Leiden Pilgrim commemoration changes, but is still colonial

Background of the website mayflower400leiden.nl

Leiden is going to celebrate colonialism in 2020, during the Mayflower400 commemoration year. 400 years ago the Pilgrims left from the Netherlands to North America, and were one of the early groups of European colonists in North America.

We, the Doorbraak chapter in Leiden, are not happy with this commemoration and voiced our criticism in an article that we published last summer. After that, in September, we were invited by the organisers of the Mayflower 400 commemoration year to talk with them about our criticism.

During the conversation the organisers showed some awareness of the colonial narrative of their commemoration. They had already talked to representatives of the Wampanoag nation, the native American people that lived in the region where the Pilgrims came ashore in America. Based on the organisers’ conversation with the Wampanoag and on our criticism, the organisers changed some aspects of the commemoration:

– They changed the name of the commemoration from “Mayflower 400” to “Leiden 400” to put less focus on the Pilgrims.

– They were working on some activities with more focus on native American perspectives and decolonial content.

– They promised to change colonial language on their website.

– Together with Museum De Lakenhal they are working on an exhibition that will make links with present day questions about migration.

The organisers asked us for a reply on the conversation we had with them. We are happy that they show some awareness of how problematic the narrative of their commemoration is, but we think that the changes they made to their program are not nearly good enough. Below is the e-mail we wrote to them.

Joris Hanse

Onze artikelen over #mayflower400
1. Kritiek op het Pilgrim-herdenkingsjaar in Leiden (overzicht)
2. Enkele kritische vragen bij de Pilgrim-citymarketing in Leiden (Tweets)
3. #Mayflower400: Leiden kiest de kant van de kolonisator
4. Teken ook de open brief: “Delfshaven400/Pilgrim Harbour is geschiedvervalsing van het Nederlandse kolonialisme”
5. Lakenhal-expositie zet koloniale christenfundamentalistische Pilgrims in het zonnetje

Our articles on #mayflower400
1. Criticism on the Mayflower400 commemoration year in Leiden
2. #Mayflower400: Leiden chooses side of the coloniser
3. Leiden Pilgrim commemoration changes, but is still colonial
4. Letter to Delfshaven400: “You can’t commemmorate the Pilgrims without reference to colonisation”

Dear Michael Roumen and Marlijn Kok,

You asked us for feedback on the conversation we had with you in September. Unfortunately this took some time, because we are an organisation with only volunteers, and have a lot of projects running alongside one another. So finally, here are some reflections.

We were happy to hear that you were sensitive to our criticism and to the criticism of the people of the Wampanoag nation you already spoke to before. You also said you were going to change some aspects of the commemoration, among others a change of the name to “Leiden400” instead of “Mayflower400”, the presentation of a new website, change in language and an exhibit by native American artists in Museum Volkenkunde.

We are curious to see what the new website and new activities will look like, however we think that the majority of our criticism still stands. Namely that the starting point of this commemoration are still the colonizing bunch of the Pilgrims, and that stories of native Americans are still erased. The public you appeal to are still the US ancestors of the Pilgrims, and the narrative surrounding this is a narrative of pride of the Pilgrims and the United States, a narrative that ignores the horrors of colonization for native American, black and people of colour in America.

Let us explain these points:

1. You can’t commemorate the Pilgrims without reference to colonisation.
We don’t think it’s appropriate to look back at the Pilgrims without taking into account the context of colonisation and the impact they had later on in America, especially if there’s so little general knowledge about the devastating consequences of colonisation in North America. Especially if the targeted audience will probably not link the Pilgrims to colonialism themselves.

We know that the commemoration year is not called “Mayflower 400” any more, but “Leiden 400”. But still the starting point are the Pilgrims, and still a lot of activities concern the Pilgrims, and those activities are still about the lives of the Pilgrims in Leiden and the places they worked and lived. In the majority of the program there’s little to no reflection on the bigger colonial structure in the Netherlands and Europe, that the pilgrims were part of. And the ideas of the Pilgrims and how this made them into colonizers.

It’s like talking about Germany in the thirties without referring to what happened next, or like talking about the childhood of a mass murderer without discussing how this made this person kill people later in life.

2. Commemoration means: commemorating the horrors of colonialism.
In the end we think, when organising a commemoration surrounding the Pilgrims, the only option is to center the horrors of colonisation and the stories of the people of the Wampanoag nation and other native nations of New England. Doing otherwise would be erasing their voices. It means commemorating 400 years of colonialism and what that means.

3. Different viewpoints.
It’s not enough to show “different sides of the story” in different parts of the program. Decolonisation has to be an integral part of the whole program. Adding “critical” elements to the program doesn’t really change the colonial character of the commemoration year.

4. Comparison of Pilgrims with present day refugees.
First, we think it’s immoral to compare the Pilgrims directly or indirectly to present day refugees. It’s immoral to put a group like the Pilgrims, a group of fundamentalists who are complicit in genocide, in a positive light. In 400 years we won’t compare IS fighters to refugees, that’s insulting to say the least.

Second, it’s problematic to instrumentalise refugees. Especially in this case, where they are used so that mostly white people can earn money from tourists, a white institution like De Lakenhal can erect an exhibition, and to generate attention for a group of problematic white guys, the Pilgrims. The commemoration is used to pose questions about migration, refugees and identity, but these questions are posed by white people who are not neutral in this debate. They are complicit in making people into refugees and in making borders. White people determine who enters Europe and The Netherlands and who does not.

A lot of refugees and undocumented people in Leiden live on the streets or are put in detention centers. The Netherlands and Leiden are bound by international treaties to let refugees in and to care of refugees. Refugees have the right to be in the Netherlands and Leiden, but clearly these right are not met. Leiden prides itself on being a “city of refugees” and on being “welcoming” and “tolerant”, but this moral high ground is both plain untrue and hypocritical. Refugees have the right to be here, not because Leiden is supposedly “welcoming” or “tolerant”, but because these are basic human rights.

5. Appeal to descendants of Pilgrims
The commemoration year still appeals mostly to US descendants of the Pilgrims. Looking at travel websites and websites of tour operators organising Mayflower 400 tours, they talk about the “pioneering voyage” of the Mayflower, “an epic journey”, “an adventure”, etc. The Wampanoag or other native nations are rarely mentioned. If they are included in a travel program, it’s usually only a cultural thing. We haven’t seen any more critical perspectives when looking at those websites.

This is what the Leiden 400 commemoration will be part of and what Leiden and Leiden entrepreneurs will be making money of.

You told us during our conversation that you hope that US tourists might also be exposed to a more critical perspective in Leiden. We think this is naive. US tourists will mostly come to Leiden to visit the Leiden American Pilgrim Museum and the Pieterskerk. They probably won’t be seeing any of the more critical parts of the commemoration year.

Some examples of websites: Leisure Group Travel, Mayflower 400 Netherlands Tours, National Trust Tours, Family Tree, Travel Weekly. In short: we are happy to hear that you are receptive to a more decolonial view and made some changes. We think it is important that you also communicate this decolonial view to your partners in the city, and that you make sure no colonial content is officially part of the commemoration or in the program on your website.

But we don’t think that the commemoration year is nearly decolonial enough. You also asked if we or Theater de Generator would be willing to add something to the program of the commemoration year. At the moment we do not want to be a part of the commemoration. The theater in specific doesn’t want to be associated with the neocolonial context of this commemoration. If the theater chooses to do something that involves the theme, it will do so independently.

Kind regards,