Colonialism casts a long shadow. The history of European colonialism spanned over 500 years and was marked by exploitation, human rights violations and atrocities. European colonial powers brutally exploited local people, enslaving and killing millions and looting raw materials and cultural artifacts. Yet, while these facts are well established by historians, many former European colonial powers have still not admitted the full extent of their historical crimes.

The long-term consequences of colonialism can still be felt: they shape economic realities in former colonies and are the basis for existing global inequalities and power relations; underlying racism still affects the lives of people of colour in Europe today. The EU recognised this fact in a resolution in 2019 calling for action against structural racism, including promoting a discussion on public apologies and reparations for colonial crimes.

Statues, street names, and museums remind us of the past. There are still traces of colonial history all over Europe today. After years of campaigning, however, some of this historical legacy is being re-examined. Traditions are also being modified: for example, after years of protests, the popular Dutch “Zwarte Piet” character is now commonly daubed with rainbow facepaint or chimney soot instead of the blackface boot polish which is increasingly condemned as racist and degrading.

What do our readers think? Bruno sent us in a comment arguing that Europeans don’t have a moral obligation to confront their history of colonialism and slavery because it is in the past. These were historical crimes perpetrated by people (and against people) who died a long time ago, so we don’t need to dwell on them.

To get a response, we put Bruno’s comment to Dr. Valika Smeulders, head of the history department at the Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands and curator of an exhibition on slavery. How would she respond to Bruno?

Some people have used this argument to prevent colonialism being discussed in public. For a long time, Europe’s colonial past was not really examined critically in museums, but we can see that it is very much an important issue in today’s public debate. So, I think hushing it up didn’t work. What we see in the media and on social media shows that this topic is very relevant to a lot of people.

I think, in order to understand today’s societies in Europe, we need to know more about the past. In the case of the Netherlands, the colonial era lasted 250 years. The relationship between the European part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and the Caribbean part is 400 years old and still exists. By talking about all aspects of their common history, countries build a common sense of connectedness.

We had a very different perspective sent in by Bernard, who thinks that all Europeans have to grapple with the history of colonialism because our nations have historically enriched themselves at the expense of other countries and people.

We put Bernard’s comment to Dr. Karamba Diaby, a Member of the German Bundestag and integration commissioner for the Social Democratic Party’s parliamentary group, as well as a member of the committee for education, research and technology assessment and a campaigner against racism and hate speech, particularly online. Would he agree with Bernard?

[Former European colonial powers] should work together to develop concepts and ideas about how to come to terms with their history… They should work together to create a culture of remembrance in general, not only for [one country], but also for all other European countries.

Colonial injustice must be recognised from all sides as part of the culture of remembrance, anchoring it in textbooks, in museums, but also in depictions of all kinds. This colonial history must then be dealt with without clichés… I think the approach I am describing indicates that we should not adopt a Eurocentric view of these matters, but that we should always see that the other side in this history – the countries that were colonised – also want to have a say. Europe should try to find a solution together with them in dialogue, in international exchange, looking forward together.

Next up, our reader Rick believes that many traditions in Europe, such as Zwarte Piet in the Netherlands, are a direct result of colonialism. Should we abolish or change these traditions? How would Dr. Valika Smeulders respond?

Discrimination is something that is universal. It took place in the past and is still happening today all over the world, at all times. However, something unprecedented happened during the colonial era: racism was institutionalised. Slavery has always existed, but in colonial times racism was used to legitimise slavery. It was used to create a hierarchy between Europe and Africa and other parts of the world.

Since that era, we have seen that black people are depicted in a special way in art. They were stereotyped, portrayed as servants in portraits. When slavery ended, racism continued to be used as a legitimation for what was happening before, and now it was done through pseudoscience. In this context, the figure of Zwarte Piet was created. So yeah, I think it’s time to ditch this tradition and rethink it. Actually, I think it has already happened. I think we’re already celebrating Sinterklaas in a much broader way by leaving the idea of Zwarte Piet behind. In this new form everyone can enjoy the festivities.

Our reader Filipe, on the other hand, argues we should not judge European history with today’s moral standards. How does Dr. Karamba Diaby see it?

