Quotidian 2 (December 2010)Flora Illes; Theo Meder: Anansi comes to Holland

To refer to this article use this url: http://www.quotidian.nl/vol02/nr01/a02

Creoles in the Netherlands

The approximately 400,000 Creole inhabitants of the Netherlands have been an important cultural factor during the last decades. They largely migrated from the former overseas colonies, Surinam and the Antilles. The majority of the migrants arrived during the second half of the twentieth century. There has been the occasional Creole in the Netherlands since as early as the seventeenth century, but upto World War II, their number remained very limited. After the war, the “myth of the Dutch paradise” (Kempen 2002, 226) attracted an increasing number of people from the Creole middle classes to the European continent, in the hope of better living conditions and upward social mobility.

After the declaration of independence of Surinam on 25 November 1975, a large migration wave towards the North Sea coast ensued. The obligatory choice between Surinamese and Dutch citizenship, the uncertainty about the future, the adverse economic situation and the tensions between the different social communities led to this exodus to Europe (Van Oostrom 2006-2007, volume B, 100). Large numbers of immigrants came from all ranks of society, but the lower, non-educated social groups were not too well-prepared for an adjustment to Dutch society. Precisely during these years, the Dutch economy was facing a crisis with a tight job market. Many immigrants who did not succeed in finding suitable employment ended up in the margins of society and / or became involved with crime. For this reason, the Surinamese were increasingly viewed as a problematic group in the Netherlands in this period (Bakker, Dalhuisen, Hassankhan [et al.] 1993, 163). The present situation is different, though; there are positive tendencies in the socio-cultural integration of the Surinamese community (Liem & Veld 2005, 2). Many Surinamese people have found decent jobs, we can discern a positive trend in their educational development and the social integration of large sections of these immigrant groups can be called a success (Kempen 2002, 938). This integration takes place with the retention of their own identity. The Surinamese today, like the Antilleans, are still a closely-knit social group possessing their own customs, a rich cultural heritage and a consciously manifested cultural identity.

According to the Polish cultural theoretician Smolicz, certain societies contain some specific factors that keep recurring as culturally-determining elements. These factors are then repeatedly called upon to identify the culture in question and subsequently they are promoted as criteria for the preservation of the culture (Beheydt 2009, 8). The historical tradition is one such foundation the members of a common culture can appeal to. The common past is the basis of the cultural identity of a group, and serves as the embedding of the national memory and as the justification for the value system (Beheydt 2009, 8). For the Creole communities, the slave past is still a vital anchor point for the establishment of their cultural identity and it is still very much alive in the collective memory.[5] Some clear evidence of this is the Keti Koti, the commemoration of the abolition of slavery (1 July 1863), which is celebrated every year with great festivities – e.g. the Kwaku Summer Festival in Amsterdam is linked to this, even though it takes place over a longer period. Keti Koti has become a vital instrument in the construction of the cultural identity of the Creoles. By means of theatrical performances and stories, the past is commemorated and relived every year. The joy about the freedom and the pride of the resistance of the ancestors is celebrated with music and dance. The frequent reliving of the heroic deeds of the forefathers has provided the past with a didactic exemplary function (Beheydt 2009, 23). The entire celebration is imbued with a sense of “moral historicism”, which attempts to convey the value of freedom and power for the present generation in an exemplary fashion. In this process of commemoration, the slaves (the original ancestors) belong to the “exempla virtutis”; the positive role models (Beheydt 2009, 11), whereas the Dutch oppressors are presented as negative heroes; “exempla contraria”.

Apart from history, language is a universal factor of identity establishment. The ethnic language of the Dutch Creoles from Surinam is Sranan Tongo or simply Sranan. Although this language is decreasingly used by the second-generation immigrants and Dutch takes over the role as the primary language, Sranan can still function as an important identity reinforcer as we will delve into later in this paper. Language is a cultural element capable of creating solidarity, but also exclusion: those who speak the same language are included, but the groups which do not are out (Beheydt 2009, 8). Sranan, the result of the combination of the West-African languages that travelled with the slaves to the New World, pre-eminently embodied this function. As it happened, the language was an identity marker and a shared value among the Surinamese slaves, and even though the slave masters also occasionally had to speak “Neger-Engelsch” (the former designation of Sranan, which literally translates as “Negro English”; another historical pejorative synonym is “Taki-Taki”), it remained the language of the slaves, which they used to partially exclude the colonizers from their communication. Until the mid-twentieth century, the language had an exclusively oral status. It was not until the development of a Surinamese cultural self-awareness in the 1950s that people began to appreciate and consciously cultivate Sranan. The prestige of Sranan vis-à-vis colonial Dutch began to grow; it gained the status of a literary language. Like so often, the codification of the language was an act of confirming people’s cultural identity. For the Creoles in the Netherlands, the use of this language equally signifies a choice and a confirmation of their own identity. The same applies for the language of the Antilleans: Papiamento still plays a marking and an identifying role, even though Dutch as their spoken language gradually gains territory in the Netherlands.


Image 2: Trickster Anansi has found a way to kill his fellow animals. What seldom happens, here does happen in the story “Smarter than Anansi” by Johan Ferrier: wife Akuba is Anansi’s accomplice and skillfully cuts up Mat Konkoni. Drawing by Noni Lichtveld (Ferrier 2010, 80).

For the approach to folktale illustrations in this article, it is important to briefly consider the role of art as a specific expression of cultural identity. Folktale illustrations, like paintings, are a reflection of the personality of the maker and of the time and the culture in which they were made. In order to gain an insight into the way in which this reflection takes place, we will have to put the illustrations back into their proper context. To be able to interpret art within its own semiotic system, with all its social and cultural denotations, it is necessary to try to see it through the eyes of its contemporaries (Geertz 1973, quoted in Beheydt 2009, 4). In the terminology of Michael Baxandall, one has to observe art with the “period eye”, which is to say with the visual equipment and with the expectations of the intended audience (Beheydt 2009, 68). This theory does not only apply to folktale illustrations, but also to the folktales themselves. After all, as instruments of cultural transmission, they provide an insight into the social background, the cultural experience and the expectations of the intended audience. In this research, we will show that changes in the “period eye” are capable of influencing the stories. The spider stories moved to the Netherlands from an originally African and subsequently Caribbean cultural environment, causing the “period eye” and the stories to change. The “contemporary eye” of both the stories and the drawings has now become that of the members of a multicultural society, in which understanding other cultures does not come automatically and oftentimes requires effort.