Dutch Slavery in Amsterdam: A Hidden History Revealed

During the Amsterdam Heritage days on the 14th of July residents and visitors of the Dutch city had the opportunity to visit some of Amsterdam's finest and hidden treasures. Amongst the wide offering of landmarks opened to the public and various walking tours was one tour with a special character. A walk through the city center to explore the hidden signs that refer to the slavery history in Amsterdam, a tour that will be repeated in English on Saturday, July 20.

Participants listen carefully to Noraly´s explanation about the decorations on the outside of the Royal Palace (Marion Poll)

The route started at the Amsterdam Museum on the Kalverstraat and ended in the backyard of the Geelvinck Hinlopen house on the Keizersgracht. Around twenty people of Dutch and Belgian origin were following tour guide Noraly Beyer during the almost two-hour walk near the canals and through the narrow streets. Ms. Beyer has roots in Suriname and the Antilles, and she was the first black television news presenter in the Netherlands.

Choosing the Amsterdam Museum as the starting point of the tour was no coincidence. Museum curator Annemarie de Wildt explained that the current exposition about the Golden Age includes a special "path of slavery" where traces of the slavery period can be found.

After a short stay in the Amsterdam Museum, the tour continued to the Begijnhof near the Spui with a stop at the hidden Engelse Kerk. “In 1802 Lea Parijs, a freed slave was baptized at this church. This is one of the clues about the presence of Afro-African people in this city”, says Ms. de Wildt.

In that time Dutch people were only allowed to have slaves overseas, but there are indications that slaves also were held in the home country. Even if they were not slaves, most of the small number of the black people living in the Netherlands would have been servants. Another indication of the slavery period that Ms. Beyer showed the tour was in a shop at the Spuistraat where a 19th century sugar bowl on display is speculated to have contained sugar produced by slaves, while a former shop on Molsteeg used to sell "colonial products."

At the Palace on the Dam, the former City Hall of Amsterdam, Ms. Beyer explained how some of the decorations on the building represented the city as a world power during the 17th century. While walking around the Palace and throughout the tour, participants individually shared their stories of why they wanted to learn more about this difficult history which is not widely taught.

19th century tableware in a shop on the Spuistraat (Marion Poll)

A woman who recently visited Suriname and has a brother-in-law who descends from enslaved Africans says that she never learned anything about the slavery period. “After World war II we only read about the positive side of the Golden Age, about how the Dutch were the center of the trade in raw materials and how we strongly expanded our possibilities by our new colonies, Indonesia, the Antilles and Suriname," she said.

"The government did not make room for the ‘black’ pages in our history books.”

Among the walkers is Jennifer Tosch, an American with Suriname roots. “My parents were born and raised in Suriname, South America. They immigrated to the United States just before I was born,” explained Ms. Tosch, the founder of the Black Heritage Amsterdam Tour.

She came to Amsterdam for a postcolonial history course and to conduct research about her mother who had lived and studied in the Netherlands for several years just after World War II. She developed the Black Heritage tour to reveal the traces of the Afro-African diaspora in Amsterdam. Amsterdam has been involved for over 250 years in slavery. The trade of slaves was an important part of the Amsterdam economy in the 17th and 18th century. In fact, the production of these overseas raw materials, like coffee beans, cacao, sugar, salt and tobacco were responsible for two-thirds of the income in the main capital Amsterdam.

The Amsterdam national archive has documents showing that over 300 journeys were made with over 125,000 South-African slaves. Ms. Beyer says that the slavery period is a history that must not be forgotten. “In my environment people are too often in ignorance. The African diaspora during the slavery period still leaves its traces in today’s society. People want to know where they come from and what role their family had during that time."

Towards the end of the tour the group is led alongside the "Golden Bend," the part of the Herengracht between Leidsestraat and Vijzelstraat. The house of the present mayor of Amsterdam is just off the Golden Bend, and “It was built by a big merchant who also traded in slaves," Ms. Beyer says. The tour ended at the Geelvinck Hinlopen house.

Albert Geelvinck who commissioned this house in 1687 was among others responsible for the transportation of 500 slaves to Suriname. Part of the exhibition on slavery is a big clock in the living room, made of Surinamese wood representing a black man and an Indian.

Expats who are interested in the slavery period in Amsterdam can join Jennifer Tosch and Annemarie de Wildt in the Sorrow of the Golden Age Tour on Saturday, July 21st. The tour is in English and includes a guided tour through the Amsterdam Museum and a cruise through the Amsterdam canals. For information and bookings visit the Black Heritage Tours website (www.blackheritagetours.com).