While delivering a commemoration speech at the Rotterdam slavery monument, the Mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb called on the Dutch government to officially apologise for slavery. He cited the sufferings caused by slavery while also noting that it was a dark page in the Dutch history books. A page that had not fully been closed or put in the past.
At the same commemoration in 2013, the then Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher called slavery a 'degrading practice' and a 'blotch in our history'. He expressed deep regret and repentance. But there were no apologies.
There are still no apologies.
The 1st of July 1863 marked freedom from slavery for the Surinamese. Amsterdam, home to a thriving Surinamese community and host to the Keti Koti Festival, remains one of the cities where the festival is celebrated with a lot of colour.
Oosterpark played host to this year's celebrations. There were lots of dancing as Surinamese folks and lovers of black culture came together to commemorate the rich Surinamese culture and its people through food, music, dance and ceremony.
But how many people know why the Surinamese celebrate? How many people fully understand the significance of the 1st of July? To fully understand Keti Koti as a festival, one must take a look at how and why the festival came to be.
With the abolition of slavery in 1863, the Surinamese people were finally emancipated from slavery in the Netherlands Antilles (formerly Dutch West Indies) and in Suriname. Today the people from these communities provide a key aspect of the colour and personality of the Netherlands, and are an integral ingredient in both the country’s character and her culture. Keti Koti, which is a phrase from Suriname meaning 'Broken Chains', is a celebration of liberty, equality and solidarity.
The Slave Trade
Every year the abolition of slavery is celebrated in the Netherlands on July 1 and is an important celebration to lots of black folks especially the Surinamese in the Netherlands. We must never forget that the Netherlands partly owes her wealth to centuries of colonial rule and slavery. Slavery in Suriname spanned over a period of 250 years, in which white Europeans took black people from Africa, enslaved them and forced them to work on their plantations or in their homes. It is not just the Netherlands that has committed the crime of slavery, a lot of European countries are guilty of this crime. Dutch slavery lasted more than 200 years in Suriname and even after the abolition of slavery, the slaves continued working contractually on the plantations.
Keti Koti made me curious as to the Surinamese's connection with the Netherlands and my curiosity led me to do some research and ask a lot of questions. I wanted to know more about the history of Suriname and I think it's very important that I share what I found because, it is a piece of Dutch history that is not really taught in schools.
There are few people in the Netherlands who know what really happened during the period of slavery. Even in Suriname, many people do not know what happened in those 250 years and this is probably because people apparently do not want to be reminded of painful and traumatic events. This applies to both Suriname and the Netherlands. I have even learned that if you study history at an academic level, hardly any attention is paid to slavery. Maybe it's just too painful a book for people to open!
If you're reading this article, I hope you will come to understand the magnitude of the disaster caused by the Dutch slave masters and traders, and there are still consequences being suffered by today's Surinamese society.
A Brief History of Suriname
For centuries, a collection of Indigenous peoples (firstly the nomadic Arawaks and later on, the Caribs) had lived in Suriname. Their communities were close knit and they lived in a culture without violence. They survived on hunting, farming and fishing.
Things changed in 1499 as their peace was disturbed by the very greed of men. Unfortunately for these peaceful Indigenous people, the first group of Spaniards arrived at "The wild coast" (the coast of Suriname and Guyana). Alonso de Ojeda, a Spanish navigator, governor and conquistador who discovered the northeast coast of South America found nothing useful and valuable in those parts. So the Spaniards left the region alone for a long time.
50 years after the Spanish left, rumours about a city of gold called El Dorado started to spread. The Europeans believed that somewhere in South America, there was a city where everything was made of gold. This ushered in a period where Europeans began to organise countless expeditions to South America. It was all in vain as nothing was found. All they found were Indigenous tribes living in peace and ignorant of the outside world. At a certain point, the prospectors believed that the Indigenous people kept the gold hidden in their houses and thousands of them were captured, flogged and tortured into giving up the hordes of gold that they certainly did not have.
Later on, plantations were set up by these Europeans who forced the Indigenous populace into hard labour. They had to do the heavy work on the plantations, and in the copper and silver mines. The Indigenous people did not last long and many of them died of either diseases brought by the Europeans or from hunger and hard labour. The Spaniards decided to come up with a stronger breed of slaves and this is where they turned to Africa. Thus, around 1600 came the period of slave trade in Suriname. These European slave owners/traders didn't see Africans as human beings. They were more like animals and some of them were even likened to monkeys as they were treated as nothing but objects and personal possessions of white men.
Suriname had many governing bodies during that time. First the English arrived and built settlements and a few years later they were expelled by the French. The French were not in power for long, because in 1650 the British conquered Suriname again. The British established more than 60 sugar and cocoa plantations, all laid out by African and Indigenous slaves.
