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Racist ‘Black Pete’ has no place in New Zealand
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Racist ‘Black Pete’ has no place in New Zealand
Dr Rawiri Taonui

A decade long furore in the Netherlands over ‘Black Pete’ (Zwarte Piet) where white people dress-up with Black Faces, frizzy wigs and red watermelon sucking lips to help Sinterklaas (St Nicholas) distribute presents is now playing out in New Zealand.

In the so-called ‘tradition’, Sinterklaas and Black Pete arrive on a steamboat from Spain in November, distribute confectionary and presents, then leave in December.

Critics of recent festivities in Rotorua and Christchurch, and in the Netherlands, say the caricature is an overhang from slavery and part of a history of pejorative racial stereotyping.

Despite photos of Black Pete sometimes in chains, pro-Black Pete supporters in New Zealand, like Annie van der Dussen and Douwe Visser, say the ‘tradition’ has been around for ‘hundreds of years’, that Black Pete is a Moor from Spain, not an African or a slave therefore not racist and the ‘Black’ is soot from delivering presents down chimneys.

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                      A group of people posing for a photo:St Nicholas and Peter the Servant
                                                                            | Photo supplied

The Sinterklaas  - Black Pete celebration evolved over time. Born in the 3rd century, St Nicholas became associated with children gift bringing around 1200 after traditions he rescued three young girls from prostitution and resurrected three murdered boys. Scary figures, pagan in origin, were added during the late Middle Ages to reinforce that children should behave well lest they suffer the birch or be taken away.

This fete spread across the old Holy Roman Empire with different names for the scary figures in different regions; Knecht Ruprecht (Rupert the Servant) in Germany, Krampus in Austria, Slovenia, and Croatia, Le Père Fouettard in France and Switzerland and Pieter Knecht (Peter the Servant) in the Netherlands and lowland Europe. Sometimes demonic, sometimes not, none was African, Moorish or slave.

The Dutch likely began associating Peter the Servant as a Moor when the Hapsburg Dynasty, who had killed, deported or enslaved all Moors in Spain by 1492, ruled the Netherlands between 1518 and 1714. In short, Pete the Servant became Pete the Moor the slave.


The Dutch Slave Trade

Shaped by the Dutch Slave Trade, Zwarte Piet appeared much later. Between 1596 and 1823, the Netherlands trafficked 800,000 slaves from Africa to the Americas. Another 1.1 million slaves were transported between East Africa, South Africa, the Indian sub-continent, Sri Lanka, Taiwan and Indonesia. They also introduced slavery into South Africa. A Dutchman, Hendrik Verwoerd, was the architect of Apartheid.

John Stedman, a British soldier serving with the Dutch in Surinam, believed they were crueller than other slavers. With death rates averaging 16% between 1630 and 1823, fatalities on Dutch ships were higher than on other European slave ships. Women were kept in the ‘whore hole’ (hoeregat). Captains kept favourite male or female ‘companions’ before dispensing with them on the block at destination. Sexualised slavery was common in outposts predominately populated by men.

Resistance met brutality. Ghanaian King Badu Bonsu II was decapitated and his head kept in a jar in the anatomical collection at Leiden University Medical Centre until 2008.

Slave punishments included hanging, decapitation, roasting alive, hung from a gibbet by a hook skewered through the ribs, racked and all major bones broken, tied to horses then pulled apart, achilles tendons cut, feet amputated for ‘skulking’, a slave mother given 200 lashes for ‘defiance’ after leaping off a boat to save the drowned baby her ‘mistress owner’ tossed overboard for crying too much.

pic3 rt
Photo supplied

Slavery funded the ‘The Dutch Golden Age’, a period when the Dutch Republic became the wealthiest nation in the world. In 1770, 24% of all Dutch imports and exports related to the slave-based activity in the Americas, an economy that contributed 40% of growth in the Dutch GDP during the latter decades of the eighteenth century.

In addition to slavery, the Netherlands had a significant colonial presence. In 1621, they killed, starved or enslaved as many as 14,000 of the 15,000 population of Banda. Applying barbaric genital electrocution, hanging detainees over fires and summary executions, the Dutch committed 800 atrocities and inflicted 300,000 deaths, including between 3,000 and 40,000 in the Westerling massacres, in a failed post-World War 2 attempt to reclaim their colonies in Indonesia.

