Creating Alternative Narratives around Dutch Slave History

mesa tula

One of the organisers, Connie, honours the ancestors to start off proceedings.

This summer the folks at Black Heritage Amsterdam Tours (BHAT) asked us to join a commemoration ‘table’ named Tula Mesa in the Geelvinck Hinlopen Huis, a canal house built and lived in by slave owners. This commemortative ritual communal meal is named after Tula, one of the leaders of a slave revolt on Curacao on the 17th of August1795. This day is predominantly commemorated by the Antillean community as, unfortunately, the Dutch don’t seem to have include this important event in the Dutch historical narrative. In the Netherlands the main commemorative event is on the 1st of July, Keti Koti (pronounce ‘Kiti Koti’) which means breaking the chains in the Surinamese language. As this year marks the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, various events such as plays, exhibitions and debates are held. Amongst these events are the commemorative tables, where people come together to share and engage in rituals and dialogues. It started with special Keti Koti tables, an initiative of Mercedes van Zandwijken and commemorative organisations and we hope this will be continued. Although we do not have a Surinamese or Dutch Antillean background ourselves we do feel it is important to learn and speak about this history. The legacies and traces of the slave trade are definitely visible in the Netherlands and it is vital to reflect on their impact.

 A new way to commemorate
Commemoration politics in the Netherlands are complicated, because of all the aforementioned factors. Even the year of the abolition is heavily contested. Some of the visitors of this year’s Keti Koti festival wore a black button that said “1873” to call attention to the fact that even after the formal abolition of slavery in 1863, the formerly enslaved were forced to work another ten years on the plantations in Surinam though they were now nominally ‘free’. The situation on the Dutch Antilles wasn’t much better. However, the question of when the enslaved were freed goes even deeper. Each year during the commemoration of Keti Koti, and especially this year, the question arises to which extent are the descendants of enslaved peoples really free? What does freedom mean when racism is still deeply institutionalized and the life chances of people of color are still significantly affected by it?

Through the speeches, poems and conversations, the women of color who organised the Mesa Tula made sure the participants engaged with this afterlife of slavery. We chewed Kwasi Bita, a bitter piece of wood to feel the bitterness of pain, we used coconut oil to commemorate the burning marks and to sooth the pain of the current division caused by slavery and we listened to ancestral prayers.It was moving and powerful to hear these Antillean women speak out on the ways feelings of self worth and perceptions of other people of color are still impacted by racialized hierarchies..   One of the guest spoke about the lack of people of color in mainstream media and the stereotypical ways that people of color are still represented in. Maartje van Weegen, a Dutch journalist present responded that this was a picture of the past and dismissed her vital point. She did not listen to the concerns the community expressed nor did she take into account her own position as a white woman and the privileges that come with it.

Despite such disruptions, this new tradition opened spaces in the conversation around the commemoration of slavery that we have hitherto not seen in the Netherlands. When one of the organisers emphasized how important it is to work on internalised racism in order to stop self hatred and to able to value other people of color, her message was heard. The Tula tableand others of its kind point the way to new ways to reflect on the legacies of Transatlantic slavery which are more empowering than mere celebration. And, importantly, which do not leave you feeling defeated about how much there is to do in order to achieve the freedom that people of color longed for.  A commemorative song, which is part of the ritual symbolized this perfectly; the community speaks to Tula, the freedomfighter, and says  ‘Don’t look back, we are not ready’.  It indicates that there are issues that have not been resolved yet, that the pain is still alive and that the legacies of slavery are still present.

Bringing in the present
One of the most important things that new traditions like these create, is a different narrative about slavery. For one, the Tula Table was centred on Dutch Antillean histories of slavery and freedom, whilst most commemorative events are focused on Surinamese histories. The central role of women in the ceremony and the use of the Papiamentu language both provided a much needed different perspective we don’t often get to experience as Dutch residents outside of the Dutch Antillean communities.. And finally, and perhaps most importantly, the ceremony created a space of fearless critical reflection on today’s status quo. The point of departure was the unfinished business of attaining freedom. A refreshing take, considering the dominant narrative on commemoration that is presented this year by numerous cultural institutions, but also by commemorative events organised by communities of color, such as the Keti Koti festival. In mainstream public discourse about the slave trade and colonialism perpetrated by the Dutch is minimized to ‘ black pages’ in history. Almost minor events instead of foundational to the development of Dutchness.This take off point challenged us with some urgent unanswered questions. How do we confront institutionalised, gendered, international racism in todays society? How do we confront internalised racism? How do we relate to white Dutch people within that process? What place do they have in these conversations? As the “intervention” by Maartje van Nimwegen demonstrated, there’s a risk involved in opening up these conversations to a white audience. And also: how do we take back media representation of people of color?

Collective amnesia a thing of the past?
Collective amnesia about the legacies of slavery and colonialism is being fought by different groups in the Netherlands and beyond to the Dutch Caribbean, Suriname, Indonesia and West Guinea. As we do that, we find there is a need for different narratives to not only acknowledge the diversity of these histories, but also the urgency of today’s connected issues of institutionalised racism in all major areas of social life, gendered racism and the continued economic neo-colonialism of the former colonies. New commemorative traditions like the Tula table create spaces that confront these issues head-on, while simultaneously acknowledging the strength and resilience of the peoples who have lived through slavery and colonialism and their descendants.

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