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Blinding Nationalism; shared colonial histories, isolated struggles for acknowledgement

by Luzie Louisa Richt

To understand our shared history of slavery and colonialism, there are not only the century-old racial boundaries that have to be crossed, but also the seemingly-ignored national ones. Presented with new research findings from the side-wings of the Dutch colonial history as a non-national history, I wondered why we perceive of Europe’s colonial legacy as nation-specific endeavor, separating and isolating histories along the geographical lines of the imagined communities of nation-states.
Motivated by realizing my lack of knowledge of the German colonial history due to a privileged ignorance, I was surprised to discover the similarities of the colonial legacy of the Netherlands and Germany. Discussing my own situatedness, I want to plead for the broadening of our conception of history into multiple, nation-independent strands that, despite their contradictions, their discrepancies, allow to sketch a bigger picture and connect us, regardless of our inherited appeal to divide ourselves along ethnical, cultural and national lines.

Een 19de-eeuws bordspel met de Duitse koloniën


The six lectures on the side-wings of Dutch colonialism and slavery were testament of a growing reconceptualization of history, breaking with the established binaries and one-sided narration of the last centuries. With the lecturers being hopeful yet critical in their analysis of the past in the contemporary world, it became evident that a conceptual change must not only include the visual and textual representations, but also penetrate the depths of the mental structures of Western societies: we have yet to be cured of our Enlightened obsession with oppositions, locating and defining the other to the self, the bad to the good, the black to the white. We, meaning specifically white people, have yet to admit to our compulsive analysis of everything and everyone, but ourselves (Dyer 1997: 44-45). While contemplating how contemporary Dutch society deals with the uneven distribution of power over representation and privilege, it is my personal situatedness that raised additional issues for a reconceptualization of the colonial and slavery past: how the continuous employment of nationalism ensures the dealing with highly similar and interconnected histories in a way that strictly separates them on territorial and national lines. Its effect is a privileged ignorance to the deeply intertwined web of historical acts that break through the border of our imagined national and continental communities.

As a white woman from Germany, colonialism and slavery was a very short chapter in the history classes I attended in primary and secondary education. Germany’s participation in colonial and imperial rule of regions across the globe was, in my experience, consistently excused by criticizing the imperial governments for their desire to compete with its European neighbors for the prize of ‘the most powerful nation in the world’. The finger is pointed towards the French and British, Germany’s biggest rivals according to its interpretation of history, when searching for the ones ‘doing the trading’ in enslaved people. Only since living in the Netherlands I learned more about the gaping difference between the dominant and its silenced alternative narratives contextualizing life during colonialism and slavery.
It has been a process of both allowing myself, and being forced to realize, my lack of knowledge of contemporary influences of the colonial and slavery past. But while I do not consider myself Dutch and respectfully refuse to see the nation’s history as my own, despite my interest in the matter, I am confronted with realizing the (intentional) lack of connection between the colonial pasts of European nations and simultaneously with my own entanglement in the colonial history.


As I have come to learn over the past eight years of participating in Dutch society, the ‘Golden Age’ may be the most widely and frequently discussed period in Dutch history, which only recently, due to intensive public intervention, had to open up for the inclusion of the nation’s slavery past. Especially the VOC and the WIC carry an ambiguous memory in Dutch society between pride and guilt: It may have introduced the concept of the stock market exchange, but it is increasingly remembered for the violent displacement and enslavement of millions of people. As a German with little awareness of my national colonial history, I saw these two companies as a ‘typical’ example of Dutch colonial rule, making its contemporary influence on society easier to stomach by knowing that it is ‘outside’ of me. Nothing is less true as I had to realize when looking into ‘my’ colonial history of Germany. The Brandenburg African Company, abbreviated as BAC, was established in 1682 by the Brandenburg-Prussia’s Elector, with the support and guidance of Dutch merchant Benjamin Raule, as the first colonial company of a German state (Koslofsky and Zaugg 2016: 26-27). Intended to copy the success of the Dutch VOC and WIC, the company actively participated in the Atlantic slave trade with the help of “Dutch capital and maritime expertise” (ibid: 27). After the company’s dissolution in 1711, Frederik William I of Prussia sold his Ghanaian colony ‘Gross Friedrichsburg’, “from which up to 30.000 people had been sold to the Dutch East India Company” (Poddar 2008: 257). It is baffling to realize that the BAC, its activity in the slave trade, territorial claim in Ghana and financial motivations do not form part of Germany’s national history deemed necessary or even worth reciting, while the Netherlands have solidly incorporated the VOC and WIC into the lore of their national pride. Supporting my plea for the deconstruction of a nation-specific history, it exemplifies the ways in which European nations recount their similar and interwoven histories with quite different accentuations and yet always succeed in preventing us from understanding the bigger picture.


German East-Africa, 1906


Wayne Modest, in his lecture on slavery and material culture, describes how he sees the remnants of slavery today not in the objects to be seen in museums, but in the social conflicts and encounters. The palpable friction between different groups is proof of our shared colonial and slavery past no longer being present, but rather “invisibilized” (Modest 2017). By focusing extensively on numbers instead of emotional impact of history, we are disconnected from understanding how history still influences us and our perception of the world today. To render visible parts of untold history creates an uncanny feeling of looking in the same place twice but suddenly seeing an entire new universe of life stories and identities that were hidden in plain sight. Uncanniness, especially when affecting the perception of one’s identity, often results in reactions of disbelief, disregard and negation. But shame, guilt, and anger are important emotions to feel, especially by white people, to turn them into a feeling of responsibility and therefore authentic change of the ideological system. As Modest pointed out, only when we allow ourselves to receive and deal with the emotional response to considering colonialism and slavery as part of ourselves can we find a respectful way to incorporate them into our contemporary reality.

