A case of Dutch melancholy

Black Pete and the glorious past

I FIRST VISITED the Netherlands in 2002, just after the Dutch had kissed goodbye to their beloved guilders and embraced the euro. The atmosphere was one of excitement. This progressive and liberal country was, together with other European Union members, embarking on an audacious and ideological project. I immediately wanted to participate, in whatever way I could. Eight years later I got my chance. I moved to Amsterdam and started work for an international bank that had been bailed out by the Dutch government as a result of the GFC. An anti-Islam politician had just won twenty-four seats out of a hundred and fifty in the federal election and questions around Dutch identity were eating into nightly chat show schedules. A paragon of ‘Dutchness’ was about to arrest public attention, and it had nothing to do with windmills or tulips. I came face-to-face with it during my first November in the city.

I was sitting at a tram stop gazing at the streetscape. Little colour is observable that time of year: the streets slippery with greys, wet air drawing out black and ash-coloured coats and heads hiding under hoods from prickling rain and heavy skies. Despite the weather and the political climate, I was happy to be in Amsterdam. It was still a bastion of progressiveness, and to my pleasant surprise, home to a hundred and eighty nationalities. It astonished me, then, to see the person standing across the road.

He or she was wearing a Renaissance outfit that looked thespian. There were slippers and colourful pantaloons and puffy sleeves and an oversized ruffled neckpiece and a saggy hat. More alarming was the face: boot-polish black framed by curly, golliwog hair, the lips painted red, and ears hanging on to golden-hooped earrings. I thought the person must be black and was simply dolled up for a party. A few more glances and the truth stormed its way into my awareness: this was a white person imitating a black noble.

Was it a joke? Had someone slipped magic mushrooms into my lunch salad? The image reminded me of golliwog characters I had seen on black-and-white American TV shows from the 1950s. I kept gazing back to confirm the person existed, that it was probably a she under that black paint, and that she was not ashamed of her chosen attire and make-up as she stood in the middle of a busy Amsterdam street in daylight, shouting to the world a vision that belonged to a racist past.

My tram came and I left, but the Renaissance character did not. For the next few weeks until 5 December, it was to be seen catching trams, riding bicycles, waving at the public, greeting customers in stores, creeping onto product packaging and adorning advertising boards. With shock I came to learn that that woman had dressed up as one of most loved characters in the Netherlands: Zwarte Piet.


APART FROM INCORPORATING a character that looks like a racial stereotype into their Christmas tradition, the Dutch do the kids’ holiday season differently. On the first Saturday after 11 November, Saint Nicholas and his Zwarte Piet ‘helpers’ arrive by boat from Madrid, an event akin to a royal parade that is broadcast on national television. The white-bearded Saint Nicholas and his ‘companions’ spend the next few weeks flying around on Saint Nicholas’s white horse, Amerigo, with fun-loving Zwarte Piets ducking down chimneys to deliver marzipan, chocolate and ginger-flavoured lollies to well-behaved children while the more stately Saint drills children with questions and rewards them with unenviable oranges. The main gifts for children arrive on Sinterklaasavond (the evening of 5 December) courtesy of a Zwarte Piet note describing where to find them. The next morning, Saint Nick and his troupe fly the coop, presumably back to Spain so Nick can drink sangria and fatten up on tapas before his more onerous Christmas Day duties.

Zwarte Piet is not Saint Nick’s only sidekick in Europe. Back in the Middle Ages, Saint Nick used to have binary tasks to perform: to good children he would offer up gifts, to the bad he would punish with his stick or foot. Having a Saint inflict trauma on children did not sit well with the pious community, giving rise to a devilish companion under the Saint’s control who would do the dirty work for him. Evil being tamed by a Saint. In the Netherlands and its colonies, and in Flemish-speaking Belgium (Flemish is very similar to Dutch), Saint Nicholas has Zwarte Piet. Other European countries have their own characters.

