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On the use of Dutch “slaaf” and “totslaafgemaakte”

by Michiel van Kempen

As in all postcolonial debates scrutinizing language is perhaps the foremost issue. The N-word has sweepingly been banned from public discourse, “coolie” and “mulatto” are under attack, all kinds of words naming black people are being scrutinized, commented upon, weighted and often rejected. One of the issues in the Netherlands in 21st century postcolonial debates is how to cope with the term “slaaf” (slave/enslaved). Scholars, activists and more and more people tend to reject the old word “slaaf”. However unlike English, the Dutch language does not offer an obvious alternative. And some black scholars argue that there good reasons to stay with the old word “slaaf”.

Elleke Boehmer defines the term “postcolonialism” as follows:

[…] the term postcolonialism adresses itself to the historical, political, cultural and textual ramifications of the colonial encounter between the West and the non-West, dating from the sixteenth century to the present day. It considers how this encounter shaped all those who were party to it: the colonizers as well as the colonized. […] [The] postcolonial is that which questions, overturns, and/or critically refracts colonial authority – its epistemologies and forms of violence, its claims to superiority.[1]

This definition positions us in the heart of the matter: looking carefully how processes of colonial encounters took place and what role texts, ideas, ideologies played. In other words: how we will consider the role of language and reconsider the role of language today.

The Netherlands in the twenty-first century has seen fierce debates on multiple issues concerning multicultural society and colonial history: Black Pete, the status of colonial monuments and remembrance and commemoriation culture in general, the rewriting of the historical canon, the use of words for black people/people of African descent, the replacing of text captions in art museums, the representation of whiteness and blackness in universities, translating Frantz Fanon, apologies and reparations for atrocities during slavery times, etc. In a series of publications the Netherlands were deconstructed as a nation of open-mindedness, tolerance and hospitality, where four centuries of colonialism were regarded as a relatively random and little systematic historical event wherein racism played hardly any role of importance.[2] Dutch national newspapers like NRC Handelsblad, Trouw and de Volkskrant, and TV journals like the leading NOS Journaal were remarkably quick in adopting the new word. The evening-long appearance of Antillean psychiatrist Glenn Helberg on Dutch television, elaborating on black issues and using the term “totslaafgemaakten” in August of 2017, and the publication of a Manual of “black words” by the National Museum of World Cultures mid 2018[3], added to the status of the word. Nevertheless the choice for this word is not uncontested, and certainly not in academia. What is going on?

The word “totslaafgemaakte” popped up in the slipstream of a growing interest in Dutch colonial history, when the trans-Atlantic voice in postcolonial debates was heard louder and louder around the year 2013. In many ways Dutch society is late in coming to terms with the dark sides of Dutch history in the Caribbean, Africa and the far East. It is quite obvious that the term “totslaafgemaakte” was constructed by analogy with the word “enslaved”, used by historians in the anglophone world. The idea was adopted that the word “slaaf” in itself is not “neutral”, that the word, having of course strong ties to centuries of slave history, does not adequately represent the historical reality, namely that people of African descent were brought in shackles to the so-called “New World” and violently forced to work the field and the factories. In the mirror of this thinking we find the concept that enslaved people had an agency of their own, a resistance culture as part of a long process of creolization, or as Paul Lovejoy puts it: “The focus on creolization draws attention to the agency of slaves themselves in fashioning an identity within the oppressive conditions of slavery.”[4] The suggestion that being a slave was an inherent condition of the person was integral to the word “Slaaf”; this had to be undone.

Book cover of J. Hendrik van Balen, De slavenhaler (1884). Collectie M. van Kempen.

