Dutch slavery, blackface, holiday

This is a video from the USA, criticizing the role of “Zwarte Piet” in Dutch Saint Nicholas celebrations.

Today, there is an interview in Dutch daily Metro with Member of Parliament Ad Koppejan. He is a member of the CDA, the biggest party in the three party government coalition.

The subject is the Dutch St. Nicholas holiday; Sinterklaas, on 5-6 December. It is an important day for children and others, who get presents then.

The Saint Nicholas celebrations later evolved into US Santa Claus.

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 then on, Piet (Peter; Zwarte Piet, Black 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 sugar and other plantations in the Dutch colonies of Suriname and the Antilles. More especially on house slaves of plantation owners’ homes, often wearing colourful servants’ uniforms.

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 in that book was Sinterklaas, die goede heer (Saint Nicholas, that good gentleman).

One song line in that song 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!”

UPDATE: Today, in 2013, that song is still on the Internet, including the “chain” line.

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

Many of them see the present role of Zwarte Piet, played by white people in blackface, 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!” Those defenders of the blackface Piet say that he is black, not because of any African background, but because of clambering in chimneys. Or that he is originally a devil, not a slave of African origin. Or, they say … well, err, maybe it IS a question of complexion. But then, again, nothing to do with Dutch slavery history. Sinterklaas supposedly comes from Spain (though older versions say Turkey, or Italy). And Piet’s dark skin reminds people of the Muslim inhabitants of medieval Spain.

Well, today Mr Koppejan was asked by the Metro interviewer:

Sinterklaas used to be obviously the master, and Zwarte Piet obviously the servant. Piet acted submissively and spoke broken Dutch with a Surinamese accent. Is this a tradition as well?

Koppejan replied:

I do not support a white Piet. It is also no problem to me if he talks with a Surinamese accent. We should have no problems with that. Zwarte Piet should keep on being Zwarte Piet.

Here, blackface supporter Koppejan undermines the points of his fellow blackface supporters. “Nothing to do with slavery”, really? Then, why the reference to Suriname, the main country in Dutch slavery history?

Are Black Pete’s an innocent tradition or an expression of racism? Here. And here.

Black Pete is just a bit of fun for the Netherlands, right? Wrong: here.

USA: It’s criminal that Virginia’s governor could promote a version of the state’s history that neglects to mention the horrific crime of slavery, writes Michele Bollinger: here.

Rare photo of slave children found in North Carolina attic: here.

16 thoughts on “Dutch slavery, blackface, holiday

  1. Pingback: Suriname abolishes Saint Nicholas festival | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Thanks for brining this up and for relating to my article. I think for all those who see this the first time it feels racist. The fact that the Zwarte Pieten are perceived as “funny” by most of the children, does not justify why they are “black” (please, no offense). What about Knecht Ruprecht, Schmuntzli, Bullerkas etc., the helper of Sankt Nikolaus in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Coratia, Czech Republic and Slovakia, Poland Ungary etc.?


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  6. Meer racisme door ‘Zwarte Piet’

    maandag 27 jan 2014, 20:12 (Update: 27-01-14, 21:11)

    Bij het Meldpunt Discriminatie Internet (MDI) zijn in 2013 ruim twee keer zoveel meldingen binnengekomen van discriminatie op internet tegen mensen van Antilliaanse, Surinaamse en Afrikaanse afkomst als het jaar ervoor. Dat meldt het MDI in zijn jaarverslag. Er kwamen afgelopen jaar 193 meldingen binnen, tegen 99 in 2012.

    Volgens het meldpunt is de grote stijging te verklaren door de discussie over Zwarte Piet. Die zou hebben geleid tot een “hausse van onverbloemd anti-zwart racisme” aan het adres van de mensen die kritiek leveren op het sinterklaasfeest.

    De meeste meldingen van racisme op internet zijn volgens het MDI antisemitisch van aard: het waren er dit jaar 250. In het jaarverslag noemt het meldpunt dat opmerkelijk, gezien de kleine omvang van de Joodse gemeenschap in Nederland.



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