Politics of Spatial Imagination in the Dutch Colonial Myth

“The modern world hates to see black folks resting.” — Lewis Gordon, “African American Philosophy, Race, and the Geography of Reason.”

In the 19th century, the opponents of penal colonialism thought it inadvisable to deport prisoners to hard labour. In an official document to the then King, they write (my translations),

“The examination of the hereby dated report of the Minister of Justice and the associated lists of prisoners who are considered to be suitable for transportation to Brazil, or any of the other overseas possessions, has convinced me that the persons referred to cannot be made use of for the benefit of your Majesty’s colonies.

In the West, experience has shown us that, in a hot climate, only Negroes should be used for the cultivation of the land as well as other physical labour; under no circumstances should Europeans be put to work, and women, who mostly are absent from the slave forces in Suriname, must be sought from nowhere else but in Africa, so as to achieve the maintenance of the black population.

In the East, and in particular Java, our entire economy and the security of our possessions is founded on this principle, the natives should stand in absolute awe of Europeans, this feeling should spring forth from a sense of their moral and intellectual inferiority. It is from this point of view that Europeans, even those of the lower classes, dismissed soldiers or sailors, etc., are rarely if ever called to, or assigned, manual labour, and it is for this reason, too, that many experts think it would be inadvisable to embark in those regions on a colonization programme as that of, for example, the Swiss in Brazil.”

A. R. Falck, Minister of Public Education, National Industry and Colonies

“If we take all this into consideration, and furthermore take stock of the particular circumstances of our West Indian possessions, it seems that it may be held that the idea of a colony of criminals cannot be achieved there. In all these possessions, the institution of negro slavery still exists, which renders the imposition of forced labour on white people questionable.” [emphases in the original]

Cornelis Theodorus Elout, Minister of the Navy and Colonies

In Deportatie in verband met Strafregt en Koloniaal Belang (The Question of Deportation as It Relates to Criminal Law and Colonial Interests), P. A. van den Velden elaborates on the logic underwriting the colonial spatial order,

“If the healthy and powerful settler already requires so much care and such great caution in order to maintain his health in the East, how much the more the convicted felon, whose body is exhausted by a generally profligate former way of life, needs them! Were he to possess resolve or determination, he would most certainly not use either, with a restraint of his passions, to behave moderately and evenly in the colonies—Could not the severity of the sentence that was handed down increase beyond what was intended as a result of the climate? Is it not possible that the sentence could even end up being a death sentence, when, as has been proven, the life of Europeans in the tropics is shortened? And should not the legislator be held responsible for shortening the lives of people, whom he forces into a prolonged stay in a murderous climate? The conclusion must therefore be that: the atmospheric conditions in our overseas possessions prevent any permanent penal establishments for European criminals, and, were there no objections of another nature against them, they would still only be possible in Indonesia for the natives and in the Netherlands for Europeans.”

Benedict Anderson’s analysis both corroborates and expresses in no uncertain terms the central tenets of the governmental strategy mentioned above. Anderson notes that the Dutch “relied on whiteness and the mystique of zakelijkheid [businesslike efficiency].” They consciously fostered “a mystique of innate racial superiority, near-magical efficiency and the arcane of science.” Anderson argues that this carefully crafted fiction, which was an important element of Dutch colonial rule, “allowed the Dutch to maintain total control of the vast archipelago [of Indonesia] with a colonial army of less than 40.000 men.”  In short, the Dutch government pursued a highly deliberate and conscious set of anti-black and anti-Indonesian institutional practices with the aim to reinforce the subjection of enslaved Africans and the Indonesian peoples to all Whites and maintain the ruse of White superiority.

