Cruising for History – In Search of Discreet Memories

Yesterday I gave an abridged version of this talk. Unfortunately, I couldn’t deliver the entire speech. At any rate, here’s the full version.

I’d like to thank United for Intercultural Action for giving me this opportunity to speak to you this evening. I’m going to talk about the politics of public space, the politics of history, and the productive potentialities of cruising the past.

What do I mean by “cruising the past”? Cruising is gay slang for the act of walking or driving about a locality, or using technology, in search of anonymous, casual sexual encounters. Some spaces, like the Vondelpark, are known as historical cruising areas, where men would cruise for intimate encounters.

I’m using cruising as a metaphor because the act centres on encounter and connection in public space rather than alienation. When we cruise we cast glances, often backward, to people who have caught our eye, who have made us feel something. It is a solicitation for intimacy. Not unlike people on guided tours to historical/memorial sites cruising bodies are actively seeking out an experience. The act of cruising for discreet memories among the many historical/memorial sites suggests that we are not only looking backward, but we are also feeling backward, to use a concept by Heather Love, for a specific kind of memory.

These historical/memorial sites, with which we have a personal connection, are where the conceptual, the factual and affective meet to create certain spaces where it is OK, or legitimate, to cruise for, say, the memory of slavery. The interplay between the conceptual, the factual and affective can also create spaces where it would be strange, almost illicit, to do so, for instance, in or in front of the Royal Palace of Amsterdam.

The dynamics of history and memory, commemoration and amnesia, have become under the influence of post-colonial forces very important in contemporary cities in Europe.

The City as Archive – The Royal Palace of Amsterdam and the Slavery Monument

Amsterdam contains many histories, by which I mean that there are multiple time frames that exist simultaneously. The city boasts numerous site-specific “memory installations,” that is monuments, and historical buildings, that together form a complex network of memories/histories. Now, some memories/histories to which these installations point are perceived in the national imagination as a “burden” whereas others are embraced for their “liberatory potential.” The unacknowledged histories are inconsumable, if not indigestible, things that refuse to stay contained within their designated spaces. This means that the present is, by its very nature, messy. Monuments and historical buildings have a tendency to drag the past into the present; they are not only spatial disruptions, they are also historical, if not temporal, disruptions.

The city itself, thus, functions like an archive: a place where the past and present meet. The creation and persistence of “memory spaces” that remind us of unacknowledged histories along with the idea that memory “goes beyond the individual” make the relationship between history/memory and public space extremely important. Sometimes these dynamics lead to interesting configurations.

Dianne Chisholm, a Queer theorist and cultural critic, developed the concept of Queer constellations, that is “dialectical images of (queer) city/space.” I will use this concept to illustrate the poetics of commemoration and ritual in public space. When we read the Royal Palace of Amsterdam and its counterpoint the Slavery Monument in Oosterpark alongside each other – to me, these two sites exist in a Queer constellation – several issues arise. The Royal Palace of Amsterdam is right in the heart of the city, whereas the Slavery Monument is placed, one could say in the periphery, outside the city centre. The monument is spaced close to NinSEE, The National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its Legacy, and the Tropenmuseum, an ethnographic museum – in this constellation it is legitimate to cruise for that specific memory.

In front of the Slavery Monument there is a plaque that reads “Shared Past, Common Future.” I’ve always found the notion of a shared past peculiar. This notion obscures the importance of the remembered past. History is what we remember, and memories are important because they dictate future recollection and thus shape our future. How can we create a common future when we don’t remember the past in the same way?

Different groups within society tend to read the “same historical fabric” differently. Countless “parallel” meanings, readings and presences of the past can and do co-exist in the same public spaces. These interpretive differences between the dominant reading and the subaltern reading continue to exist due to racially (but also gender, class) inflected power relations that marginalize subaltern readings. White Autochtoon Dutchness, as the sense-making dominant norm, still determines the framework in which we judge history. Its failures to incorporate different readings of the past, that challenge popular history, keep a structured “not-knowing” in place; a modus operandi which seems to erase colonial history from the city.

As a result, the positionality of “White Autochtoon Dutchness,” which entices us with the allure of neutrality, often “fails” to examine, or even see, historical and contemporary exercises of Dutch colonialism; such uncritical approaches end up reproducing myths of nation-building, and fail to address colonial injustices in our own backyards. A case in point is the treatment of African-descended peoples at the unveiling of the Slavery Monument. They were prevented from witnessing the ceremony. A row of fences hid the unveiling from public view.

Historical awareness, when distorted, incomplete, or without sensitivity, can lead to wounding actions in, or interpretations of, the present. In 2006 then prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende’s flawed historical awareness prompted him to exclaim that the Netherlands should adopt the VOC-mentality of looking beyond its borders. To put it into context: the VOC, or the Dutch East Indian Company, was granted a 21-year monopoly by the government of the Netherlands to carry out colonial activities in Asia.

Balkenende was ambushed by what Renato Rosaldo, an anthropologist and poet, termed in his book Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis Imperialist Nostalgia. Rosaldo writes,

“In any of its versions, imperialist nostalgia uses a pose of “innocent yearning” both to capture people’s imaginations and to conceal its complicity with often brutal domination.”

