The “Golden Coach,” built for Queen Wilhelmina of Holland in 1896, is emerging as a new focus of debate over slavery, colonialist oppression and history.
A report by Nina Siegal for The New York Times.
In 1896, the city of Amsterdam decided to build Queen Wilhelmina a very special gift: a carriage covered in gold. The “Golden Coach” was designed to represent the entire kingdom and its resources, with leather from Brabant, cushions filled with flax from Zeeland and teak from the Dutch colony of Java.
A prominent Dutch artist of the era, Nicolaas van der Waay, was commissioned to make panel paintings on all four sides. One of them, “Tribute from the Colonies,” depicts a virgin on a throne. On the left, Africans in loin cloths bow down before her. On the right, Southeast Asians in colorful batiks present her with gifts, as representations of the Dutch East Indies colony.
All of these component parts glorifying the empire would have been appreciated by most Dutch people in that era. But it is precisely these elements — reminders of slavery and colonial oppression — that make the carriage a source of pain in the Netherlands, particularly for descendants of formerly colonized people.
In the context of the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, the coach has become a focus of anti-colonialist and antifascist protest. The controversy is an echo of similar debates in the United States over Confederate statues and other monuments, and in Europe over monuments honoring colonialists and slave traders.
An online petition to retire the Golden Coach has received more than 9,000 signatures.
The coach was first used in 1898 to carry Queen Wilhelmina to what the Dutch call her “inauguration,” eight years after she became queen at age 10. In recent years, the Golden Coach has been used primarily for the ceremonial opening of the Dutch Parliament in The Hague, and occasionally for weddings and coronations. Since the 1960s, royal trips in the carriage have often been met with street protests.
It was last used in 2015, without incident, after which it underwent a five-year, $1.4 million renovation before it was put on display at the Amsterdam Museum, where it will remain through Feb. 27, 2022.
What will happen to it thereafter — whether to put it back in service to the king and queen; or keep it in the museum with lots of explanatory content; or store it somewhere out of sight; or destroy it — has become a matter of intense public debate. Ultimately, the decision will be made by the royal family.
“We must finally end this practice of parading colonial images as displays of power,” Sylvana Simons, a member of Parliament and the founder and leader of an anti-racist political party, BIJ1, said in June.
Gideon van Meijeren, a lawmaker with the Forum for Democracy, a right-wing populist party, had no patience with that. “We must not allow ourselves to be emotionally blackmailed by a small group of pushy extremists who see racism under every stone,” he said.
His comment echoed the 2020 Twitter sentiments of a populist Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, who characterized efforts to decommission the coach, known in Dutch as the Gouden Koets, as “left-wing, antiracism terror.” He continued, using a slang term for drop dead: “I say: Don’t bow, don’t kneel, let them all get the rambam!”
Last month, Emile Schrijver, director of the Jewish Cultural Quarter, wrote an opinion piece in the Amsterdam daily Het Parool, calling the coach “an outdated and unacceptable glorification of a colonial sense of superiority,” which should be decommissioned and permanently housed in a museum.
On July 16, King Willem-Alexander addressed the subject at a news conference, saying he was “listening” to public forums on the matter organized by the museum. “The discussion is ongoing,” he added. The carriage is scheduled to return to The Hague after the exhibition. “You will hear from us then,” he said.
The Golden Coach was hoisted over the top of the museum by crane in June for the grand opening of the exhibition, attended by the king, and is now displayed in a large glass box in the inner courtyard. The exhibition exploring its history from its 19th-century conception fills six rooms within the museum, with another room devoted to visual responses to the coach by 15 contemporary artists.
Margriet Schavemaker, artistic director of the Amsterdam Museum, said she hoped the exhibition would help inform the public about all the issues related to the coach.
“What I hope this exhibition shows is that there are many different histories and perspectives,” she said in an interview. “I hope that through these many perspectives we can open up and listen to one another. A museum is a perfect place to consider all the different angles in peace and quiet.”
Before the coach’s arrival at the museum, the sculptor Nelson Carrilho, an Amsterdam-based artist from the Dutch Antilles, performed in the courtyard what he called “a ritual to give wisdom to this exhibition.”
Mr. Carrilho’s great-grandmother, an Indian woman who lived in Suriname, was brought to the Netherlands in 1883, and put on display in a human zoo as part of the World Expo, a colonial showcase. During her time in Amsterdam, she was studied and photographed. Mr. Carrilho has made a contemporary art work using the photograph for the museum exhibition.
He has been a critic of the carriage but said it should still remain in use until society is ready for change. “The society has to reach a point to say, ‘We don’t want this Golden Coach anymore,’” he said in an interview. “It must not come from us, because we are just the messengers.”
The exhibition emphasizes that debates about the carriage date back to the time of its creation. To build the coach, royal supporters known as Orangists raised money from working-class residents of the Amsterdam neighborhood known as the Jordaan. The socialist press of the time argued that poor people should not have to support “the lifestyles of these good-for-nothings.”
Since then, the coach has been a lightning rod for criticism from opponents of the monarchy. In 1966, after the wedding of Queen Beatrix and Claus van Amsberg, a German prince who had been a member of the Hitler Youth, activists threw a smoke bomb at the Golden Coach in Amsterdam.
“To me, the carriage represents a lineage, a long history of using these types of symbols to bolster a national identity that the Dutch have a lot of pride in,” said Jennifer Tosch, a cultural historian and founder of Black Heritage Tours in Amsterdam, who was a member of a group of experts convened by the museum to advise the exhibition’s curators. “It’s been in recent years that descendants of the colonized have amplified their objection to continually reproducing this memory in this way.”
If the Royal House does continue to use the coach in the future, she said, it will only inflame national tensions around issues of social justice.
“It would certainly send a very strong message to those who have advocated for its removal from public use that those voices don’t matter,” she said. “We can’t put the genie back into the bottle or unring the bell. The issue is out. The question is, ‘Now, what do we do with it?’”