At first glance, the Black Pete tradition appears to be rooted in colonial slavery. Princess Marianne of Orange-Nassau (1810–1883), Princess of The Netherlands, was the daughter of King Willem I and aunt of King Willem III, nicknamed King Gorilla for his less civilized behavior. In August 1850 she traveled to Egypt for holidays and brought home with her a fifteen year old boy whom she had purchased from Arab merchants at the Cairo slave market. His arrival made the papers: “He is from Nubia, a fact which his high copper color, frizzled hair, somewhat thick lips, broad nose also point out.” Princess Marianne dressed the boy in an Arabic costume “of a fine, alternatingly brown, then black fabric, set with silver and gold.” To those familiar with the Dutch children’s festival of Sinterklaas, our localized Santa Claus, this description reminds of his loyal helper Black Pete. So, is this boy, in appearance and dress, evidence of a racist tradition that started in 1850?
The Origins of Black Pete
Unlikely. A few months after the boy’s arrival in 1850, author of children’s books Jan Schenkman published St. Nicholas and his servant, which became the foundation of the modern Dutch ‘Sinterklaas’ festival. Schenkman’s cartoonist undoubtedly found inspiration with black people for the appearance of Santa’s helper, but Black Pete emphatically did not play the part of a slave—rather the part of a respectable, paid journeyman. In fact, Schenkman’s emancipated Black Pete mocked the Dutch elite who occasionally returned home from holidays with black child slaves as ‘souvenirs’, just like Princess Marianne did, whom Schenkman had already mocked earlier that year in another book titled Saint Nicholas brings everyone a present.
In that earlier book, Saint Nicholas calls Black Pete a “noble children’s friend” —but not a slave. There is also another, more obvious origin for Schenkman’s Black Pete, namely a childrens book published in 1848, two years before Marianne’s trip to the slave market, titled The History of the black boys by W.P. Razoux. It is about three white boys with typical Dutch names Frits, Klaas and Jan who make fun of a Moorish boy simply for the color of their skin. The obvious discrimination angers Saint Nicholas so much that he decides to teach the boys a lesson and he immerses them in a large inkpot. The ink stains the boys, from head to toe, “blacker yet than soot”. Now they will experience for themselves what it means to be judged by the color of one’s skin!
Saint Nicholas immerses the boys in a large inkpot. Digital Library for Dutch Literature (2004).
A Noble Children’s Friend
Within this historical context, Black Pete can therefore be seen as a beacon of anti-racism and not, what opponents would like to have us believe today, “a throwback to slavery”. In any Dutch representation of Black Pete, he does not behave himself like a slave, but rather as a children’s confidant and their noble friend who, with playful self-confidence, mocks Santa’s authority as a father figure, psychologically empowering children. What can be racist about Black Pete’s character if he not only teaches children to stand up for themselves, but also fearlessly ridicules a white authority figure?
But then why do opponents of Black Pete harden in their near religious belief that Black Pete is racism? Even the Dutch court of Amsterdam partially agreed and claimed to see a “negative stereotype”. The cause of this miscarriage of justice appears to be a cultural confusion of tongues: the Dutch opponents of Black Pete imagine themselves members of the African-American Black Power culture, they are inspired by Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks or even Malcolm X, and they project perceived American injustices onto Dutch society. But in a Dutch context, these projections are entirely misplaced because European history is not American.
Nonetheless, without justification, the opponents believe that Black Pete is guilty of blackface, the racist American custom whereby painted white actors played black fools. But Europe has known no such institutionalized blackface tradition. Instead, European history does offer an array of mythical figures with darkened, dirtied or blackened faces, such as Harlequin, Austria’s Krampus, Germany’s Knecht Rupprecht and Belsnickel, also known to the Pennsylvania Dutch, and Switzerland’s Schmutzli. The United Nations have declared Iran’s Hajji Firuz, an Islamic Black Pete, World Cultural Heritage. Two thousand years ago, Roman historian Tacitus wrote about Germanic warriors who painted their bodies to frighten the enemy.
Each of these archetypes is older than Europe’s modern discovery of Africa and therefore they predate colonialism, racism and slavery.
Western nations have transformed themselves into multicultural, multi-ethnic societies. In less than half a century, European nations welcomed tens of millions of immigrants who came to live among us. While it is true that indigenous Europeans, imperfect as we are, are still struggling to accommodate all these new peoples, their foreign religions and customs, it cannot be denied that tolerance is a mutual effort. If we truly wish to live in harmony with one another, then we must accept the fact that native European traditions deserve the same respect as anyone else’s.
Let us therefore promote tolerance in the spirit of W.P. Razoux and embrace Black Pete as a beacon of anti-racism.