History of sugar, and slavery, at Amsterdam museum

Slave ship plan

From the Google cache.

History of sugar, and slavery, at Amsterdam museum

Date: 10/28/05 at 8:22PM

Mood: Thinking

Playing: Sugar, sugar, by The Archies

At the moment [in 2005], there is an exhibition on the history of sugar at the Amsterdam historical museum in The Netherlands.

On my way there, the train goes through the Haarlemmermeer region, an important sugar beet growing area. Most of its beets used to go to the Amsterdam refineries when they were still there.

I see two cormorants, sitting on a canal bank.

The exhibition includes the continents of Asia, Africa, America, and Europe; but focusing on Amsterdam.

Sugar cane originates from Asia.

In the sixteenth century, the first century of European overseas colonialism, Spaniards and Portuguese brought it to South America.

There, sugar plantations, made profitable by African slave labour, arose.

In the seventeenth century, sugar, on its own or in combinations with other new habits like tea or coffee, already played a major part in the lives of the better off strata of Europe.

It played a major role in the world economy; and world politics.

Then, the ruling classes of the rising Dutch Republic (in a war of independence against Spain, which occupied Portugal then) violently tried to become a major player in the emerging world sugar market.

They conquered most of Portuguese-Spanish Brazil in the 1630s.

They discovered its sugar plantations could only be profitable by importing still more slaves from Africa.

To do this, they then conquered the major slave port Luanda in Angola from the Portuguese.

That way, the Dutch West India Company became a major player in the trans-Atlantic slave trade which they had not been before.

So, sugar led to slavery and war. Slavery led to more slavery. War led to more war.

The Portuguese managed to re-conquer Brazil in 1654.

The Dutch former governor of Brazil, Johan Maurits van Nassau, retired to his house in The Hague, nicknamed the Sugar House.

Its official name is Mauritshuis. It is today still a major landmark, close to Parliament, of the Dutch government city of The Hague.

It houses the major arts museum of that city.

Dutch interested in sugar plantations, after losing Brazil, had to move to other areas, like Suriname and Berbice (later: British Guyana; today: Guyana).

In Berbice in 1763-1764, there was a major slave uprising against cruel Dutch slave-owners.

Starting at one plantation, Magdalenenburg, the rebels went to other plantations to get the slaves there to join the fight for freedom.

After a year, fresh troops shipped in from The Netherlands managed to defeat the slaves.

119 slave prisoners were executed.

At the Amsterdam sugar exhibition, there is a display, including a sound presentation, on the Berbice slave revolt.

In the parts of the exhibition on Suriname, the Maroons are mentioned briefly: slaves who ran away from the plantations to found their own villages beyond the slave-owners’ control.

Surinamese women’s headscarves, commemorating the end of slavery, are also on display.

Slavery in the Dutch colonies officially ended in 1863.

However, the ex-slaves were not really free yet.

They were tied to ten-year contracts to continue to work as indentured workers for the same ex(?) slave-owners.

The end of slavery was not the end of exploitation.

Correctly in the Amsterdam museum, an exhibit headline on the post 1863 period says New exploitation.

But apart from the Berbice uprising, and on the Suriname Maroons and commemorations of slavery after it ended, in my view a weak point of this extensive and interesting exhibition is its lack of attention for the resistance to the sugar magnates by “lower classes” like slaves or workers.

The exhibition deals extensively with Marienburg sugar factory in Suriname, for instance.

However, it never mentions the major strikes by its workers there in the twentieth century.

When I asked someone of the museum for the reason for this, she replied that there are writings on, eg, the Marienburg strikes.

However, she thought that just writings, without photographs or other interesting looking exhibits, would not really interest the visitors.

In Indonesia, then a Dutch colony where sugar export to The Netherlands was important in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, workers used to have various ways of resistance against the plantation and factory owners.

This resistance is also not at the exhibition.

Neither are strikes by sugar refinery workers in Amsterdam or elsewhere in The Netherlands.

In the eighteenth century, Amsterdam became the sugar refinery capital of the world.

Amsterdam sugar refineries then typically employed about twelve workers.

The centralisation of capital, about which Karl Marx would write in the next century, had not yet progressed really far.

In the nineteenth century, a sugar refinery in Amsterdam had four hundred workers.


In the eighteenth century, there were very many fires, especially in the Jordaan.