Words like “enslaved” and “slaafgemaakte” carry in them the constant awareness of those who use these words, of the connotation of the words: that they refer to people brought into a horrible situation they have never chosen to be in, and they were forcefully brought into this situation of dominance and suffering. So by altering the etiquettes we bring forward the consciousness of the users of the words; a particular element had been added to an old word: we see what it really means, from our perspective we realize constantly that slavery is not something like a natural, let alone god-given state. Ditter Blom stresses that the struggle of enslaved people was about freedom: ‘Ownership of people is a social construct based on violence and racism. Ownership is not the issue but the violent suppression and abuse of individuals, legitimized by racist imaginery.’[5]

It is hard to tell when the word “totslaafgemaakte” was first used in the Netherlands. Was the word used in circles of (anti)slavery activists, or within the “decolonizing the mind movement”, and perhaps used in a text or survey of a debate in social media or on a site? We don’t know for sure. Dutch historian Alex van Stipriaan uses terms like “tot slaaf gemaakte Afrikanen” (enslaved Africans) and “gevangen genomen Afrikanen” (captured Africans” already in 2004, alongside the word “slaven” (slaves). It seems obvious that in choosing the first two terms he joins American scholars studying slavery in the context of Civil Rights and Black Power Movements.[6] On internet sites the word “totslaafgemaakten” pops up several times in 2013, the year of remembrance of 150 years abolition of slavery in the Dutch colonies in the West-Indies. On the 1st of October 2013 historian Sandew Hira writes on the much read site a critical review of the film Hoe duur was de suiker?, after the historical novel by Cyntha Mc Leod. Hira writes:

De hand van een totslaafgemaakte kwam terecht tussen de rollers van een suikermolen.

[The hand of a enslaved {person} got stuck between the cylinders of a sugar mill.]

And some paragraphs further Hira writes:

Er zijn twee grote hoofdstukken gewijd aan Jan (van de totslaafgemaakte die zijn hand verliest weten we niet eens zijn naam).

[Two chapters are dedicated to Jan (we even do not know the name of the enslaved person who lost his hand).]

Two days later the same text appeared on the site

Somewhat easier to determine is where the word comes from. The verbal group “tot slaaf gemaakt” is quite common in all kinds of Christian writings, already from the earliest times of printing. We find the group for instance in De Republyk der Hebreen, of Gemeenebest der joden by the Leiden professor Petrus Cunaeus in 1685:

Keyser Augustus heeft een Roomsche Ridder, (die sijn Soons, om dezelve ten Oorlog onbequaam te maaken, de duymen had afgesneden), tot Slaaf gemaakt en sijn goederen verkocht. (p. 365)

[Emperor August had a Roman Knight (who had cut off the thumbs of his sons to prevent them from going to war) made a slave and sold all his property.]

In the Netherlands the movement of rethinking slavery history has got a strong impulse from descendants of Afro-Caribbean peoples. For the major part they – or their family – belong to “black churches” like the Moravian Church. A verbal notion like “tot slaaf gemaakt” (made to slave) is quite commonly used in evangelical writings. Rethinking the reality of slavery and seeing how Anglo-American scholars have worked in the last few decades, must somewhere within this Afro-Caribbean group in the Netherlands have brought forward the concept of “totslaafgemaakte” as a replacement for the word “slaaf”.

It is a cliché: no word is neutral, and certainly not words related to painful histories, like New World, concentration camp, holocaust, slave, master, negro, black, creole, mulatto, maroon, indentured labour, “politionele actie” [police action] etc. Words change, the connotative strength of a word changes, words are replaced, get worn out, obsolete, become avoided. And often rightly so.

But although the word “slaafgemaakte” has replaced the word “slaaf” in many new texts, sources and museum captions, the new word is far from undisputed. In a recent museum catalogue, Aan de Surinaamse grachten, museum director Gijs Schunselaar writes: “We have chosen to let the authors keep the right of their own – argued – choice of words, while the museum itself makes other choices now and then.” (in Balai 2019: 5). Some historians opted for new terms. A number of historians of unblemished reputation do resist the new terms for slave. These historians do not belong to the group of the old, male, white academic élite. No, they are independent scholars of Caribbean descent who published ground-breaking new historical studies in the last decade: I refer to scholars like Ellen Neslo, Leo Balai, Aminata Cairo and Roline Redmond.[7] Their studies are in the heart of decolonizing history. Writing, they open new perspectives and explore material not looked at before.

Now, why do these historians not embrace a word like “totslaafgemaakte”? There are a number of reasons, reasons loosely attached one to another. If I distinguish them here, I do so solely to explain things better.

