Amsterdam’s Architecture of Colonial Exploitation


[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this excellent article to our attention.] In Failed Architecture, Alex Raúl and Sonia Mangiapane write about the inner city of Amsterdam, which, as they point out, is riddled with references to the Dutch history of slavery and colonial profiteering. Raúl writes, “It is a particularly difficult balancing act for Dutch citizens of Caribbean and Southeast Asian descent, to come to terms with a city that fails to recognize the blood that runs through its veins.” Here are excerpts (please read the full article at Failed Architecture):

Along the course of its winding waterways and the quays containing them, resides a city of fame and infamy alike. These narrow waters extend into broader channels — connecting the city’s very heart to the nearby sea. For centuries, they have carried with them the immense weight of both the material and the immaterial consequences of colonial expeditions overseas.

Much of Amsterdam’s historic center still bears witness to this past. Richly decorated houses huddled against each other flaunt the enormous wealth amassed during the city’s maritime history. Some of their tall facades pompously display the family crests of those that occupied them after construction, while others exhibit more subtle references to their owners’ affluence.

A little over a decade ago, city authorities started to increase spending on campaigns to attract more tourists. The historic city center in general, and the iconic canal ring in particular, became central to an extensive branding campaign in an effort to bolster the international allure of a city in fierce competition with its peers. Amsterdam’s campaign narrative began to dramatize the grandeur of its 17th century-expansion — nostalgically referring to the city as the world’s central material and intellectual warehouse. The campaign recollects Amsterdam as a fertile ground for the critical thinker and the clever merchant; a safe haven for the foreign outcast and the persecuted refugee. The origin of its dramatic economic boom is attributed to the virtues of its free and tolerant society, which allowed for international cooperation and trade to flourish — much in line with the national narrative on an era broadly referred to as the ‘Golden Age’. Yet under this masquerade of heroism and self-praise dwells the dire brutality of the Dutch colonial enterprise.

The first half of the 17th century saw the birth of two influential transnational corporations — the Dutch East India Company (VOC) and the Dutch West India Company (WIC) — which collectively came to shape much of the emerging Dutch empire. Following the Spanish and the Portuguese, their armed ships roamed the distant coastlands of Southeast Asia, Africa, and the Americas, in a quest to acquire natural and cultural products to be sold profitably on European markets. Much like their predecessors, the VOC and WIC relied heavily on the repression, manipulation and displacement of indigenous populations in an effort to secure their economic interests. Their nearly two-century reign was upheld with unwavering political support from the Dutch Republic, which facilitated them with a lucrative monopoly on the trade in human beings and goods — that is until the Republic overtook their activities itself. [. . .]

The Atlantic coast of Africa bore witness to the Dutch transport of over half a million enslaved people to plantations in the Americas, in a gruesome journey subsequently known as the Middle Passage. These plantations saw an unparalleled exercise in the disregard of human life, despite fierce resistance of the enslaved population. Over the course of centuries generations of enslaved people – women, children, and men – were abused, sold, mutilated, raped, stripped of their culture and forced to work the plantations out of a feverish thirst for profit. Those profits not only flowed back into the pockets of plantation owners in Amsterdam, but fuelled an entire economy of building contractors, insurers, bankers, manufacturers, and ultimately the treasury of the Dutch state itself. Investments made by these colonial profiteers into the very fabric that makes up the city keeps Amsterdam inseparably connected to the suffering that subsidized it.

It is a particularly difficult balancing act for Dutch citizens of Caribbean and Southeast Asian descent to come to terms with a city that fails to recognize the blood that runs through its veins. They call home, and come of age in, the streets and squares named after the same brutal tyrants that once tormented their ancestors. This predicament may be glaringly obvious to some, but the nation’s apparent indifference to it speaks volumes on the underlying, curious case of race relations in the Netherlands.

Recent years have however witnessed some creditable and fruitful efforts to disclose the city’s colonial heritage to the public. A few excellent independent initiatives, both academic and practical, managed to identify a wealth of architectural sites in Amsterdam that are somehow tied to the history of slavery and colonial exploitation. These initiatives, including Mapping Slavery and Black Heritage Tours, go on a scavenger hunt to uncover stories of untold grief via the many clues that the city provides. Those that observe closely will find references all around — within mansions and storehouses; on the faces of plaques and gable stones. There is something eerily gratifying about the notion that, in absence of history’s due recognition, the stones and waterways that compose the city of Amsterdam somehow still manage to speak for themselves.

The city of Amsterdam is riddled with references – both direct and indirect – to the Dutch history of slavery and colonial exploitation. The photos and descriptions of places in the city in this article comprise a small, illustrative selection of sites. [. . .]

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