That part of the city was poor and densely populated.

But it also was close to water for transportation by ship.

So, even though sugar refineries were fire hazards, where fires often killed many inhabitants of the houses around them, the industry had so much political clout that the refineries stayed.

As happened even with one of the few refineries in the posh central part of the city: a fire destroyed it; and the owner managed to have it rebuilt, in spite of protests by people living around the refinery.

As the trans-Atlantic slave trade had been established by sugar cane and other economic forces; the fight to abolish it by nineteenth century anti slavery campaigners was helped by the rise of sugar beet agriculture in Europe; competition for reed sugar.

After an early nineteenth century slump, sugar became big in The Netherlands again.


It also had cultural influence, eg, on the Saint Nicholas (later evolved into US Santa Claus) celebrations, making 5 December a major day on the Dutch calendar.

In 1850, Jan Schenkman published his influential book on the Saint Nicholas celebration, Sint Nicolaas en zijn knecht.

Though incorporating some really traditional elements, Schenkman was an example of “invention of tradition“.

The original Saint Nicholas tradition was about an Orthodox Christian bishop from what is now Turkey, a friend of children; not an owner of African slaves. While Schenkman wrote that Saint Nicholas owned an African slave.

The restyling by Schenkman and others, among other aspects, had two sides related to sugar: many of the presents for children, later also for adults, were sweets or otherwise contained much sugar.

And from now on, Piet (Peter), as later post Schenkman authors called the black servant of Bishop Nicholas, played a major role during the holiday.

Authors like Schenkman based Piet on (caricatures of) the black slaves then in the Dutch colonies of Surinam and the Antilles.

A 2015 article accuses Schenkman of plagiarising Jewish Amsterdam author on Saint Nicholas George d’Ancona; though adding that the bishop’s servant was supposedly black. Schenkman was an anti-Semite.

Still about 1960, a child opened a book of “traditional” Saint Nicholas songs.

One song line went: “Servant Piet, as black as soot, with a chain around his foot …”

The chain was also depicted in the picture on the same page.

“Mummy, why does Piet have a chain around his foot?”

“Because he is a slave, my child!”

Since about 1960, many people immigrated into The Netherlands from Suriname.

Many of them see the present role of Zwarte Piet in the Saint Nicholas celebrations as insulting to the memory of the victims of slavery and as racist.

Sometimes, these objections get reactions of the type: “Zwarte Piet does not have anything to do with slavery!”

History shows otherwise.

The famous nineteenth century Concert Building of Amsterdam was built with profits from sugar business in Indonesia, then officially called Netherlands Indies.

So were the North Sea canal, linking Amsterdam to the sea; and the Central Station.

Sugar does not seem ever to be that far from questions of political and economic power; as it is still discussed now at WTO and similar meetings.

Sugar: A Bittersweet History, by Elizabeth Abbott (Duckworth Overlook, £20): here.

THIS BREAKDOWN OF THE SUGAR YOU EAT is guaranteed to alarm you: here.

Sevilla la Nueva, the first European settlement in Jamaica, is home to the bittersweet story of the beginning of the Caribbean sugar trade: here.

Looks like the sugar industry paid for some Harvard research, changing the debate around sugar and fat.

As reported in a WSWS article last November, the Public Library of Science (PLOS) has published a major exposé of the sugar industry’s “manipulation of science” for its “commercial advantage.” This involved the suppression of findings and defunding of projects that were adding to a growing body of evidence in the 1950s and 1960s about the role of sugar consumption in the causation of coronary heart disease (CHD) and bladder cancer: here.

73 thoughts on “History of sugar, and slavery, at Amsterdam museum

  1. Re: History of sugar, and slavery, at Amsterdam museum
    Posted by: pieter hoekstra (View Website)

    Date: 10/29/05 at 12:54 PM

    That’s why I never liked Sinterklaas! And what is the use of sugar anyway? It’s bad for your health ’cause you can get diabetics by taking to much sugar and getting too dependant on it.
    Take no sugar at all or use uncrystalized sugar.

    RE: History of sugar, and slavery, at Amsterdam museum
    Posted by:

    Date: 10/29/05 at 3:33 PM (2d21h ago)
    Yes, the link early in this blog to “history of sugar” also mentions questions like obesity etc (and so did the Amsterdam exhibition). Thanks for your contribution.