Exemplifying this struggle for a rightful place of that shared history of slavery and colonialism with its multiple affected identities, influences and interpretations, is what Mitchell Esajas demonstrated in his lecture about the traces of slavery in modern Dutch society (Esajas 2017). Countering the one-sided narration of history and therefore the forgetting of various other storylines, Esajas and the New Urban Collective have established the Black Archives, a physical storage of black knowledge, history and means to rediscover Afro-Dutch identities. Most incredibly, by rediscovering the political activism of Mr. and Mrs. Huiswoud with legendary African-American activists of the Civil Rights movement, Esajas and his team contributed to an important lesson to be learned: We are limiting our own history by narrating it within the lines of nation-states and within the ideological mind-set of ‘us’ and ‘them’ (Esajas 2017).


The concept of ‘history’ seems to be the problem: a story of another time, of ‘others’, of a world detached from ours, unable to bridge the gap between that previous world and our reality. The way in which we currently perceive of the past, that we are linked to by family bonds and national affiliation, does not allow for much multiplicity. Yet it is exactly this variety of contradictions, of life stories, of mixed interpretations, that was most highlighted in the lectures. In continuing to think along the lines of the dominant narration and judgment of history, slavery and colonialism places the members of the African diaspora as enslaved, without voice and power, and forever dehumanized, while the European and Euro-American as the dominant, powerful, self-determined human being. But in not being able to escape these pre-molded identities, we are overlooking all the individuals, who did and do not fit into this colonial binary opposition. Ellen Neslo’s article on “The Formation of a Free Non-white Elite in Paramaribo, 1800-1863” describes such a multiplicity of identities, in which the binary of enslaved and slave owner implodes and creates space for alternative storylines based on resistance and refusal of the imposed oppressive colonial system (Neslo 2015).

With Germany being mostly occupied both nationally and internationally with rectifying its image after the traumas it caused during World War I and II, its colonial past has become a forgotten and neglected chapter, while its presence in contemporary metropolitan life are highly visible. In Berlin, a growing number of people is increasingly critical of the city’s ‘African Quarter’ and the active silencing of histories that it points to (De Sousa 2017). Such a discussion can be compared to the one that erupted in the Netherlands in June 2017 surrounding Rotterdam’s Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art and the perpetuated celebration of colonial warlords (Kleijn 2017), yet the level of media attention appears to be significantly different in both cases. While in both countries, the dominating opinion seems to be rather critical of changing street names as a sign of acknowledgement of a colonial past, the Dutch case has found its way onto the national platform. Germany still lacks attention not only to its own history but also to its activism for change: in 2011, a local Berlin street was renamed after May Ayim, an Afro-German poet, intellectual and activist, who co-authored one of the first books on and simultaneously establishing a voice for the Afro-German community. Her name replaced one of Germany’s former colonial ‘heroes’ and member of the Brandenburgisch-Afrikanische Compagnie, Otto Friedrich von der Gröben (Florvil 2017).


May Ayim

Having grown up in Berlin not far from the, now called, May-Ayim-Ufer contextualizes my personal experience of realizing my colonial entanglement, which remained unacknowledged due to my Western conception of colonial history as a nation-focused subject. Creating an identity based on ‘us’ and ‘them’ at the intersections of nationality and ethnicity has proven highly dissatisfying and confronting with my own acts of silencing histories in plain sight by not making the effort to ‘see’ them. Investigating Dutch colonial history as a non-national is little more than another form of studying ‘an Other’ as long as we do not know how to relate it back to our own history. A multicultural society seems to me most successful, once we are able to connect the dots to a greater picture that allows for specificity, diversity, individual stories and discrepancies to exist alongside our contemporary perception of colonial and slavery past.


Works cited

Guest lectures and articles
Esajas, Mitchell. “Traces of Slavery in the Modern Dutch Society.” Side-Wings of Slavery and Colonialism, Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies, 30 Nov. 2017, University of Amsterdam. Guest Lecture.

Modest, Wayne. “Slavery and Material Culture.” Side-Wings of Slavery and Colonialism, Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies, 7 Dec. 2017, University of Amsterdam. Guest Lecture.

Neslo, Ellen. “The Formation of a Free Non-white Elite in Paramaribo, 1800-1863.” Caribbean Studies, Volume 43, Number 2, July-December 2015, pp. 177-210.

Academic literature
Dyer, Richard. “Coloured White, Not Coloured.” White. Essays on Race and Culture. Oxon/New York:Routledge, 1997, pp. 44-45.

Koslofsky, Craig and Roberto Zaugg. “Ship’s Surgeon Johann Peter Oettinger: A Hinterlander in the Atlantic Slave Trade, 1682-96.” Slavery Hinterland: Transatlantic Slavery and Continental Europe, 1680-1850. Edited by Felix Brahm and Eve Rosenhaft. Martlesham: Boydell Press, 2016, pp. 26-43.

Poddar, Prem, Rajeev Patke and Lars Jensen. Historical Companion to Postcolonial Literatures: Continental Europe and its Colonies. Edinburg: Edinburgh University Press, 2008, p. 257.

Journalistic articles
Florvil, Tiffany. “Remembering Afro-German Intellectual May Ayim.” Black Perspectives, published by AAIHS (African American Intellectual History Society), 6 Sep. 2017,

Kleijn, Koen. “De aangekondigde dood van Witte de With.” De Groene Amsterdammer. 23 Augustus 2017,

De Sousa, Ana Naomi. “Germany’s other brutal history: Should Berlin’s ‘African Quarter’ be renamed?” The Guardian, 4 April 2017,


[Dit is deel 4 in de reeks papers Side Wings of Slavery & Colonialism; zie ook deel 1,  2 , 3 en 5, 6, 7.en 8.]

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