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Blacks in the Dutch World: The Evolution of Racial Imagery in a Modern Society.

By Allison Blakely (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1994. xix plus 327pp. $35.00).

Relatively little work has been done on race and racial ideology in the Dutch world. Most recent studies have concentrated on the British Empire. Allison Blakely reminds those who have forgotten just how extensive Dutch expansion was. Dutch commercial relations during the seventeenth century stretched from the Caribbean to East Indies. Profits from trade in the Indian Ocean earned the Dutch the jealousy of other European powers. Dutch involvement in the Atlantic slave trade was early, substantial, and critical to the rise of plantation agriculture in South America and the Caribbean. The economies of many of their colonies rested squarely on chattel slavery, which the Dutch abolished only in 1863, some three decades after the British.

At the same time the Netherlands was becoming an increasingly plural society. According to Blakely, "Immigration has occurred with a persistence and on a scale which leaves few present Dutch families without at least one ancestor from abroad."(1) But this is no "melting pot." Blakely argues that "The tendency has been to accommodate rather then assimilate."(2) Only recently, however, have substantial numbers of people of African descent moved to the Netherlands. Dutch society has had to reconcile the physical presence of black people with a racial ideology that developed without a substantial black population in the Netherlands. Long famous for its liberal culture, Dutch society's capacity for tolerance and diversity may be running thin.

To understand the conundrum of race Blakely has delved deeply into the culture of the Netherlands, from pagan beginnings to modern political controversies. The author uncovers the ubiquitousness of the representation of black people and the ambiguity of racial ideology. Black Pete, St. Nicholas's servant, is both loved and feared. Some of the most outstanding seventeenth and eighteenth-century art depicted "Moors," "Ethiopians" and other "black" folk. Visual representation of black people has become pervasive in Dutch society. Literature followed along the same lines as folklore and art. Toward the end of the book Blakely also provides useful surveys of religion and missionizing and the diverse occupations of blacks within the Dutch empire. His conclusion is that despite this diversity, the association of blacks with servility has become the dominant image in the Netherlands.

This is a helpful book for students of the Netherlands. It is full of fascinating evidence drawn from diverse sources and covering a broad expanse of time. Blakely's emphasis on the paradoxes and ambiguities of racial ideology will not be much of a surprise to scholars working on other parts of the world. To use modernization theory to frame the argument may foreclose other, more inventive, approaches to the study of racial ideology. This reader wanted a clearer understanding of the history of the definition of black within Dutch culture. Why black became synonymous with people of African descent is more assumed than explained. Blakely is far better on the Netherlands than he is on the colonies, where he tends to provide summary treatments that rehearse conventional wisdom. But in the Netherlands he has assembled a great deal of intriguing data on an issue of wider salience and continuing importance.


(1.) Allison Blakely, Blacks in the Dutch World: The Evolution of Racial imagery in a Modern Society (Bloomington, IN, 1994), 8.

(2.) Ibid, 10.
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Author:Crais, Clifton
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1995
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