    History of sugar, and slavery, at Amsterdam museum
    Posted by:

    Date: 10/30/05 at 12:07 AM (2d12h ago)
    thx m’dear dk… always wondered why sinterklaas was depicted in dutch art with a black man looking after a white horse… sad indeed s-)


  2. Actie tegen Zwarte Piet eenzijdig afgelast door Van Abbemuseum

    De protestmars tegen Zwarte Piet, die was gepland op zaterdag 30 augustus 2008 in
    Eindhoven, en die mede was georganiseerd door Doorbraak, is eenzijdig afgelast door het
    Van Abbemuseum. In het kader van de expositie “Becoming Dutch” had dat museum eerder de
    twee kunstenaars Annette Krauss en Petra Bauer de gelegenheid gegeven om in de binnenstad
    van Eindhoven een actie te houden tegen het racistische fenomeen Zwarte Piet. Als reden
    voor het afgelasten geeft het museum aan dat de sfeer rond het project van Krauss en
    Bauer is verziekt door de vele bedreigingen van de kant van extreem-rechts. Volgens de
    politie en de gemeente Eindhoven zou de veiligheid van de deelnemers aan de actie niet
    kunnen worden gegarandeerd. De actie zou plaatsvinden vanuit het Van Abbemuseum, maar
    gaat nu dus niet door.

    Krauss en Bauer gebruikten het Van Abbemuseum als een platform voor hun anti-racistische
    geluid tegen Zwarte Piet. Zo hoopten ze dat er in Nederland eindelijk eens wat meer
    kritiek gegeven zou gaan worden op de welhaast onaantastbare Sinterklaas-traditie. In het
    verleden spraken meestal slechts zwarte Nederlanders zich uit tegen Zwarte Piet. Hoewel
    het museum het kunstenaarsproject lange tijd steunde, trekt men zich nu terug, uit vrees
    voor extreem-rechts en voor aantasting van de goede naam van het museum bij het grote

    Doorbraak heeft een aantal maanden geleden het initiatief van de kunstenaars opgepakt en
    samen met hen de actie voorbereid. Vooral de laatste week kwamen de organisatoren van de
    actie onder vuur te liggen van allerlei racisten en nationalisten. Ook het museum en de
    gemeente Eindhoven werden onder druk gezet. Veel rechtsen waren vooral woedend over de
    samenwerking tussen de linkse kunstenaars en Doorbraak aan de ene kant en het
    gerenommeerde Van Abbemuseum aan de andere kant. Ook was men laaiend over de aanval op
    het Sinterklaas-feest, een van de geliefdste uitingen van “de Nederlandse cultuur”.
    Kritiek daarop wil men onmogelijk maken.

    Het Van Abbemuseum en de gemeente Eindhoven zijn gezwicht voor de bedreigingen van het
    racistische en nationalistische gepeupel, dat maatschappelijk steeds meer terrein aan het
    veroveren is. Het recht op demonstratie en de vrijheid van linkse anti-racistische
    meningsuiting moeten daarvoor wijken. De expositie “Be(com)ing Dutch” had tot doel om een
    open en kritisch debat te houden over de vraag wat Nederland en de Nederlander is.
    Krauss, Bauer en Doorbraak krijgen nu geen kans om met een protestmars een bijdrage te
    leveren aan dat debat. Dat is een van de vele voorbeelden waaruit blijkt dat rechtse
    krachten in Nederland steeds meer bepalen wat er gezegd en gedacht mag worden. Een links
    anti-racistisch tegengeluid is hard nodig.

    Later vandaag publiceert Doorbraak op haar website een ‘bloemlezing’
    van de vele rechts-populistische reacties die de afgelopen dagen per mail, telefoon en
    sms binnenkwamen.


  3. could anyone please give me some kind of clue or direction wich will lead to the fact that ===>>>
    Authors like Schenkman based Piet on (caricatures of) the black slaves then in the Dutch colonies of Surinam and the Antilles. ??

    because i’m very interesseted about how the writer of this article gathered this information.
    e-mail: r.dumfries@home.nl


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    • Thanks for your kind comment! Yes, it is indeed a dilemma with some WordPress blog posts. Sometimes I think there should be a possibility to express that it is good that someone brought this or that information to one’s attention, even though the information itself is not about good things at all.


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