For 17 years, the British remained in power. But the Dutch heard of the success of the British and sent 3 war fleets with a total of 1,000 soldiers on board to Suriname. In 1667 (during the 2nd Anglo-Dutch war) the Dutch took possession of Suriname under the guidance of the naval commander Abraham Crijnssen. In the same year, a treaty was established with the British called the peace of Breda. This treaty meant that both countries could keep their conquests as the Dutch remained in Suriname and the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (later New York) was given to England. After the treaty was signed, there were a few minor conflicts between the Netherlands and England but these were very short and the Netherlands remained largely in power.
The Slave Markets
The slaves were brought from Africa and paraded in slave markets in Suriname. Slave masters and traders didn't care about them or their families and in lots of cases these families were ripped apart. They were auctioned like pieces of antique and when the price had been paid they became "properties" of their masters. Before they were taken home, they had to be branded with hot iron. A figure or the initials of their maters were branded on their skins or tongues and this was done to show that they were slaves and properties of others. Some Surinamese songs were written about this act and all of them are rather heartbreaking. These songs are still known to this day, and even sung in the Netherlands by both the old and young. I don't think a lot of children in the Netherlands really know what the songs are about. One song goes like this:
Faya siton, no bron mi so, no bon mi so
Faya siton no bron mi so, no bon mi so
Agen masra Jantjii e kir sma pikin
Agen masra Jantjii e kir sma pikin, e kiri sma pikin
Flint, do not burn me like that, do not burn me like that
Flint, do not burn me like that, do not burn me like that
Again, Master Jantje killed a human child, a human child
Life As a Slave in Suriname
Life on the plantations wasn't easy. Being packed like sardines in a slave ship and sold like a piece of cutlery wasn't the hardest part of a slave's life. Hell, some pieces of cutlery were even more expensive than slaves. After a slave was bought and brought to the plantation, they had to immediately be put to work. The able-bodied men were forced to work on the fields while the women were used as housemaids and servants.
A plantation is a kind of large farm where one product is grown. There were sugar, coffee, cotton and cocoa plantations. The slaves worked from sunrise to sunset and they only ate once a day or sometimes not at all. The work they did was inhumanly heavy and monotonous. In order to provide them with food, their masters sometimes allowed them to grow their own food on a small patch of land in the plantation and they could only do that at night, because they had to work during the day. Sometimes when a new plantation had to be built, the slaves had to cut trees in the tropical rainforest all day long, and this went on for months.
There was no mercy for pregnant women or women who had just given birth. They had to work with their babies on their backs and they always worked under the supervision of various supervisors. These supervisors always stood with whips in hand inflicting pain on anyone who didn't work well. There were cases of supervisors flogging slaves to death just because they collapsed due to hunger or thirst while working without rest under the scorching sun.
As a slave, you were nothing but the possession of your master. You were a thing, an animal, a beast. Some masters even considered dogs more valuable than slaves. A slave had to realise that he or she was inferior and had no rights. You were constantly humiliated by the master's family, friends, children and neighbours. You had to always be submissive and dared never to look your master in the eye. When a white man arrived, you always had to bow down to him and show obeisance. The master was always right and the slave was always wrong. Such was the norm.
The Case of Women and their Mixed Children (Mulattoes)
A lot of female slaves were sexually abused and repeatedly raped by their masters and supervisors. Their offsprings (from rape) were called "mulattoes", and served as the personal servants to the white masters. While life wasn't easy for these mulattoes, they couldn't complain much because they had a few rights and were more likely to become free. A lot of people believed that the reason why white slave masters used mulattoes as "domestic slaves" was because they believed them to be weaker than 100% (dark) Africans. The irony of this belief was; despite the white men seeing themselves as the superior race, they believed mulattoes to be weak because they were half white (weak) and half black (strong).
It sometimes happened that a white master had a child with a slave, gave this child their freedom (Manumitter), and then raised them as a "white child". A mulatto had a greater chance of gaining freedom even though interracial marriages were forbidden. Despite the racism and almost all interracial marriages or relationships ending in tragedy, some whites and blacks still dared to risk it all. If two people were caught in an interracial relationship, the black person was immediately beheaded and the white person flogged, branded and banished from the colony. There was no mercy!
As a kid, for as long as I can remember, I always asked myself why slaves never ran away or even dared to fight back. I probably was too young to understand how depressing it must have been to be a slave and how their spirits were broken just so they could never fight back. I once read a speech delivered by Willie Lynch and it made me realise why a lot of these slaves never fought back. Their hands were tired from tilling the fields and their spirits were broken from constantly being beaten and degraded. Willie Lynch was a slave owner in the British West Indies who claimed to have found a way of controlling slaves and "keeping them in line." His method was simple: "Keep the slave physically strong but psychologically weak and dependent on the slave master. Beat the fear of God into him. Keep his body intact but shackle his mind." It was from this man's name that the word "lynching" came to be.
