What a 17th century painting of an Indian boy tells about the history of the Dutch slave trade
I recently visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, guardian of Dutch culture and central repository of European art. Entire floors and wings were teeming with Greco-Roman statues, Renaissance landscapes and Flemish still lifes. In the midst of it all, I decoded a story that was recognizable, but not entirely mine.
It was early summer and I was with my kids. We entered a gallery and my son faced an oil painting. I glanced blankly at a familiar 17th-century scene: wealthy people, with powdered wigs and lace sleeves, feasting on delicacies. My boy, Roshan, with black hair and eyes, lingered. So I took a closer look and saw, surprisingly, another dark boy, with black hair and eyes, in the painting.
This boy was Filander van Bengalen. In panties and gray livery, he obligingly holds a tray. It is said that Filander, in the exhibition catalog, is 10 years old, like my son. They are at Dokkum, near the North Sea, in this 1697 painting. How did Filander come to serve in this remote place? And what does his journey teach us about our contemporary analysis of difference?
Slavery in the Netherlands
The context of the painting was this year’s Rijkmuseum exhibition: “Slavery”. Perhaps taking kids there is a kinky idea of a kid-friendly parent. Because the exhibition clearly details the kidnapping, confinement, mutilation and erasure. We see a branding iron that burned the possession to the skin. A brass necklace that wrapped around a person’s neck. A heavy wooden foot in which to sit.
These materials supported Dutch world supremacy in the 1600s. The Netherlands relied on Portuguese incursions in the 1500s and anticipated British spread abroad from the late 1700s. Slaves – from West Africa, the Malay Archipelago and the Indian subcontinent – have sewn this Dutch world together.
Maritime prowess and capitalist speculation, in this sense, are heroic abstractions. What this world rested on was an intimate terror. Beheading, burning, grazing and drowning: present present and hypothetical future of slaves.
In their Amsterdam school, my children learn another story: that of Gouden Eeuw or the Dutch Golden Age. It is a parable of the intrinsic unfolding, of cultural genius. Innovations in science and technology, art and aesthetics become indigenous inventions. This educational industry insists that the contemporary – democracy, modernity, capitalism – was born in the Netherlands.
The Rijksmuseum counts with the suffering which constituted the underside of the golden age. But explaining such violence seems to preserve narrative privilege. Europeans are the historical actors, non-Europeans the silent victims. Look for the telltale response of pity and guilt.
But looking implicitly at the Rijksmuseum exhibition invites a counter-reading of the past. For it was the Dutch sugar-producing and spice-picking slaves in Brazil, Ceylon and Suriname who, through their productivity, their politics and their pleasures, embodied the emergence and the dynamic. By beating mace and distilling molasses, slaves generated the commodities and cash flow that produced people like Rembrandt.
The slaves also forged novelties in political organization. In the exhibition is a silk map with the brown establishments. The Maroons included Africans of disparate traditions and languages brought to the Caribbean.
Remarkably, they forged self-governing communities outside of plantation hierarchies. Fleeing inward, they organized and nurtured a new type of society, despite the relentless manhunts of the Dutch.
And it’s the slaves who anticipate the now-buzzword of creative hybridity. The exhibition shows a painting of a rare plantation party: slaves singing and dancing, and in this affirming existence.
In the Rijksmuseum is an image of Dutch plantation dances, where slaves could express their dissent in a vital form. These moments of joy and criticism channeled the musical and linguistic heritages of Africa and generated new ones. This brings us to painting with Filander.
He belonged to a bunch of people from northern India and the Bay of Bengal. Kidnapped, marked and sold from 1621, Indians were important in Dutch estates and shipyards until the 1660s. They remind us that the history of slavery is not limited to the Atlantic or those taken to Africa. Like other Dutch slaves, those taken from India were cut off from their connections and their understanding of themselves. Their pasts were erased, their last names became, uniformly, “van Bengalen”.
During this period, the Dutch East India Company intensified human trafficking in Asia. Traders siphoned off people from southern India, Arakan and the Ganges delta. The Dutch East India Company intensified this amount of human cargo and expanded its geographic distribution. Attached to farms and households across the Dutch possessions, they dried nutmeg in the Banda Islands, peeled cinnamon in Ceylon, and picked grapes in the Cape Colony in Africa.
And some of them, like Baron van Bengalen and his son Filander, accompanied their Dutch masters to their homes. Filander arrived in the Netherlands in 1689. Eventually he and his mother, Rosette – from Sumbawa, Southeast Asia – became servants in the province of Friesland.
Analyze the past
If the largest exhibition at the Rijksmuseum qualifies a nativist reading of the past, this painting of unexpected proximity disrupts today’s accounts. Consider three ways of reading the portrait.
First we have the white supremacist story of the “Great Replacement”. This suggests that dark elites are facilitating demographic transfer in the West. A theory about how the European present has become blurred, its purity and traditions lost.
Yet here is Filander and his mother, 320 years ago, in a place about as Aryan and Christian as Europe. Is a virgin indigenous population being encroached upon? White nationalists must thank the Dutch East India Company and the other leading European multinational corporations.
Then there is, from a different political direction, the story of “the Empire Strikes Back” or “we are here because you were there”. This, too, is a tidy narrative, but one that tends to tension. Remember that Filander is going through a time and space of legal and moral disagreement over the status of subjugation. Between slave and servant, child and adult, Asia and Europe, he falls into the dead ends of human value.
And finally, there is the story of integration: a tranquil and tranquilizing story among many distinct that blend together. In real life, after his plateau hoisting days were over, Filander van Bengalen became police chief in Dokkum. He married a Frisian and had five children. One could however hesitate to share the pride of its trajectory. It’s too hagiographic and orderly, as all assimilation stories are.
I wish, at the Rijksmuseum with Roshan, watching the painting with Filander, I knew what to say. For stories of white replacement, south-north migration, conscientious, flattened and domestic integration. Everything bends to silences, to contingencies, to the way we get to where we are, to what such movements mean.
Here, American novelist Toni Morrison’s distinction between fact and truth is instructive. For a novelist like her, the truth about what a slave thinks and feels means going beyond the facts. Because slavery, as a system, relentlessly obstructed the ability to represent inner life. The ability to write, the means of recording: with a few exceptions, these were, by European slave owners, refused.
Filander’s provenance, his self-knowledge, has been excised, so that we, as much as he, have shreds where something whole existed. In the painting he is visible but not audible – evident as a secondary actor, but silent as consciousness.
The image of Filander allows us the tantalizing possibility of a different story. However, his story remains unintelligible insofar as we evolve among snippets of biographical facts. Or rely on familiar readings, sometimes heartwarming, but often lacking. For my boy, Roshan – born in the Netherlands but doomed to be asked ‘where are you from? – the truth of our paths, past and present, remains to be written.
Ajay Gandhi is an anthropologist and assistant professor at Leiden University.