Over the past 27 years, Sebastiaan Messerschmidt has learned many things as a diplomat and policy officer with the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Some of his greatest lessons came in Cape Town, where he served as Dutch consul-general from 2018 to 2022. He is now Dutch consul-general in Vancouver.
“The Cape was colonized by the Dutch—the Dutch East India Company,” Messerschmidt told Pancouver in an interview at the Vancouver Art Gallery. “People say it was the first multinational company, but it was run out of Amsterdam. And today in South Africa, people, of course, have the pain and trauma of apartheid.”
Instituted by South Africa’s Nationalist Party in 1948, apartheid was a rigid and vicious institutionalized racial-segregation system. It aroused fierce opposition within the country and abroad until it was dismantled in the early 1990s.
“I’ve never felt as Dutch, as white, as male, and middle-aged as I have in South African society,” Messerschmidt said, “because everything is about identity there because it’s so traumatizing in that area.”
Many South Africans defined under apartheid as “coloured” remain quite aware of the Dutch East India Company.
“Literally, I was walking in a park and I ran into someone who said, ‘I am here because of you.’ ” Messerschmidt recalled.
The Dutch diplomat asked the man what he meant. The South African replied that he’s “Cape Malay”. The Dutch East India Company transported his ancestors to South Africa from the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) because they had rebelled against colonial oppressors.
“They brought Islam,” Messerschmidt said. “They were also the first ones to write the language of Afrikaans, which is very much related to Dutch, in the Arabic script. There’s this whole Dutch legacy there, which South Africans live with today.”
Apology mentions extent of slave trade
However, Messerschmidt added, Dutch citizens are often unaware of their nation’s impact on South African people.
“There was a president in South Africa, [Jacob] Zuma, who said literally in Parliament: ‘All of our problems today have to do with our colonial past’, which means the Dutch and British.
“Whether you agree to it or not doesn’t really matter,” the diplomat continued. “Because if he says it, millions of people will follow that—which means you have to do something.”
Messerschmidt offered these comments to provide context behind Dutch King Willem-Alexander’s historic apology for his country’s involvement in the slave trade. On July 1, the King declared that of all the ways in which a person can be robbed of their freedom, slavery is “surely the most painful, the most degrading, the most inhuman”.
According to the King, Dutch ships transported more than 600,000 people from Africa across the Atlantic Ocean to be sold as slaves or put to work on plantations.
“Around 75,000 did not survive the crossing,” the King said. “We also know about the extensive slave trade to the East, in areas controlled by the Dutch East India Company. And we know about the atrocities committed against the Indigenous populations of the colonies.”
The monarch paid his respects to those “found the strength to rise up against their captors, even if it was often an act of simple desperation”.
“From their hideouts in Suriname’s vast forests and swamps, resistance fighters such as Boni, Baron and Joli-Coeur defiantly challenged the inhumanity of slavery,” the King acknowledged. “Their heroic deeds, and those of many others, are a testament to a pride and strength that could not be broken.”
Diplomat says apology is part of a journey
There are three Dutch “special municipalities” in the Caribbean: the islands of Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, and Saba. In addition, there are three constituent countries—Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten–of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
Former Dutch colonies included Suriname, Dutch Ceylon, Dutch Bengal, Dutch Malabar, Dutch Brazil, and Dutch Mauritius, as well as Dutch Cape Colony and Dutch East Indies. In the continental United States, New Netherland was a 17th-century Dutch colonial province stretching from Delaware’s Delmarva Peninsula to southwestern Cape Cod in Massachusetts.
The Dutch consul-general in Vancouver noted that there will be a lot of follow-up to the King’s apology.
“There’s going to be all kinds of activities in the Netherlands,” Messerschmidt said. “Especially also in the Caribbean side because we have many people in the Netherlands from the Caribbean who also live that identity of that burdened past.”
He added that there will be a great deal of interaction with the countries of Suriname, Aruba, Curaçao, and Sint Maarten. According to Messerschmidt, the Dutch are on a “journey” and he expects that they will learn things as they proceed.
