Dutch town has no problem honoring seafaring colonial past

Portrait of Michiel de Ruyter
Portrait of Michiel de Ruyter. (Photo: Ferdinand Bol / Wikimedia Commons)

The Flevoland town of Urk plans to honor the seafaring heroes of the Netherlands' colonial past by naming streets in a new neighborhood after them. A motion to do so was submitted by party Hart voor Urk, and adopted by the rest of the city council, NOS reports.

This decision follows recent controversy around figures from the colonial past, such as the J.P. Coerschool in Amsterdam deciding to change its name, and a commotion surrounding the Mauritshuis museum's decision to remove a bust of its namesake from the museum's foyer. 

"When we heard that these people were being criticized, we said: that must not be allowed to happen. We in Urk are a seafaring people, which is why these people are particularly appealing to us", Jan Koffeman of Hart voor Urk said to NOS. "You have to consider it like this: whoever is without sin, throw the first stone." According to him, the actions of historical figures must be viewed in the light of the time they lived in. "We do now want people to now use those things, which can be negative, to cross out the past. The Netherlands owes a lot to these people."

Karwan Fatah-Black, a researcher and lecturer specialized in colonial history at Leiden University, is a bit stunned by Urk's intentions. "I see real problems with putting these people on a pedestal - that is a very one-sided view of history", the lecturer said to NOS.

He points to J.P. Coen as an example. Coen was governor-general of the Dutch East India Company in the 17th century. And while the company thrived during his reign, he was also responsible for killing nearly 15 thousand inhabitants of the Banda Islands who did not want to recognize the company's monopoly on nutmeg. "He was already controversial in his time, in the Netherlands, but certainly in the places where he kept house."

Fatah-Black understands that a community that is so connected to the sea wants to honor maritime history, but sees other ways to do so. "You can name the streets after ships, people who were born on Urk or people who sailed from there", the historian said to the broadcaster.