In the Czech Republic and Slovakia, Saint Nick rolls with the devil himself. Austria and Southern Germany have Krampus, a devil-inspired figure swimming in hair with horns and a grotesquely long tongue who is sometimes chained to Saint Nick, literally. Moving west, the sidekick starts to look less devil and more human. Switzerland has Schmutzli, a brown-robed elf-looking character with a painted black face that makes Schmutzli look like he has fallen asleep face first in a puddle of grease (schmutz meaning dirty). Originally a farm hand, Germany’s Knecht Ruprecht takes on a similar image and can also be seen in the Alsace region. Both look like the town drunk or grunt. Père Fouettard in France (Housécker in Luxembourg) is an evil butcher who is atoning for luring children into his shop by assisting with the Saint’s darker duties. He is also robed and with a blackened face, but looks more like Darth Sidious from Star Wars than a white person dressed as a black one. These variations speak of dirtiness, purgatory and darkness being vanquished by light: your typical religious trope. In contrast to these variations, Zwarte Piet is dressed elegantly and looks very much like an imitation of a black person. It jars.

After my initial shock, I asked around. American friends living in Amsterdam were horrified by the sight of Zwarte Piet. My Danish partner was equally alarmed: Denmark used to have biscuits called negerkys (‘nigger kiss’), but they had been renamed and rebranded in the 1980s. With caution, I approached Dutch friends. They squirmed uncomfortably with the line of enquiry. This was a children’s character full of joy, who sings songs and hands out lollies. He is not meant to be racist, he does not do anything racist. Kids love him. Why does he look that way? I asked. The face was black because Zwarte Piet did so much chimney hopping. Because of a children’s book written a long time ago. Because of tradition; it’s very old. Because Zwarte Piet is a Moor Saint Nick picked up in Spain. Piet volunteered to join him. Racist? Wij weten het beter (‘we know better’). The lack of consensus failed to reassure.

The book they referred to is Saint Nicholas and His Servant, published in 1850 by a Dutch schoolteacher, Jan Schenkman. In it, Zwarte Piet appears as a loyal and dignified servant of Moorish origin to Saint Nicholas. At the time of publishing, Denmark, Britain and France had abolished slavery but it would be another thirteen years before the Netherlands put ink to legislative paper, and a further ten years before Dutch slave owners were satisfied with their return on investment and set their Surinamese captives free.


SAHAN WORKED FOR the same international bank in Amsterdam as I did. Raised on the outskirts of London to parents of Indian-Kenyan origin, he is full of charisma and has a knack for drawing people into friendly conversation. After his first encounter with Zwarte Piet, Sahan approached his accountant friend, Andre, in a nearby team. Andre is a black man born in the Netherlands with parents from Cape Verde, formerly a key outpost in the transatlantic slave trade. Like Sahan, Andre sat in a team of mainly Dutch people and was the only coloured member. This bound them together, two sons of buitenlanders (foreigners) playing the integration game.

‘Yo Andre,’ Sahan calls out to his friend. ‘What’s this Zwarte Piet business all about?’

‘I know man, I have been dealing with it all my life,’ Andre says. ‘They say he is white and just has soot on his face, but look at his nose and lips. No white people have such big noses and lips.’

The conversation catches the attention of Andre’s white colleagues. The Dutch rarely do meek or shy.

‘I don’t know what the big deal is,’ one of them calls out. ‘Zwarte Piet is good. It’s a celebration.’

‘A celebration of what?’ Sahan asks.

‘Of the Golden Age. Of the slave trade!’ he says and laughs, his colleagues joining in.

Every Dutch child learns about the country’s Golden Age, a time in the seventeenth century when the Dutch dominated world trade on the seas and Amsterdam was the leading financial centre. The key chess piece to this economic boom was the Dutch East India Company (VOC), the first-ever multinational corporation, which was set up in 1602 to run a monopoly on Euro-Asian trade. With profit in abundance, the VOC set up the Dutch West India Company (WIC) and gave it sole jurisdiction over the trans­atlantic slave trade. While slavery remained illegal in the Netherlands, the WIC transported African slaves to the Americas, the Caribbean and Brazil and returned with sugar, cotton, coffee, tobacco and rice up until the late 1800s. The UN estimates that between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, seventeen million Africans were sold in the transatlantic market. The Dutch national museum (the Rijksmuseum) covers the WIC’s involvement in slavery candidly, yet in Dutch schools the slave trade is often brushed over or discussed in American terms only. As the Dutch high school teacher Toine de Kok told Humanity in Action: ‘We keep trying to make our role in history positive only’.