First of all they think that a term like “slaaf” is adequate in itself. The word bears in se the prime semantic notion of being deprived of freedom by somebody else. Nobody is a slave as a human being, and every human being is brought into a state of non-freedom and dominance once they are shackled. Even those people of whom is said that they were born slaves, are free-born people who from the day they see the light, are designated to be slave. This of course also means that every person who is regarded to be a slave, might potentially regain freedom. To change “slaaf” into “tot slaaf gemaakt” (is made a slave) is completely superfluous.

This way of looking at the word “slaaf” gains strong backing when we look at the definition given by the Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal, a descriptive scientific dictionary of Dutch from 1500 to the present day:

•slaaf (“slaaf”) zelfstandig naamwoord (mannelijk, gemeensl.)

1. Iemand die aan een meester in eigendom toebehoort.

2. Iemand die geheel afhankelijk of het willooze werktuig van een ander is.

3. Iemand wiens burgerlijke vrijheden sterk beknot zijn of die aan een vreemden overheerscher onderworpen is.

4. Iemand die genoodzaakt is geregeld zwaren arbeid te verrichten, inzonderheid in een ondergeschikte positie.

5. Iemand die zich van zekere neigingen of gewoonten niet kan losmaken, in zijn verhouding tot die neigingen of gewoonten beschouwd.

With the exception of the last, more metaphoric meaning of the word “slaaf”, all these definitions spotlight the element of being forced to do something (work) by somebody else who has more power than you have. So if we consider the composite “totslaafgemaakte” we have to conclude that adding another element of saying the same thing (tot… gemaakt) is purely tautological.

Out of this follows a second issue: the combination of the word “slaaf” (or plural: “slaven”) with another word is linguistically impossible. Composites like slavenarbeid (slave labour), slavenloods (slave shed), slavenschip (slave ship) cannot be combined with “totslaafgemaakte”: you cannot speak of “totslaafgemaaktenarbeid”, “totslaafgemaaktenloods”, “totslaafgemaaktenschip”. Languages always tend to follow the rules of economy: in word elements, in pronunciation, in grammatical structure languages generally develop towards the most economic, optimized form. If “slaaf” already in itself carries the meaning we want to express through the word, it will in the long run most likely win against a form like “totslaafgemaakte”, a word that is rather difficult to write and pronounce. This rule of economy is clear to every reader who reads one page of a text where the word “totslaafgemaakte” is used ten times (they do exist!): at the end of the page the reader gets irritated or giggly by this overkill in politically correct language. And what are we going to do with the word “marron”: “gevluchte tot slaaf gemaakten” (fleed enslaved)? – jede Konsequenz führt zum Teufel. (And all this not to speak of the perhaps somewhat personal esthetical appreciation of reading a very ugly word in Dutch – old-fashioned appreciation for the beauty of the Dutch language in times of internet stammering?). However, languages sometimes follow completely unexpected sideways. Predicting linguistic developments is a tricky business.

Titelpage of Amida of de verloste Amerikaansche slaaf (1779). Collection M. van Kempen.

Yet, there is another, perhaps more important argument for not using a word like “slaafgemaakte” and remaining with “slaaf”: “slaaf” is a historically coined word, bearing layers of connotations of gruesome realities of long ago or even of today’s brutalities. In extending the word to a word that includes our own perspective, we add somebody who does not belong to those times. Suddenly “slaaf” does not bring forward a whole reality of shameful interdependence between masters and subordinates, of power, violence and superior attitude, the word loses a lot of all its semantics not by enriching it with our perspective, but by reducing it to our perspective.

There is no sane person in the world who believes the reality behind slavery is not shameful, despicable, disgusting, condemnable. It is underestimating people’s comprehension of the word “slaaf” to try to explain that the reality of enslaved people is undesirable (to say the least) and not fitting in any frame of human dignity.[8] The word “totslaafgemaakte” shields us in the word itself, it makes us more important than we are and places us in a reality we are not part of. We take the word out of its user environment and we remove the historical shackles that the original word drags with it. We replace the word by an anachronistic term that stresses our subject position, whilst this position is already clear enough some many years after slavery. By doing so we dispose the word of its contemporary historical connotation and thus unnecessarily alienate the word from its timebound load. (This of course does not mean to implicate any statement on our ethical responsibility regarding slavery situations in our own times.)