The fiction of Dutch superiority and efficiency set up “the social and symbolic definitions and representations that mark the boundaries of power, privilege, and belonging,” and fixed both White and Black folk in ‘their’ respective climatic zones. White bodies were thought to belong in environments that provided the temperate conditions in which they could flourish. Heat was a threat to health, according to their understanding, “and Europeans had long associated warm places with early death.” As Linda Nash notes, “For Europeans who found themselves in tropical climates, it was essential to adopt prophylactic measures and, above all, to avoid both vigorous exercise and hard labor.” Thus, the myth of the state did not only facilitate colonial rule, it also shielded White folk of whatever class from hard labour in the Dutch colonies—White privilege, as Sara Ahmed has keenly observed, acts like “an energy saving device.” Moreover, the spatial imagination clinched “the symbolic sealing off of the slave.”

The colonial fiction, then, acted as another form of capture. The slave became embedded within an epistemic framework that demanded her subjection and subjugation, abjection—a framework in which her very physicality condemned her to hard labour. The supposed morbid influence of tropical climates on European constitutions meant that the raced body and geography became intricately entangled. As such, White supremacy is more than White privilege; it is a socio-spatial project—a project with the aim to control not only the environment, but also the beings in it. In other words, White supremacy is a system that orders the world; something that is easily forgotten in current debates.

Geography plays a powerful role in the imaginative construction of national identity, as the use of Allochtoon in Dutch policy discourse attests. “Allochthonous rocks” Dvora Yanow and Marleen van der Haar write, “are recognizable as having been created out of specific geological components constituted out of the soil, water, air, and sun characteristic of the setting in which they originated.” The use of Allochtoon to refer to people—even those born on putative Dutch soil—suggests an entanglement of body, soil, water, air, and sun that is impossible to disentangle, and which gives rise to a geomorphic body. Geography and the body collapse into each other and produce an ideal subject, tailored specifically for (use in) a particular environment. In Dutch Enclaves West – non-West/Black: Framing the Racism Debate, an unpublished paper, Patricia Schor theorizes that this collapse produces the body-as-enclave. Schor writes that,

“the enclave is constituted by fencing the Black body within. As a bodily marker, the enclave is not only encountered in a fixed space, but moves along with the racialized body. The Dutch Black carry the boundary that separates her/him as s/he traverses public space.”

Craig Wilkins echoes Schor in suggesting that “Black bodies can be employed in strategies that create spaces that are transferable and transportable.” This seemingly fundamental entanglement among the physical properties of a specific environment and genes fosters not only a sense of sameness (made from similar components under similar circumstances), but it also offers a ‘natural’ justification for socially constructed differences, making the order of things appear as though it is inevitable.

White supremacy is articulated through a hierarchical spatial and temporal order that erects ‘natural’ borders and boundaries between people and places; its assumptive logic merely assigns Whites and non-Whites to their ‘proper’ place—a place ‘dictated by nature’—and ‘proper’ time (that is, backward). As such, (non-White) bodies that are considered ‘out of place’, or Allochtoon, “are subordinated literally to surveillance, inspection, discrimination, assessment and containment.” White supremacy has cultivated “a mode of social organisation […] for which the paradigm of policing is the cutting edge.” The driving force behind the “mystique of innate racial superiority” was the need to exercise overt social control through spatial control in order to foster a degree of certainty and equality. The colonial myth could, thus, be read as a desire for comfort and ease. The elements of the colonial fiction can be considered and understood as politically calculated strategies to secure the safety and well-being of Whites—and the flourishing of the “Majesty’s colonies.”

Contemporary spatial practices continue to assign Allochtoon folk to different spaces and, consequently, authorize grossly unequal access to housing, employment, education, and medical care—or even the public sphere. Space and race are intertwined as they are constructed. Sara Ahmed argues that “spaces extend bodies and bodies extend spaces.” As such, spaces are saturated with “racial energy,” that determines not only how we are perceived (as being in place or out of place), but this racial energy also shapes the realm of possibilities. Or to put it differently, the co-articulated cluster of spatial control practices (racial profiling, racism in the educational system, or the labour market) skew opportunities and life chances along racial lines. Ahmed contends that the phenomenology of the ‘I can’ could be reformulated as a phenomenology of whiteness. “Such a phenomenology, in other words, describes the ease with which the white body extends itself in the world through how it is orientated toward objects and others.”