The Dutch speak of the VOC with pride. What I did not hear about in my three years in the country was the WIC. The former headquarters of the WIC sits on the salubrious Herengracht, one of the more captivating canal streets in Amsterdam, where Dutch merchants of the Golden Age built homages to wealth that still stand, impenetrable and regal. Tourist websites refer to the WIC headquarters’ role in setting up colonies rather than running a global slave shipping business. After all, who wants to admit they profited from what French historian Jean-Michel Deveau says is one of ‘the greatest tragedies in the history of humanity in terms of scale and duration’?

In a 2013 survey undertaken by, 91 per cent of Dutch said they did not associate Zwarte Piet with slavery. American author and academic Emily Raboteau suggests in her 2014 essay for Virginia Quarterly Review that the Dutch fail to see Zwarte Piet as a racist stereotype because they are yet to experience shame for their involvement in the slave trade. She gives the VOC shareholder structure as a potential explanation. Investors bought stock in the VOC to trade away the high levels of risk of trading on the seas. They were not slave runners; they were shareholders in a shipping enterprise. This distanced them from ‘the miserable lives of the enslaved unfolding on plantations so far away’. In other words, the Dutch didn’t get their hands dirty. They simply enjoyed the profits grown from that bloody soil.

Lack of proximity to the slave business equates to a lack of shame, Raboteau surmises. And this lack of shame blinds them to Zwarte Piet’s appearance and makes their defence of him incontestable. Which is why, in 2010, Zwarte Piet was a non-issue for most Dutch. But that was about to change.


QUINSY GARIO IS a black poet and activist who was born in the Dutch colony of Curaçao but grew up in Sint Maarten, another Dutch colony. In November 2011, he stood at a Sinterklaas parade on the outskirts of Rotterdam wearing a shirt saying ‘Zwarte Piet is Racisme’. He was promptly arrested, and video footage of him being held down by police hit the media outlets. Debate in newspapers, magazines and talk shows followed. Gario appeared on Pauw & Witteman, a weekly talk show, to make his case, keeping his cool while indignation and anger were lobbed his way. The following week, anti-Piet protestors met with the mayor of Amsterdam seeking the removal of Zwarte Piet from the city’s Sinterklaas parade. They were unsuccessful, but the issue had captured the country’s attention.

Enter the UN’s Verene Shepherd. Shepherd, a Jamaican historian and professor who was chairing a working group on people of African descent for the UN’s human rights office at the time, had a research team investigate Zwarte Piet. It declared the Netherlands should work towards ‘the elimination of those features of Black Pete which reflect negative stereotypes and are experienced by many people of African descent as a vestige of slavery’.

Cue irate Dutch people. Two young Dutch men set up a Facebook group cleverly called Pietitie (translating to ‘petition’) that campaigned for the preservation of the Sinterklaas tradition. In forty-eight hours it received over two million likes. Pro- and anti-Zwarte Piet groups hastily formed. The Pietengilde – the organisation representing people who perform as Zwarte Piet – fought anti-Piet submissions in court and won, retaining the right to keep their beloved black helper. In 2014, they successfully had the tradition entered into a national inventory, a precursor to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The inventory entry sparked protests in the small town of Gouda where the administrative task was being performed. Police made ninety arrests of pro- and anti-Piet protestors. Christmas had never looked so ugly.

