Een rondje Rijksmuseum en de gevolgen van koloniale geschiedschrijving

MASTER ANTROPOLOGIE – Ik loop door het Rijksmuseum, wandel door de gangen met 17e-eeuwse kunst en koloniale geschiedenis van Nederland. Ik bewonder een reconstructie van een groot VOC-schip en de portretten van de helden die de Nederlanders roem en rijkdom brachten eromheen. Teksten op de muren beschrijven de Gouden Eeuw, met zijn slimme koopmannen en handelaren, zeehelden en de gevechten tegen andere koloniale machten voor zilver en specerijen. Er bekruipt me een ongemakkelijk gevoel. De andere kant van het verhaal, de zwarte pagina’s uit diezelfde geschiedenis worden weggelaten: slavernij, uitbuiting, landroof en zelfs massamoord. Wat zegt deze manier van geschiedschrijving over ons, en wat zijn daar nu nog de gevolgen van?

Onderstaand essay schreef ik als onderdeel van de master Sociale en Culturele Antropologie.

A walk in the Rijksmuseum

The reframing of colonial history and its implications

I walk through the 17th century department of the Dutch national art and history museum, the Rijksmuseum. It shows an immense wooden ship on which the VOC (the Dutch East India Company) sailed to what is now called Indonesia. The portraits of the heroes who brought colonial wealth to the Netherlands hang around it. As I walk past the writings on the walls telling about the Golden Age, with its heroes of the sea, battling against other colonial powers, and about smart merchants and traders, a feeling of awkwardness comes over me. It makes Dutch people proud of their history, which brought them so much fame and wealth at the time. But the other side of the story, about the black pages of Dutch colonial history, that tell about slave trade, exploitation, acquisition of land, and even mass murder, are merely neglected.

This museum visit – a few weeks ago –popped into my mind while learning about the (lack of) recognition of cultural wounding (Kearney 2014) and the suffering of indigenous peoples and slaves. In this essay I will focus on the importance of recognition by former colonial governments of the harm done to indigenous peoples, slaves, and their descendants. I use the concepts of governmentality and cultural wounding and healing to analyse the implications of how former colonial powers nowadays delineate their pasts.

Denial, governmentality, and cultural wounding

My experience in the Rijksmuseum seems similar to Ödzil’s (2014) in the Mauritshuis, another relic of the Dutch colonial time, turned into a museum. He states that in this museum, too, there is a lack of attention to the involvement in slave trade of ‘hero’ Johan Maurits, who was the governor-general of Dutch Brazil, which was colonized by the Dutch Republic between 1630 and 1654 (Ödzil 2014:52). In addition, he cites Weiner (2014) about the current history books of children about the colonial time:

Dutch textbooks ‘obscure and distort the Netherlands’ role in enslaving Africans [and] justify their history of colonialism, exploitation, oppression and genocide for profit and labor […] Furthermore, they racialize White Dutch as largely uninvolved with the dehumanization and exploitation of Africans but as good traders, or businessmen […]’ (Weiner 2014:16-17, cited in Ödzil 2014:51). Ödzil uses the metaphor of ‘pasteurization’: the systematic underplaying of the role of the Dutch during slave-trade periods, ‘to not upset’ the Dutch public (2014:50-51).

Similarly, the Australian government mediates the Australian colonial era as a great and a merely positive “contribution to the Australian ethos and character, denying the depth of suffering and wounding experienced by Indigenous people […]” (Kearney 2014:608). Kearney argues that by not recognizing, in historical accounts, the indigenous peoples’ cultural wound of the colonial land acquisition, genocide, loss of social structures and way of life (among other things), achieved even further wounding of many indigenous Australians (ibid:608).

The term ‘cultural wounding’ is introduced by Kearney as providing “an analysis of ethnicity and ethnic identities that have experienced trauma through inter-ethnic conflict” (2014: 597). She states that wounding arose among indigenous peoples in the colonial era, by forced relocation, murder, taking of lands and resource, forced change of languages, etcetera (ibid: 598). Whilst arguing that wounding also implicates the capacity to heal, she delineates different conditions under which ‘cultural healing’ is possible. One is the recognition and acceptance of the wound, by both the wounded (indigenous peoples, slaves) and the wounding (the colonizers, slave traders).

Applying the above on the Dutch case, this links back to the argument of Ödzil (2014) that forasmuch colonial history of slavery is denied – or, in other words, the recognition of the cultural wound of slaves and their descendants – the existence of racism in Dutch society is ignored, neglected, not recognized, leading to a ‘white privilege’ (ibid:58).

The practices of reframing history for the benefit of the colonizers, seems a good practical example of governmentality. That is “the rationality characteristic of the systematic thinking, reflection, or knowledge that is integral to different modes of governing” (Sending and Neumann 2006:657, cited in Tedesco 2015:15). Or, when applied here, it shows that through emphasis on certain topics in history education – through school books and museums – people incorporate an image of history that is determined by the government. As we analyse governmentality in the case of Dutch history writing, as becomes visible in Ödzil’s (2014) argument, people act upon this by the statement that racism does not exists in the Netherlands, and that the colonial times are over. That he calls ‘exceptionalism’: the supposed Dutch exception in the world, where racism does not play a role anymore (ibid:50;54).

The other perspective

The lack of reckoning with indigenous perspectives, not only in history but also in current well-being assessments and laws of the land, is described in different ways by Sangha et al. (2015) and Luk (2014).

Sangha et al. argue that there is a lack of focus on the perspectives of indigenous people when assessing well-being, which mostly overlooks indigenous strong ties to nature and the ecosystem. These assessments are only done by Western standards, according to them (Sangha et al. 2015:199). They argue that, when assessing well-being of indigenous people, or, the ‘culturally wounded’ (Kearney 2014), should be investigated through their own perspectives. In the Dutch racism-discussion as addressed by Ödzil (2014), we should then listen to the victims of racism, instead of denying the existence of it.

Overall, this is also what Luk (2014) advocates. Whereas he has a legal approach on the ownership of indigenous lands in Canada, he concludes by arguing that the indigenous laws and rights should be acknowledged and combined with Canadian state-laws that are now exclusively practiced.

By the acknowledgement, recognition, and implementation of indigenous laws, perspectives on well-being, the process of cultural healing (Kearney 2014) could be enforced, and relations between indigenous and non-indigenous, or, in Dutch society, between colonizers and the colonized, could be reconciled. Governmentality could be used in better ways by the state, I believe, by a different framing of history that recognizes the flaws and black pages of the colonial book, in line with Özdil (2014).


In this essay I focused on the importance of recognition by former colonial governments of the harm done to indigenous peoples, slaves and other ‘culturally wounded’ people. The concept of governmentality in combination with the Ödzil’s (2014) argument on ‘pasteurization’ sheds light on the implications of the framing of history by governments for victims of racism, and accordingly, for the culturally wounded indigenous peoples in the world. Highlighting cultural wounding concept of Kearney (2014) allows for an analysis of what makes ethnicities (still) struggle for healing. Walking through the Rijksmuseum should provide visitors with a complete history of, among other things, the Dutch colonial era, including all its flaws and black pages of harm to other peoples. This is a start in the inclusion of minorities or culturally wounded people, in public debates, their perspectives on the law, and overall well-being.



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Kearney, A. (2014). Ethnicity, Cultural Wounding and the ‘Healing Project’: What Happens When the Wounded Survive? Ethnicities, pp. 1-18.

Luk S. (2014). The Law of the Land: New Jurisprudence on Aboriginal Title. Supreme Court Review 67 S.C.L.R. (2d), pp. 189-317.

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