Pride, Shame, and White Fragility in Dutch Colonial History

Dutch Slavery Monument in Amsterdam.

Paul Doolan
University of Konstanz

The 17th-century Dutch Republic made significant contributions to our understanding of world geography, the biological and physical sciences, mathematics, economics, international law, and the visual arts. Yet this Golden Age had a dark underbelly – the Dutch participation in colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade. In the estimate of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database, of the 12,521,337 Africans transported, 554,336 were brought to the Americas on Dutch ships.

Activist historians, many working from outside academia, persist in pushing the hidden history of Dutch slavery to the fore. Ewald Vanvugt’s Roofstaat (2016) is an 800-page indictment of the Dutch “Robber State.” In White Innocence (2016), Gloria Wekker accuses Dutch academia of turning away from the sordid episodes of Dutch history. Anousha Nzume argues that the majority white population long for an unproblematic history that is “gezellig” or cosy, but as soon as they are confronted with the fact of race they fall back on a defensive position of white fragility. Rosmarijn Hoefte, newly appointed Professor of the History of Suriname from 1873, admits that the Dutch lag far behind their international colleagues in the study of colonialism and slavery. Some historical figures formerly considered national heroes have now been exposed as leaders in the slave trade. Recent controversies have focused on the renaming of streets and the removal of statues of these fallen heroes.

A contested statue of Johan Maurits of Nassau. He profited from the slave trade and built the Maurits House, now a prominent art museum in The Hague.

Gert Oostindie, Director of the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) in Leiden and author of some pioneering work on the Dutch slave trade, has criticized Gloria Wekker and other postcolonial academics for their jargon and lack of empirical data.

But more significantly, Piet Emmer, retired professor at Leiden University and an expert on the Dutch slave trade, has gone on the counter-offensive. On television and in newspapers he argues that the Dutch have nothing to be ashamed of, calling the removal of statues “madness” and comparing it with the Beeldenstorm – the Protestant Iconoclastic Fury that led to the destruction of religious images and paintings in 1566. He accuses Vanvugt of spouting lies and exaggerations, arguing that since no one in Europe enjoyed a free labour market during the period of the slave trade, many people were thus enslaved in Eastern Europe, and that the Dutch were minor players in the slave trade and that ultimately profit from it was negligible: “Yah … no doubt there will have been a baker who, a couple of times a year, was able to sell some extra bread buns to ship’s crews.” He sees no reason to increase the attention that slavery receives in school curricula.

Emmer, in turn, considers criticisms of the Dutch colonial project wildly exaggerated, listing the benefits for the former colonies: “modernized healthcare, agriculture, education and administration. We laid sewage pipes, plumbing, telephone-lines and railroads. You’re not allowed to say it, but colonialism introduced modern civilization.” Emmer trivialises the slave trade and ridicules those who think otherwise. He seems unaware that comparing discussions about removing statues with the Beeldenstorm is an exaggeration, something he accuses only his opponents of being guilty of. Emmer’s exaggerations, belittling, and trivialising are tools used to leverage a position within a politicized debate. Yet, ironically, he sees his own work as being free of exaggeration and trivialization.

To regard the Dutch as a minor player in the slave trade, because they transported “only” a half-million slaves, trivialises the issue. As Emmer himself demonstrated in his earlier scholarly work, the Dutch role was significant beyond sheer numbers because early during the 17th century they played a crucial part in the supply of slaves to Brazil as well as to French, British, and Danish colonial islands in the Caribbean.[1] Added to which the Dutch financed foreign slave plantations. Furthermore, Dutch owned St. Eustatius was used as a reshipping station for French slave-produced goods destined for Europe. Dutch-owned Curacao became a major transit-market for slaves in the Spanish asiento system. Slave grown sugar cane was refined in the dozens of sugar refineries in Amsterdam, providing employment and massive profits. In his scholarly work, Emmer answered a crucial question: “Does [the lack of significant profit from slavery] mean that the major share of the Dutch national income derived from overseas trade came from activities not connected to slavery? The answer must be negative, because slavery played a modest but important role in every aspect of the Dutch worldwide long distance trade, including the trade to Asia.”[2] But surely the important point is that they did try to profit from the slave trade. Apart from a few exceptions, like Karwan Fatah-Black in Leiden, or Remco Raben and Pepijn Brandon in Amsterdam, the response from most Dutch colonial historians has been muted.

Furthermore, the idea that the Dutch should feel shame or pride regarding their history distracts from coming to historiographical grips with the Dutch role in the transatlantic slave trade. Nzume refers to “white guilt” as a “bizarre reaction”, adding that no one is demanding a “bucket full of guilty feelings.”[3] Drawing up balance sheets measuring the “good” and “bad”, “pros” and “cons”, or “pride” and “guilt” tend to distract far more than they illuminate. For the sake of furthering a more robust historical debate on Dutch colonialism, historians need to put feelings of shame and pride aside in order to create a more open exchange of views in which the other’s argument is given a respectful hearing.

Nzume argues that the white Dutch public expects a sort of history theme park to be presented before their “cosy white gaze.”[4] This infantilization averts its gaze from anything sordid. As Wekker puts it, “the Golden Century has always been looked upon with pride in the Netherlands” but the time is ripe “for other narratives … multiple stories from the perspective of the enslaved and the colonized.”[5]

In his classic study Napoleon: For and Against (1949), Dutch historian Pieter Geyl famously wrote that “History is indeed an argument without an end” (p. 15). What Dutch colonial-national history needs is an argument in which all sides are given an opportunity to be heard. But this must also involve all sides being prepared to listen.

Paul Doolan teaches history at Zurich International School and is working on a PhD on Dutch decolonization at the University of Konstanz.


[1] Piet Emmer, The Dutch in the Atlantic Economy: Trader, Slaver and Emancipation (Farnham: Ashgate-Variorum, 2010 [1998] 20-27

[2] Ibid., 25

[3] Anousha Nzume, Hallo witte mensen (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017) 115

[4] Ibid., 111

[5] Gloria Wekker, White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016),173.