White ontological expansiveness, that is White folks entering and dominating non-White spaces, “may function as a form of public comfort.” Even though, the “murderous climate” was not amenable to Europeans, it did not prevent, as we all know, colonization by Europeans either as capitalists or controllers of Black labour, and Native space. Comfort could only be achieved through spatial operations, like military policing, which minimized risk and tried to reduce the likelihood of a premature death. Shielding Europeans from performing hard labour was not only a strategy to preserve the racial hierarchy, but it also assured White comfort, and allowed Europeans to extend their bodies into the “‘unliveable’ and ‘uninhabitable’ zones of [social] life.” So, even though prisoners performing hard labour was not considered of use “for the benefit of your Majesty’s colonies,” their usefulness lay paradoxically precisely in not condemning them to hard labour—not on the basis of some alleged detrimental effect of the climate on their constitutions, but because the sight of White folk performing hard labour would destabilize the symbolic dimensions of the racial myth. According to the myth’s logic, only the Neger was suited for hard labour in hot climates.

It should not be surprising that despite ministerial opposition to the deportation of prisoners to the colonies, that almost two centuries prior , as P. A. van den Velden observes, the Dutch government seemed to have deemed Suriname “an appropriate place for deportation,” in spite of its “murderous climate.” In 1684, the Dutch government authorized the forcible deportation for military service in Suriname of several Dutch convicts. These convicts were used to suppress the Indians and Negroes. Moreover, as P.A. van den Velden notes, “Similarly, in the 17th century serious criminals in Amsterdam were often sentenced to deportation and forced labour in Suriname.” However, by the 19th century this policy had been clearly abandoned. Admittedly, the Dutch government also recruited West Africans in the colonial army. “Black participation in the forces of legal coercion,” according to Manning Marable, “has been vital to the security and stability of capitalism.” However, we should not let ourselves be lulled by that fact into thinking that constituted some sort of equality of material conditions between Black and White folks. The fact that Black folks, who “fought to defend the established power,” were afforded special privileges does not make the institution of chattel slavery any less negative.

The Department of Colonies recruited West Africans not only because it considered them, as Ineke van Kessel writes, “‘children of nature’, unspoilt blacks who would willingly submit to European guidance,” but also because, in the words of Bernhard of Saxe-Weimar-Eisenach, “when entire populations go extinction, the neger will remain, many of them are of a very strong bodily constitution and have become accustomed from childhood on to miserably bad food and hard labour. They usually reach an old age, and remain for a very long time adept at skilled labour, their body is accustomed to hard sleeping accommodations, beds or even straw bags they frequently know only by name.” Despite their inclusion in the Dutch colonial army, Black folk were still considered childlike non-humans, who had to be domesticated “as one would do with monkeys.”

The Belanda Hitam, the West African soldiers who served in the Dutch colonial army, did mutiny. However, they “did not rise in protest against their conscription into the Dutch army. On the contrary, they fully identified with their prescribed role. They had been recruited with the promise of equal treatment with the European soldiers, and they insisted that the promise be kept in every detail.” The Belanda Hitam wanted to be treated as Whites, and thus aspired “to the very venues of society and state geared toward their captivity.” Both the Belanda Hitam and the Black Rangers in Suriname (also read here) were deployed as part of a surveillance effort to suppress resistance to captivity and colonial rule. They were entrusted with the defence of the colonial project—their military service helped to secure the legitimacy of the colonial order and manufacture spaces of White entitlement. And terror, “a protocol of ‘search and destroy’” unquestionably enforced and normalized the colonial social and spatial arrangement. White supremacy asserts itself not only through control of space (White ontological expansiveness), or a criminalization of flights from racial captivity, but also through selectively and unevenly incorporating and engaging people of colourin the creation, leadership, and everyday operation of institutional racisms.”

"Who will show me the way?"
The white text on the black background reads “Who will show me the way?” Image found in “Het Tijdschrift voor de Politie,” jg. 76/nr. 4/5/14 (The Police Magazine)*

Moreover, as Frank Wilderson establishes, “few characters aestheticize White supremacy more effectively and persuasively than a Black male cop.”

