Alex van Stipriaan, professor of Caribbean History at Erasmus University, researched methods used in secondary-education history teaching. He is currently working on a book about Rotterdam and the history of slavery.
TEXT: Sjoerd Wielenga
PHOTO: © Ramona Deckers
‘From the 80s onwards there’s been a growing trend in teaching methods where more time is spent discussing the colonisation of Caribbean countries at the hand of the Dutch – including the history of slavery that comes with it. In the years leading up to that shift, history was something that just moved in next door. Think of the wave of Surinamese and Antillean people who migrated to the Netherlands. This made it possible to look at the person next to you and ask: how come you look like you could be from Africa, even though you’re from South America? For a long time Dutch people weren’t taught much at all about the history of slavery. This was mostly due to the fact that the history lessons of the fatherland were meant to create proud citizens. 2010 saw a new decline in the interest for our colonial history. Some teaching methods were sold with taglines like, now with more focus on our national history!’
Isn’t the history of slavery part of the Dutch national history?
‘That’s what I think, but far from everyone agrees. A lot of people want history to be something positive and are done with the discussion around ‘Zwarte Piet’. Or they say: the history of slavery has already been mentioned in the history books. Which is true, schools are obligated to teach it, but the issue is one of the tone of the conversation, the perspective. Take for example this sentence reflecting on colonialism: “Usually a few sails and a few cannons were enough to get the indigenous people to cooperate.” In 2018! Or the repeated use of the term “black slaves”, even though those who exploited them don’t get the marker of a colour. This means that colour and position are only indicated on one end of the scale. And this even though the students who read these books are of multi-ethnic backgrounds. Not a single of the available methods properly represents the centuries of misery of the lives of enslaved people. The texts that are taught say things like, “they tilled sugar and tabacco on plantations” and “the colonies of the Dutch West-Indian Company could only make profit if there was a constant influx of new slaves.” Oftentimes slavery is called a “black page in Dutch history”, but that in itself suggests that this period was an exception in an otherwise faultless record. But the full story is what matters.’
What’s the story that should be told, according to you?
‘Teachers should combine their lessons on citizenship – which are obligatory – with the history of slavery. Slavery is the ultimate contrast to modern citizenship, an idea that came from ‘Tell the Full Story of Colonialism’ the Enlightenment. If you tell a story about how we come from the Enlightenment, then you have to also tell the other side of that story, because that’s also the blueprint that our society is built on. Freedom, Equality, and Brotherhood was in part paid for with the lack of freedom in the colonies. Teachers can make this issue more contemporary by asking questions like: what is freedom, where does racism in the Netherlands come from, and why do Afro-Dutch people face so much discrimination? But also: why are there so many Sranan and Papiamento words in the way young kids talk nowadays? What’s the origin of rap?’
Alex van Stipriaan is currently working on two books. One is about the cultural history of slavery and is due to appear in 2020. His other project, a book titled Rotterdam and its History of Slavery, is being written on request of the Municipality of Rotterdam and is set to appear next year. Van Stipriaan: ‘That book discusses questions such as, how was Rotterdam involved in slavery? And: what was the city’s presence in slavery colonies? Forts and plantations were named after Rotterdam, seamen and soldiers from the city ended up there, and some Rotterdammers came back from the colonies quite rich – and used that money to buy nice houses. The company Coopstad & Rochussen was one of the biggest traders in enslaved people, and many Rotterdam merchants’ homes had millions’ worth of mortgages on the plantations. You must realise that the majority of the products used in slave trade were made in and around Rotterdam: ships, cheese, gin, sewing needles, rope, shovels, nails, guns, candles, writing utensils, household items, clothes, etc. Not only the richest of merchants had a finger in the pie.’
Did the Rotterdammers of the time know about slavery overseas?
‘Of course they did. Preachers would talk about it, whether in positive or negative terms. And then some people who struck rich in the colonies came back to the Netherlands and brought with formerly-enslaved servants. They stood out because of the colour of their skin and would be questioned about their origins everywhere they went. There were also thousands of Dutch seamen, soldiers, and clerks who went back and forth. Stories must’ve circulated.’