W.Will the Golden Coach ever roll through The Hague again? In 2015, King Willem-Alexander was driven for the last time in the luxury car to the opening of Parliament. It was then extensively restored, and people have been able to look at it since mid-June. The carriage, built in 1898, is exhibited in a glass box in the courtyard of the Amsterdam City Museum. With it, the difficult question arises: Is it still up-to-date? Not because carriages have been out of fashion as a means of transport for some time. But because of a representation on the left side wall: “Homage from the colonies”. The image has gotten into the talk, like so many other seemingly innocent traditions.
In the center the Dutch Virgin sits enthroned with the coats of arms of Suriname in South America, the most important colony on the Atlantic at the time, and of Batavia, the capital of the Dutch East Indies, better known as Jakarta. At her feet lie gifts from overseas possessions, respectfully offered by two blacks: bananas, pineapples, cocoa pods, mussels and ivory. In return, the barely clad people get civilization – in the form of a book that a white man hands a boy with a condescending gesture. This is how the artist saw and this is certainly how his clients saw his own story: The “wild” people, barely dressed, had to be grateful to the Netherlands for this gift – and that for a whole generation after slavery had been abolished in all colonies was.
The debate is on – and how!
There were always arguments about the carriage, a gift from the Amsterdam citizens for the coronation of Queen Wilhelmina. Too expensive, too aloof – those were the objections. But nobody was offended by the picture on the side of the car. That changed only in 2011, when two activists won two left-wing MPs to protest against the “glorification of colonialism and slavery”. One of the two activists would have liked to see the carriage burned, but it was enough for his colleague if the offensive picture was removed. When the vehicle came to the workshop in 2015 to be extensively restored, they agreed to demand that it be shipped to the museum afterwards. That was often ridiculed.
But last summer it suddenly turned serious. After the violent death of George Floyd in America, thousands of people protested against racism and everyday discrimination in Dutch cities. A petition appeared on an online platform that adopted the activists’ demands and found 8,000 signatures within a few days. Willem-Alexander ordered the carriage to be exhibited first. What happens to her afterwards, he will decide in the light of public debate.
This debate is ongoing – and how! It’s not just about the carriage, it’s about the entire colonial past. Also in Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum is currently showing an exhibition on slavery in the former colonies. The city recently apologized for its involvement in the slave trade. And a commission set up by the state to come to terms with colonial history called on the government to apologize for the past, to recognize slavery as a “crime against humanity” and to set up a compensation fund. “Today’s institutional racism cannot be separated from centuries of slavery and colonialism and the ideas that arose in this context,” said the members.