The Enslaved Black Child

The modern Black Pete page boy ruff collar, short pants and hose costume come from the late 1600s practice of gifting black children to wealthy families in the Netherlands. Amsterdam became a centre of child trafficking on-selling surplus ‘presents’ to wealthy families across Europe.

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                                                                         Photo supplied 


Cupido and Sideron, the most well-known child slaves, served in the court of Willem V. Sideron was born a slave in Dutch Curacao but listed in the household staff as a ‘Moor’, the term for slave from Spain. The two were painted wearing the Renaissance style costume we see today.

It became fashion to include these walking human ornaments to Dutch power in family portraits, for example, Jan Steen ‘the Family of Gerrit Schouten’ (1660) with ‘negerpage’ behind chair.

Other paintings were semi-erotic, the flower of white European womanhood and the pacified native male, in Eglon van der Neer (1680) page boy in waiting, an engraving by an unknown artist (1700) of a ‘swarte Moor’ washing the feet of semi-naked white woman, and Catherine the Great of Russia with attendant trotting by side.

A group of people posing for a photo


                                                         A group of people posing for a photo | Photo supplied


Black Face

Pete’s hyperbolic ‘Black Face’ also came from slavery. White immigrants introduced ‘Whitewashing theatre’, where white actors played black figures in Shakespearean plays (Titus Andronicus 1593, The Merchant of Venice 1596 and Othello 1604), into the United States during the 1700s.

Over the next century, this grew into short comedic sets during intermissions and then full Black Minstrel performances with the classic Black Face, woolly wig, big red lips and an exaggerated African-American vernacular. Minstrel figures like ‘Jim Crow’, a rural idiot in rags, and Zip Coon, an over-dressed malaprop fool became widely popular in America and Europe during the 1830s.

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Black Face applied ridicule to stereotype black people as infantile, dumb, lazy, superstitious, hypersexual, criminal, cowardly and happy-go-lucky. This white adult mimicry imagined all black people as an unevolved child to rationalise a false racial hierarchy and justify slavery. Integral to this was the notion that white people understood black people better than black people knew themselves. Unaware they were uncivilised, Black people were without order. The white man’s burden was to provide order through slavery. Black people often required corrective violence because they were naturally ungrateful, rebellious or lazy. Ultimately self-inflicted, their suffering was ethically unimportant.

Black Face pulsed in popularity after the 1865 emancipation of slaves in America, final manumission in Europe, incidentally by the Netherlands in 1873, and in popular culture after World War 2 as European powers gradually lost colonial possessions. Black Face assuaged post-emancipatory European anxiety, buttressed white beliefs in their pre-eminence and reminded black people of their place. Golliwog dolls and Nigritic characters blossomed in child literature poisoning innocence by creating hordes of little white racists in each new generation.



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Peter the Servant becomes Black Pete the African Slave

By the early 1800s, the Dutch had begun re-imaging Peter the Servant as Black Pete the African slave. Alberdingk Thijm attended a celebration in 1828 where ‘Pieter Knecht’ was ‘a curly-haired Negro’. In 1859, the Dutch newspaper De Tijd also described ‘Pieter Knecht’ as ‘a Negro’.

In Jan Schenkman 1850 Saint Nicholas and his Servant, the servant has African features but without the amplified Black Face and page boy apparel. Unnamed, he is still Peter the Servant but clearly African. The name 'Zwarte Piet'  'Black Pete first appeared in 1868. The garish clothes of Renaissance portraiture were added in 1870. The name, the page boy dress and Black Face came together in the 1920s.

Black Pete and Racism

Zwarte Piet, ‘dull-witted, clumsy, and semi-literate’, was now the perfect annual vehicle for white Dutch adults to mock Dutch Africans. In 1927, a black man was charged for retaliating against a harbour worker who used ‘Zwarte Piet’ as a racial slur. In 1987, African television presenter Gerda Havertong discussed Zwarte Piet in terms of race relations.

In 2014/2015, an Amsterdam Court, the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent and the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination found that the Black Pete celebration aggravated serious discrimination ‘injurious to their dignity and self-esteem’ of Dutch Africans

The following year, Dutch Ombudswoman for Children, Margriet Kalverboer, said Black Pete encouraged discrimination against African children in contravention of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. During the seasonal festivities, white people threw candy at African children and called them ‘Black Pete’, ‘black monkey’ and ‘black thieves’. Parents of African descent said their children asked why they couldn’t wash the black dirt off their skins like white kids.


