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Rijksmuseum puts names to our slavery past and the effect is stunning

It is very easy not to dwell on things. For instance, I learned at school that we sailed to the East to get nutmeg and pepper. Stuff that just rolled off the trees into the boats there and that we could sell very expensively here. Sugar, another thing. That came to us from plantations, and we became rich from that trade. 

That all that stuff was harvested and processed by enslaved human hands, I didn't really dwell on that. 

 'We', that is the Dutch like me, who have long learned to see 'slavery' as a vague childhood sin of the State of the Netherlands, or rather, the WIC and the VOC: Naamloze Vennootschappen. Another anonymous thing.

Marten and Oopjen

Was I really that naive? Apparently, because no matter how much I read books about it, saw documentaries and talked to people: slavery remained a nameless big thing of the past, which was mainly something of Americans. 

All this did not actually apply until I stood in front of Oopjen this morning and admired the artistry of Rembrandt van Rijn. Oopjen by Marten, that duo-portrait about which a cabinet nearly fell when half an art budget had to be broken up to 'save' the two paintings from the private market. They might just be traded and become invisible to us, the heirs of Rembrandt van Rijn.

Arrogant wench

In Amsterdam, at the 'Slavery' exhibition at the Rijksmuseum, you can now stand nearby, watch the splotches of paint in the lace come to life, and meanwhile realise that there stands a very arrogant little twenty-something girl who, in her South Asian way, has it very, very well together. Thanks to her husband, who had become wealthy in human trafficking and had also raped an enslaved man in his young life, from which a child had resulted. 

Did Oopjen know about it? Or did she care as little as we care about slavery because it was something nameless, a branch of industry, similar to beef farming now?


The Netherlands has a slavery past that does not lie, and it is a shame that there was not more attention to it until now. That lack of attention now stemmed from the principle inherent in every form of violence: taking away the victims' humanity, making the act industrial. That process of dehumanisation began with the deletion of names, as happened recently with the 'surcharge affair'. 

The Rijksmuseum is now giving a few enslaved people back their names and their stories. Nameless shadows on the magnificent masterpieces of our Golden Age they were, lumps of gold in the fittings of a box. Their names matter terribly.


The audio tour that takes you around the ten remarkably small and austerely furnished rooms consists of stories of a dozen people who were crushed in the machinery of horror, or who turned the knobs there. Told by relatives of people who could recount it, but who were never listened to. The combination of the stories on your headphones with the tangible objects and paintings, up close and without the glamour of the Gallery of Honour, makes a deep impression. 

Amsterdam has just published a thick report on what a slavery museum should look like, after which a new task force will start working on it. They will have to include, for instance, the slave trade and the VOC's abuse of power, because the report now only deals with our trade across the Atlantic. The eastern one was at least as scandalous. 


Nice that, like others who see the expo, I can now cry shame over these dark pages of our past. Even more beautiful is that the small scale of the human story of individuals who have now been named indicates precisely that a permanent museum (why not just this wing in the Rijks?) should include precisely those voices and those names. Audible, tangible and visible. The museum should be a theatre. Permanent. 

After all, slavery was about people, not abstract numbers. However dizzying they may be.

At the end, if you wish, you can look in the mirror while songs sung by the freedom fighters inspired by the French Revolution can be heard. Liberté, Egalité, repeated endlessly. Freedom, equality. Conspicuously absent in all of them is the term 'Fraternité', which was still emphatically there at the time of the French Revolution. Logical really. 

So that brotherhood, we have to work on that ourselves. 

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Wijbrand Schaap

Cultural journalist since 1996. Worked as theatre critic, columnist and reporter for Algemeen Dagblad, Utrechts Nieuwsblad, Rotterdams Dagblad, Parool and regional newspapers through Associated Press Services. Interviews for TheaterMaker, Theatererkrant Magazine, Ons Erfdeel, Boekman. Podcast maker, likes to experiment with new media. Culture Press is called the brainchild I gave birth to in 2009. Life partner of Suzanne Brink roommate of Edje, Fonzie and Rufus. Search and find me on Mastodon.View Author posts

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