"Keti Koti is a memorial and a celebration in one."

July 1st marks the annual event of Keti Koti, a commemoration of the history of slavery in the Kingdom of the Netherlands and its colonies. On that day, not only the past is commemorated; it is also a celebration. July 1st, 1863, is the day that slavery was finally abolished across the entire Kingdom of the Netherlands. However, what exactly is Keti Koti? Also, how is it celebrated? We spoke with Alex van Stipriaan, professor of Caribbean history at Erasmus University's School of History, Culture and Communication (ESHCC) Rotterdam.

Hi Alex! Can you tell a little bit more about yourself and your interest in the Caribbean? 

'My name is Alex van Stipriaan. I have been working at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication faculty since 1985 and am now its longest-serving employee. I studied at VU University Amsterdam, which had the first history course with non-Western history as the main subject at that time. That was very exceptional, but also exactly what I wanted, in my younger years, I had already developed an affinity for the non-Western. That had to do with the fact that as a boy I had many Surinamese, Antillean and Indian friends.'

Have you ever been on that side of the world? 

'Yes, I go there regularly. My first time was in 1974 when I went to Suriname with friends, which was also my first time outside of Europe. What particularly impressed me was that I suddenly became very aware of my skin colour. As a young white man, I was a small minority in a country of colour. I found it particularly strange to realise that you do not think about your own colour until you suddenly become the "other", or the minority. Another big pitfall is because Dutch is spoken in Suriname; people immediately think that everything there is Dutch. That people think Dutch and that the Dutch culture is "normal". However, that is, of course, not the case.'

Can you tell us something about Keti Koti? 

'Keti Koti means two things in Sranang, namely "chains have been broken" or "break the chains". The chains are the symbol of what it is to live in slavery. The disruption to this occurred on July 1st, 1863, in all Dutch colonies. Previously this was called "the abolition" for the Dutch, while it was called "emancipation" for Surinamese and Antilleans. The Dutch term stems from a kind of misguided pride, namely that the King and the Dutch government were solely responsible for ending the slavery that they first instituted and maintained for several centuries. While emancipation is now emphasised more freely, it nowadays also stands for a process that takes place on multiple sides and highlights more the dark side of the story. Because there has been a lot of fighting over the centuries against the institution of slavery in Suriname and on the Caribbean islands.'

Slavery monument Amsterdam

Is Keti Koti celebrated here in the Netherlands, or is it commemorated?

'Both. It is both commemorated and celebrated. You can compare it with May 4th and 5th which on the same day is a memorial day and a public holiday in one. First of all, July 1st was only commemorated in Surinamese or Antillean circles. From 1963, so after 100 years, there was more national attention in the newspapers and performances and parades were organised by the city of Amsterdam. However, that was it. Until the 1990s, there was a stream of criticism from the Afro-Dutch community, also in Rotterdam. "Why aren't we in the history books?" "Why is July 1st not a national holiday or memorial day?" "Isn't it time for the Dutch government to apologise?" Those were questions that were central to that criticism, and they also paid off, namely in the realisation of a monument in Amsterdam, the declaration of July 1st as national memorial day and the establishment of the fully subsidised 'NiNSee Institute', the knowledge centre for Dutch trans-Atlantic slavery. In 2013, when we celebrated 150 years of Keti Koti in the Netherlands, a monument also appeared on the Lloyd Pier in Rotterdam. There was also a great need in Rotterdam to make the history of slavery visible. Rotterdam had a significant share in the history of slavery; the second-largest private slave trading organisation was from Rotterdam: Coopstad & Rochussen.'

"...precisely because EUR is a fairly ethnoculturally mixed university and is located in a super-diverse city. So, more attention can be given to moments like Keti Koti"

Keti Koti focuses on history, on the translation "chains broken." However, does the second translation "break the chains" mean anything specific for the present time? 

'Some will say that there is still slavery in the world, so we also have to think about that on July 1st. Bob Marley spoke of "liberate yourself from mental slavery," which I agree with, we are still chained with the legacies and mindset of our former slavery,  That applies to both white and black Dutch people, and that divides society. You see that par excellence in the 'zwarte pietendiscussie'. There is no doubt that there will have to be a change, but that works best if you can listen to each other; however, that turns out to be very difficult. Only when you step over your traditional thoughts is when you can break the chain. July 1st is therefore not only a day for the descendants of slavery but all Dutch people. It is a history that involves all of the Netherlands because there are many people from former colonies living in the Netherlands today.' 

What is your best memory of Keti Koti? 

'That was the unveiling of the monument here in Rotterdam. The impact of the unveiling of the monument in Amsterdam was greater but was accompanied by so much struggle and emotion. That was not festive. The unveiling ceremony in Amsterdam was only open to a few guests, such as the Queen and then Prime Minister Kok. The black community, on the other hand, was not invited and stood behind fences, shouting that they also wanted to be there and that it was also intended for them. Fortunately, this was not the case with the unveiling of the monument in Rotterdam, and it was much more festive and inclusive. Mayor Aboutaleb gave a speech that made a big impression on me. In it, he spoke about his personal story and referred to Arab history, which also includes slavery. Every year on July 1st there are many festive activities at the monument on the Lloyd Pier, it is a must to take a look!'

What can Erasmus University learn from Keti Koti? 

'In the first instance, Erasmus University can do more with it. We have a history course here for a reason. The university is therefore aware that history is important and that science must be aware of historical processes within our society. It also gives [the institution] a certain responsibility, precisely because EUR is a fairly ethnoculturally mixed university and is located in a super-diverse city. So, more attention can be given to moments like Keti Koti. We can encourage it from above, by organising conferences, or by raising the flags of all the countries that have been involved in the history of slavery. Alternatively, by encouraging the exchange of courses between faculties and by organising an annual Keti Koti lecture on July 1st. And not just once, but on a structural basis. There is always attention for the 4th and 5th May. In my opinion, Keti Koti is also part of it, because it is not long-gone history. It belongs to us all.' 

Professor
Faculty
Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication
University
Erasmus University Rotterdam