Meanwhile in online and media spheres, the topic was unhinging Dutch courtesy. The rise of anti-Islamic populist politician Geert Wilders emboldened some to attack those who questioned traditional Dutch values. Gario incurred a litany of racial abuse online. Dutch Eurovision singer Anouk was verbally pitchforked for her stance against Zwarte Piet. A black woman in The Hague had to be saved by police from angry pro-Piet protestors. When ambushed at the Nuclear Security Summit of 2014 by a journalist questioning the tradition of Zwarte Piet in English, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said, off the cuff:

Black Pete is black and I cannot change that… This is a children’s tradition… I can only say that my friends in the Dutch Antilles, they are very happy when they have Sinterklaas because they don’t have to paint their faces and when I am playing for Black Pete [sic] I am for days trying to get off the stuff on my face [sic].

Geert Wilders spotted an opportunity to lure more voters and submitted a Zwarte Piet law to government. The law, Wilders proposed, would oblige local councils to ensure Zwarte Piet and the Sinterklaas songs remained unaltered in a bid to ‘protect our culture’. The law did not get far but many in the Netherlands found Wilders’ defence of Dutch culture appealing.

In the lead up to the March 2017 election, Wilders campaigned on ‘protecting’ the Netherlands. His manifesto spoke of de-Islamising the country and reclaiming its independence by leaving the EU. His PVV party led the polls for over a year and the unthinkable – that Wilders could ‘Trump’ incumbent Mark Rutte and become prime minister – looked possible. The PVV came in second with 13.1 per cent of the vote, but in the process had cut itself off from all major parties and missed the opportunity to join a governing coalition. What it had achieved was a shift in the Dutch political landscape towards the values of the PVV. Rutte’s VVD and the mainstream CDA had also spoken about defending ‘Dutch values’ and Zwarte Piet while simultaneously refusing to address the rise of Islamophobia in the country. In January, Rutte published a letter in a Dutch newspaper calling on citizens (read: Turks and Moroccans) to ‘act normal or go away’. The Netherlands was not looking so progressive any more.

Rutte went on to win the most votes and secure a third term as prime minister. Despite cowing, in part, to Wilder’s rhetoric, Rutte called the result a victory against ‘the wrong kind of populism’, meaning Wilders and his anti-Islam, anti-Moroccan, anti-EU stance. The EU breathed a sigh of relief. The establishment was firm again, albeit one man down in Britain. France would not elect Le Pen. Germany’s far right AfD party would not excel in the country’s elections in September. The EU and its member states could return to policies around GDP, inflation and interest rate levels.


THE PVV MAY not have won the election, but the deep rifts that gave rise to its popularity remain. The Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde says populism has masked another breed of citizen: the nativist. The nativist takes on an ‘us versus them’ mentality, where ‘us’ means typical (white) Dutch people and ‘them’ is anyone who doesn’t fit this mould (coloured, migrant, foreigner). Nativists were the real target of Rutte’s letter to the public, the NRC Handelsblad commenting that Rutte was ‘making eyes at voters who think the Netherlands, which has a Muslim population of 6 per cent, is in the grip of “Islamisation” and that the twenty-six thousand asylum seekers who entered the country in 2016 constitute a “plague”’. Nativists are the imaginary ‘archetypal’ couple Wilders continuously referred to in his 2017 campaign, Henk and Ingrid, who have suffered at the hands of a ‘tyrannical EU and out-of-touch political elite’. Henk and Ingrid want it to stop. They want their country back. Question them and expect a vehement response.

In 2015, Al Jazeera reported 446 incidents of violent or verbal attacks in the Netherlands termed Islamophobic harassment. In 2014, there were 142 such incidents.

Sylvana Simons, a former TV presenter of Surinamese origin who grew up in the Netherlands, ran for government in the 2017 election on the platform of eradicating ‘institutional racism’ in the Netherlands, saying, ‘When you’ve gained wealth through slavery and colonialism, you will build courts, police and judiciary based on that system.’ An online troll photoshopped her picture onto a lynched slave and circulated it. A racist carnival song about her appeared on Facebook calling on her to ‘pack her bags’ and leave the Netherlands. She was put under police protection.

