Dutch Colonial History Re-awakened by Museum Re-organization


Kabinet Johan Maurits

Bust of Maurits in Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands.

We reproduce below an article from The Guardian concerning discussions of the Dutch colonial past prompted by the removal of the bust of the founder of the Mauritshuis, one of the major Dutch museums,  by the museum’s management from its lobby. (1) The museum holds very important works of European art such as Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring.

The founder of the museum, Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen, had been governor of the Dutch Colony in Brazil in 1636-1644. During his term of office, he shipped thousands of slaves from the Gold Coast, present-day Ghana, to work on the sugar plantations in Brazil.  With the wealth he obtained from the infamous trade, he built Mauritshuis, first as his private residence and later it was turned it into a museum.

The museum removed the bust of the founder from its lobby to reflect discussion in Holland about the country’s colonial past and that led to discussions as to whether the museum was right in removing the bust of the founder. (2)

Many voices were heard in the ensuing debate.  According to Zihni Ozdil,‘ in order to secure the supply of slaves to the sugar plantations in Dutch Brazil he [Maurits]  sailed to the African Gold Coast with nine ships and twelve hundred men and conquered the Portuguese slave station of Elmina.’ 


Johan Maurits van Nassau was known for his exceptionally brutal treatment of slaves. The Dutch ships that took enslaved people to Brazil were likewise ‘floating coffins for their miserable passengers’ (De Mello, 187.) With the money Johan Maurits van Nassau thus earned he surrounded himself with splendor and luxury. Among other things, he financed the construction of his opulent residence in The Hague, the Mauritshuis, with money he accumulated in Brazil through slave labor.  In fact, he became so rich that he was also able to build two palaces in Dutch Brazil ‘. (3)

What I found remarkable was the statement attributed to the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, who considered it wrong to be ‘judging the distant past through today’s eyes’. This phrase or a variation such as ‘we should not judge the past by present standards’ comes up whenever we discuss the brutalities of the Atlantic Slave Trade or the inhumanity of European colonization in Africa, Asia or America or the violent robbery of African artefacts.

 What the Dutch Prime Minister was saying was that we should look at the activities of Maurits, with the eyes of his contemporaries. Would they have considered his actions as correct? We are being requested to apply today, the standards of those barbaric years when the selling and buying of Africans was considered by some to be acceptable.

Which standards would these be, those of the master enslavers or those of their unfortunate victims?  Why should persons in the 21st century apply standards of past centuries? To look at the crimes and atrocities of the past with the eyes of the perpetrators amounts to suggesting that the standards of the perpetrators take precedence over our own standards today. It also means ignoring all the laws and standards of humanitarian norms developed over decades to protect human rights. Are we moving forwards or backwards? Should we really use the standards of the dehumanizers to evaluate the dehumanization of Africans?  Were we to apply old by-gone standards, in evaluating past events, we would never make progress.  No. We have no other standards than those of our times and no other eyes than our own.

Some Westerners may, for obvious reasons, prefer to see slavery and colonialism with the eyes of the master enslavers and the colonialists, but the rest of mankind will continue to judge those periods with our current standards as generally accepted. The standards of the slave masters and colonialists cannot be, and are not, our standards.  

Kwame Tua Opoku.


1.Dutch museum row reopens uneasy debate about colonial legacy ...



2. Removal of Bust from Dutch Museum Sparks Debate about Colonial ...


Dutch museum row reopens uneasy debate about colonial legacy ...


Read more at DutchNews.nl: How the Mauritshuis row put the spotlight on the Dutch colonial past http://www.dutchnews.nl/features/2018/01/not-black-or-white-deep-divisions-in-dutch-colonial-past-debate/

Removal of founder's bust in Mauritshuis sparks discussion on ...https://moc.media/en/2124

Bust Johan Maurits - Mauritshuis



3. Dutch history pasteurized: the Mauritshuis in The Hague – Zihni Ozdil


It appears that the Mauritshuis has a publication for children in which Maurits slave-dealing past is not mentioned nor the fact that his wealth was based on African slave labour.

