Zwarte Piet based on Spanish nobility still tied to colonial slavery: Critics

New Piet costume for Amsterdam's Sinterklaas parade, Nov 2017
New Piet costume for Amsterdam's Sinterklaas parade, Nov 2017Photo: SSIA

New costumes selected for Zwarte Piet at the Amsterdam Sinterklaas parade have sparked a new critique from activists in the Netherlands. The organizing committee, SSIA, dropped the decades-old Zwarte Piet costume because of its apparent connections to the 17th century child slave trade, replacing it instead with costumes inspired by Spanish nobility in the 16th century.

Choosing to dress up Zwarte Piet in this way puts a positive spin on Spain's own disquieting colonial past, the Landelijk Platform Slavernijverleden (LPS) said this week. "It is important not to substitute one wrong thing with another," the LPS wrote in a letter to Amsterdam's municipality. 

Also, it would be a wrong image for the children, the organization said, saying that kids will effectively wind up celebrating nobility responsible for crimes like human trafficking and slavery.

The SSIA was reportedly disappointed with the statement, saying they wish LPS had called them first instead of playing the story out in the media. 

Sinterklaas, or Sint Nicolaas, is said to live in Spain, and arrives in the Netherlands by steamboat every year with his assistant, Zwarte Piet, and his white horse, Amerigo. It was because of the Spanish connection to the tale that the SSIA looked to that country for costume inspiration, a spokesperson told the NL Times.

"We looked at artwork all the way back to the 17th century. Wealthy Amsterdammers would dress up a black child in these outfits and give them as gifts," SSIA spokesperson Pam Evenhuis said. "We had to look elsewhere for our Piet costumes."

Barryl Biekman, chair of the LPS, describes the old Spanish nobility as "Criminals. People with money who benefited on slavery", and adds that she finds it scandalous that Amsterdam did not consider it when changing the costume. The LPS tries to advance the conversation on the Netherlands history of slavery. 

The group asked the municipality to reconsider its decision, adding that they are planning to report the decision to the United Nations and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), which has rebuked the use of blackface by Zwarte Piet actors during Sinterklaas festivals in the Netherlands.