Dutch historian and professor at Leiden University Piet Emmer offered some insights into colonialism in an interview with Dutch (MSM) newspaper De Volkskrant. He destroys the currently popular narrative with all kinds of pesky things like facts.
The past is like a foreign land. Nowadays, we have the strange habit of thinking that our values have always existed. This is projected strongly on our colonial past and our role in the slave trade. This is a causing an iconoclasm in The Netherlands: statues of historical figures have to be taken down, streets and institutions which refer to them have to change names, et cetera. This is madness. We should not look at history from our own perspective, but through the eyes of contemporaries in that period.
If you understand labor relations in Europe in those days, the step to involvement in slavery overseas becomes less extreme. There was no free market of labor where people had options. Orphan boys were made to work on board the VOC’s ships, which is forced child labor. Or if a mine was sold in Scotland, the miners were sold along with it without having a choice. There were many slaves in Eastern Europe. We feel terrible about that kind of coercion now, but we can’t blame people from those days for not being aware of 21st century morals.
Don’t forget that during the colonial age, we actually ended slavery in Asia and Africa, and we put a stop to a lot of the pillaging and plundering there. We modernized health care, agriculture, education and government. We introduced them to sewer systems, clean water, phone lines, roads and rail roads. We’re no longer allowed to point this out, but colonialism is what brought about modern civilization.
All calculations show that the slave trade was of marginal importance to the average Dutch person. Even at its peak, profits from the slave trade in the Netherlands amounted to 0.005% of the national income. Other sectors were far more important, like trade, agriculture, fishing and industry. Only 20 out of 2,000 active Dutch ships were involved in the slave trade.
The people who are most vocal about slavery today are greatly exaggerating. They make it seem like our country made huge profits off of it, and like we owe all of our wealth to it. They often speak of people who were “made slaves”, suggesting that the Dutch were running around Africa with a butterfly net to catch the locals and ship them off. In reality, Africa already had a long history of slavery; some were born slaves, others were made slaves as prisoners of war, criminals or because they were unable to repay a debt. It was Africans who decided where, when and how many slaves were sold and to whom.
We shouldn’t seek to erase the past, but to keep it, study it and understand it. And then we should be very glad to realize that we live in the present.
His new book, Beyond ‘thinking in black and white’ , will be released soon (in Dutch). It is a response to a 2015 book by Ewald Vanvugt which denounced The Netherlands as a “nation of robbery”. While Vanvugt’s book was launched in famous Amsterdam concert hall Paradiso, inspired rap songs and was lauded on TV and in the papers, Piet Emmer is expecting harsh responses to his work in stead. Emmer, who earned his PhD with research into the Dutch and British slave trade in the 19th century, decided to release the book anyway to show that the current narrative, which is (not in his own words) decidedly anti-western, is false, misleading and dishonest.
Let it be clear that Piet Emmer unequivocally rejects slavery and emphasizes in this interview that slavery is (obviously) terrible. But he shows that the historical facts are vastly different from what anti-slavery and anti-racism activists would have us believe. Colonialism and slavery are part of the history of the world, and as such part of the history of the West as well. That does not mean that the West is to blame for all of it, or that everything one sees wrong with the world today can be blamed on it.