributed animal characteristics to black people, accusing them of childish thoughts, limited emotions and having a body that was only good for heavy labor. Not a life worthy of being chronicled.
Yesterday saw the start of the Keti Koti month of commemoration. The chains of slavery have been broken. But how much freedom do we truly have if people still face abuse on the streets in the here and now, have less chance of getting a job and continue to miss out on the prospect of housing? If the door is supposedly open for everyone, but some people have to start right at the back of the line, because the spirit of discrimination is still alive? How free is our society if students in search of an internship position face rejection after rejection purely because of their name, skin color or appearance? How free is our society if it’s the government itself that excludes people? Through ethnic profiling, through algorithms or rules that have a discriminating effect? The Dutch childcare benefits scandal is a painful reminder of how centuries of slavery can continue to enchain people even now. It’s a reminder of how all those centuries still reverberate across our society.
It reminds us that this continued reverberation is part of that history. The abolition of slavery was not the end of a nightmare that made everything good after it. It was not a case of broken chains, discarded keys, freedom and happiness. No, first of all, in 1863 the Dutch government paid compensation for loss of income, not to enslaved people, but to former slave owners. Many of the enslaved people had to spend another ten years continuing to labor under state supervision. When major labor shortages developed, Hindustanis, Javanese and Chinese people were brought to Suriname as contract workers to labor on the plantations, under extremely difficult conditions and for a derisory wage.
In all the years following the abolition of slavery, the history of slavery continued to reverberate, in the form of discrimination, subordination and repression. This was true in the formal colonies and in the European part of the Netherlands.
For a long time, speaking one’s native language remained taboo. At primary schools in former colonies, children could recite all of the railway stations between Groningen and Delfzijl by heart. But they learnt nothing about their own country’s history.
That part of our shared history, its continued impact in the past, also deserves much more attention. As do the people who, when slavery had been abolished, continued to stand up for equality, freedom and the right to one’s own identity.
We are on the eve of the year of commemoration of the history of slavery. Many activities are being organized from the grassroots. For, by and from the communities. The Cabinet is making at least an additional 4 million euros available for cultural, social and educational activities from the community. This amount is in addition to the previously promised 2 million euros. Members of the Cabinet will also be involved in many places, and that certainly applies to myself.
In the space of a year, the history of slavery cannot truly penetrate our shared cultural memory. Long after 2024, we will need to continue to commemorate, investigate, add new perspectives and bring underexposed stories out from the shadows. Ultimately, nothing is as changeable as history.
Instead of writing history, we write many different histories. There is no single overarching perspective. We will continue to encounter gaps. But that in itself is a gain. Because if you’re aware of the gaps in our knowledge, at least you know what you don’t know. With an open perspective and applying our curiosity, sense of wonder and imagination, we can then attempt to fill those gaps in our knowledge.
My own attitude is one of hope. A history of many voices can help our society to make space for everyone and combat oppressive ideas. Our society needs to be able to breathe.
On the one hand, we will need some hardline measures to achieve that. Laws that enforce equal treatment. Like the internship pact agreed last February, intended to outlaw internship discrimination.
But, on the other hand, we also need softer powers in order to erode prejudice and preconceived ideas. With these powers of knowledge and recognition, of tolerance and justice, we can teach children about the history of slavery from an early age. Protect and value customs, buildings and other heritage. Ensure records are kept of stories before they disappear, and share them with each other. Apply our rich art and culture to depict them. And do more research and spread more knowledge. As you can see, it’s quite extraordinary to be the Minister of Education, Culture and Science at a time of such fundamental change.
When Prime Minister Rutte offered his apologies in December on behalf of the Dutch government, he rightly stressed that no one now living bears personal blame for slavery. This opens up a shared journey of discovery, exploring how history shaped all of us. In order to reveal the beautiful and the ugly, power and strength, justice and injustice, pride and shame. In order to feel a bond with your ancestors, but also possibly a gulf between you. You cannot turn the tide of history, but together we can navigate the future.
While no one bears any blame, it’s only human to feel a vicarious sense of guilt in the face of this unimaginable past. For example, if your own ancestors owned plantations. Or, even more mind-bogglingly, if you discover that your ancestors were not only enslaved, but also kept slaves themselves.
Complicated stories, newly-developed nuances: they are all part of a multi-voiced history. Never allow feelings of guilt or shame to hold you back. Speak out, do something about it. Use it to change our shared future. I realize that this is asking more of some than it is of others. I also know that racism is a many-headed beast that never fails to rear its ugly head. The past may not burden us with guilt, but the same cannot be said of what we do and say in the here and now.
Knowledge can connect people to each other. Interestingly enough, we will need to revert back to our old network to achieve that. There are documents and objects spread across the whole world, fragmented and lost from view, marking the trail of all those transplanted human lives. So, let’s link together every point of that worldwide network again, using modern scientific methods and casting aside the imbalanced relationships of the past. Let’s bring together expertise from all corners of the world. New connections bring new knowledge with them. Who could be against increasing knowledge?
Creating a shared history means bringing all of these pieces of the puzzle back together. By applying scientific research and delving into the cultural memory that lies hidden in traditions, songs and rituals. In objects, landscapes and in buildings. By listening to the ancestors’ voices that resonate through family stories.
We need to move at sprint pace in order to ensure that the heritage is quickly brought into good condition and conserved, because it is currently literally crumbling and washing away. We need to run a marathon if we are to continue to give a platform for new voices and perspectives, long after the year of commemoration. In museums, school classrooms and lecture halls. And at academic events like today’s.
So, I now reach my conclusion.
In the commemoration year, we intend to take a close look at our shared history. ‘Can I come too?’ was the sarcastic question on Sint Maarten. ‘Of course’, I would say, ‘You’re welcome to join us.’ Everyone should feel welcome to take part in this year of commemoration. To learn, to grieve, to commemorate, and to celebrate freedom. To experience how a history, a country, a person can open up and provide space for fellow humans. Space for those who continue to feel the pain of the past, those who would prefer to avoid the pain, those who want to know the full story, and even those thinking for the very first time: I’d never even thought that slavery had anything to do with me.
Being open to another person’s past helps you to understand that person. I hope that today’s symposium also helps to bring about more knowledge, more understanding and more connection. And to bring that shared future a step closer.
After all, how can we know where we want to be heading in the future if we don’t even know where we come from?
Thank you very much.