Questions & answers about the colonial hooligan of the sea: Michiel de Ruyter

Michiel the Robber.
Michiel the Robber.
The action group Michiel the Robber in which Doorbraak also participates, recently announced a protest action against the colonialist and nationalistic content of the movie “Michiel de Ruyter”. Subsequently a fierce public debate burst out regarding this hooligan of the sea. The media and other parties are currently firing all sorts of questions at our action group. So it is time for a Q&A regarding De Ruyter, the so-called Golden Age and Dutch colonialism.

Why is the action group called “Michiel the Robber”?

Translated by Jet
Original text in Dutch

The old-Dutch word “ruyter” literally means “robber” or “plunderer”. Originally the word had a negative connotation. It was used for people who were hired by cities and landlords to raid and pillage enemy territory. This was particularly applicable to De Ruyter. His last name was the nickname that contemporaries gave him during his life. In contrast with the picture of the hero that is usually attached to De Ruyter we would like to show an image that does more justice to the truth. That is why the action group has translated his name into modern Dutch. Those who hear that De Ruyter was called The Robber in the 17th century may want to ask themselves why so many people in the Netherlands still glorify this hooligan of the sea, and why the movie “Michiel de Ruyter” continues this hero worship.

Why are you so concerned about people and events from four hundred years ago?

It is in fact the filmmakers and their sponsors who are concerned about a person who lived in that age. They have spent a lot of time, money and effort on a propagandistic blockbuster movie. They try to picture the life of De Ruyter, sorry: The Robber, in a way that fits their nationalistic views. We oppose the way in which events in the 17th century are twisted in the dominant public debate and how the crimes of transatlantic slavery trade are swiped under the carpet. By doing so a large part of mankind is left out of history, as if they never existed, as if the atrocities they went through never took place. That happens in the movie that we are criticising today. And it has been happening in the whole of society, for many centuries. The way in which we look at our own history tells us a lot about our society of today, about ourselves, and about our self-image. There is blatant racism, colonialism and nationalism in a society that embraces such a movie and invests millions in it. This is a movie that glorifies the so-called Golden Age, more appropriately called the Gloomy Age, and in a society that has a state pirate and colonial villain as people’s hero. We think this has to stop.

It is a historical movie, why criticise it? It just depicts how things were at that time. And what is the use of protesting against De Ruyter, since he has been dead a long time?

It is not just this movie that continues to romanticise and mystify the life of The Robber because this has been going on for hundreds of years. He has been attributed all sorts of ‘typical Dutch’ characteristics, and in this way he is made into a Dutch “hero”. This makes it impossible for the film to be objective. In addition, the filmmakers point out that the movie is about one specific period in his life when he fought against the English. But why was he fighting the English? This war was about defending and extending a colonial reign in order to make more Africans into slaves and have more of those enslaved do forced labour, which would increase the production and trade of raw materials and enable the colonial powers to make more profit. By highlighting the battle of The Robber against the English and obscuring his role in the protection of Dutch slave trade, the filmmakers try to paint the most impressive and heroic picture of The Robber and the Gloomy Age. This is how the film is used to strengthen the nationalistic feelings in the Netherlands and to create a mythical and glorified picture of Dutch national history. This is an image that will be recognised mainly by white Dutch citizens and an image that excludes Dutch citizens from other origins because they see the colonial past in an entirely different light. Indeed, they often do not have the perspective of the oppressor but of the oppressed. We are in fact not protesting against The Robber himself but against the way in which he is being depicted today in the dominant debate, and against how his supposed heroics are used to profile a Dutch identity that excludes a substantial part of the Dutch.

Everyone was in the slave trade at that time, it was normal. Why should we judge De Ruyter according to today’s ethics?

The slave trade was not normal, not even in those days. It probably was considered normal by the slave traders and owners of enslaved, but certainly not by those who were enslaved. Throughout history as we know it slavery has existed. Throughout history innumerable uprisings by the enslaved have taken place, to fight against the inhuman treatment they had to endure. This resistance has often been neglected in white Western history writing. There have also been many uprisings against the terror of Dutch slavery. This proves that slavery was not at all accepted as ‘normal’ by ‘everyone’. It is not possible to have a neutral view of history. It is more of a question whether you choose the perspective of the oppressors or of the oppressed. We choose the perspective of those who were enslaved, of the anti-colonial activists then and now. Our heroes are those who in the past fought against colonial rule and oppression. Our heroes are the descendants of the enslaved who are now fighting against the racism and worldwide inequality between white and black people that dates back to the time of the transatlantic slavery. Incidentally, we should also not forget that already in the days of The Robber there were preachers in his hometown of Vlissingen warning against making people into slaves. A number of popes have condemned slavery from the fifteenth century onwards. This means that in Europe there were objections before and during the times of slavery.

