Amsterdam and Black History

BikesFamily CrestBuildingAmsterdam with JenniferHouseboat

Just a few weeks after arriving in Europe for a new work assignment, a friend and I were invited to participate on a black heritage tour that the German chapter of the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority was organizing. We hopped a bus from the western part of Deutschland (Germany) to the lush, wet lands of the Netherlands, where the tour was taking place. We entered the city of Amsterdam with obvious delight pasted on our faces. Buildings with unique and creative architecture lined the streets. The canals were filled with interesting and whimsical houseboats. People on bikes rivaled the cars on the streets, and one could imagine the enchanting beauty of the place during tulip season.
Our bus dropped us off in front of the Het Scheepvaartmuseum (or The National Maritime Museum.) From there we ate a delicious brunch in the Museum Cafe while our tour guide and founder of Black Heritage Amsterdam Tours, Jennifer Tosch, gave us the day’s itinerary.
We would be divided into two groups. One would view an exhibit, ‘De Zwarte Bladzijde’ (The Dark Chapter) that chronicled one of the worst maritime disasters in Dutch history. A ship set sail in 1738 and sank with around 700 enslaved Africans aboard. These captives were deliberately bolted inside the ship so that none would escape and cause the ship’s owner to lose his insurance money.
The second group would walk through a replica of a cargo ship, ‘The Amsterdam’ built in the 18th Century. A similar type of ship one could have easily been converted to transport captives from Africa to the Dutch colonies in Suriname, South America or other parts of the ‘New World’.
After the tour of the museum the whole group boarded a boat to continue our journey through the canals of the Amsterdam and learn more about the hidden history of the Africans who had lived, traveled and worked there during the ‘Dutch Golden Age’. Once we embarked on this part of the tour, our guide pointed out the symbols on the tops of some of the oldest housing structures in the city that were often used to identify the wealth and business of the families within. Some of these symbols had been preserved, and the enslaved were often depicted as a sign of status.
The walk down memory lane of the maritime tragedy was somber and eye opening. Though the Dutch often deny the presence of racism and conflict, there are still signs of institutional racism and racial insensitivity, according to Tosch. She informed us that although slavery was legally abolished in 1863, the enslaved were forced to continue working for 10 more years on the plantations. Last year, 2013, the Netherlands commemorated 150 years since slavery was abolished.
There is also the issue of a fictional character called Zwarte Piet (Black Peter), who has black skin, afro and red lips, and who is the ‘servant’ of St. Nicholas, who looks like Santa Claus, but comes from Spain arriving in a grand parade every December 5. During the holiday season, hundreds of revelers dance in the streets dressed up like “Pete” in blackface. When confronted with the racial innuendo of the character, many Dutch maintain it is simply part of their heritage and has nothing to do with racism.
After a huge migration of Blacks from the former Dutch colony of Suriname in the 1970s that followed the country’s independence, the country now boasts a population of about 500,000 Afro-Dutch.
This article was written with the help of Jennifer Tosch. It was also published in the Chattanooga News Chronicle on February 27, 2014. For more information about Black Heritage Tours visit

4 Comments Add yours

  1. goldwisdom2 says:

    Fascinating History. Your report is going to make me do some research on how slavery and the Netherlands.
    Thank you for sharing this information.

  2. patterson201 says:

    This is very enlightening. Thanks for sharing.

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