The ideological commitment to the popular version of history, which presents “the Golden Age” as an unproblematic era, obscures the violent colonial relations that shaped not only this country, but many parts of the world. History is a heavily contested terrain in which no one is an innocent bystander, or an accidental witness. What does it mean to share a narrative but value different, competing aspects of it? Where do we see history? And more importantly how do we see history?

These questions are vitally important since not everything that is part of Dutch history has been given a place in the national imagination. The material status in Dutch colonial history of not only the Royal Palace of Amsterdam but also many other prominent buildings, for instance, remains conspicuously unaddressed.

The Palace on the Dam, as it is commonly known, was an important centre of political and economic power. It was built in 1648 by Jacob van Campen, and it was designed to reflect the opulence of the Dutch Golden Age. The plantation owners, who were united in the Society of Suriname, made decisions about Suriname and the trans-Atlantic slave trade that determined the fate of thousands of enslaved Africans; the representations of Africans on the building point to that history.

The Dutch trans-Atlantic slave trade was essentially organized from Amsterdam. The company responsible for the trans-Atlantic slave trade was the Dutch West India Company, which was based here in Amsterdam from 1621 until 1730 and financed by Amsterdam bankers. Enslaved Africans were forced to work on plantations that cultivated sugar and coffee. These products were then shipped to the neighbourhood Jordaan in Amsterdam, where they were refined in sugar factories and coffee plants. The city is inextricably tied to the trans-Atlantic slave trade. However, the popular version of history does not incorporate the labour of enslaved Africans that went into nor the lives that were lost contributing to the construction of public space in Amsterdam. This relationship between enslaved Africans and the city of Amsterdam raises a pressing question:

What does the commemoration of slavery mean in a context in which we have been conditioned to perceive and value a certain kind of reading of history in public space?

This question becomes even more compelling when we consider that streets are named after colonial administrators. What happens to the borders between different readings of history when the colonial subject is living in a street named after a colonial administrator? Which histories and whose reading of history matter? Whose histories and voices matter in this economy of feelings? What kind of feelings generate this “not-knowing,” or allow it to be used as a political instrument?

What does it mean to commemorate the lives of one’s ancestors who perished under colonial rule when the monarch effectively advertises colonialism?

In the following section I will delve deeper in the complications that arise when people in the present appropriate the glory days of the past uncritically.

Golden Coach Panel

Last year Harry van Bommel of the Socialist party and Mariko Peters of left-wing green party Groen Links argued that a painting on the side of the Golden Coach must be removed. The painting, which is called Tribute of the Colonies, shows half-naked, dark-skinned men and women offering the riches of their country to Dutch royalty. The MPs told the newspaper NRC Handelsblad that the painting is a reminder of slavery, which was a dreadful period in Dutch history. According to the MPs the panel should be removed and stored in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The 19th-century Golden Coach is used each year in September by the monarch to travel to parliament to deliver the traditional speech outlining the government’s plans for the coming year.

Demissionary prime minister Mark Rutte said in response to the MPs’ request, “We are not going to rewrite history by defacing the Golden Coach.” He went on to call their argument “bizarre”.

Removing the painting from the Golden Coach and placing it in the Rijksmuseum hardly constitutes a rewriting of history. Rutte’s statement echoes Balkenende’s call to adopt a VOC-mentality: both seemingly uphold a homogeneous, unproblematic view of Dutch history in which colonialism is rendered invisible, or tangential. Colonialism, it seems, is always bracketed. Colonialism happened there and then. It bears no relation to the present. It is an irritant in the collective memory.

These linear, teleological, uncritical interpretations of history only serve to perpetuate the legitimacy of colonial rule. On a side note: a thing, process or action is teleological when it is for the sake of an end, that is a final cause. Mark Rutte treats history as though it has an intrinsic finality – as though it is not for the sake of anything outside itself. History is history. By so doing, any promise for political transformation that is embedded in the potentiality of reconciliation is thwarted; political demands that challenge the dominant reading of history are thus delegitimized. This failure to address historical injustices that have seeped into the present reiterates the idea that former colonial subjects, especially those who are unable to manage their emotions, should be seen, and not heard.

Both van Bommel and Peters were presented as disruptive forces whose aim was to further disturb an already frayed national identity, system, order by articulating political demands, and making claims that would, if honoured, bring about a reconfiguration of the spaces of the political present.

History is narrative. History in a nonlinear. History is non-teleological. History is knowledge. How do we negotiate knowledge in a public space? To whom does public space belong? Whose voices matter most in public spaces?

The socio-historical production and social construction of public space in the Netherlands is rarely taken into account in public discourse. As I have mentioned earlier many people of colour have contributed to the creation of a lot of these public spaces – one could argue that without the tribute of the colonies there would not be a Golden Coach, nor a Royal Palace on Dam square.