Of course we can judge European history with today’s moral standards… How else can we judge stories of historical injustice that still affect people today, including the children, grandchildren and descendants of peoples who have experienced injustice?

For example, the story of Namibia, the injustice and the annihilation of the Nama and Herero. I would call that genocide. And a lot of similar injustice also happened in the colonial era. You cannot ‘put that into perspective’. You cannot say that it was right back then and wrong today. No, injustice is injustice. We cannot say that one is more serious than the other. We have to approach the past openly and deal with it critically so that we can really remain equal in today’s world in international dialogue.

How should Europe confront its colonial past? How should we deal with traditions that date back to the colonial era? Can you judge the past by today’s moral standards? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policymakers and experts for their reactions!

Image Credits: “Kaiser Wilhelm II, 1905. By Eric Bieber” by Royal Opera House Covent Garden is licensed under CC BY 2.0Portait Credits: Ute Langkafel


31 comments Post a commentcomment

What do YOU think?

  1. avatar
    Craig

    It shouldn’t. It’s the past. No other way things could have turned out then how they did. Move forward. Learn from mistakes. Be better.

    • avatar
      Alexander

      like colonialism is a think of the past. We need then a better term for establishing dictatorships for extracting local resources. Imperialism? :/

  2. avatar
    Tuija

    European and Global watch and help to limit harmful actions of predator companies or otherwise colonialism type international business, such as mining, infra etc. The help and support should benefit the countries that own the resources, no matter where the country is. Im sad about foreign mining and electricity transfer infra in Finland, for example! Help us to better our legislation and rules to avoid economical and environmental abuse

  3. avatar
    Jesper

    Of cause. We need to learn from history. However, it will have to be balanced. We don’t learn anything from destroying or denying our history, but from talking about it and confronting the wrong turns we took along the way. When confronting our history, we will have to take into account the way the culture was at the time. We can’t compare the actions to what we think, know, and do today, but we can – and should – certainly learn and grow, from the mistakes we have made.

    • avatar
      Jan

      I think Jesper’s reply is spot on, I only add that just because societal norms change that there are often specific agendas fueling those changes, some for the better some not. Cultural acceptance is not the stand for right and wrong.

  4. avatar
    Daniel

    Confront? Why?! We can not judge History or the past with the wisdom of the future… How Egyptians deal with their past, or mexicans with aztecs that would kill people to praise Gods, and eat human flesh… We can’t change the past, but we all can accept it, recognize and make it a better future.Not all was bad, language, culture, behaviors lead to better points now a days, per example, people from both places were able to travel, have more knowledge about science, health and improve life quality over the years, of course it was not immediate but fortunatelly we have had people with enough enlightment to support people, per example, having Ramanujan was amazing, but also in other points of history having Schindler, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, and others wether in or not in the context of colonialism.So looking onward, looking to the future, we must be aware that we have language in common and cultural values, if we pass integrity, if we provide support in terms of development, educational, health, economical, we can built future countries of tremendous strength in Africa and South America.The other thing we must have in consideration is why we are talking this, and here the problematic is not so different as the point of ISIS in which certain persons on society would go rogue and join the extremist group, this as two points, one is social media, that makes the loop to keep on feeding on those points, and then is support by other entities, foreign entities that take advantage of the caos of having creating issues where they don’t exist, the thing is that those entities finance directly and indirectly to trigger more wider movements, and this is just strategy, “if there’s no enemy within the enemy outside can do us no harm”.So we must understand what is triggering some movements and in other perspective work proactively to make better relationships with countries that share some equal culture, we can start by language per example, and expand economical growth in both parts. We all must seek to find our equalities and not our differences.

  5. avatar
    Michał

    Stop forcing Eastern Europeans to accept your worthless definitions of things (eg ‘rule of law’) and threatening them if they don’t.The parts of Eastern Europe in the EU were, in many cases some of the first to be colonized, many centuries ago.If European governments were sincere about making amends for colonialism, this would be totally obvious.