On the Dutch involvement in the slave trade, see Kwame Nimako and Glenn Willemsen, The Dutch Atlantic -Slavery, Abolition and Emancipation.2011,PlutoPress,London; Dutch involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and abolition ...





Mauritshuis, The Hague, Netherlands.

Dutch museum row reopens uneasy debate about colonial legacy

The Guardian, Mauritshuis, home of Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring, removes bust of slave-trader founder      Gordon Darroch in The Hague

A debate over the Netherlands’ colonial heritage burst into the open this week after one of the country’s leading museums came under fire for removing a bust of its founder from its lobby.

The Mauritshuis in The Hague, home to national treasures including Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring and Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch, said the decision was part of a reorganisation of its collection to reflect a “growing discussion in society” about the country’s slave-trading past.

A cousin of the Prince of Orange, Count Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen was appointed governor of the Dutch colony in Brazil in 1636. He shipped slaves across from modern-day Ghana to work on the sugarcane plantations and built the Mauritshuis as a private residence using the fortune he earned from the trade.

The prime minister, Mark Rutte, described the decision as “crazy” and warned against “judging the distant past through today’s eyes”. He later toned down his remarks after the museum’s director, Emilie Gordenker, explained in a TV interview that the bust, a composite-marble copy of an original sculpture, was no longer needed because the Mauritshuis had recently created a gallery dedicated to its founder, including an original bust.

“This is about improving the way we tell the story so that we can share all aspects, positive and negative, with our visitors,” said Gordenker. “Once we’d done that there was really no need to have this plaster replica in between the toilets and the cash desk.”

By then the debate had flared in political circles and on social media, reflecting growing unease and sensitivity about the Dutch colonial legacy. Antoinette Laan, an MP for Rutte’s conservative Liberal party (VVD), tabled questions in parliament asking if history was being “rubbed out”. “We are importing the American tendency to oversensitivity,” she said.

The debate has echoes of the campaign in the US to remove statues of Confederate soldiers from public places, but in the Netherlands few people are calling for the statues to be taken down. Some historians and politicians have called for plaques on monuments to figures from the country’s “Golden Age” to reflect all aspects of their impact on history.

Dienke Hondius, a historian at Amsterdam’s Vrije Universiteit, told RTL News that rather than being taken down, statues should be “left standing and put in context”. She cited the campaign in Barcelona to remove the statue of Christopher Columbus because of the association with imperial conquest and genocide.

 “The downside is you’re no longer confronted with this chapter in the city’s history, so it’s no longer debated,” said Hondius. “You don’t want that.”

Political party Denk, which draws much of its support from minority ethnic groups, has called for streets, tunnels and bridges to be renamed and stripped of their associations with the Netherlands’ “inhuman colonial past”.

In Amsterdam, a primary school named after the former Dutch East Indies governor Jan Pieterszoon Coen last week announced plans to remove the name of the man known as the “Butcher of Banda”. “We don’t want to be associated with him,” said the headteacher, Sylvia van den Akker. “He murdered a lot of people.”

Coen’s conquest of the island of Banda in 1621 turned into a massacre in which 14,000 of the island’s 15,000 natives were killed. The council in his birthplace of Hoorn placed a new plaque under his statue five years ago acknowledging his bloody history.

Last year, the Witte de With contemporary art centre in Rotterdam said it no longer wanted to bear the name of Vice-admiral De With, whose colonial escapades included burning 90,000 clove trees on Ambon to drive up commodity prices.

Rotterdam city council agreed last October to place an explanatory plaque by a statue of the naval commander Piet Hein. Hein and De With are celebrated in Dutch history for plundering the Spanish silver fleet in 1628 in the run-up to independence from Spanish rule in 1648. Both were also pivotal in establishing Dutch colonial rule in the East and West Indies.