The fact that the construction and production and more importantly significance of public space go unnoticed has led to a set of paradoxes within public space. One such paradox is Sara Ahmed, a post-colonial and Queer feminist theorist, giving a keynote speech in the former headquarters of the East Indian Company, which is now used by the University of Amsterdam. The university regularly uses the VOC meeting hall to host graduation ceremonies. How do people of colour go about negotiating these colonial “public” spaces?

Furthermore, if we take the (proposed) burqa ban, the now sanctioned policy in Rotterdam of stop-and-search based on physical characteristics, and the situation of undocumented migrants into account we need to ask the question for which public is “public space.” Public space is not open and accessible to everybody. Certain bodies and modes of dress are considered as transgressing against White Autochtoon Dutch public space. Asylum seekers and undocumented migrants are thus relocated to the margins, and have restricted rights to mobility. Public space is a privileged site for citizenship, of belonging.

How can we reconcile buildings that are the result of colonial history and are now considered part of our cultural heritage? Who is authorized to supply a testimony to the past? Who, or what, is allowed to serve as a public testament to the past?

Jan Pieterszoon Coen

Which brings me to the statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen. Coen was an important founder of the Dutch colonial empire and he was long considered a national hero in the Netherlands until the latter half of the 20th century. Since then he has been looked at in a more critical light.

Under his administration the VOC managed to colonize the Indonesian archipelago, and he was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Indonesians. A well-known quote of his from 1618 is illustrative of his mindset, “Despair not, spare your enemies not, for God is with us”.

A statue of Coen stands in the centre of Hoorn, the place where he was born. Last year, after the municipality of Hoorn received complaints it promised to modify the text on the monument so that it refers to the atrocities committed by Coen. At any rate, a critical note was added to the plaque on the monument; a purely cosmetic change.

Monuments do not merely act as therapeutic narratives. Monuments legitimize a particular history and turn it into a self-contained object for the public to look at. Monuments are the articulation of a national self in material and spatial terms.

If one defines the monument as being a certain kind of commemorating, then this cannot come about unless there is a historical event of a certain kind; and this event cannot be unless there are agents who have done something. The question is, do all historical agents deserve a platform in public space?

Virtual Histories

It is important for us to look critically at the pasts that are considered usable. The notion of a usable past, which is a thread that has been running through this presentation, implies a structured forgetting. Some pasts are usable, thus worth remembering, while others are discarded.

I’m going to look at two digital tools that help us visualize “the past.” These tools are presented as innovative ways of informing and involving the public in Amsterdam’s history. What these mobile applications claim to do is highlight the hidden and unspoken history of Amsterdam, which makes me beg the question: which of the many hidden and unspoken histories of Amsterdam?

As I have argued earlier the city of Amsterdam itself functions like an archive. This technology enables us to construct a certain kind of reading of the city as a system of representations, a complex cultural, historical, spatial entity; it transforms the way we view and relate to the past, and present. I find both “Anne Frank’s Amsterdam”—even though it is created by the Anne Frank House—and Street Museum NL problematic. Street Museum NL boasts that you can view more than a thousand historical images of the province of North Holland. We become, in effect, tourists of history. We are at once participants and witnesses. These mobile apps invite us to experience history in a completely unproblematic way.

From the Anne Frank House website:

Starting today you can discover for yourself Anne Frank’s and her contemporaries’ stories at thirty special places in the city with the Anne’s Amsterdam mobile application. The Anne Frank House has developed this App together with Repudo and LBi with the aim of making the city’s wartime history better known.

With Anne’s Amsterdam you can view personal stories, film footage and unique photographs from the past at the same location today. There are images of Anne Frank and her friends on the Merwedeplein, German troops entering the city on the Rokin and the raid on the Jonas Daniël Meijerplein. This link between the past and the present enables you see the city in a different way by which events of the war come to life.

The link between the past and present and the events that “come to life” remains somehow uncontested. Moreover, by using these apps we reauthorize certain historical events and grant their representation the privilege of the “right kind of history.”

We, who live at the margins, need to question the image of history that the dominant culture manufactures, and packages for our consumption.


We need to rethink the use of history in public spaces. How and in what way we can commemorate history in public space? An examination of how we can spatialize history so as to accommodate different readings of history could open up possibilities for political change and transformation. The question now is how to weave the multiple narratives that make up the Dutch past into a narrative that notes the significance of bodies that are perceived to be out of place commemorating historical events in a space that is coded White. How can we navigate these Queer constellations? And more importantly, how can we resist dominant readings of history and dominant uses of space? One potentiality is through acts/performances and the creation of rituals that appropriate public and social space subversively. I’d like to read two stanzas from Seamus Heaney’s On His Work in the English Tongue:

Post-this, post-that, post-the-other; yet in the end
Not past a thing. Not understanding or telling
Or forgiveness.

But often past oneself,
Pounded like a shore by the roller griefs
In language that can still knock language sideways.

Even though, we are supposedly living in a “post-racial,” “post-colonial” society colonialism and racism are still very much part of reality in the Netherlands. We are, as Seamus Heaney assessed, neither post-this, nor -that, nor the Other. We are still, quite often, knocked sideways by the very things we thought we had left behind.