According to Professor of Caribbean History Alex van Stipriaan, the new Dutch film Michiel de Ruyter portrays the eponymous 17th-century admiral as a ‘one-dimensional heroic figure’ while steering clear of less savoury aspects like De Ruyter’s involvement in the slave trade.

Last Monday saw the premiere of the new Dutch blockbuster Michiel De Ruyter at the National Maritime Museum in Amsterdam. In front of the museum, demonstrators gathered to protest the film’s completely glossing over of the Netherlands’ slave-trading past. Instead, the 2.5-hour epic mainly concerns itself with spectacular sea battles, contrasted with scenes from De Ruyter’s home life.

View the trailer of Michiel de Ruyter.

Incredibly one-dimensional

Van Stipriaan can sympathise with the criticism levied by the protesters. “Directors are free to make the film they want to make,” notes Van Stipriaan when asked about Michiel de Ruyter. “I have no issue with a clearly fictional film like Pirates of the Caribbean. But particularly in the case of a film like this, which stays so close to historical events, any discrepancies start to create friction. One the one hand, they strive for accuracy down to the last detail – the ship needs to look exactly the same as the vessels used at the time. But then the film very consciously focuses exclusively on De Ruyter’s positive traits. Leaving an incredibly one-dimensional heroic figure. So that at the end of the day, even Pirates of the Caribbean has more meat to it than this film,” sneers Van Stipriaan.

‘Father of the Netherlands’ traditional tolerance’

In a recent interview, leading man Frank Lammers called Michiel de Ruyter ‘the father of the Netherlands’ traditional tolerance’. Van Stipriaan greets this statement with derision, dismissing it as ‘utter nonsense’. “I can’t stand these kinds of claims. De Ruyter was caught up in the conflict between Orangists and republicans. And he was known as an extremely pious man, which in his case meant that he was a staunch opponent of Catholicism. So, tolerant? Hardly. Let actors stick to their last, then I’ll stick to mine.”

Slavery had its opponents in the Dutch Golden Age too

And Van Stipriaan is equally dismissive of the frequently bandied about argument that one should view 17th century slavery in the context of ‘the standards and perspectives of the time’. “In the 17th century there were people who objected to slavery too – in fact, there were many of them, and they were quite vocal even. Many people believed that it was impossible to reconcile slavery with their belief in Christ. It seems hardly likely that De Ruyter was completely impervious to such views. But we have no record of him ever expressing his disapproval of the institution.”

Annoyed by Frits de Ruyter

The media appearances of Frits de Ruyter, a distant descendant of the illustrious Golden Age admiral, are a particular source of annoyance to the professor. De Ruyter claims that his ancestor had nothing to do with the slave trade, since he only sailed for the Dutch East India Company. But according to Van Stipriaan, this statement is ‘patently false’. “In fact, De Ruyter had virtually no dealings with the Dutch East India Company; rather, he primarily sailed for the trans-Atlantic Dutch West India Company. And on these voyages, he had ample opportunity to see with his own eyes just how bad things were for thousands of slaves. What’s more, we have long since dropped the idea that the Dutch East India Company had nothing to do with the slave trade. They transported more or less the same number of slaves as the West India Company.”

Nevertheless, De Ruyter is also deserving of our praise, concludes Van Stipriaan. “He was an excellent seaman – very clever in strategic terms. He was simply very good at the job he was hired for.” ES