Letter to Delfshaven400: “You can’t commemmorate the Pilgrims without reference to colonisation”

This year there will be a celebration occurring in Rotterdam called Delfshaven400. This public programme emerges from the fact that Delfshaven played a role in the Pilgrim Fathers leaving for the “new world” 400 years ago. Before the concept becomes too concrete, Doorbraak wanted to discuss issues of the colonial context with its organisers. We wanted to make sure some critical input surrounded the story whilst acknowledging the horrors faced by the Wampanoag and all native Americans as a consequence. That’s why we wrote them the letter below. Last summer we sent a similar letter to the organisers of the Mayflower400 commemoration in Leiden.

Dear people of the Delfshaven400 team,

We write to you after our conversation in the Pilgrims Church in Delfshaven during the information fair for Delfshaven400 on the 14th November. We gathered during that conversation that Delfshaven400 is somewhat undeveloped as a concept, and so we hope our e-mail comes at the right time so that you may take the criticism on board before the program begins later this year.

We were unsatisfied after the discussion and information regarding the program that Delfshaven400 (which of course is centralized around the Pilgrims leaving from Delfshaven, to the UK, to then travel to “The New World”) would be in any way critical towards the true history of the subject. The Pilgrims of course were implicit in colonisation, destroying the lives of Native people living in this supposed “New World”. After we questioned you about this, your colleague mentioned that the program would in fact focus and celebrate the “diversity” of “our community” and draw comparisons to the contemporary story of people “migrating for a better life”. You mentioned that “diverse voices” would be centered in a virtual reality tour of the area, showing how people had travelled to and from Delfshaven over the years showing (as you state on your website) “culturele diversiteit” en “veelkleurigheid” of the residents.

It was evident to us that there were glaring omissions from our conversation, the concept or program. We are left questioning who is Delfshaven400 for? What does it mean to relate this event to the Pilgrims and will there be a critical stance taken? I hope you will take the following points seriously:

1. You can’t commemmorate 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 as there is 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. So far, we cannot see any acknowledgement of this either at the information fair or small text on your website. We notice however that you do not claim to want to celebrate the Pilgrims, but it is impossible to ignore them as the starting point. From what we have seen 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.

2. The program in fact should be a commemmoration of the horrors of colonialism. The approach taken should be to center the people of the Wampanoag and the stories of the people of the Wampanoag Nation and other native nations of New England. Doing otherwise would be erasing their voices. For many Native Americans, the Pilgrims symbolize the beginning of the genocide on their ancestors. Their arrival is often seen as the beginning of a period of suppression of their culture that continues to this day, and which is being fought to this day. Thanksgiving, the holiday that is celebrated each November in the US and which, according to the story, refers to a celebration of the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag (who lived in the area where the Pilgrims came ashore), is not celebrated by Native Americans. Instead, they hold a Day of Mourning. To in any way commemorate Delfshaven400 is to commemorate 400 years of colonialism and what it means.

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”

3. The comparison of Pilgrims with present day migration and “people seeking a better life” is immoral. It’s immoral to put a group like the Pilgrims, a group of fundamentalists who are complicit in genocide, in a positive light. It’s problematic to instrumentalise migration in our current political climate. Perhaps these questions should be posed in relation to Delfshaven400: What was the Pilgrims’ role in colonialism, and how does colonialism continue to work? How does that affect the creation of migration flows in Mexico and the Mediterranean? How does that affect the position of Native Americans now? How did they fight and how do they still fight against colonial oppression, the basis of which was in part laid by the Pilgrims? It is impossible to consider contemporary stories of migration without acknowledging the oppression of refugees and undocumented people now in the US as well as the Netherlands and Rotterdam specifically. Rotterdam is home to one of the Netherlands immigration detention centres, where the reality of “seeking a better life” for some people doesn’t paint itself as such a nice picture to package for tourists. The notion of Delfshaven400 using the area’s history of migration for a tourist event without any acknowledgement of the ongoing struggles of people facing the harsh Dutch immigration system is disingenuous. Whose stories are being marketed and whose are being concealed?

4. Delfshaven400 is obviously trying to appeal to descendants of Pilgrims, as evident in the translation of local signage into English for tourists. The commemmoration year still appeals mostly to US descendants of the Pilgrims. The journey taken by the Pilgrims is overwhelmingly spoken about through the eyes of a “pioneering voyage”, “an epic journey”, “an adventure”, etc. and The Wampanoag or other native nations are rarely mentioned. Do you want to be part of a dominant narrative that profits from this like other tourist events related to the Pilgrims around the world?

We are also in dialogue with the committee working on Leiden400 and have similar criticisms to their program, we suggest you read our article written here.

We hope you take these points seriously and are receptive to a decolonial viewpoint for Delfshaven400. We look forward to hearing your response.