Fuelling nativists is the tragic murder of two people who stood up for their views. After 9/11, the openly gay politician Pim Fortuyn, Wilders’ predecessor, campaigned on an anti-Islam stance for the 2002 election and received strong support. Nine days before the election, the charismatic and tall man (two Dutch traits) was murdered by a leftist extremist while exiting a radio station. His killer had walked past him before turning to callously shoot Fortuyn five times in the head and back. It was the first political assassination in the Netherlands in a time of peace since 1672. Two years later, Theo van Gogh, the Dutch filmmaker and friend of Fortuyn, was murdered on the streets of Amsterdam by a Dutch-Moroccan. Van Gogh had released a short film drama provocatively mixing tales of abuse of four Muslim women with verses of the Koran. His Muslim killer shot him eight times before cutting his throat and tyring to decapitate him in front of members of the public. Both cold-blooded murders are etched into the memories of the Dutch. And both are reference points for the silencing of dissent for the nativist.

Then there are the random attacks on the European way of life. Although the Netherlands has not experienced a terrorist attack on home soil and terrorist attack numbers in the EU are significantly down from their 2006 level, the continent and the Western world have watched their TVs splashed with horrific scenes from attacks in London, Berlin, Nice, Brussels, Paris and Madrid. Innocents have been slaughtered by ISIS extremists calling for the worldwide imposition of a fundamentalist and archaic doctrine of Islam called Salafism. In the diverse palette of Islamic sects, the Sunni-based Salafism is considered puritanical and un-Muslim by many scholars and disciples of Islam. Western media organisations poor on time and revenue have failed to make the distinction and conflated a radical sect with an entire religion, exacerbating fears among the nativists.

Public attacks and confrontations have become increasingly common in the Netherlands. My (white) American friend in Amsterdam has an Iranian husband. They have been living in the city since 2007. One night before the 2017 election, they were walking on the street and came across a bicycle blocking the footpath. That is an idiotic place to park a bike, the husband said. The Dutch owner of the bike, a lady, heard him and unleashed a quick and unforgiving tirade. ‘What are you even doing here? Go back to your own country!’ The husband now fears aggression in a city once renowned for its acceptance.


FOR THE NATIVIST, the identity of their country is strongly tied to the past. David Marr, in his March 2017 Quarterly Essay (Black Inc.) on Pauline Hanson, diagnosed her followers as having ‘fierce nostalgia’; they want to return to a time when they knew their place, ‘to a country that was white’. The nativist fantasises about a past way of life that, regardless of whether it was lived well or badly, is considered more desirable. Ian Buruma, in his book on Theo van Gogh titled Murder in Amsterdam (Penguin, 2006), alludes to such a fantasy involving a soccer match victory by the Dutch over the Germans:

I saw people in clogs dancing to an old-fashioned brass band. Like all carnivals, this patriotic feast with shades of a Brueghel painting was a fantasy, the celebration of an imagined community, rural, joyous, traditional, and white.

In this picture there are no immigrants flooding their borders. No government leaders relentlessly pursuing an economic agenda at the cost of community. In a study examining the Zwarte Piet controversy, Dutch academics Jeroen Rodenberg and Pieter Wagenaar suggest the pro-Piet position is taken by some who feel a loss of national identity and traditions due to immigration and globalisation: ‘This shared practice [of Zwarte Piet] is a powerful tool in constructing Dutch identity, and those who use it in this way are very explicit about who can lay claims to “Dutchness”, and who cannot.’ ‘Outsiders’ don’t have the right to criticise the tradition as they are only guests and do not really belong. If they do appeal they are being ungrateful – a slap in the nativist’s face.

Feelings of a loss of Dutch identity can be traced back to the 1960s. A wave of Turkish and Moroccan migrants entered the Netherlands when the economy was expanding. They were granted visas as ‘guests’ and expected to return to their countries after helping the economy forward. Most did not. When Suriname, a former Dutch colony and slave country, voted for independence in 1975, one third of the country migrated to the Netherlands. This wave of migration created an impression of inundation that remains alive today.

Travel across the Netherlands and you get the sense of a country near capacity. With more than seventeen million people, it is the sixth-most densely populated nation in the world after Bangladesh, Taiwan, South Korea, Rwanda and Burundi. There are always people in the streets. You always have to adjust trajectory when walking or riding a bicycle to allow others to cross your path. You are asked to be courteous time and time again.