  6. avatar
    Edgar

    I will not ask the Arabs about why have they colonized parts of Africa before everyone else, or the Iberic Peninsula.Secondly, you have the horrendous colonizations of the French, English and Spanish speaking countries. Then you have the case of Portugal.

  7. avatar
    Rick

    Confront? Why confront the past? Overcome the past? That’s easy. Study it to understand why it happened and what to do to avoid repeating it (or not) in the future.

  8. avatar
    Xirristi

    How about confronting our colonial present? Hey, I’m Catalan, you see… We are a few million actually, with a GDP above those of Greece or Portugal, and the tenth most spoken language in Europe. Yet, for the sake of “convenience”, Europe turns a blind eye on Spain’s colonial grip of our country, using systematic disinformation, violence and perversion of justice. Europe wants us invisible, swept under the carpet. Dead.

    • avatar
      Jan

      Xirristi Mirristi If the main challenge of Europe is uniting under shared values then why is independence such a fundamental issue for the Catalans.

  9. avatar
    Dion

    How should Turkey, Mongolia, Iran, saudi Arabia & co confront their colonial past?Which europe you mean btw? Finland sweden Bulgaria? Start from improving your geography knowledge. History is a mess without it.

  10. avatar
    Natasha

    Why confronting what we can’t change? Just do better next time. Destroying monuments, works of art and rewriting historical books is not a good idea, by the way.

  11. avatar
    Daniel Tanque

    Confront? Why?! We can not judge History or the past with the wisdom of the future… How Egyptians deal with their past, or mexicans with aztecs that would kill people to praise Gods, and eat human flesh… We can’t change the past, but we all can accept it, recognize and make it a better future.
    Not all was bad, language, culture, behaviors lead to better points now a days, per example, people from both places were able to travel, have more knowledge about science, health and improve life quality over the years, of course it was not immediate but fortunatelly we have had people with enough enlightment to support people, per example, having Ramanujan was amazing, but also in other points of history having Schindler, Aristides de Sousa Mendes, and others wether in or not in the context of colonialism.
    So looking onward, looking to the future, we must be aware that we have language in common and cultural values, if we pass integrity, if we provide support in terms of development, educational, health, economical, we can built future countries of tremendous strength in Africa and South America.
    The other thing we must have in consideration is why we are talking this, and here the problematic is not so different as the point of ISIS in which certain persons on society would go rogue and join the extremist group, this as two points, one is social media, that makes the loop to keep on feeding on those points, and then is support by other entities, foreign entities that take advantage of the caos of having creating issues where they don’t exist, the thing is that those entities finance directly and indirectly to trigger more wider movements, and this is just strategy, “if there’s no enemy within the enemy outside can do us no harm”.
    So we must understand what is triggering some movements and in other perspective work proactively to make better relationships with countries that share some equal culture, we can start by language per example, and expand economical growth in both parts. We all must seek to find our equalities and not our differences.

  12. avatar
    Fábio

    Most of European countries nowadays are being colonized by germany and I dont see anyone doing anything about that…

  13. avatar
    Olivier

    We must be proud of our colonial past. France created Algerie built hospital schools road train tracks petrol industry… Same in Africa where GDP per head dropped after indépendance.. Our history has not to be updated…

  14. avatar
    Μάρκος

    You mean the behavior that Germany reserve to all the other countries in the E.U. on 21st century, that dont permitt any other economy to rise ? Or the “Dictatorships” that imposed from 2010 and after to the countries of the South E.U. due to full implementation of the Austerity Programs that Ruined the E.U. ?

  15. avatar
    Jan

    it’s a challenging issue especially if you broaden the scope of discussion by not focusing only on the transgressions involving European empires, kingdoms or nations

  16. avatar
    catherine benning

    How should Europe confront its colonial past?

    Exactly how do you plan to change history? In fact, the rest of the world needs to come up to our standards before we ‘confront’ anything to do with our history. Whatever confront means in this circumstance. If you believe present day people of Europe must pay ridiculous subsidies to other parts of the planet, then you need to explain why you think that and how you plan to scam todays expanded Europeans to do so. Half of whom presently have very little to survive on in the first place. How do you plan for Europeans to shell out that way? More important, why would they want to do that? For what? Ancestry decisions made light years before we existed?

