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  • Writer's pictureAfonso Ivens-Ferraz

“They’re Not Deciding How We Will Remember”

Updated: Jul 1

Portrait of Margaretha van Raephorst with a house slave © Commons

“Slavery has had a lasting impact on the way we think and act [towards one another]. If we don’t talk about it, if we don’t face it, we’re not going to be able to function normally as a society, ever” says Sherlock Telgt.

Telgt (54) is currently involved in negotiations between Groningen’s city government and ethnic minority groups, to whom the city has promised monuments in memory of their ancestor’s painful slavery past.

While talks of a monument in memory of the colonial history of slavery have existed for years, the city has recently decided that it will it erect not one but two monuments: one in memory of the transatlantic slave trade and another in memory of the Asian slave trade. The decision was announced earlier this year although talks between the city and the involved groups are still under way.

But this announcement is part of a much broader story. In February, a report commissioned by the city council revealed deep-rooted links between the city’s government and members of the local elite in both the transatlantic and Asian slave trades.

From dividends earned through Dutch trading companies that were directly involved in slave trade networks, to an elaborate network of colonial officers with connections to Groningen: Groningers profited from slavery, directly and indirectly. Later in May, this same report prompted a public apology from current mayor Koen Schuiling, who apologized for the city’s past involvement in slavery.

Yet, the decision of two slavery monuments is a controversial one. It came after descendants of enslaved people from the transatlantic slave trade expressed that a single monument overshadows their ancestors’ history. But as historian Barbara Henkes says “it’s a very stupid idea.”

Henkes, who in 2016 published a book that already shed light on Groningen’s slavery legacy, believes that two monument might actually oversimplify a complex and interconnected history.

For example, she explains that the abolition of slavery in the former colonies of Suriname and Curaçao was an expensive endeavor for the Dutch government. The then government compensated slaveowners for their losses and yet “the money came from colonial Indonesia. So the labor of Indonesians made it possible for people over there [in the other colonies] to be freed,” she says.

“It’s a pity that you don’t want to connect these histories and make it two separate things. And, of course, these histories have their differences, but they also have to do with each other,” adds Henkes.

Yet, not everyone agrees. Like others involved, Telgt believes there should be two separate monuments. In the eyes of the social entrepreneur and former rap artist, the point is not to overlook a shared colonial history but to acknowledge those affected by slavery by giving their stories the attention they deserve.

“I understand and respect both sides because a lot of my friends are in there [the descendent groups]. This is the big difference: they took us from Africa and brought us to another place. If they had enslaved us in Africa as they did in Asia, it would have been a different discussion. Our needs are different. Not to make it dramatic but we’re a people without a clear history,” explains Telgt.

While the Asian slave trade was mainly inter-Asian, people trafficked in the transatlantic slave trade were taken from Africa to the Americas. The Groningen native is a testimony that the effects of this historical event have repercussions that are still felt on a very profound level, today.

He gives the example of Suriname, where his parents were born. A Dutch colony until 1975, slavery in this small South American country lasted approximately two centuries, as enslaved Africans were taken there to work on plantations. Their descendants include the so-called Creoles, who can also have European ancestry. While Telgt himself was born and raised in the Netherlands, he would also be considered Creole in Suriname.

“I love Suriname, I love Surinamese people, I love Surinamese culture. But I also want to know where I’m originally from because my roots lie somewhere else,” shares Telgt.  

The painful desire to know his true origins was shared by other family members. His paternal uncle led the initiative to investigative their family’s genealogy. Through available archives, he was able to reach as far back as five generations before Telgt. It all led to a woman by the name of Leentje, or Ma Lin, as it reads in parenthesis. She was born in 1810, 53 years before slavery was abolished by law in Suriname.

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"You Always Wanna Have a Sense of Belonging"By Afonso Ivens-Ferraz

“I think about how they must have felt … and what happened before this [1810],” he says, as he contemplates the long and wide sheet of paper on which the family tree is printed. “At the same time, I’m happy and proud that one of my ancestors made this and put it on paper. For my son, and my future grandkids, it’s important to know at least a bit where you’re from,” adds Telgt.

Telgt’s experience is shared by many whose ancestors have been subjected to the transatlantic slave trade. In over three centuries, about 12 million men, women, and children were enslaved in Africa and transported to the Americas where they were forced to work on plantations. Through the WIC (Dutch West India Company) – a powerful trading company involved in the transatlantic slave trade - the Dutch were responsible for trafficking approximately 300.000 people.

According to the report published in February, the city and province governments of Groningen were important institutional investors of the WIC, and are accountable 1/9 of the WIC’s profits from slavery.

But while the magnitude of the transatlantic slave trade cannot be ignored, nor can the Asian slave trade be understated. Although significantly smaller in scale, the idea that slavery in the East was not as severe has been changing over the past decade, says Henkes, the historian.

Recent research shows that slavery in the Dutch East Indies – the former Dutch colonial territories in Southeast Asia - was not just limited to domestic servants. This is indeed a misconception as enslaved people in these territories were also forced into manual labor on plantations.

According to the report commissioned by Groningen’s municipality, Groningers also profited from slavery in the East even if the extent of this is more obscure.

But as far as the monuments meant to remember this shameful historical chapter, and despite disagreements on what purpose they should serve, there is still very little certainty on what is to come.  So far, no agreement has been made regarding the location of these monuments nor the date in which they will be erected, confirms city council spokesperson Corien Koetsier.

Still, both Henkes and Telgt believe it is positive that conversations about slavery are taking place in Dutch society today. From infrastructure, to children songs, and annual traditions, what may seem to some as something of the past, remains very much a part of the present.

 “We are this powerful, we are this wealthy, as a country, as a society, because of the slave trade and everything that came with it. Our great-grandparents have died, they’ve been killed to build this society,” says Telgt.

“A lot of people do not realize or, do not want to realize, their privilege. It’s a good idea to reflect on your own position … in your country, in Europe, and in the world as a whole. I hope that it enhances a kind of sensitivity in the way we communicate, in the way we speak, look, eat, or dance,” adds Henkes.

This month marks the end of the Slavery Memorial Year in the Netherlands. It began last year, on July 1st, in celebration of 150 years since 1873 – the year that marks the actual end slavery in Suriname and the Dutch Antilles.

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