Keti Koti and its significance in the Netherlands

July 1 every year is always a special day in Suriname. It’s the day tens of thousands of people in Suriname and the Netherlands celebrate Keti Koti.

While it hasn’t been a holiday that many Dutch people are familiar with, Keti Koti is an important holiday for the Surinamese and Antilleans. It commemorates the abolition of slavery in Dutch America and the West Indies in 1863. This actually makes the Netherlands one of the last European countries to abolish slavery and the slave trade.

So, what exactly is Keti Koti? Well, here is everything you need to know about this day of emancipation and the celebrations that come with it.

What is Keti Koti?

The term Keti Koti (also written as Keti-Koti or ketikoti) comes from the Surinamese language Sranantongo (a creole language). It literally means “Broken Chains.” As some may know, the Netherlands was a major player in the transatlantic slave trade. A lot of the country’s wealth, growth, and development came from the enormous profits generated by the slave trade. This included procuring, transporting, and selling human beings as commodities, mainly for the purpose of free, inhumane, and hard labour.

Where do you celebrate it?

Keti Koti is a day of dancing and pure merriment in Suriname, St. Eustatius, and St. Maarten. Dressed in beautiful traditional costumes, Surinamese and Antillean folks dance, sing, eat, and drink. Yet they also take this day to reflect. In Suriname, the women wear a beautifully coloured traditional dress (kotomisi) and headscarf (angisa). During the days of slavery, female slaves used these as a way of communicating. The way a woman folded her angisa let other slaves know how they were feeling, or if they were looking for a lover.

Every year Keti Koti is celebrted on July 1 in Suriname, St. Eustatius, and St. Maarten. A regular feature is a parade (Bigi Spikri) in traditional costumes. “Bigi Spikri” is a Surinamese term that literally means “Big Mirror”. During the annual festive parade in Suriname, folks dress up and walk along the shop windows in Paramaribo. The shop windows serve as large mirrors which they use for admiring themselves. This tradition of dressing in authentic cultural costumes has made its way over to the Netherlands.

Bigi Spikri in action. Image: StarNieuws/Wikimedia Commons/CC3.0

Since 2009, Keti Koti festivities have seen a colourful Bigi Spikri parade in Amsterdam. And since 2002, several other cities in the Netherlands adopted the celebrations, but it’s still yet to be declared a national holiday by the Dutch government. The most famous commemorative ceremony takes place in the Oosterpark in Amsterdam, where the National Slavery Monument is located.

The Mayor of Amsterdam and other national and foreign representatives are often present. After this formal ceremony, the full Keti Koti Festival officially starts (at the same location). During the festival, various performances and lectures take place on various stages set up by organisers. The festival is free to enter and the commemoration is broadcast live on national television (NPO).

In Curaçao, they commemorate Emancipation Day on August 17. The day that a great slave revolt broke out in 1795. This day is called the Dia di lucha pa libertat (“Day of the struggle for freedom”) and it is a national holiday in Curaçao.

The history behind the festival

Slavery in the Dutch Atlantic world had five distinct themes: the early colonies of Brazil and Nieuw Nederland; the West African forts; the plantation colonies on the Wild Coast (Suriname, Essequibo, Berbice, and Demerara); in the West Indies on the islands of Curaçao, St. Eustatius, Bonaire, Saba, St. Maarten, and Aruba; the Dutch participation in the transatlantic slave trade. In the 19th century, abolitionism became increasingly popular. At this point, King William I was forced to issue a ban on the transatlantic slave trade via Dutch ships in 1814 by Royal Decree. However, this did not completely end the practice.

The abolition of slavery went through several phases in the Netherlands. This started with the directly administered territories of the Dutch East Indies on January 1, 1860. This was the year of the so-called Act establishing the Regulations on the policy of the government of the Dutch East Indies was introduced.

A few years later, the abolition in Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles followed. From July 1, 1863, the “Laws for the abolition of slavery in Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles” (better known as the Emancipation Law) outlawed slavery. The law was passed as early as 1862 but went into effect on July 1 of the following year.

Keti Koti celebrates the freedom of victims of slavery in Suriname and the Dutch Antilles but it also holds important symbolic significance. Image: Chuka Nwanazia/Supplied.

In the early morning of that day, 21 cannons were fired from Fort Zeelandia in Paramaribo to celebrate the abolition of slavery. Finally, in an official capacity, the chains of slavery in Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles were broken and slaves became free people.

