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Remembering slavery – what for?

Monday, 11. March 2013

Remembrance of slavery

(left to right) Mildred Uda-Lede (speaker), Lothy Bouwe-Day (chair of the event), Valika Smeulders (speaker) (Photo: Maarten de Pous)On 1 July this year it will be 150 years since the Netherlands abolished slavery in her colonies. The whole of 2013 is a year of remembrance, with many events taking place, the climax being a national celebration in Amsterdam at the slavery monument on 1 July. As far as Initiatives of Change (IofC) is concerned, this year should not only be a year of remembrance, but also of reflection about what slavery has meant/done in the past and still does to people here and now. And because this is not yet a conviction that is carried widely, IofC in the Netherlands organised in its centre in The Hague  on 20 February a discussion evening on the subject ‘Remembering slavery – what for?’

The two speakers had a lot of knowledge on the subject. Valika Smeulders has done a PhD on the subject of Slavery in perspective, in which she researched how slavery is depicted in the Netherlands and in former colonies. Mildred Uda-Lede has, at the request of the Moravian church, interviewed decedents of slaves and of the contractworkers from India, Indonesia and China who worked on the plantations after the abolition of slavery. The book was published under the title Search in Freedom.

The history of colonialism and slavery has been written by the people in power. Smeulders argued that it is also possible to look at history from the perspective of the slaves. However this is not easy, since the inheritance that has been kept is that of the slave-owners and slave-traders. In the 1960s, some changes began and since the 1990s Unesco has pleaded worldwide for more visibility of the slaves in the presentation of history.

Remembrance of the history of slavery is very sensitive. And that is, says Smeulders, because slavery was connected to skin colour and skin colour was connected to inferiority. Our economic system and our thinking about identity is still based on the colonial system. Descendants of slaves are more often in a position of deprivation than the descendants of slave owners. From the economic perspective the latter group were the winners and the first group the losers. From the perspective of the UN, who consider slavery as a crime against humanity, the first group are the victims and the last group are the perpetrators. 

Mildred Uda-Lede looked at the remembrance of slavery in the light of the ideas of Initiatives of Change. She mentioned the universal values of honesty, purity, unselfishness and love. And the conviction that acknowledgment of wrongs committed, reparation and forgiveness, are means that can free the human spirit and heal wounds from the past. For her, acknowledgment is the key. Before one can acknowledge, one needs to learn about the past. She sees it as her task to convince white Dutch about the impact slavery has had and still has on the descendants of the slaves. 

Since writing her book Search in freedom, she is even more convinced that slavery is not a closed chapter. This history should be shared by all Dutch, black and white, and it is not.

Both Smeulders and Uda see that making the history of slavery something that can be talked about, as an important factor that can connect white and black Dutch.

Smeulders: ‘It is a personal choice to acknowledge fully here and now equality and diversity. To morally reject the colonial heritage and to celebrate the power to survive of the people once turned into slaves, can be a source of strength and inspiration for the whole Dutch society.’ And Uda: ‘It is after 150 years since the abolishment of slavery time to make reparations. After all, we need to live together in this country. We need to reconcile with each other. But reconciliation is only possible when there is acknowledgement. Acknowledgement creates space to really meet each other. Acknowledgement sets people into motion.’

Hennie de Pous-de Jonge