The difference, then, between White convicts and Blacks is that the subjection of the Black centred on her physicality and her status outside of the realm of the Human. Moreover, the Dutch government, like most West-European nations, considered their own convicts “exempt from the kind of enslavement that seemed appropriate for Moors.” Forced labour is not, as Orlando Patterson argues, the defining feature of enslavement. Slavery is, according to Patterson, “the permanent, violent domination of natally alienated and generally dishonored persons.” The physicality of the Black signified her essential abjection and therefore her enslavability. Black, by definition, meant Slave. Frank Wilderson notes that,

“deep within civil society’s collective unconscious is the knowledge that the Black position is indeed a position, not an identity, and that its constituent elements are coterminous and inextricably bound to the constituent elements of social death—which is to say that for Blackness there is no narrative prior to slavery.”

The White convict’s grammar of suffering falls in the realm of the Human, that is exploitation and alienation, whereas the Slave’s grammar of suffering articulates itself within the field of accumulation and fungibility. Black bodies, which could be put to infinite uses, were supposed to multiply, “so as to achieve the maintenance of the black population.” In his statement A.R. Falck argues that in order to maintain the Black population, women “must be sought from nowhere else but in Africa.” Meaning, the reproductive potential of Black women was exploited not only to maintain Blackness as “a symbol of infinite flux,” but also “for the benefit of your Majesty’s colonies.”

The colonial fiction manufactured an ‘interaction’ with no regard for, or recognition of, the Black—except as a tool or a device to be used. Since, under the rubric of White supremacy, the Black signifies the non-human, we cannot speak of a relationship between Humans—only a juxtapositioning of subjects and objects. As such, “there is no relationality, no dialectics in the Hegelian sense of the relation between the master and the slave, only an interaction with content from one side only.” [emphasis in original]

Frantz Fanon writes in Black Skin, White Masks,

“For Hegel there is reciprocity; here the master scorns the consciousness of the slave…Likewise, the slave here can in no way be equated with the slave who loses himself in the object and finds the source of his liberation in his work. The black slave wants to be like his master. Therefore he is less independent than the Hegelian slave. For Hegel, the slave turns away from the master and turns toward the object. Here the slave turns toward the master and abandons the object.”

As Fanon delineates, the Black relates to the Human, whereas the Human relates to other Humans by way of the Black—“Simple enough, one has only not to be a nigger.” The ‘relation’ of the Black to civil society, or the world as we know it, is the violent orbital relation of an accumulated and fungible object to a subject; it is a ‘relation’ of negation. The Black is, as Frank Wilderson writes, a “positionality of ‘absolute dereliction’ (Frantz Fanon), abandonment, in the face of civil society and therefore cannot establish itself, or be established, through hegemonic interventions.” Moreover, entanglement of body, soil, water, air, and sun ontologically deprives the Black of bodily integrity. The Black becomes almost literally the ground on which the dance of relationality takes place. As such, White supremacy should be seen as an order, a speaking, that gathers together not only free and incarcerated Humans, but also, to riff off Judith Butler, the ‘liveable’ and ‘habitable’ zones of social life—or in Fanonian terms: the Zone of Being.

The “existential commons” on which political action is grounded, as Jared Sexton and Frank Wilderson have argued, is non-existent. The existential commons conceals “any contemplation of violence as a structuring matrix—and weds us to the notion of violence as a contingent event.” For the Black, violence is “not contingent on transgressions against the hegemony of civil society.” Our grammars of suffering, as I have argued, are different. As Frank Wilderson notes, “violence and captivity are the grammar and ghosts of our every gesture.” Those of us, who are marked as Black, organize our flights from captivity from under “the sign of the ‘unlivable’”—shared oppression does not mean shared structural position.

In recent critical analyses on the exploitation of prison labour by private and state-owned companies and the workfare policies, which force welfare recipients to take on work in return for welfare payments or risk losing them, activists have equated both forms of compulsory labour with slavery. However, if nothing else, the above-cited documents and their implications force us to re-examine the use of slavery as a benchmark through which all forms of forced labour are diagnosed. Most of these critical analyses speak of the prisoner and the slave in one breath and gloss over essential categories, such as race, ability, nationality, and gender, and the afterlife of slavery.

