A History of Silence

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As a young child growing up in Cape Town, I knew that the minstrel carnival my parents took us to each new year and the songs sung by the Malay choirs had something to do with slavery. It certainly wasn’t something that we learned about during history lessons at school and if it was mentioned, it was dismissed as a benign version of slavery in the Americas. Slave owners were portrayed as paternal figures who cared for their slaves while teaching them to be civilised. The Bo Kaap with its brightly coloured houses where freed slaves lived on the outskirts of Cape Town, often featured in paintings, romanticising and at once othering the people who lived in them. Happy minstrels marching on the second day of the new year when the slaves were given off for their own celebrations, or charming pictures in cookbooks, reinforced the benign nature of this heritage.

A few years ago, I embarked on a journey to understand my own history and what it meant to be named and seen as “coloured” in South Africa. I returned to university as a Creative Writing Masters student, naively thinking that I could simply research my family history and tell the stories once I had honed my writing skills. I soon realised that I needed to go much further back than my parents and grandparents who had been born before apartheid. It had not occurred to me that I would need to understand the mindset of the Dutch who occupied the Cape in 1652 in order to appreciate the legacy that laid the conditions for racial segregation and apartheid in South Africa.

This set in motion an unexpectedly convoluted journey that led to a PhD in history and heritage studies and completely transformed the bookshelf in my study. I discovered very quickly, though, that while I could pluck books about transatlantic slavery off shelves in libraries and bookshops, information about Dutch slavery in the Indian ocean was a bit more difficult to come by. In fact, it is only in the last ten years that there has been any serious examination of this period — “a mere black page” — by the Dutch themselves. Dutch people, in general, view their Golden Age, when trade, science, and art flourished, as separate from their role in slavery, ignoring the fact that it was slavery that funded the renaissance.

Much has been written about the transatlantic slave trade and the forcible removal of over 12 million Africans to the Americas in an international trade in human bodies (rightly so). The United Nations marks 25th March as the “International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade” and has a permanent memorial, The Ark of Return, located in the plaza in front of its building in New York. The website specifically talks about the removal of Africans to the Americas but there is no mention of the multinational shipment of the enslaved in an Indian Ocean slave trade to the Cape.

The Dutch were active participants in both the Atlantic and Indian Ocean slave trades for nearly two centuries. The Dutch East India Company was granted a monopoly over trade in the East Indies and they protected it with brute force, using a variety of arguments such as Christian humanitarian compassion and a need to establish settlements in places peopled by uncivilised, inferior indigenous tribes, to justify their actions.

The settlement at the Cape was seen as merely a place to refresh on route from Europe to the East. The colonisation of the Cape laid the foundation for apartheid and the racial hierarchy that accompanied it. It shaped attitudes around race and sex that continue to inform the present.

The benign narrative that receded behind the more dominant history of apartheid concealed the brutality and dehumanisation of the people who were brought here as a source of labour, a commodity to be sold and traded. When slaves arrived at the Cape Colony from the 17th century onwards, they were stripped of their homes, their cultures, and their identities, including their names. Official records have little to tell us about how they lived and survived since they are documented as slave owner’s possessions, on estate transfer documents and in court records.

The absence of published slave narratives, compounded by the shame of being Black and being a product of miscegenation, has contributed to the disregard for its importance.

The Dutch were among the last to abolish slavery. In 1863, slavery was declared illegal in Suriname and the Antilles; the previous year it had been banned in the Dutch East Indies. It is interesting to note the absence of a popular Dutch abolitionist movement, unlike the UK or the USA. In the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa in 2001, Dutch Integration Minister Roger van Boxtel expressed deep remorse over slavery. A year later, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands unveiled a national monument to the victims of slavery. On a visit to Suriname in 2008, former Prime Minister Jan-Peter Balkenende referred to Van Boxtel’s expression of ‘deep remorse’, but no government has ever officially apologised for the Dutch slave trade past and neither is a royal apology forthcoming, since it would open the door to demands for compensation or financial reparation.

In December 2020, the Netherlands marked 157 years since the country abolished slavery, against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement. However, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said he did not consider the time right to apologize for the country’s role in slavery, despite calls for a formal apology for fear of “polarizing society”. He questioned whether people alive today could be held responsible for the distant past. This attitude is an affront to the memory of those who were subjected to the violence of slavery and to those who continue to be affected by the racism that was perpetrated.

My journey has been empowering and enlightening. I have been saddened by stories of physical and mental trauma that have been passed from one generation to the next and continue to haunt us in the levels of violence and substance abuse that dog the communities ripped apart by apartheid policies. I have been uplifted by pockets of resistance and integration that defied the dehumanisation and testify to the will of the human spirit to survive. There is much to celebrate about the process of creolisation of language, food, and music that occurred and remain in the way we speak, what we eat, and the celebration that is jazz. If only we could break down the walls that apartheid erected around us, the fusion of ideas may lead to the acceptance of diverse points of view and a truly South African identity. Perhaps we can start by challenging the legacy of silence on the part of those who write our history.