“There is no real first good answer that will fix the problems in a week,” he maintained. “It will take a long time. It will be soul-searching.”
Messerschmidt also suggested that it was going to be very emotional.
“It will, at times, be ugly, but that’s fine,” the diplomat continued. “Because we need those periods to go through to get to the point where it really no longer matters what the skin colour is and where you come from.”
Cape Town conversation left a mark
To provide more insights, Messerschmidt again returned to his experience in South Africa. He shared a story about meeting Cape Town filmmaker Adrian Van Wyk.
They discussed how the Netherlands should address its history as a slave-trading nation. Messerschmidt asked Van Wyk what he, as the white Dutch government representative in the city, should do.
“He looked at me and said, ‘Do you really want to know?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I really want to know,’ ” Messerschmidt said.
“He says, ‘You need to do two things. You need to shut up and listen and don’t come to me with your white guilt.’ ”
The diplomat then asked the filmmaker to elaborate.
Van Wyk replied that this was his journey and that he didn’t want a Dutch government representative defining that on his behalf. Moreover, Van Wyk informed him that South Africans were finding out where they were in relation to the Dutch.
The filmmaker also insisted that ”if you are going to start telling me your opinion, then it becomes your journey. And it isn’t yours to have.”
Secondly, Van Wyk told him that if the Dutch apologize too quickly, it might kill this process. That’s because in this emotional journey, he and other South Africans wanted to be able to show anger—and have that taken in by the colonizer.
Furthermore, that anger could be expressed through various artistic and emotional forms. And that, according to Van Wyk, was the only way that they could be authentic with one another.
“That’s my mantra ever since when it comes to this journey,” Messerschmidt said.
Zoom event addresses apology
“When it’s about discrimination, when it’s about identity, when it’s about a burdened past, I need to be in the room as a government representative for Dutch to receive and listen and try to understand what it’s really about,” the consul-general added. “And report that back because that will feed into the process of what the apology means.”
On Wednesday (August 16), Messerschmidt will offer introductory remarks for a public discussion over Zoom about the King’s apology. The Dutch Cultural Association of B.C., a.k.a. the Dutch Culture Association in B.C. , is producing the event, entitled From the King’s Apology to Accountability. The Simon Fraser University Institute for the Humanities and TAIWANfest are offering assistance.
The Zoom talk will feature South African playwright and journalist Sylvia Vollenhoven and Dutch academic Alex van Stripriaan Luiscius. He is professor emeritus of Caribbean history and culture at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.
Dutch BC directors and public scholars Irwin Oostindie and Vanessa Timmer will serve as moderators.
Oostindie will speak at TAIWANfest
This year, TAIWANfest Toronto and Vancouver TAIWANfest are partnering with Dutch BC on programming in advance of the 400th anniversary of the Dutch colonization of Taiwan.
Through the Dutch East India Company, the Netherlands established its colony on the East Asian island from 1624 to 1662. TAIWANfest is exploring the long-term impact, including on Taiwan’s Indigenous peoples.
The festival will also showcase Dutch culture and explore what lessons Canadians can learn from the Dutch King’s apology over slavery.
In addition, TAIWANfest Vancouver and DCBC will present Oostindie at 1 p.m. on September 3 at the Vancouver Art Gallery. This event, From Amsterdam to Vancouver: Dutch Settler Portraits by Irwin Oostindie, will be a mix of lecture and stories. It will also include a dialogue with the audience to share insights and consider difficult questions.
In the past, TAIWANfest has partnered with several Asian countries as part of its annual Dialogue With Asia series. This is the first time that the festival has formed a partnership with a B.C. diasporic group from a European country.
Messerschmidt told Pancouver that this partnership is also part of a journey. He emphasized that it’s not political—rather, it’s simply a case of people of different backgrounds coming together.
“I say that with an emphasis because if you put it into the political realm, then it might stall the process,” he says.