Decolonization of Dutch archaeology

Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.” (Chinua Achebe)

Starting a discussion about decolonization in the Netherlands is almost impossible. Therefore, when excavations are started at an 18th-century burial ground of enslaved Africans on St. Eustatius – without any form of involvement of the direct descendants living on the island – not many Dutch people think that is something to worry about. Certainly not when a slick, misleading PR campaign has been unleashed on the excavations.

Images of excavated skulls and complete skeletons went all around the world. School class after school class were shown around the excavation site, student archaeologists happily took selfies among the excavated human remains (my ancestors) and it was enthusiastically explained how much the population of St. Eustatius could learn about their ancestors thanks to these excavations. To ask whether the population wanted this and could even agree to break open the graves of their ancestors had apparently not crossed the minds of the archaeologists. Or they couldn’t care less, because what a unique opportunity as an archaeologist to be able to go about your business in a historic African burial ground. Archaeologists flew in from all over the world.

Nederlandse origineel van deze tekst.

Protests against the excavations

In my role as chairman of the Ubuntu Connected Front (UCF) Tilburg and UCF Caribbean department, I started protest activities against the excavations together with two other organizations, Brighter Path St. Eustatius and grassroots organization SEAD. In my own province of North Brabant they understood our indignation (see this article in Brabants Dagblad and a tv broadcast of Omroep Brabant), but the Volkskrant thought it was just a ‘woke’ protest. As if I had suddenly discovered racism and colonization since the Black Life Matter protests in 2020. You would expect a more inquisitive attitude from a national newspaper.

Our protests against the excavations have started by organizing webinars with experts from the Caribbean, an online petition, and writing to the responsible government organizations on St. Eustatius and in the Netherlands. In addition, we are setting up a network of ‘African centered’ archaeologists who are willing to initiate us in their field and give advice.

What does colonial archaeology look like?

It proves difficult to explain to many white people why archaeology can be colonial, or almost by definition in the Netherlands. It’s a sensitive analogy, but when a group of archaeologists, without asking anyone, suddenly breaks open graves in a Jewish cemetery, exposes the human remains, sends photos of them to the media, samples of teeth and bones are analyzed in scientific laboratories around the world, then everyone understands the fuss that would arise about this. Not when it comes to historic African tombs or tombs of indigenous peoples who have suffered the same sad fate for as long as archaeology has existed as a science.

A lawyer friend we approached in connection with the petition commented: “Archaeology is describing what is found. There is no perspective attached to that.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Rachael Smith’s American blog post Decolonization of Archaeology explains this very clearly as far as American archaeology is concerned. She describes archaeologists’ disinterest in the culture, feelings, ideals, and practices of the descendants whose ancestors are being excavated. In the 1960s, protests by the indigenous communities changed that, with laws requiring descendants to be involved in archaeological excavations and respect for their faith and spirituality, especially with regard to burials.

Unfortunately, these laws don’t go much further and the history of the descendants is still interpreted from a Western, Eurocentric point of view. For objective interpretation does not exist; it is directly influenced by the experience, culture, and ideals in which the individual lives. In the Netherlands, this is laid down in the Heritage Act, but it is not applicable in the Caribbean Netherlands (Bonaire, St. Eustatius, and Saba).

Reversal of perspective: from Eurocentric to self-writing history

Rachael Smith’s blog post concludes with a call for participatory archaeological research: “The best way to combat the colonization of archaeology, is not to simply consult with indigenous populations but to directly involve them in the research.  Indigenous populations (and other descendant communities) should ask and influence research questions, guide the excavations, determine what can and cannot be excavated, and play large roles in the dissemination of information.  Participatory research also prevents the descendants from being and feeling like purely test subjects rather than active players in their own history.  They have the opportunity to answer their own questions, not just accept the answers to other people’s questions.  In the end the people who are the least bias toward history are those who are descendant from that history.“

People on St. Eustatius do not like graves to be broken open. The responses under the petition speak for themselves. You let the dead rest, that’s our culture. Especially the dead who have been abused and mistreated during their lifetime. The disrespect to dig them up, to disturb their final resting place, without any form of consultation or consent of the descendants, provokes anger and indignation. We receive messages of support from the African community in the diaspora from all over the world. What do those archaeologists think it adds to my life to have scientific evidence that some of my unearthed ancestors came directly from Africa and others were born on St. Eustatius? Our story, the story of the Africans in the diaspora, our suffering, our strength, our history is not even written in the history books from our perspective. Let’s start with that.

A critical voice from the Netherlands is Sjoerd van de Linde’s thesis “Digging holes abroad. An ethnography of Dutch archaeological research projects abroad” from 2012. He reflects on the role and responsibility of archaeologists in relation to the values of others in society. He puts it very nicely (p. 240-241): “[…] archaeologists need to accept that material remains of the past are not solely an opportunity for research, and that they can no longer hide behind a notion of archaeological research as a neutral activity free from political and social responsibility.”

Dominant position of the Caribbean Research Group of Leiden University

Archaeology in the Caribbean is strongly dominated by the Department of Archaeology from Leiden University. Either archaeologists from local Caribbean archaeological organizations are trained in Leiden or Leiden is involved in large-scale archaeological research projects in the region funded by NWO. Other universities in the Caribbean also often depend on Leiden for facilities. We will write more about this on our blog. The archaeological institution on St. Eustatius responsible for the excavations, the St. Eustatius Center for Archaeological Research (SECAR), is a ‘for-profit’ institution and works according to the so-called St. Eustatius Model. This model “exhibits minimal aspects of local self-reflection, de-colonization, and selfinterpretations […].” Source (p. 148)

We hereby call on SECAR and the Department of Archaeology in Leiden to look critically at themselves and to get rid of their colonial mindset and colonial approach to archaeological research on St. Eustatius and the rest of the Caribbean region where they work.

Sign our petition here.

Kenneth Cuvalay

(This translation was first published on Afrikanhistoryandconsciousness.blogspot.com.)