Even though, the prisoner and the slave represent the archetypal examples of unfreedom, the ideology of freedom itself was defined against chattel slavery; freedom, in its very essence, is coded White. Slavery provided the condition of possibility for Enlightenment humanism; we may think of slavery, then, as that which makes possibility possible, or, as I have argued, that which makes capacity (that is, the Human) possible. Taking these arguments into account complicates the popular understanding of both slavery and freedom. Moreover, they force us to reckon with the political rationality that expressly values White life more than Black life, and consequently protects the White psyche from specific forms of subjection and violence, based on a ‘natural’ order of things. As such, White prisoners, despite their status as captives of the state, “have an investment in white supremacy that speaks through them, whether or not they perceive themselves as racist.”

Narrative structures that place the Black within civil society—within the fold of civic relations—can only achieve this by “mystifying relations between capacity [the Human] and the absence of capacity [the Black/Slave].” Even though the prisoner posed a threat to public safety, according to the Dutch government, their life (since it was the life of a legal subject, a person) still needed to be protected, as P. A. van den Velden so ardently argued. On the other hand, the colonial myth, which was necessary to maintain Dutch superiority and flourishing colonies, simultaneously willed the genocidal annihilation of the Native and the exploitative multiplication of the Black. “The ethics of being just and kind,” as Sylvia Wynter asserts in Sambos and Minstrels, “were the ethics born out of this relation.”

Naturally, the mention of zakelijkheid, one of the main pillars of the myth, reminded me of Minister Lodewijk Asscher’s recent statement in which he expressed the ‘hope’, which was, in reality, an exhortation, of the debate on the role of Zwarte Piet being conducted in a businesslike manner. The coincidences do not end there however. A mere glance suggests that the colonial myth still exerts its guiding influence. The position of Zwarte Piet vis-à-vis Sinterklaas in the Sinterklaas tradition exposes the other half of the colonial myth: White supremacy. Manthia Diawara argues that blackface functions as “a statement of social imperfection, inferiority, and mimicry that is placed in isolation with an absent whiteness as its ideal opposite.” However, in the Sinterklaas tradition Whiteness is not absent. The ideal opposite is a constant managerial presence. Like the chained devil that accompanied Sinterklaas, Zwarte Piet is constrained by the White gaze of Sinterklaas. The Zwarte Piet-Sinterklaas dichotomy articulates a desire, even a demand, for White male dominance. Historically, enslaved African men, and by proxy a manacled Black masculinity, were allowed to exist only in the context of service to their White enslavers (see the Black Rangers and the Belanda Hitam). The White enslavers used Black masculinity to prop up their white-supremacist masculinity.

Even though, things have changed in “the ‘semi-free’ post-slavery system,” the internal conditions of the fiction of White supremacy, which guarantee its ideological and ontological juxtapositions, have remained relatively stable and constant. Asscher’s call for businesslike rationality not only harks back to a colonial strategy, it constitutes an act of violence because it is a continued way of ensuring that the colonial dynamics, that quarantine Blackness, are preserved. We cannot pretend that Dutchness and its businesslike resolutions are clean and neat political concepts, without an oppressive history; from its inception the formulation of Dutchness has been anti-black. Any meaningful discussion on Dutchness by way of citizenship needs to reckon with what each of us staking a claim is bringing to the table. The idea that once citizenship is acquired discrimination ends and an age of equality is ushered in is spurious, if not laughable, to say the least.

* This was the only image, in the entire 46 page magazine, that featured a Black police officer. The image was directly placed under another image featuring the recent graduates of the Netherlands Institute of Physical Safety, all are White and male except for one (White) woman, who received their Master of Crisis and Public Order Management diploma. I find it very coincidental that the only Black police officer featured in the magazine happens to be positioned under an all-White gaggle of recent masters of crisis and public order management, and, moreover, needs someone to show him the way.


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