Just in case you're wondering, during the Jim Crow days in the U.S., lynching and hanging were a major form of violence used by whites on innocent black folks. The crime? Just being black!
Of course not all slaves were submissive. Some of them fought back while others ran away. Since there was constant supervision on the plantations, there wasn't much a slave could do as pertained to escaping. What a lot of tough slaves did was to ran away as soon as the slave ships carrying them came ashore. They ran away at night and into the jungle. Thousands of slaves who did this were called "Maroons". They left the plantation in groups while coming back at night to steal food and supplies. These Maroons survived in the jungle as they have done for thousands of years in Africa and thus, retained the culture of West Africa. They kept their culture and habits alive and this is one of the reasons why a person from West Africa can still communicate with and understand the modern-day Maroons after more than 300 years since their ancestors escaped their slave masters.
The number of runaway slaves rose enormously. After a while, search parties were organised to catch the Maroons but this made them retreat even deeper into the jungle. As a result of this, they could no longer depend on robbing the plantations because they settled far from them. So they founded small settlements and survived on whatever they could find in the jungle. A series of armed conflicts took place between the Maroons and the soldiers that were hired by the slave masters to find and kill them. It all ended in those soldiers dying of diseases in the jungle or by the hands of the Maroons as they weren't used to "jungle warfare" or surviving in the jungle.
The most famous Maroon group was the Bonis. They had a fort deep in the jungle called Boekoe and they raided many plantations between 1769 and 1772. They then killed some slave masters, took as much food, goods and materials as they could and liberated lots of slaves. After a few more conflicts, the Maroons succeeded in winning their freedom and independence by treaty. The Dutch signed peace treaties with them because the number of robberies on the plantations continued to rise and that was bad for business.
While July 1st may be very special and important to the Afro-Surinamese, the Maroons do not celebrate this day or commemorate the abolishment of slavery because they were independent 100 years earlier.
Abolishment of Slavery in Suriname
The abolishment of slavery on the 1st of July 1863 was the result of many factors. One of the most important factors to remember is that the slaves kept walking away en masse and continued to fight against the slave masters. Due to the worldwide abolishment of slavery in 1830, the price of a slave and the slave labor became more expensive. What played a most vital role was the pressure from Europe. There was a lot of pressure from England and the United States of America where major anti-slavery movements were in motion. The Netherlands is noted as the last European country to legally abolished slavery and when they finally did, Dutch plantation owners received a compensation of 300 guilders for each released slave! Imagine compensating people who had benefitted from more than 250 years of free labour. This, in my opinion, is white privilege at its best!
One question a lot of people sometimes ask is; "What did the slaves get after 300 years of unpaid work?" The answer is - Nothing!
After the abolition of slavery, former slaves were lured to the Dutch capital to work as service providers for the white colonial population. Fearing a shortage of manpower, the Java government recruited some Chinese to fill in the gap. In 1858, 500 Chinese labourers were recruited by the Dutch consul in Macau. The Dutch government also signed a treaty with the United Kingdom on the recruitment of contract workers. This led to Indians migrating to Suriname in 1873 from what was British India. They were indentured workers and lived in the poorest conditions available. A new kind of urban poverty emerged and is unfortunately still present till this very day.
Slavery in Suriname lasted for more than 250 years. This means that tens of generations had to live in slavery and raise their children in it. The Maroons' resistance contributed to the abolition of slavery in 1863 because it had become increasingly expensive and difficult for white slave masters to own and keep slaves.
Slavery in Suriname has been nothing but a dark page in the Dutch history books. Perhaps that is why it isn't taught in Dutch history classes. With the current political climate and the rise of populism and racism in both world and European politics, much has been done to ask that the Europeans never forget how they gained their wealth. There have been calls for some of these European countries who heavily relied on slavery in building their nations to give back to the descendants of former slaves. This can be seen in the case of the Creole, Surinamese and Antilleans in the Netherlands. After all, what the slaves (and their descendants) received after 300 years was only a monument.
So when the Mayor fo Rotterdam talks about the Dutch government apologising, he definitely isn't wrong. Although, I personally think that much more than an apology would be needed. There should be reparations. Slavery built the wealth of the Netherlands, it is only fair that a part of that wealth is given back in some way to the descendants of the slaves who worked and died so that the Netherlands can be a "wealthy western nation."
Keti Koti gives us not just a chance to celebrate the abolishment of slavery, it also celebrates the Surinames community and all the colour and pomp they bring to the Dutch way of life. Without them and their ancestors, the Netherlands wouldn't be what she is today.
In all we do, let us respect them, honour them and do all we can to make sure that history never repeats itself.