Introduction


Something that is loved is never lost.

~ Toni Morrison, Beloved

The violence of forgetting


Just imagine arriving at Amsterdam Central Station. When you start walking westwards, away from the sound of camera clicks and bicycle bells, towards the ‘Western Islands’, you start to notice the silence on these calm, 17th century cobblestone streets. On these streets, on an island called ‘Bickerseiland’, the sound of your footsteps, the flow of the water and the rushing wind becomes apparent. Amid these idyllic sounds, it is hard to imagine that this place has a haunting past. This island was owned by the Bicker family, one of the wealthiest families of merchants in Amsterdam during the 17th century, that was directly involved in the slave trade (Balai, 2013, p. 94). It is likely that slave ships of the West-Indian Company were being made on this very island of the Bicker family. When these slave ships from Bickerseiland in Amsterdam sailed off, an unheard human trauma was about to be created. Today, the sounds of places like Bickerseiland lead the way to a neglected memory about Dutch colonial trauma.

This memory deals with a period of more than two centuries, in which ships left the Dutch harbours to sail to the coasts of West Africa loaded with weapons, ammunition, liquor and textiles. Once ashore, these shipped goods were then used to buy people that were abducted from West- and Central Africa who in turn were sold in the Americas to forcefully put to work on plantations. The ships eventually returned to the Netherlands with sugar, coffee, cotton, cocoa and tobacco from the plantations. Previous research has shown that this lucrative ‘triangular trade’ can be considered an important driver of European/Dutch economic growth (vanVught, 2016). The slave trade was not only very profitable for the wealthy merchants and bankers, also sailmakers, carpenters and shipyards were earning money from it (Fatah-Black and van Rossum, 2014). However, the general way of researching Dutch involvement in the transatlantic slave trade has only been focused on the economic dimensions of slavery by analyzing trade activities, profits and gross margins. While this is important in understanding the ways in which the Netherlands played a role in the transatlantic slave trade, only investigating the financial gains of specific organisations in the transatlantic slave trade can pull this indescribable trauma into a certain economic realm without recognizing the trauma as an intrinsically human trauma at first. Behind the abstract numbers, there are real people with a voice and a story to tell and behind those organisations there are real citizens that profited from the slave trade.

Despite the slow increase in attention within the public debate, the Netherlands is still neglecting its own colonial past. This neglect can be noticed in many ways. For instance, after nearly 140 years from the ‘official’ abolishment of slavery, the Dutch government finally commemorated the shared past of slavery by creating a national monument (Dors, Smit and de Jong, 2002). Many descendants of the enslaved that moved to the Netherlands from Surinam and the former Dutch Antilles during the 1970s still remember the trauma and celebrate freedom during the annual commemoration of Keti Koti, which means broken shackles in Sranantongo. While this remembrance has been an annual tradition for descendants of the enslaved since the abolishment of slavery, many white Dutch citizens do not even know about the existence of Keti Koti. Another example of this tendency, is the way in which Dutch museums still present mostly white and Eurocentric perspectives (1). In comparison with other European art institutions, it can be noted that these Dutch museums lag behind the issue of listening to our own colonial past (Smits, 2017). This lack of acknowledgement in Dutch national memory regarding the history of transatlantic slavery is interlinked with the proud, nostalgic and innocent (2) sentiment of a small, entrepreneurial country that traded its way towards global hegemonic power during the seventeenth century, commonly referred to as ‘The Golden Age’. While the trauma still haunts the nation and the city of Amsterdam, the violence of forgetting in the Netherlands prevails.

As previously described, much attention in the wider societal context is given to a certain self-congratulatory image of a small, smart and courageous country that rose to global hegemony during the seventeenth century. Not much critical thinking has been done in the destructive ways in which the Dutch actually came to power. While a large part of the academic historiography has been remarkably dismissive or downgrading the involvement of Dutch colonialism, in recent years this dismissive historiographical tradition has been reconsidered and reevaluated (Oostindie and Roitman, 2014). The extensive work of vanVught can be seen as influential work in the emerging movement within the field of Dutch historiography that shows the opportunity of radical and critical revisions of Dutch colonial past. In his collected work Roofstaat, he offers a refined image of the ways in which the Dutch used brutal force on many different peoples around the world for financial profit and geo-political gain (vanVught, 2016). In the context of the transatlantic slave trade, he emphasized on an honest way of listening to our history by offering a reexamination of the exact role the Dutch empire played in this global trauma.

