The voice of slaves in museums

In the Netherlands there has never been more attention for slave heritage and never been more debate about it, writes Toine Heijmans in the Volkskrant last week on the occasion of the new exhibitions about slavery in the Tropenmusuem. The Dutch slave heritage has become a subject of discussion especially in the ongoing debate around Zwarte Piet that starts every year around this time of the year. On both traditional media and social media.

In Suriname people see this discussion from another perspective. According to Surinamese novelist Cynthia McLeod ‘This can be because we are all minorities. But if people find Zwarte Piet offensive, then it’s offensive. You do not want to hurt anyone. That’s wise? Traditions change. So Zwarte Piet can change too.’ Though this big debate you can see how relevant the Dutch slavery heritage still is. One of the institutions that focusses on todays impact is The National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery. The Suriname Museum Foundation also focuses on the topic of slavery. Neus argues that the national museum is supposed to reflect all the different ethnic groups, but since there are so many, these contents could become very fragmented. In her article Contested Chains Neus describes the controversies surrounding the Suriname Museum Foundation and the lack of national identity in Suriname as a result of its many ethnicities. The national museum of Suriname is located in Fort Zeelandia, a former Dutch colonial fort. The use of this building as national museums is contested because of two reasons. Firstly, because this was the place where the hardest punishments were handed out. Secondly, because the ironic symbol of the national museum that tells the Surinamese history from a western perspective in a colonial building. This gives the museum a colonial appearance with a strong top-down approach.

One of the contested issues is the reflection of national history in museums. One part of that problem is that Surinamese history still is written mostly by Dutch scholars who don’t write from an inside perspective and don’t have access to the most important sources of the slave heritage, namely oral history. The importance of this can be well explained by means of papers of Judge Lammers that hold a portrait of three young men: Codjo, Mentor and Present, drawn by Gerrit Schouten. On the 26th of January 1833 they accidently burned down 50 houses by trying to steal food for their escape. The men got caught and were imprisoned in Fort Zeelandia, where Judge Lammers visited them and they got painted by Gerrit Schouten.  This story served as an inspiration to search for heroes. Since 1991 people gathered annually in remembrance of these three men to celebrated their bravery, because the fire had become an act of resistance against the colonial government.  According to the director of cultural affairs in Suriname ‘this event should be bigger. These three men have fought for freedom in every way’. Heroes like this are a very important part of the national identity, but are very rare. This is because normally slaves were painted anonymously. These three men are an exception. A lot of stories and paintings about slaves stay anonymous just like the most of slave history.

The portrait of Codjo, Mentor and Present drawn by Gerrit Schouten in 1833. Source: Pinterest.

To re-write slave history from an insider perspective you also need to include oral history. Slaves had a very wide oral culture, but this was never documented. Of course, the stories can change in time when they get passed on from generation to generation. A good example of this is the story of Susanne du Plessis which became more cruel over time. I think it’s therefore necessary to include more oral history but only when keeping in mind the limitations of transferring information orally. On one hand, Creole people need these stories about heroes like Codjo, Mentor and Present to form their cultural identity. On the other hand, people who don’t understand the importance of slave heritage in today’s society need to hear this side of history to understand why certain traditions, like Zwarte Piet, are still offensive. Because how can we make a good representation of slave culture in museums without accepting their tradition of oral culture?

Eline Palthe