Zwarte Piet-   Tradition or Racism?

Vintage card with 'Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet' waving Photo Credit- Otomodachi
Vintage card with ‘Sinterklaas en Zwarte Piet’ waving Photo Credit- Otomodachi

 

In many countries around the world, Santa Claus has helpers.  We have discussed Krampus (http://www.historynaked.com/krampus/) in a previous post.  However, in the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, Aruba and Curaçao, SinterKlaas or St. Nicholas has a different helper- Zwarte Piet or Black Pete.  Zwarte Piet is depicted as a “blackamoor” from Spain dressed in a colorful Renaissance costume of pantaloons, feathered cap and ruffled shirt, curly hair, bright red lipstick and gold earrings.  He travels with SinterKlaas when he arrives by boat from Spain in November and is welcomed with a parade.  SinterKlaas rides through town on a white horse while Zwarte Piet distributes treats of pepernoten, kruidnoten, and strooigoed to children and amuse them with tricks and jokes.  He is ostensibly SinterKlaas’ servant who also has the task of finding out if the children have been good and if they have not, kidnaps them and takes them back to Spain.  That is for the really awful children.  Mildly bad ones receive a switch or a lump of coal instead of presents.

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Zwarte Piet costumes from the modern times Photo Credit-https://disqus.com/

Some historians and folklorists believe that the companions of SinterKlaas are related to the story of the Wild Hunt of Odin.  Odin flew through the air as the leader of the Hunt on his horse Sleipnir accompanied by the two ravens, Huginn and Muninn.  These two were responsible for gathering information about the mortal world and take it back to Odin, much like Zwarte Piet took information back to St. Nicholas about the behavior of children.  There are also medieval depictions of St. Nicholas with a chained devil, which is sometimes shown as a black devil, who is forced to aid him.  The St. Nicholas of this tradition is markedly different than the SinterKlaas we are used to.  He is much more forceful and meant to be feared rather than loved.  This presented a problem for the Church as St. Nicholas was technically a saint and supposed to be holy.  So the negative characteristics attributed to St. Nicholas were gradually shifted onto his helpers, such as Zwarte Piet.  The Zwarte Piet character first appears in print in the book Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”) by Jan Schenkman.  This introduced SinterKlaas’ arrival on a steamboat from Spain or “intocht”.  This entry celebration takes place in towns around the Low Countries in November.

Demonstrators gather to protest against Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Saturday Nov. 16, 2013. Photo Credit- Peter Dejong / The Associated Press
Demonstrators gather to protest against Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Saturday Nov. 16, 2013. Photo Credit- Peter Dejong / The Associated Press

In modern times there is a great controversy over Zwarte Piet.  The costume is done with blackface and is considered by many to perpetuate negative stereotypes about people of color.  Blackface is associated with minstrel shows, which were never complimentary.  In fact the tradition was criticized by a UN committee in August 2015 as promoting “discriminatory practices and stereotypes”.  The Netherlands has a tricky history with colonialism.  They played an integral part in the transatlantic slave trade.  Leopold II was known as the butcher of the Congo, massacring 10 million Africans.  That doesn’t count the amount of torture and starvation and unbelievable horrors he allowed.  Many believe Zwarte Piet reinforces those negative beliefs and contributes to the discriminatory manner in which people of color are treated in the Netherlands.  “Kick out Zwarte Piet” groups have been formed and protested at the intocht ceremonies in Amsterdam, Meppel and Rotterdam.

As with most protest groups, there has been a backlash against them.  Many people believe the protests are unfounded as the Zwarte Piet legend was created prior to Dutch colonialism.  Others say that Zwarte Piet is only black because of the soot from listening at and going down the chimneys.  Some of these counter protests have turned violent with threats online of harm and death for “trying to f**k up a children’s party” in a country where Black people are only “guests”.  That guy is not helping his point.  Many of the people protesting are not immigrants, but Dutch born and bred.

However, the Sinterklaas from Meppel this year said it best, “Everyone is free to shout and sing and celebrate Sinterklaas in their own way.  The Netherlands is also modernizing, so in the future there will be black Piets who go through dirty chimneys, some with soot on their faces and some clean-faced.”  And as long as he brings candy, I’m not sure anyone will care.