The sense of being full was evoked in Europe’s ‘refugee crisis’ in 2015. The Netherlands had been expecting up to a hundred thousand refugees from the 1.3 million entering the EU, but took forty-five thousand in the end – still more than double its 2014 intake. This saw net migration rise above the fifty-thousand mark, a level not seen since 2001. Then, refugees helped a growing Dutch economy in a time of continental and commercial expansion; in 2015, refugees were arriving to a continent with near-zero interest rates and structural economic problems. The good times were over and harder times were ahead. With less to go around, nativists are rallying to defend what’s left. Vandal attacks on refugee camps erected in small towns across the Netherlands have been common. In some cases, refugee camp populations outnumber or even double the locals. Protests for and against refugees have been held regularly outside camp doors.

As is the case with Trump, Brexit and Hanson supporters, education is a significant nativist determiner in the Netherlands. The Financial Times performed data analysis that showed a lack of education, rather than exposure to migrants or living in a rural or city setting, was the best indicator of support for Wilders during the 2017 election. Those with less education are not fans of the economic growth rationale of the ‘tyrannical EU and out-of-touch political elite’. They don’t buy what their governments are selling them despite the Dutch economy being in good health (GDP 2.8 per cent, unemployment 5.3 per cent, inflation 1.7 per cent). They fear a bleaker economic future awaits. They fear immigrants are taking what jobs are left and changing their country, their culture, for the worse. They are losing their identity.

In his seminal paper ‘Mourning and Melancholia’, Freud says loss or trauma involves the loss of loved ones, a loved abstraction (such as a country or ideal), or the ego itself. Of the two distinct psychic states that occur after loss or trauma, he considers mourning to be a norm with which everyone can identify. Ideally, a person is allowed space and time to grieve and experience the full range of ambivalent feelings towards the tragedy and move into a state of freedom or acceptance. If this process is interfered with, it can be ‘harmful’ and lead to the second possible state: melancholia. Anthony Elliott and Paul du Gay explain Freud’s idea of the melancholic as being forever attached to a past that disrupts the present: ‘The present is lived as if it were the past, when the present is experienced as less vivid and meaningful than an earlier time, and when the individual is dominated by an “internal psychical reality” that takes precedence over the reality of the external world.’

The internal psychical reality of a Dutch nativist sees ‘the Netherlands of old’ being overrun by immigration and Islamists, being undermined by elite leaders who, to paraphrase Tim Winton, view people as economic entities rather than citizens. For them, Zwarte Piet is a line in the sand. They cannot see an external reality where Dutch people with black skin are called Zwarte Piet by young children in the street, where black children in schools are bullied or discriminated against for looking like Zwarte Piet, and where my partner mistakenly identified a black person standing on a balcony one morning as a Dutch Christmas character she considers to be racist.

The nativists, including Wilders and his sympathisers, appear to be caught in a state of melancholia. The great irony in the case of Zwarte Piet is that the past they are holding on to contains the racist truth about Zwarte Piet’s origins the country has collectively ignored.


THE CITY OF Amsterdam held their 2016 Sinterklaas parade last year with Chimney Piets instead of Zwarte Piets for the first time. Black face polish was traded for a daubing of charcoal. The red lips, the earrings, the wig: all gone. The black servant reference removed. But as any Dutch person will tell you, Amsterdam is not the Netherlands. This November, the rest of the country will continue with a tradition at odds with the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights of the human being for dignity, equality and solidarity. The challenge for the remainder of the country is to ‘lose’ Zwarte Piet as they know him and accept a transformed Piet for the purposes of inclusion and harmony. Or will they, as Freud predicts, ‘forever’ remain attached to the past?

I lived above a street market in Amsterdam for the three years I was in the country. Six days a week, operators from the Netherlands, Africa, Turkey, Morocco and the Middle East mixed, joked and endured bitingly cold winters together. They had something in common: they were part of a community of stallholders there to turn a small profit and scratch out a living. The founding principles of the EU were alive in that market. I never saw a Zwarte Piet among them.

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