The colonial past of the Netherlands is on the political agenda on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the emancipation of the Surinamese slaves. Cornelius Gerhard Anton de Kom (1898-1945), a Surinamese author and activist who was the first to write about his country from an anti-colonial point of view, was recognized this week by the Dutch government. Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra apologized to the descendants of the freedom fighter, who also fought in the resistance against the Nazi occupation, for “the suffering that both the author and his family endured at the hands of the authorities.” De Kom was labeled a danger to the state in 1932 and died in the Sandbostel German prisoner-of-war camp in 1945. The Dutch government also announced the creation of a chair in his name at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam.
“He was a courageous man who fought for justice, equality and humanity,” Hoekstra said. Two of his children, Ad and Judith, aged 96 and 92, respectively, have now been able to witness the authorities acknowledge that, nearly a century ago, their father was persecuted. “He was imprisoned and, despite everything, he gave his life by joining the resistance during the war,” the minister admitted. De Kom was arrested in 1944 for writing in the communist newspaper De Vonk and ended up at Stalag X-B in Sandbostel, a camp for civilian and military prisoners. He died there in April 1945, shortly before its liberation by Allied troops. His body was identified in 1960 in a mass grave and reinterred at the National Cemetery of Honours. In 1982, he was posthumously awarded the Dutch Cross of Resistance. In recent years, his story has gained greater interest due to the Black Lives Matter movement and the debate on racism.
For his family, the Dutch government’s decision marks “a historic moment because it acknowledges the courage, vision and tireless commitment of a man who fought all his life for freedom and equality, against the spirit of the times,” they said in a statement. They also hope it will contribute to creating a more just society “in which we dare to confront our colonial past.”
A government-commissioned investigation noted that the former Dutch republic “consciously based its global expansion on the exploitation of human beings.” According to the same report, the House of Orange, from which the current Dutch monarchy descends, earned the equivalent of $590 million from their control of overseas colonies, which included slavery.
A hero of the resistance
De Kom was added to the Canon of the Netherlands, which forms the basis for the school curriculum, in 2020. He is presented as an “anti-colonial writer, activist and hero of the resistance.” His book, Wij slaven van Suriname (We Slaves of Suriname), written in 1934, is a cry against racism, exploitation, and colonial rule. It was also the first historical work about his home country written by a Surinamese and a precursor to many others of the same tone. The Canon itself includes The Black Jacobins (1938) by C.L.R. James, the Trinidad and Tobago-born African-American Marxist thinker and historian, which recounts the slave revolt in the French colony of Saint-Domingue in 1791, which led to the creation of Haiti.
Cornelius Gerhard Anton de Kom was born in Paramaribo, the capital of Suriname, in 1898. His father had been born on a plantation in the east of the country shortly before the abolition of slavery in 1863. Despite holding a degree in accounting, De Kom was unable to find work due to racism and decided to try his luck in the Netherlands. He arrived in 1921 and found a position as a coffee and tea merchant. In 1926, he married Petronella Borsboom, a white Dutch woman with whom he had four children. Mixed marriages were uncommon at the time, but the family settled down and De Kom began to write. Disheartened at how little was known in the Netherlands about the country’s colonial past and slavery, he took to publishing politically critical articles and joined the Communist party. In 1932, he returned to Suriname shortly before the death of his mother, where he was censored and harassed by the colonial authorities. In view of the obstacles imposed against Surinamese, he opened a consulting firm to help exploited workers.
In February 1933, when he was already known as Papa De Kom, he was arrested for fear of sparking riots. He was jailed without trial and exiled to the Netherlands, where he wrote his famous book. Since the independence of Suriname in 1975, De Kom’s relevance has been increasingly acknowledged and he is now considered a national hero. The chair named after him, which will be inaugurated for the 2023-2024 academic year, will focus on the study of the Netherlands’ slave-owning past and its repercussions in the present.
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