ER

Sources available on request

The Dutch Tulip Bubble

In Flora’s Wagon of Fools by Hendrik Gerritsz Pot, the goddess of flowers leads the weavers of Haarlem toward the rough seas that will destroy them (Credit: Hendrik Gerritsz Pot)
In Flora’s Wagon of Fools by Hendrik Gerritsz Pot, the goddess of flowers leads the weavers of Haarlem toward the rough seas that will destroy them (Credit: Hendrik Gerritsz Pot)

Anyone who follows the stock market or survived 2008 knows what a bubble is.  What may surprising is the first one was not in housing or gold.  What was this amazing commodity?  Tulips.  I can hear your disbelief through the computer screen.  Tulips?  Those things my mom plants around the sidewalk to the front porch?  Yes.  Mike Dash in his book Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower and the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused said one bulb of the variety Semper Augustus was so valuable “It was enough to feed, clothe and house a whole Dutch family for half a lifetime, or sufficient to purchase one of the grandest homes on the most fashionable canal in Amsterdam for cash, complete with a coach house and an 80-ft (25-m) garden – and this at a time when homes in that city were as expensive as property anywhere in the world.”  How did this happen?  Well, as with most things, it’s a long story.

Tulips were originally from the Pamir and Tien Shan mountain ranges in central Asia.  From there they made their way to the gardens of the Ottoman Empire in Constantinople.  Botanist Carolus Clusius brought them to his garden at the University of Leiden to study them for medicinal purposes.  Clusius noticed that some tulips “broke”, in that they started out as a solid color but then suddenly began producing blooms which were multicolored.  In the course of his research, his neighbors noticed the beautiful flowers and stole some.  Nice neighbors.  In the hopes of quick cash, the nefarious neighbors sold the tulips on the open market.  Botanists began competing with one another to breed the most beautiful “broken” or multicolored tulip.  These cultivars, as they were called, were highly prized and traded amongst each other.  This network of botanists soon developed into the trade network as tulips quickly became a status symbol amongst the rich of Holland.  

Over the next few years tulips became the most valuable commodity and were openly traded.  Bulbs would change hands over ten times a day.  A bulb for a Viceroy tulip in 1634 could command 2500 florins a value roughly equivalent to $1,250 in current dollars.  The Semper Augustus as mentioned above could get about twice that.  A good trader could earn up to 60,000 florins in a month— approximately $61,710 adjusted to current dollars.  Tulip bulbs were used as money and could be traded for all kinds of goods and services.  They were traded in the back of taverns and at one point were considered too valuable to even plant.  The unplanted bulbs were proudly displayed by wealthy owners.  They looked very much like an onion, and in fact one sailor unknowingly ate one thinking it was an onion.  It was a $1,000 meal.

An anonymous watercolour from the 17th Century shows the Semper Augustus, the most prized and expensive variety in the Dutch tulip mania Photo Credit: Wikipedia
An anonymous watercolour from the 17th Century shows the Semper Augustus, the most prized and expensive variety in the Dutch tulip mania Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Then the bubble burst.  In 1637, a trader in Haarlem did not show up to pay for his bulbs.  This started a panic and the price of tulips hit rock bottom.  Within days, bulbs lost their value and were only worth pennies on the dollar.  Many people lost their fortune in the catastrophe and went into deep debt.  The effects were long reaching as these debts went through the court system for years.  Even those who had escaped the worst of the crash were affected by the economic depression that followed.  One good thing followed the crash, the Dutch were extremely cautious about speculative investments in future.

ER

Sources available on request

The Floods of 1287

12369003_192057377803019_8234722555234233551_nOn December 14, 1287 a strong storm tide caused a dike to break and decimate parts of the Netherlands and Northern Germany (the day after St. Lucia Day), killing between 50,000 to 80,000 people. Land was permanently flooded in an area now known as the Waddenzee and IJsselmeer. It especially affected the north of the Netherlands, particularly Friesland. The island of Griendwas was almost destroyed, only ten houses were left standing. It would be known as The St. Lucia Flood.

In England, the same storm had similar devastating effects. It killed hundreds of people in England, mostly in the village of Hickling, Norfolk, where 180 died and the water rose a foot above the high altar in the Priory Church. The storm is one of two in 1287 sometimes referred to as a “Great Storm”. The other was the South England flood of February 1287. Together with a surge in January 1286, they seem to have prompted the decline of one of England’s then leading ports, Dunwich in Suffolk. The city of Winchelsea on Romney Marsh was destroyed (later rebuilt on the cliff top behind). Nearby Broomhill was also destroyed. The course of the nearby river Rother was diverted away from New Romney, which was almost destroyed and left a mile from the coast, ending its role as a port. The Rother ran instead to sea at Rye, prompting its rise as a port. The storm contributed to the collapse of a cliff at Hastings, taking part of Hastings Castle with it.

Adela