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!