    What I think you need to take an in depth look at is, the ancestry of the planet as a whole. And equally as importantly, what is going on in other parts of the world today where they once felt colonised. Slavery being a big issue as it’s still carried out in 160 countries where the cultures enjoy that kind of economy. Do you seriously believe you are going to change that situation?

    On the other hand, Europe and the West in general may want to ask what right they believe they have in considering interfering in others internal affairs when they have starvation, homelessness and illiteracy right here on our doorstep which must be put right first.

    Once you have accomplished the good for our tax paying public in their own lands, then you can teach others how to do it by example. That is, if they want to receive such instruction. Educate the UN on that issue before you contemplate their insistence on scamming our people of their tax money in order to improve their own conditions at home.

    This is an absurd question to put here. It is psychotic thinking. What is it the profferers of such ideas feel they are going to make from this notion? Prosperity for those who pay their wages? Prosperity for the citizens being the vote grabbing intention they sell, in order to get into such enormous positions of power.

    https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/confront

  17. avatar
    Rose

    Accept that they took away with force what was others in order to get rich and letting others no choice but being poor.

  18. avatar
    EU Reform Proactive

    Pity you don’t know!

    The ever martyred, disadvantaged, lamenters & opportunists at it again!

    Sorry, but Dr. Karamba Diaby is neither a legal nor an authority on Europe’s history & law but just a German politician & SPD member. He has to follow the rules of his SPD Masters & the Party’s Constitution! Does he?

    His opinion is private and as good or bad as anybody else’s in the EU, Europe, globally, or here on this comment page. He introduces more confusion than clarity & was a controversial choice by the DE/FoE.

    There exists the law of “prescription”- limitations. Debt becomes null & void (prescribed) if no legal summons has been sought or issued between ~3-15 years since its occurrence- depending on countries. Should that be an EU oversight & not clear-such a law has to be introduced to cover historical claims going back centuries- before the UN or the EU came into being.

    First responders have to be all ex Feudalists, Royals & Nobles in Europe- but never ever today’s taxpayer- who were equally previously disadvantaged.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Statute_of_limitation

    Even if our confused EU politicians, FoE or DE journalists might want to bankrupt future generations and extend this limitation to say 40 years or even three generations (~75 years) for occurrences during Europe’s period of “Feudalism” (1500-1850) & nationalism until the end of WWII (1945) when the UN was formed & Supranationalism came in vogue.

    It is the 27 Members taxpayer’s money that is thrown into the devil’s (mainly African) corruption pit. I consider that wasteful & unlawful expenditure! Sorry- no ways, no-deal & would require first a referendum!

    Even miss-deeds in history “prescribe” eventually and become part of the evolution of human history= history books

    https://www.britannica.com/topic/feudalism

    https://quizlet.com/128287371/middle-ages-feudalism-to-nationalism-flash-cards/

    https://www.investopedia.com/terms/s/supranational.asp

    The search to hold someone accountable in 2020 can be seen as either a mischievious attempt by the ex-Feudalist & Nobel’s in Europe or African opportunists’ to shift historical deeds” & guilt onto today’s taxpayers. Or- a game of quid pro quo- on the back of all taxpayers to protect e.g. “the new French aspiring Napoleon’s” Uranium mines in Africa, etc. Politicians who suddenly act like angles are a suspicious species!

    Priorities: Continue to develop Europe’s scientific advancements & its economy, reduce debt, eliminate unemployment- specifically help the youth and apply the law- not pipe dreams!

    For those who wish to continue to hold the “Feudalists” of the past accountable- please go ahead- try your luck! Today’s taxpayers have enough political nonsense & financial burdens to deal with!

    If that is unsatisfactory- here is another pipedream option:

    Introduce an EU version of a “Hajj- Umrah” to Brussels. Reconstruct King Leopold’s gravesite & build the EU ‘jamarat’ where 27 EU pebbles & rocks can be thrown at this Feudalistic Satan. To conform to the EU circular economy- these rocks should be locally produced & sold on-site by the unemployed EU youth during the day & recycled at night by a 2nd shift- to be sold once more and thrown again & again. It would help the tourism industry, heal trauma & fix posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). How wonderful!