While these are positive developments in critically remembering and retelling the Dutch colonial past, the historiography in the context of Amsterdam, the biggest city of the Netherlands, shows a lack of academic attention about its involvement in slavery and the slave trade. This can be considered quite remarkable given the prominence of the city in the transatlantic slave trade. In the latest version of a key historical work about Amsterdam, titled the History of Amsterdam, 7 of the total 1120 pages from the time period of 1578-1813 have been used to address topics surrounding slavery (Frijhoff and Carasso-Kok, 2004). Despite this academic ignorance, the untold history of Amsterdam remains. Amsterdam is the place where hundreds of slave ships were being built. The city was also home to the West Indian Company (WIC) where it was also founded. The WIC was obligated to the yearly ‘delivery’ of enslaved people to the colony of Surinam (3). Therefore, buying, shipping and selling people was an important economic incentive for the WIC. Amsterdam was not only a harbour and a shipyard of the slave trade, the city was also home to slave ownership as it was officially shareholder of the Society of Suriname, making the city itself co-owner of the colony of Surinam (Meiden, 1987, pp. 28-31). All these fragments of Amsterdam’s colonial narrative have been neglected and dismissed.

However, when we carefully listen to this narrative, a certain materiality of the haunting is brought into focus. To this day, many buildings and streets in Amsterdam are still named after the people that profited from the slave trade (Hofstede, de Korte and Sprinkhuizen, 2018). These silent, physical reminders of the haunting history of Amsterdam show us how the city is, in the words of Azaryahu, ‘naturalizing a hegemonic version of history’ (1996, p. 319). The aim of this research is to re-listen to this apparent silence with the use of a hauntological framework. The research will focus on the ways in which sound can give us a better understanding about the haunting past of Amsterdam. Developing insights about the ongoingness of Amsterdam’s slave history will not only deepen our understanding about the effects of slavery within the Dutch context, but it also enables us to juxtapose them with other cities involved in the slave trade, such as Liverpool and Bristol in England, Bordeaux and Nantes in France and New Orleans, Charleston and Savannah in the United States. Beyond comparing the different cities involved in the slave trade, these research methods can be used in other contexts to better understand the complex visceral and affective traces of slavery in urban realities.

Introduction


The violence of forgetting

Just imagine arriving at Amsterdam Central Station. When you start walking westwards, away from the sound of camera clicks and bicycle bells, towards the ‘Western Islands’, you start to notice the silence on these calm, 17th century cobblestone streets. On these streets, on an island called ‘Bickerseiland’, the sound of your footsteps, the flow of the water and the rushing wind becomes apparent. Amid these idyllic sounds, it is hard to imagine that this place has a haunting past. This island was owned by the Bicker family, one of the wealthiest families of merchants in Amsterdam during the 17th century, that was directly involved in the slave trade (Balai, 2013, p. 94). It is likely that slave ships of the West-Indian Company were being made on this very island of the Bicker family. When these slave ships from Bickerseiland in Amsterdam sailed off, an unheard human trauma was about to be created. Today, the sounds of places like Bickerseiland lead the way to a neglected memory about Dutch colonial trauma.

This memory deals with a period of more than two centuries, in which ships left the Dutch harbours to sail to the coasts of West Africa loaded with weapons, ammunition, liquor and textiles. Once ashore, these shipped goods were then used to buy people that were abducted from West- and Central Africa who in turn were sold in the Americas to forcefully put to work on plantations. The ships eventually returned to the Netherlands with sugar, coffee, cotton, cocoa and tobacco from the plantations. Previous research has shown that this lucrative ‘triangular trade’ can be considered an important driver of European/Dutch economic growth (vanVught, 2016). The slave trade was not only very profitable for the wealthy merchants and bankers, also sailmakers, carpenters and shipyards were earning money from it (Fatah-Black and van Rossum, 2014). However, the general way of researching Dutch involvement in the transatlantic slave trade has only been focused on the economic dimensions of slavery by analyzing trade activities, profits and gross margins. While this is important in understanding the ways in which the Netherlands played a role in the transatlantic slave trade, only investigating the financial gains of specific organisations in the transatlantic slave trade can pull this indescribable trauma into a certain economic realm without recognizing the trauma as an intrinsically human trauma at first. Behind the abstract numbers, there are real people with a voice and a story to tell and behind those organisations there are real citizens that profited from the slave trade.