Freedom? By name alone

In Suriname, about 33,000 slaves were freed and about 12,000 in the former Netherlands Antilles. However, said freedom was relative. Enslaved people in Suriname didn’t taste full freedom until 1873. Before this, there was a mandatory 10-year transition period where they worked on plantations for minimal pay and with state-sanctioned force. If they stepped outside the plantation grounds without a pass, they could be jailed. Slave owners also got compensated for their “losses”. In Suriname, they received 300 guilders per slave and in Curaçao, Bonaire, Aruba, and St. Eustatius, the compensation varied from 150 to 250 guilders.

While (former) slave traders and plantation owners received compensation for the loss of “free labour,” freedom didn’t mean sunshine and roses for the former slaves. Many of them still continued working as essentially “poorly paid slaves” for their former masters and were often forced to sign exploitative contracts.

Many newly freed people often signed contacts without even knowing exactly what they were signing because they never learned to read or write. Still, for many others, they had broken their chains and they could finally live their own lives, even if it meant limited opportunities in a “white man’s world.”

Keti Koti doesn’t just celebrate the breaking of the chains of these former slaves, it also sheds light on their stories, experiences, and lives after emancipation. A century after the legal abolition of slavery, locals unveiled a statue depicting a freed slave who had broken his chains in Paramaribo. This statue, like many others, would come to mean so much to the Keti Koti celebrations in Suriname and other parts of the world.

The famous Kwakoe statue in Paramaribo. Image: Mark Ahsmann/Wikimedia Commons/CC3.0

Why do few Dutch people know about Keti Koti?

A possible answer to this question is that the Netherlands doesn’t like to be reminded of her atrocities. Here’s something to think about: the Dutch are often very quick to point out how they were “victims” in history. A prime example is the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during WWII. Another example of this is the MH17 Malaysia Airlines Flight that was shot down on July 17, 2014, over eastern Ukraine while flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur.

Investigations revealed that three Russians and one Ukrainian were responsible for downing the jetliner, and of course, the Netherlands has every right to call for those responsible to face the music. There have also been calls from the Dutch government on Russia to not just hand over the perpetrators to face justice, but also apologise to the Netherlands and the families of the victims.

The festival also brings awareness to the Dutch’s involvement in the slave trade. Image: Chuka Nwanazia/Supplied.

So here’s another question: why do the Dutch have the right to ask for apologies, but when they are asked to apologise for their own wrongs, they suddenly don’t want to talk about it? When Surinamese folks and the descendants of those enslaved by the Dutch ask for acknowledgment, the Dutch government gives them nothing but silence! Don’t they also deserve an apology like the Netherlands demands from Germany for the atrocities of the Nazis, or from Russia for MH17?

Wider Dutch society shows little to no interest in its involvement in slavery. Until the turn of the century, slavery was seen as something the USA did, and not as a Dutch phenomenon. Entire generations have grown up without learning anything about it because much of it isn’t covered in Dutch schools, and as a result, very few white Dutch people know that slavery was at the crux of much of the wealth they gained from centuries of trade, exploitation, rape, and murder.

However, in recent years, the history of the Netherlands’ relationship with slavery has become an increasingly important point of discussion in the media, politics, and even in schools. The Surinamese community in the Netherlands has asked the Dutch government to officially apologise for the Dutch slave trade for years.

As of yet, there have been no apologies. The same Surinamese and other black communities in the Netherland have long called for slavery to be mentioned in the Dutch history books and taught in schools. Currently, the Netherlands has done very little to that effect.

How has Keti Koti developed in the Netherlands in recent decades?

The Dutch government largely ignored Keti Koti throughout the 20th century, making it a quiet affair. This was because many Dutch people just weren’t interested. In the 80s and 90s, it was mainly celebrated in Surinamese circles but as times change, these circles are growing and become more diverse.

Keti Koti offers many activities and attractions for those who attend. Image: Chuka Nwanazia/Supplied.

An important moment was the unveiling of the National Slavery Monument in Amsterdam’s Oosterpark in 2002. Rotterdam and Middelburg erected their own monuments in commemoration, and since then Keti Koti has been celebrated in cities such as Deventer, Utrecht, and Berg en Dal. Over the past ten years, a new generation of energetic and vocal young black people has emerged and are devoting a lot of time and energy to making Keti Koti more popular. Social media has also helped their efforts a great deal. As the fight against Zwarte Piet and systemic racism continue to gain momentum in the Netherlands as well as outside of the country, the significance and popularity of Keti Koti also continue to grow.

