Some celebrate it, others commemorate it, and others still are not concerned at all with 1 July or Keti Koti as the day is called. These differences can be explained historically, because the abolition of slavery occurred in a completely different manner for the citizens of Suriname and all six Dutch Caribbean islands. In Suriname, the first day of July is an official holiday. This is not the case anywhere else in the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Not in the Caribbean islands of Bonaire, Saba and Sint Eustatius, which are part of the Netherlands as a country, nor in the independent islands and countries within the Kingdom: Aruba, Curaçao and Sint Maarten. In the Netherlands, there is debate about whether 1 July should be declared an official holiday.

‘Used to be a holiday, now there’s no longer a feeling of celebration’

Valérie Tjin-A-Djie
Image credit: Valérie Tjin-A-Djie/RSM

“The party already started the day before 1 July”, says Surinamese Valérie Tjin-A-Djie (27), a master student in Medical Business and Innovation. “That day, we were all allowed to go to school in our traditional attire. I remember lots of different colours and designs and lots of delicious food. On 1 July, everyone had a free day, so we spent the day with family and friends. We grabbed our swimsuits and lots of goodies and headed out of town by car. We sat down in the sand, alongside a creek. It really felt like a holiday.”

“Now I no longer get a feeling of celebration on Keti Koti. Instead, I spend time thinking about the consequences of slavery, about the racism that still exists in society. This change has come about very gradually. During my first year in the Netherlands – I was 18 at the time – 1 July fell in the exam period, so I was mostly studying. Each year, I felt more and more emotion about this day.”

“I mostly feel misunderstood, because people here in the Netherlands don’t learn about slavery and its consequences. In Suriname it’s so different, everyone knows about the history and how it shaped our country. Here, I have to explain it all the time. Since slavery is a difficult subject, it also feels like a heavy conversation. Currently, there’s a petition circulating to make 1 July an official holiday here as well. I hope it’s successful. More people will also learn about the magnitude of these past events.”

The bill to abolish slavery was introduced in 1842. The law was eventually passed twenty years later and it was declared that emancipation would take effect on 1 July 1863. For many years, discussions were ongoing on how slavery was to be abolished and what kind of compensation plantation owners would receive for the loss of their property. In Suriname, the newly freed people had to continue working on plantations for another ten years. Those who owned enslaved persons received three hundred guilders per head as compensation. In 1859, slavery was abolished in the Dutch East Indies, which is now Indonesia.

The abolition is commemorated annually on 30 June and celebrated on 1 July. In addition, there is a monument in memory of slavery in Rotterdam. The commemoration ceremony will begin at 19:00. Several wreaths will be laid by Erasmus University and others, and there will be speeches and musical performances.

‘The colonial mindset still exists on the island’

“The first of July is seen very differently in Suriname and Curaçao”, says Camille Blaaker (22), a third-year medical student and president of the Dutch Caribbean Association. “I learned about it because my father is from Suriname. When I was seven, we moved from the Netherlands to Curaçao. There, we celebrate 17 August, the day that Tula, our national hero, and other leaders began the great slave rebellion of 1795. For Curaçao, 1 July doesn’t hold much significance. At any rate, the emphasis is more on celebrating one’s culture, for example, during Carnival, the Seú festival and Siman di kultura.”

Camille Blaaker_eigen foto
Image credit: Camille Blaaker/eigen foto

“My father didn’t just bring up this history on 1 July, he talked to us about it throughout the year. He said that people had to continue working on plantations for ten years after 1 July 1863. He felt it was important to emphasise this. Recently, 1 July has become more important to me. I consciously reflect on life on the islands. The colonial mindset still prevails on the island. Especially among the older generations, because they grew up with it. If someone has straight hair, that generation calls it ‘good hair’. Straight hair used to truly be considered better. Fortunately, this is less prevalent among the younger generations.”

“Since I’ve started living in the Netherlands again, I find that I appreciate the culture, language and history of the islands and Suriname more. I have gained a greater appreciation for everything that makes us, us. Moving was difficult. You go from a place that breathes colonial history to one that doesn’t. More and more research is being done in the Netherlands on its colonial past. Who knows, maybe those results will help people in the Netherlands learn about the past and the aftermath of a history of slavery.”

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'Everything is different, racism more intense'

Zhanica Arrindell is in the second year of the International Bachelor in Economics and Business Economics programme. On her island, Sint Maarten, slavery was abolished before 1 July 1863. “Sint Maarten is half French and so the abolition, or emancipation, was in 1848, just like in France.”

Zhanica Arrindell_eigen foto
Zhanica Arrindell Image credit: Zhanica Arrindell/eigen foto

“I’ve always found it difficult to deal with the fact that my ancestors were not free people. Since my arrival in the Netherlands, on 1 July I think a lot about how my island has been completely shaped by the collective history. Slavery seems like a long time ago, but you can still see the effects.”

“My 91-year-old grandmother was raised by her grandmother. My great-great-grandmother was the daughter of an enslaved woman. The richest people on the island are still the descendants of plantation owners. But the consequences of colonial history are not just about socio-economic inequality. On Sint Maarten, people do not express their emotions easily, because that was punished under slavery. Racist views about black people being stupid also persist. Both there and here in the Netherlands. ‘You’re smart for a darkskin’, a people on Sint Maarten told me. Caribbean students also get this in the Netherlands, even from teachers: ‘So surprised you passed this course.’ Or in advance: ‘You’re probably not going to pass this.’”

“Why did my ideas about 1 July change? Coming to the Netherlands was traumatic. At the age of 18, you have to leave everything behind. Some Caribbean students move to cities larger than their island. Everything is different, the racism is more intense. We, from the islands, are used to a sense of community. Here, we’re on our own. The other day, after almost two years, I saw my parents again for the first time since I came here. Even video calls were too painful for me because I missed them so badly. In the Netherlands, many Caribbean students feel that they are inferior to Dutch students; I get that feeling too. On top of that, when you see that no one understands you or knows your past, that people still have so many prejudices, you feel so alone. That’s traumatic.”