The Netherlands is about to review part of its past, that of slavery accepted and justified by Protestantism in colonial times. A team of historians and experts in theology has begun the analysis of the biblical justification of racism and the use of slaves within the national Protestantism, as well as its legacy in tombs, churches and monuments. The initiative comes after the national debate on the country’s past as a colonial and slave power was revived in July after the mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, of the environmental party Groen Links (Green Left), apologized for that stage of history in an act in front of the monument that commemorates the Day of the Emancipation of the slaves.
In the economic boom derived from overseas trade, slave labor was imposed on all types of plantations. In the Netherlands, Protestantism was the official church in the 17th century, and it benefited through large donations made by slave traders. The money could be used to build churches, but there were also religious brought to the colonies to preach to the white population who were paid with slaves. It is a past full of shadows that had not been thoroughly analyzed and about which the ecclesiastical hierarchy has kept silent. In 2013 the Church Council of the Netherlands, which brings together Catholics and Protestants, recognized the responsibility of the church in slavery, but then there was no historical investigation. This week the Protestant church has shown its desire to collaborate with the team of historians and theologians who will investigate that past. Church spokesmen have stated: “It is very important to know what happened.” It is a broad academic project that hopes to clarify what was done in the name of this church on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the definitive liberation of slaves by the country, in 2023.
At this time, the review of the international colonial legacy ranges from the anti-racist movement Black Lives Matter, to the restitution of African works of art taken from the former colonies. From the debate on the presence -in the temples- of merchants’ tombs who became rich with the efforts of the slaves, to the relevance of statues of heroes whose past is equally dark. Within Dutch Protestantism, reflection on this part of its history today focuses on small churches with faithful of various origins, many of them from former colonies such as Suriname (South America), Indonesia, or Curaçao and Bonaire (The Caribbean ). Their impulse from the base has been essential for the Protestant Church of the Netherlands, which represents about 1.8 million faithful, to open up to review a long stage “in which religious ideas themselves supported slavery with theories about the inferiority of black men, ”says Heleen Zorgdrager of the Protestant University of Theology, who is leading the research.
In a telephone conversation, the theologian explains that at least until the 19th century “the Bible was used to legitimize slavery, maintaining that the black population and the natives were human beings of another type; Less important”. “Although we have already removed the idea of white superiority from our religion, culture and theology today, the challenge is how a Protestant church made up of former slave owners relates to their descendants. It is a difficult issue that has not been debated in Dutch society, ”he adds.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam this year dedicated the first exhibition of its kind to colonial slavery. Some of the plantation engravings that he presented were surprising due to the absence of slaves. Artists used to avoid them in their works, prioritizing open spaces and the feeling of spaciousness. Meanwhile, in the metropolis, the rich who had shares in slave plantations sponsored the Protestant church through donations. “They paid for the construction of a temple, the organ or the preacher who was transferred to the colony. There, that religious could have slaves in his domestic service and even lands worked by them. The prevailing theology of the time did not censor such practices. It was only towards the end of slavery that there began to be broader discussions about such a procedure, ”Zorgdrager continues.
The very sequence of abolition was slow and painful. The slave trade was banned in the Netherlands in 1814, but was not enforced for years. Slavery was abolished in 1863, although freed slaves continued to work for the next decade so that their former masters would not lose money. They did not stop being seen as an investment. In 1873, they were formally free.
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Dienke Hondius, a historian specializing in the history of slavery at the Vrije Universiteit (Free University) in Amsterdam, is concerned with analyzing material heritage in Dutch Protestantism. It is about studying and mapping the visible part, from temples and stained glass to tombs, and explains that the powerful East and West India Companies chose their Protestant preachers to take them overseas. Both companies dominated the slave trade and trafficking in the seventeenth century from South Africa and Asia to Brazil and the Caribbean, “and these religious covered the preaching of the white population of the colonies. For a long time, there was no missionary work, more frequent among the Catholic clergy of Spain or Portugal, ”he says on the phone. In the Dutch case, the Catholic Church had less prominence since it was tolerated but not official at the time.
The historian remembers the case of Balthasar Coymans (1652-1686), merchant and slave trader, who had permission to take them to the Spanish colonies. “The old family home is on the canals of Amsterdam and is one of the most striking. He was later buried in the nearby church, Westerkerk ”. This type of tombs, as well as other funerary monuments, are part of the study because they generate pain, or at least mixed feelings. The same occurs with some statues of characters who profited from slavery. The dilemma here is the same as in other countries: withdraw them or keep them with an explanation.