  19. avatar
    Vijaykumar

    Europe remains responsible for the consequences and effects of its colonial past. Consequences can include institutional racism, discrimination, oppression and inequality to date, created in the past. In the Netherlands, for example, besides controversial statues and streets- they still glorify blackface, a racist stereotype whereas African people still are being dehumanized and the newer generations are therefore still responsible for as they still benefiting from it by dehumanizing Africans. So the common argument: ‘it’s all in the past” remains a worthless and stupid excuse. Europe’s colonial past belongs in the museums.

    • avatar
      EU Reform Proactive

      @Vi….

      Isn’t it easier to climb up a high horse than to get off?
      A gentle reminder of one of the countless similar problems humankind is saddled with. Example India:

      * Is India’s Caste System Still Alive?
      * Who introduced such a shameful & dehumanizing concept?
      * Who will financially compensate all lower casts?

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HyCQDIwHlXY
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1J4dKnYYIYk
      https://asiasociety.org/education/jati-caste-system-india

      PS: I am not sure if I posted/sent it or not. If duplicated, my sincere apology.

    • avatar
      catherine benning

      Vijaykumar

      And the rest of the vast world, where the origins of those who look for compensation have no responsibility for their own situation. Or, I take it, for the situation they revel in today? Where do you get the idea these people are children? You don’t see yourself as dehumanising these childlike individuals then? Excluding the fact you put forward the assumption they are brainless is not a reduction of respect. Especially as they know where to emigrate in order to find a better life. They really felt our lifestyle was an option they didn’t want to lose when we pulled back on colonisation, did they. They followed us home in their million and fight tooth and nail not to be returned ‘back home.’

      Let’s take the life and times of Shamima Begum, shall we? She is murderous in her chosen country, assisting in the severing of heads and putting them in bins and agrees this was the right thing to do. Now she expects the tax payer she despises and everything of this lifestyle, seen by her as abhorrent since a child, yet is pushes relentlessly to get back to our horrid, colonising, lifestyle and the country that raised her from birth. Additionally, wants us to pay for her horrendous disruption to us, along with her wrapped up financially in it, via our law system. Do look into the reality sector for a little while. And reject the indoctrination you seem to admire so deeply. Please…. It doesn’t wash any more.

      https://uk.search.yahoo.com/search?ei=UTF-8&fr=crmas&p=responsibility+definition

      https://www.telegraph.co.uk/shamima-begum/

  20. avatar
    Tony

    Don’t judge the past with the eyes and values of today. What has been done is done. Look to the future and stop trying to modify the past. People going hungry in Europe and here we are worried about things from hundreds of years ago.

  21. avatar
    Kahraman Marangoz

    How Europe should confront it’s colonial past?
    Hole Europe should together confront this past to be united that it is of the past and not of the Europe of today. Together confronting brings more equal minded Europeans together. Europeans from all colours, Europeans from all different backgrounds. Together confronting is how I think Europe should deal with it’s colonial past, that can be done with holding a week or long an event where attention is given to this subject.

  22. avatar
    maskedman

    The Europeans who have a colonial past are still living in the past. Do not forget that the colonization of the Americas, Africa and Australia was triggered by the invasion of the Ottoman Turks in Europe.

    The Europeans should be ashamed that Constantinople or (Istanbul) which was an ancient Byzantine Greek city was left to be captured and looted by the Muslim Turkish Invaders. This is just so unfair. Rome is free, but Constantinople is surrounded by Mosques. All of the Christian world should be ashamed by this.

    The second Roman empire was slayed by the Moslem barbarians such as the Turks. I thought that Christianity and Jesus Christ meant something to the European civilization and to all Christians. This is the reason why Europe had to colonize. Some European counties, because of this still live in the past.

Your email will not be published

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Notify me of new comments. You can also subscribe without commenting.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

By continuing to use this website, you consent to the use of cookies on your device as described in our Privacy Policy unless you have disabled them. You can change your cookie settings at any time but parts of our site will not function correctly without them.