But it is true that De Ruyter freed 2,500 slaves, and that he himself did not trade in slaves?

It is true that The Robber has bought the freedom of enslaved Christians, partly with funds provided by the churches. It is important to note that these were white people who were also his fellow believers, sharing the same religion. That probably was the main reason for The Robber to ransom them. The Robber himself traded in slaves only in a small way. What is important is that he was employed by a colonial world power, the thieving North Sea state, that brought other parts of the world under its rule and chained Africans, branded them and forced them into slave labour. The Robber has used military force to defend and extend the infrastructure for the slave trade. This makes him an accessory to the crime of transatlantic slavery in which millions of people were displaced, humiliated, exploited and murdered. We will not honour this man who bought the freedom of white Christian slaves but actively protected the trade in enslaved black people.

The African tribes themselves traded in slaves and sold these to the Europeans. The Arabs have sold more slaves than the Europeans. Also, the Dutch have only had a small share in the transatlantic slave trade. Why always bring up the slave trade of the Netherlands?

Why always bring up the slave trade that other countries were involved in? We do not want to play down those atrocities in any way but we are all of us living in the Netherlands. This history of dehumanisation has not been dealt with at all, and its inheritance is still very present today. We still talk about the “Golden Age” and “heroes of the sea”. The Netherlands is rife with racism that has its roots in this era. And we still continue to celebrate the caricature of an enslaved person, namely Black Pete. Before pointing at others you really need to first take a critical look at yourself. That is why we will have to continue the fight against racism and colonialism, until it has been eradicated from the face of the earth.

One of your demands is: “Ban the VOC mentality”. But Michiel de Ruyter did not have anything to do with the VOC.

The Robber was indeed employed by the West-Indian Company (WIC), not the United East-Indian Company (VOC). But we refer to the “VOC mentality” that aims to glorify the entire history of colonialism and slavery as well as state hooligans and thieves. The story is that “we” owe our wealth to that era and that “we” should be proud of it. It is correct that our national wealth goes back to that era, but we certainly do not have the “heroes of the sea” or traders to thank for this. Our wealth is the result of hundreds of thousands of enslaved human beings who were made to toil and labour to produce commodities such as sugar and coffee. It is falsification of history to try to separate these two issues: the wealth in the Netherlands and the way it was obtained. That is why we fundamentally reject the glorification of the colonial era.

Michiel de Ruyter did not hate black people because he was friends with a black man. And he was also a friendly person, strict but just, wasn’t he?

This is rather irrelevant. The character of The Robber and his personal life are not of any consequence here. What matters is his contribution to maintaining and expanding Dutch colonial rule. There is a story about him being friends with a black man but it is unclear if this is true. What is certain is that thanks to The Robber and his protection of the supply channels for the slave trade many hundreds of thousands of people were enslaved. There are all sorts of myths and stories about The Robber. Sometimes it is difficult to separate fact from fiction. There are all sorts of myths that are used again and again to sustain the status of national hero for The Robber. No matter how friendly he may have been in his private life, he still remains a colonial pirate and thug who is responsible for the slaughtering of tens of thousands of people during wars at sea and elsewhere. He is still the errand boy of the colonial powers who ensured that the slave trade of the Netherlands was safeguarded until well into the nineteenth century.

Actually, all those less attractive sides of The Robber are usually disregarded. For example when in 1655 he captured a ship with twenty Moors, he beheaded the captain and sold the crew as slaves. In 1672 he put more than a third of the funds earmarked for feeding the ship’s crew into his own pocket while the crew died of malnutrition. After one of his victories in West Africa (the capturing of the slave fort Goree) he came back with two chests filled with gold. The WIC wanted to confiscate these. The Robber refused and took the gold with him to his home. This means that he actually held back funds that belonged to the State.

De Ruyter only obeyed orders, so shouldn’t you be criticising the Dutch state of that time.

That is exactly the point we are trying to make! The Robber is being glorified because of his supposedly great character and strategic insight, while he dedicated himself to piracy and thieving following the orders of a slave-trading colonial power that has hundreds of thousands of deaths and loads of other misery on its conscience! So what relevance does his character or his insight have? It means he was a criminal whatever way you look at it.

Frodo Tromp