Surinamese-Dutch psychologist and anthropologist Aminata Cairo, graduated in the University of Kentucky and laureate of the 2013 Martin Luther King Jr. Humanitarian Award, is one of the scholars defending this way of looking at the term “slaaf”. This long quote clarifies her position:

I am aware that “slave” is a very sensitive issue in the Netherlands. Many prefer to choose for the expression “tot slaaf gemaakte”. I respect this choice, but I want to indicate here that I am using the word slave expressly. I distinguish between those who were ripped out of Africa and transported to the Americas, and those who were born in slavery. The word “slave” has to remind me that there were people deprived of any right from the moment they were born. Slavery is a horrible institution that still exists. What I want is that every time we hear this word, we will be shaken up for a moment and will be aware of what we people can do to each other. So I do not want to ease it.

And Aminata Cairo adds to her clear positioning, this second argument:

In addition there is the argument that the term “tot slaaf gemaakten” is used to remind people that Africans were human beings. The fact that there has to be a special word to let me know that my ancestors were humans, is to me frankly insulting and ridiculous.[9]

I will conclude these considerations regarding the terms “slaaf” and “totslaafgemaakte” with a final note on a recent project carried out by Henna Goudzand Nahar and myself. Henna is a Caribbean writer and teacher of Dutch. We proposed to the Amsterdam University Press make an edition of the first modern Dutch slavery novel, De stille plantage (The Silent Plantation, 1931) by Surinamese Albert Helman. The book was to be published in Tekst in context, a series of historical texts by canonized Dutch authors, designated to be used in the sixth form college (high schools: vwo and havo). In preparing this edition all kinds of questions arose. There were issues of postcolonial contextualization, historical commentary and the way a text gets its actual significance in high schools. All these issues have their own sensibility in the light of recent debates on slavery and its impact on western societies. As editors we had to take into account more than ever before our own position and questions of ideological responsibility, apart from issues of didactical and pedagogical nature. The question arose whether such a modern edition does not touch more upon ideological language critique than postcolonial contextualization.[10] And so of course: what to do with the word “slaaf”? In his 1931-novel Albert Helman uses the word many times, and we didn’t consider replacing the word by another word for “modern readers”. But what to do with our own commentary texts, interwoven in the text of the novel? We decided to stick to the word “slaaf”, considering the arguments brought forward here above. But perhaps there was another argument, we did think of, without mentioning it explicitly: the first school edition of a postcolonial text is a giant leap, not for mankind of course, but for Dutch high school students it certainly is. In all the necessary discussions in debate centres and at universities we tend to forget that we have to start convincing readers who generally do not have any knowledge of slavery and all its complexities: students in secondary schools. Having to convince them means: we have to win them, we have to step into their mind-set to gradually extend their world of ideas and conceptions. Let’s start where they were: in slavery times, with slaves. And ethical issues will come in due time, sooner or later, but they will come for sure.


Abrahams, Frits, ‘Slaaf’ moet ‘slaaf’ blijven. NRC Handelsblad, 28 June 2019.

Balai, Leo , Het slavenschip Leusden. Slavenschepen en de West Indische Compagnie, 1720-1738. Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 2011.

Balai, Leo (a), Slavenschip Leusden; Moord aan de monding van de Marowijnerivier. Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 2013.

Balai, Leo (b), Geschiedenis van de Amsterdamse slavenhandel. Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 2013.

Balai, Leo, Herengracht 502. Slavenhandel, geweld en hebzucht 1672-1927. Edam: LM Publishers, 2021.

Balai, Leo, Marian Duff, Karwan Fatah-Black, Gijs Schunselaar, Willem te Slaa, Aan de Surinaamse grachten. [Catalogue.] Amsterdam: Museum van Loon, 2019.

Bergman, Sunny, Wit is ook een kleur. Amsterdam: Nijgh & Van Ditmar, 2016.

Blom, Ditter, Slavernij in het frame van eigendomsstrijd. Caraïbisch Uitzicht, 24.09.2019. (last seen 3 February 2020).

