On Saturday, protests were held across the Netherlands against a blackface character that is part of an annual festival that celebrates the arrival of St Nicholas, a Christian saint from the 4th century AD.
The arrival of St Nicholas (called ‘Sinterklaas’ in Dutch) from Spain to the Netherlands by ship is celebrated every year for three weeks in late November. As per tradition, a character called ‘Zwarte Piet’ or ‘Black Pete’ accompanies Sinterklaas.
The legend of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet
In Dutch tradition, St Nicholas or Sinterklaas arrives on horseback wearing a red robe and religious headdress and distributes sweets and presents to children. Dutch colonists took the tradition to North America, where Sinterklaas continues to be remembered as the now-secular Santa Claus.
Also part of the celebration is said to be the character called Black Pete, a young black assistant of Sinterklaas, who helps in distributing sweets. Experts believe that the character is derived from a children’s book written in 1850 that had illustrations of a dark-skinned sidekick of Sinterklaas’s. At that time, the slave trade was still legal in Dutch territories, and it was not abolished until 1863.
During the festivities, Black Pete is portrayed across the Netherlands by children as well as adults who put on ‘blackface’ makeup, red lipstick and wear curly wigs. The depiction is offensive to many, who see it as being racist.
Over the past few years, the debate has intensified between those who find the character racist and those who consider it to be harmless, and a part of Dutch culture. Anti-Black Pete protests have been organised across the country every year, and violent clashes have also occurred.
The UN has called for the removal of racist features from pre-Christmas celebrations. The Dutch government, however, has still not taken a stand. In 2014, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte had said: “Black Pete is black and I cannot change that because his name is Black Pete.”
Last week, the altercations became serious in The Hague as the police arrested four people after they broke windows and threw fireworks in a building to allegedly intimidate anti-Black Pete activists who had gathered there.
Following the incident, many events planned by the activists had to be cancelled.