Overseas cultural legacy is gaining significance in the Netherlands. But would developing countries not prefer to forget reminders of the Dutch slave trade and colonialism? Secretary of state Atzo Nicolaï: "Most Dutch people are completely unaware of the monuments that we have left in other parts of the world."
Staatssecretaris Nicolaï: “Vroeger was de wereld ook al klein”
"In India I visited the VOC archives: you literally see them crumbling before your eyes. As soon as the door closed, more bits fell off the pages. At such a moment, your first thought is ‘let us do something immediately to prevent this from being lost forever’." Secretary of State Atzo Nicolaï, who is responsible for international culture policy, has made preserving cultural legacy his mission. Even though experts have been working on this for years, the upkeep of the centuries-old VOC archives and buildings in Asia, Latin America and Africa have not received political attention, and thus have received no financing.
"We have been somewhat furtive about our past. We have thought that we should be ashamed of all the beautiful fortifications where slaves and spices were traded," Nicolaï explains. "I think that is ridiculous. We can no longer be ashamed of our heritage. It is important that the countries involved recognise this as well. They certainly know that the legacy has to do with the Dutch who plied their trade there with their ships. I do not get the sense that people think there was anything wrong with this. Indonesia is one of the few countries that are somewhat sensitive about this. But, of course, we have a completely different history there."
Dutch church in Galle, Sri Lanka, 1752-1755. Source: Atlas of Mutual heritage
Nicolaï describes the traces the VOC sailors left behind from Brazil to Ghana and Sri Lanka as moving. "When I see a gravestone in a cemetery in the tropics under a palm tree, with an inscription entirely in Dutch, I realise that even then the world was small."
Nicolaï finds the Sri Lankan city of Galle, where the VOC ship The Avondster is being restored, especially impressive. He visited this fortified city in January of 2006 to breathe new life into the collaboration with the Sri Lankan government, which began three years earlier. "I saw that authorities up to the very highest level were involved and interested in maintaining this cultural legacy. They regard this as their own legacy, as well. But ensuring that this legacy is maintained is still an uphill battle. Sri Lanka has been hit by a tsunami and the island suffers from enormous political problems."
The secretary of state believes that the residents of Galle, and elsewhere, must be more involved in these restoration projects. "You can come up with all sorts of great initiatives, but if the local population sees no benefit in the project, they will simply die on the vine. Galle boasts beautiful beaches. A few hours further inland, there are wonderful nature preserves. That combination, together with the culture, is worth a fortune. It directly promotes tourism, which has been seriously curtailed by the tsunami. The local fishers must realise that soon they will have a larger market because tourists will be coming to Galle."
Even though the Netherlands has launched projects with five countries in the interim, the policy is still too fragmented and overlooked. "We are an extremely enterprising nation. We must be proud of this," Nicolaï declares. "Most Dutch people are completely unaware of the monuments that we have left behind in other parts of the world. I toured forts in Ghana. The regional ‘chiefs' have a wonderful welcoming ritual: they offer you Henkes jenever from Schiedam. I found that quite amusing. It starts you thinking about how cultures have come into contact with one another in all sorts of ways through the centuries."