Boehmer, Elleke, Postcolonialism. In Patricia Waugh (ed.), Literary Theory and Criticism. An Oxford Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006, pp. 340-360.

Boon, Ton den, Aandacht voor het slavernijverleden leidt ook tot taalverandering. Trouw, 9 August 2017.

Cairo, Aminata, Yeye Sani: an Afro-Surinamese concept of the self in a model of mental well being. In: Mental Health, Religion & Culture, 1 June 2012, Vol.15 (5), pp. 467-483.

Cairo, Aminata, Hebi sani e dansi; Dans als een uiting van geestelijk welzijn onder slavernij. In: Michiel van Kempen, Het andere postkoloniale oog; Onbekende kanten van de Nederlandse (post)koloniale cultuur en literatuur. Onder redactie van Michiel van Kempen. Hilversum: Verloren, 2020, pp. 91-111.

Cunaeus, Petrus, De Republyk der Hebreen, of Gemeenebest der joden, In drie Boeken door den Geleerden Heer Petrus Cunaeus. Amsterdam: Wilhelmus Goeree, 1685.

Funnekotter, Bart, Door slavernij bleef Holland een handelsnatie van belang. NRC Handelsblad, 25 June 2019.

Eddo-Lodge, Reni, Waarom ik niet meer met witte mensen over racisme praat. Antwerpen: Polos, 2019.

Essed, Philomena & Isabel Hoving (eds.), Dutch racism. Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2005. Thamyris, intersecting: place, sex and race, no. 27.

Euwijk, Jop & Frank Rensen, De identiteitscrisis van Zwarte Piet. Amsterdam: Atlas/Contact, 2017.

Goudzand-Nahar, Henna & Michiel van Kempen (eds.), De stille plantage – Albert Helman. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2019. (Tekst in context 14.)

Hira, Sandew, Hoe duur was de suiker? Niet duur. [Site], 3 October 2013.( last seen 3-2-2020).

Holman, Theodor, Toch vind ik de term ‘slaaf’ beter dan ‘tot slaaf gemaakte’. Het Parool, 28 June 2019.

Kempen, Michiel van (a), Postkoloniale teksten als leesteksten binnen het huidige onderwijs. In: Werkwinkel, 13 (2019), nr. 1-2, juli, pp. 27–44.

Kempen, Michiel van (b), Het nieuwe lezen en de vernieuwing van het leesonderwijs in een postkoloniale wereld. In: His/Her tori, tijdschrift voor Surinaamse cultuur en geschiedenis (Anton de Kom-Universiteit van Suriname), nr. 8, augustus 2019, pp. 41-57.

Lovejoy, Paul E., Identity in the shadow of slavery. London/New York: Continuum Publishers, 2000.

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.

Neslo, Ellen, Een ongekende elite; De opkomst van een gekleurde elite in koloniaal Suriname 1800-1863. Utrecht: HaEs Producties, 2016. (Diss.)

Nzume, Anousha, Hallo witte mensen. 2e druk. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017.

Özdil, Zihni, Nederland mijn vaderland. Amsterdam: De Bezige Bij. Horzels, 2015.

Redmond, Roline, De Doorsons; Op zoek naar een Afro-Amerikaanse slavenfamilie in het Caribisch gebied. Amsterdam: De Arbeiderspers, 2021.

Sanders, Ewoud, De slaafgemaakten. NRC Handelsblad, 3 July 2019.

Stipriaan, Alex van, Slavernij en de strijd om Afro-Surinaamse identiteit. Tijdschrift voor geschiedenis, 117 (4), 2004, pp. 522-542

Till, Willem van, “Niemand is van nature slaaf en niemand wordt als slaaf geboren.” De Volkskrant, 10 April 2018.

Wekker, Gloria, White Innocence. Paradoxes of Colonialism and Race. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2016.