                                                                         Photo suplied

More recently, a Dutch football game was halted after fans chanted racial epithets including ‘Black Pete, Black Pete ...’ at an African player from Excelsior.

Dutch people of African descent are unbowed and speaking out. Liverpool star and Dutch international Georginnio Wijnaldum has stated that Black Pete ‘emboldens’ racism against Dutch Africans. Ramone Bendt, an 18-year-old medical student, and Nilab Ahmadi, a law student, have described how the Sinterklaas - Black Pete celebration intensifies racism.

The Police, Pro-Pete Movement and Racism

Policing of the anti-Black Pete campaign has been racist. During the first protest in 2011, Jerry Afriyie and Quinsy Gario were arrested for wearing T-shirts saying ‘Zwarte Piet is racism’. Police have used significant violence against anti-Black Pete protestors. One organisation, ‘Kick Out Zwarte Piet’ was listed on a National Terrorism Threat Assessment despite the National Coordinator for Counterterrorism admitting the group was non-violent.

White male pro-Black Pete factions have spat on anti-Pete protestors, subjected them to racial slurs, Nazi salutes, neo-Nazi flags, white power signs, thrown eggs, bananas and beer cans and assaulted them.

                                                                                 Photo supplied


White Anxiety

As the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent (2014) said, such a reaction comes from the Netherlands’ inability to address its history of slavery and colonialism. Like it or not that past is fast confronting the white majority. Between 1945 and 2000, more than 730,000 people from the former Dutch colonies of Indonesia, Surinam and the Antilles emigrated to the Netherlands. Coupled with workers from other non-white countries brought in to fill post-World War 2 labour shortages, today, 2.3 million or 13.3% of the country’s 17.3 million population are non-Western. This demographic is youthful and increasing, and the white Dutch population ageing and proportionately decreasing.


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A neurotic social-cultural cocktail currently fuelling rising white supremacism pro-Pete white people cling to a symbol of racism, deny they are racist and call those who question them ‘Black Pete’ or ‘black monkey’. They fear the past, are blind to white privilege built on the historical exploitation of others, and fret over the abhorrence of a future where they surrender primacy and share power with people whose ancestors they once brutalised.


Nevertheless, attitudes are changing, and changes are happening. Surveys show support for Black Pete is dwindling from 89% in 2013 to 68% in 2017 and 59% in 2019. More than half of young people think the tradition should change.

Many primary schools have done away with Zwarte Pete. McDonald’s has banned employees from dressing as Piet. Police celebrations including Zwarte Piet will end this year.

Attempting to return to the original non-racialised original Sinterklaas tradition, many department stores have introduced a ‘Golden Pete’. Once vehemently pro-Piet, Dutch author Robert Vuisjie has written a children’s book with Petes in all colours. Others have innovated with role reversal, [warte%20Sinterklaas%20and%20Wit%20Piet]‘Zwarte Sinterklaas - Wit Piet (Black Santa “ White Pete)’.

                                                                                      Photo supplied


Annual parades in three of the four largest cities, Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Utrecht, have introduced ‘Schoorsteen Piet’ or ‘Chimney Pete’ with soot marks on cheeks. The state television broadcaster has ditched Black Face in favour of Sooty Pete.


New Zealand

The Rotorua and Christchurch Netherlands communities could heed these changes. Other New Zealand communities have. In 2017, Willem van der Velde, who ran an annual Sinterklaas parade in Auckland, changed to coloured Petes using the three colours of the Dutch flag.

                                                                                   Photo supplied

In 2018, The Manawatū Dutch Club introduced Piets with tiny Dutch flags on their faces, a sort of ‘Plain Pete’. This change is a significant advance because long term the key to deracialising Black Pete is the full removal of the Black Face, woolly hair and red lips.

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The Manawatu Dutch Club's Sinterklaas is Jasper van Proosdij, accompanied by Piets without a smudge of black face paint in Foxton.

Others are also fronting up. A Taranaki Lions Club, who had six members in Black Face in an agricultural parade, has apologised for getting it wrong. Last year a group of young men in Black Face were refused service at a bar in Wanaka.

Black Face is not acceptable. Concealing recent racism in an ancient tradition does not justify racially offensive practices. Offenders should receive the birch or be deported on the next steamboat to Spain.


Copyright © 2020, UMA Broadcasting Ltd:

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