Amsterdam’s emancipation ceremony adjusted, hopeful | THE DAILY HERALD

The slavery abolition monument in Amsterdam’s Oosterpark, draped in red and black cloth.By Marvin Hokstam

AMSTERDAM–Apologies from the Dutch authorities for Holland’s role in transatlantic slavery failed to materialise again as Amsterdam commemorated the Abolition of Slavery on Wednesday, July 1. However, the event nonetheless left the impression that awareness about its past is growing in the Netherlands, even though the event this year did not have the festive nature for which it has become known.

COVID-19 measures kept the Oosterpark practically empty, with only a small group of dignitaries, invitees and press present. It was so quiet that you could hear the green-feathered rose-ringed parakeets that call the Dutch capital home sharply chirping over the speeches during the ceremony. The monument for the Abolition of Slavery in the park was draped in red and black cloths, as per mourning rituals of the Akan people of Ghana, from where many enslaved had been kidnapped – a sobering ceremony. 

There is change happening 

COVID-19 restrictions have been relaxed somewhat in the Netherlands, but NiNsee, the Dutch Institute for Slavery Heritage that organises the annual event, decided to still keep things small. “We had already arranged everything to have a commemoration under the restrictions, so we decided to go ahead as planned,” said NiNsee chairperson Linda Nooitmeer. The institute had arranged with Dutch television NOS to broadcast the ceremony live, so many people watched from home.  All speakers referenced the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests that erupted after African American man George Floyd was murdered on May 25 while in police custody.  Marian Markelo, a priestess of the Afro Surinamese Winti faith, opened the ceremony with a libation, while she sang a traditional Afro Surinamese song that the ancestors used to sing about their experience and how their knowledge and experience was always victorious over ignorance. While she sprinkled water from a calabash, she was accompanied by a dancer in a Kabra mask that represented the ancestors.  Markelo pleaded with the ancestors for continued guidance during the difficult times. “We are experiencing change at the moment. This is the inheritance of our history and we need strength and energy to continue the fight. There is change happening. A lot has been done to get the history and its outcome on the map; what we are seeing today is the fruit of that work,” she said. 

Slavery past will never go away 

Minister of Education, Culture and Science Ingrid van Engelshoven cited Floyd’s aunt, who apparently had said at his funeral that she had gained a worldwide family since her nephew’s death.  “Thousands and thousands of people took to the streets, here in the Netherlands as well. You could see that every person differed from every other person, but they all found common ground in their will to change something.  “All of this is happening in a time when the Netherlands is learning that we have not yet learned everything about ourselves. And one of the things to which we have turned our backs is our role in the slave trade. But just as we turned our backs, we can now turn back around and look back. We exist without physical chains and none of us has seen anyone being enslaved; we have not met the freedom fighters. But our slavery past will never go away,” she said.  She said the persistence of discrimination and exclusion is worrisome. “All those people who are taking to the streets have been calling for attention for this. There is always a reason not to say anything, [often because – Ed.] it makes the white dominance nervous. That was the case then and it still happens now.  “The fact that our black ancestors were traded by our white ancestors is something we will never forget. However, we cannot call the rulers from the past to order anymore, but that should not divide us. Sorrow and shame is not enough; government has a task to prevent these things from taking place. Let us take the example of George Floyd’s worldwide family. That is a thing of enlightenment; that is something we should want to be part of,” she said. 

Improving traditions 

Amsterdan mayor Femke Halsema took a long pause, drawing attention to the “1873” button she had been wearing when she attended the first mass Black Lives Matter demonstration at De Dam on June 10. The brainchild of the late anti-racism activist Perez Jong Loy, it hints at 1863 not being the actual date black people were freed in Suriname; government had imposed state supervision on all formerly enslaved that kept them in bondage for 10 extra years.  “1873 stands as a symbol of the difficult advance toward equality. And we can still see it today if we see that many people in the most vulnerable parts of our communities are the hardest hit by the corona-crisis,” she said.  However, she said she was noticing that the tide is turning.

“Black Lives Matter started as a small group of activists who broached confrontational subjects and were hated for that. And now it has mushroomed into a worldwide people’s movement in which everybody is involved, a movement that does not break traditions but improves on them and makes new ones. That adds to history,” she said.  “Many of us live in separate worlds and I blame the Netherlands of then and the Netherlands of now. We can only advance if we acknowledge our full history and dare to speak up.”  She mentioned that changes are being brought in how the education system deals with the subject of slavery and that a museum of Dutch Slavery History is being created.  “Change is possible, but we have to change. We have to tell the entire story – that Amsterdam, our capital, that was a refuge for people being persecuted, was also the city that kept meticulous record of how it traded in people; that here philosophers lent their thoughts to legitimising slavery. Injustice, pain and suffering deserve acknowledgement, now, tomorrow and forever,” she said. 

History laid the foundation for racism 

Nooitmeer also referenced the 1873 button that she too was wearing. “When the enslaved finally became free, with the knowledge that the plantation owners had been compensated with 300 guilders per enslaved, they were still happy – finally, an end to the system of dehumanisation and slavery that had been royally decreed.”  Nooitmeer explained that for 2½ centuries millions of people were enslaved on behalf of the Netherlands, in a system that laid the political, social and cultural foundation for the oppression of people of African roots in the Netherlands and its colonies.  “That history laid the foundation for the development of institutional racism. And it is still omnipresent in the minds of authority figures, civilians and governments, often unwittingly, but nonetheless disastrous for the victims.”  She hinted that this is what prompted many people – of all colours, ethnicities, and ages – to join in the Black Lives Matter demonstrations.

“What many fail to realise is that the effect of slavery and the colonial past is central for Dutch people of African descent when they have to make decisions about their own future. But it also regards the Dutch cultural archive. Ethnic profiling by government departments, undervaluing of students, discrimination in the labour and housing markets … these are examples of institutional racism that have to be addressed from an historical perspective.”  She named Keti Koti being added to the Dutch education system as an important milestone in raising awareness about the Dutch slavery past through education. And she also mentioned excuses. “NiNsee hopes that these will be expressed nationally, with the help of the parliamentarians who are endeavouring to bring this about.”

Source: The Daily Herald