Michiel van Kempen (1957) is a professor in Dutch-Caribbean Culture and Literature at the University of Amsterdam. He vice-president of the Werkgroep Caraïbische Letteren and president of the Edgar Cairo Foundation. He has published extensively on literatures of Suriname and the former Dutch Antilles, a.o. Deep-rooted words (Voetnoot, 1992), Welcome to the Caribbean, darling! (Amsterdam University Press, 2007) and Cityscapes + birdmen (Voetnoot, Antwerpen 2010). His latest books are Shifting the Compass: Intercontinental Connections in Dutch Colonial and Post-Colonial Literature (Camdrige Scholars, 2013) and Het andere postkoloniale oog. Onbekende kanten van de Nederlandse (post)koloniale literatuur en cultuur (Verloren, 2020). He has been knighted both in Suriname and The Netherlands.

[1] Boehmer 2006: 340.

[2] Within a few years were published Dutch Racism (2014) by Philomena Essed and Isabel Hoving, White innocence (2016) by Gloria Wekker, written primarily for an academic audience. For the public in general books appeared like Nederland mijn vaderland (The Netherlands, my native country, 2015) van Zihni Özdil, Wit is ook een kleur (White is a colour too, 2016) by Sunny Bergman, Hallo witte mensen (Hello, white people, 2017) by Anoushka Nzume, De identiteitscrisis van Zwarte Piet (The Identity Crisis of Black Pete, 2017) by Jop Euwijk and Frank Rensen and (in Belgium) Waarom ik niet meer met witte mensen over racisme praat (Why I do not talk to white people anymore on racism, 2019) by Reni Eddo-Lodge.

[3] Words matter. Onderzoekspublicatie over mogelijk gevoelige woorden in de museale sector.

Samengesteld door het Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen (Tropenmuseum, Afrika Museum, Museum Volkenkunde, Wereldmuseum). On-line:

[4] Lovejoy 2000: 20.

[5] Blom 2019 writes this in a critique of Karwan Fatah-Blacks book Eigendomsstrijd.

[6] Van Stipriaan 2004.

[7] Balai 2011, Balai 2013a and 2013b, Balai 2021, Cairo 2012, Neslo 2015, Neslo 2016, Redmond 2021.

[8] Willem van Till argues that the term ‘tot slaaf gemaakten’ is a form of pedantic language use, since everybody knows very well that unjustice is inflicted upon slaves. He adds what we said before: “slave” does not mean to be a slave by nature, not even for those who in judicial terms were born as slaves (Van Till 2018). Other contributions to this discussion were given by Den Boon 2017, Funnekotter 2019, Holman 2019, Abrahams 2019, Sanders 2019.

[9] My translation – MvK. Dutch original: “Ik ben mij bewust dat in Nederland het woord ‘slaaf’ erg gevoelig ligt. Velen kiezen er liever voor om de uitdrukking ‘tot slaaf gemaakte’ te gebruiken. Ik respecteer die keuze, maar wil hier aangeven dat ik het woord slaaf juist expres gebruik. Ik maak onderscheid tussen hen die direct uit Afrika gerukt zijn en vervoerd naar de Amerika’s en zij die in slavernij geboren zijn. Het woord ‘slaaf’ moet voor mij juist eraan herinneren dat er mensen zijn van wie alle rechten ontnomen zijn vanaf het moment dat ze geboren worden. Slavernij is een verschrikkelijke institutie die nog steeds bestaat. Ik wil dus juist dat iedere keer als wij dat woord horen dat wij even geschud en bewust worden over wat wij mensen elkaar aan kunnen doen. Ik wil het dus niet verzachten. Daarnaast is er ook het argument dat de term ‘tot slaaf gemaakten’ gebruikt wordt om mensen eraan te herinneren dat de Afrikanen mensen waren. Het feit dat er een speciaal woord moet zijn om mij te laten weten dat mijn voorouders mensen waren, is voor mij eerder en eerlijk gezegd beledigend en belachelijk.” (Cairo 2020: 91)

[10] I have dealt with these issues extensively in two papers (Van Kempen 2019a en 2019b).


Michiel van Kempen, ‘On the Use of Dutch “Slaaf” and “Totslaafgemaakte”.’ In: Against Better Judgement: Rethinking Multicultural Society. Liber Amicorum: In Honour of Professor Dr Ruben Gowricharn. Edited by Jaswina Elahi, Sandra Trienekens and Hans Ramsoedh. Leiden/Boston: Brill, 2022, pp. 65-75.

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