Keti Koti 2021

Due to the pandemic, a lot of people aren’t sure if Keti Koti will be celebrated the way it is normally celebrated this year. Last year, many Keti Koti celebrations and festivities were, unfortunately, cancelled. Both Amsterdam and Rotterdam organised online festivals so that people could still enjoy good music and some spoken word poetry. We’ll just have to wait and see if the celebrations this year will also be online.

How does the Dutch government view Keti Koti?

In 2018, during the annual memorial service at the Rotterdam Slavery Monument in Rotterdam, Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb called on the Dutch cabinet of the time to apologise for the Netherlands’ role in the slave trade. Those apologies have not yet been made.

Some say that things may slowly be changing. The murder of the African-American George Floyd by police officers in the US triggered worldwide protests against racism and police brutality. These protests also found their way to the Netherlands with people demonstrating against systemic racism. Protesters defaced several colonial-era statues and monuments. While the Dutch prime minister has finally acknowledged that systemic racism is a real problem in the Netherlands, he and his cabinet have still not apologised for the slavery past of the Netherlands.

The municipalities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam have often talked about formally apologising for their city’s past involvement in slavery. Seven political parties, which form a majority in the Amsterdam City council want to investigate the role the city played in its slavery history so that the municipality can officially apologise. This apology was supposed to happen at the Keti Koti celebrations on July 1, 2020, but the pandemic and lockdown meant that it had to be cancelled. It’s due to happen this year if the festivities go ahead.

It’s a day of remembrance and celebration. Image: Chuka Nwanazia/Supplied.

In light of the the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 and wider discussions about racism, it has become clear to a lot of people in this country that the Dutch colonists were not just spice traders and explorers. They committed all sorts of atrocities while also writing the history of slavery — the same history that has created a distorted picture of what they did.

It’s also important to note that the cultural sector in the Netherlands is predominately white. And for black history and art to be shown (which doesn’t just entertain but also educates people) these cultural spaces have to become more diverse and inclusive. For there to be inclusion and diversity in the cultural, and other sectors, a lot of work has to be done.

The first step is to have more non-white politicians in politics and the halls of power. A more inclusive and diverse parliament ensures that different perspectives are brought to the table. That all communities in this country are equally considered when it comes to housing, poverty alleviation, education, business, the cultural sector, etc. A more inclusive and diverse parliament ensures that the voices of marginalised groups are also heard and taken seriously. If there is anything we’ve learned from the child benefits scandal, it’s not just that the Netherlands has a serious institutionalised racism problem, but also that Dutch politics is filled with white people who are tone-deaf to racial issues. (And yes, Mark Rutte is one of them!)

An important festival: whether or not you celebrate it

There are some Surinamese and Caribbean people in the Netherlands who don’t celebrate Keti Koti. They don’t really consider it a celebration. “How can you celebrate getting back something that should never have been taken from you in the first place?” they ask. They would rather have a memorial in self-reflection and silence, like May 4 in the Netherlands.

Suriname-women-and-children-celebrating-Keti-Koti-festival-in-traditional-dress
Some celebrate through festivity, others believe the day should be marked as a memorial with silence and self-reflection. Image: Public Domain Pictures/Pixabay

Whatever the opinion, Keti Koti remains a day filled with culture, colour, pomp, and circumstance. It is important that it remains a day that highlights the Dutch slavery history and atrocities of the past and continue to put pressure on those in power to not just apologise, but to also do right by the descendants of the ones who gave blood, sweat, and tears in building this country. The sacrifices that they were forced to make should not be forgotten. And the voices of their descendants should be amplified and rewarded. These and many more are the reasons why we celebrate Keti Koti.

What do you think about Keti Koti, and have you ever been to any of the celebrations? Let us know about your experiences in the comments.

Feature Image: Chuka Nwanazia/Supplied. 

Chuka Nwanaziahttps://www.beejonson.com/
A renegade wordsmith, freelance writer, poet, and digital marketer based in Amsterdam. Besides writing, he extremely enjoys traveling around Europe in search of old and rare books, writing poems while riding the train to nowhere, performing at poetry events, spending too much time reading books, contemplating the meaning of life, preparing tasty dishes and desserts, and searching for the perfect bookshelf.

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