Despite the slow increase in attention within the public debate, the Netherlands is still neglecting its own colonial past. This neglect can be noticed in many ways. For instance, after nearly 140 years from the ‘official’ abolishment of slavery, the Dutch government finally commemorated the shared past of slavery by creating a national monument (Dors, Smit and de Jong, 2002). Many descendants of the enslaved that moved to the Netherlands from Surinam and the former Dutch Antilles during the 1970s still remember the trauma and celebrate freedom during the annual commemoration of Keti Koti, which means broken shackles in Sranantongo. While this remembrance has been an annual tradition for descendants of the enslaved since the abolishment of slavery, many white Dutch citizens do not even know about the existence of Keti Koti. Another example of this tendency, is the way in which Dutch museums still present mostly white and Eurocentric perspectives (1). In comparison with other European art institutions, it can be noted that these Dutch museums lag behind the issue of listening to our own colonial past (Smits, 2017). This lack of acknowledgement in Dutch national memory regarding the history of transatlantic slavery is interlinked with the proud, nostalgic and innocent (2) sentiment of a small, entrepreneurial country that traded its way towards global hegemonic power during the seventeenth century, commonly referred to as ‘The Golden Age’. While the trauma still haunts the nation and the city of Amsterdam, the violence of forgetting in the Netherlands prevails.

As previously described, much attention in the wider societal context is given to a certain self-congratulatory image of a small, smart and courageous country that rose to global hegemony during the seventeenth century. Not much critical thinking has been done in the destructive ways in which the Dutch actually came to power. While a large part of the academic historiography has been remarkably dismissive or downgrading the involvement of Dutch colonialism, in recent years this dismissive historiographical tradition has been reconsidered and reevaluated (Oostindie and Roitman, 2014). The extensive work of vanVught can be seen as influential work in the emerging movement within the field of Dutch historiography that shows the opportunity of radical and critical revisions of Dutch colonial past. In his collected work Roofstaat, he offers a refined image of the ways in which the Dutch used brutal force on many different peoples around the world for financial profit and geo-political gain (vanVught, 2016). In the context of the transatlantic slave trade, he emphasized on an honest way of listening to our history by offering a reexamination of the exact role the Dutch empire played in this global trauma.

While these are positive developments in critically remembering and retelling the Dutch colonial past, the historiography in the context of Amsterdam, the biggest city of the Netherlands, shows a lack of academic attention about its involvement in slavery and the slave trade. This can be considered quite remarkable given the prominence of the city in the transatlantic slave trade. In the latest version of a key historical work about Amsterdam, titled the History of Amsterdam, 7 of the total 1120 pages from the time period of 1578-1813 have been used to address topics surrounding slavery (Frijhoff and Carasso-Kok, 2004). Despite this academic ignorance, the untold history of Amsterdam remains. Amsterdam is the place where hundreds of slave ships were being built. The city was also home to the West Indian Company (WIC) where it was also founded. The WIC was obligated to the yearly ‘delivery’ of enslaved people to the colony of Surinam (3). Therefore, buying, shipping and selling people was an important economical incentive for the WIC. Amsterdam was not only a harbour and a shipyard of the slave trade, the city was also home to slave ownership as it was officially shareholder of the Society of Suriname, making the city itself co-owner of the colony of Surinam (Meiden, 1987, pp. 28-31). All these fragments of Amsterdam’s colonial narrative have been neglected and dismissed.

However, when we carefully listen to this narrative, a certain materiality of the haunting is brought into focus. To this day, many buildings and streets in Amsterdam are still named after the people that profited from the slave trade (Hofstede, de Korte and Sprinkhuizen, 2018). These silent, physical reminders of the haunting history of Amsterdam show us how the city is, in the words of Azaryahu, ‘naturalizing a hegemonic version of history’ (1996, p. 319). The aim of this research is to re-listen to this apparent silence with the use of a hauntological framework. The research will focus on the ways in which sound can give us a better understanding about the haunting past of Amsterdam. Developing insights about the ongoingness of Amsterdam’s slave history will not only deepen our understanding about the effects of slavery within the Dutch context, but it also enables us to juxtapose them with other cities involved in the slave trade, such as Liverpool and Bristol in England, Bordeaux and Nantes in France and New Orleans, Charleston and Savannah in the United States. Beyond comparing the different cities involved in the slave trade, these research methods can be used in other contexts to better understand the complex visceral and affective traces of slavery in urban realities.

1. However, What is left Unseen was a recent exhibition, among others, in Centraal Museum Utrecht that was centered around Dutch historiography that was different from this tendency. So there are obviously different perspectives that go against the main narrative.

2. Wekker has written about this in her famous work White Innocence: Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race (2013).

3. More information to be found in the patent of the Society of Surinam, article VI.