A Taste of Dutch Colonialism
Amsterdam, April 2011
In the Netherlands it is perfectly normal to eat a ‘jew cookie’, a ‘negro kiss’ or a ‘moor’s head’. Some of these Dutch sweets are centuries old and considered part of Dutch heritage, despite their offensive names. Some of them have been renamed recently, but the stories behind them go back as far as the 1600s. Leon Dijkstra and I decided to collect information about the names and stories behind these ‘racist’ Dutch sweets.
THE SPICE ISLANDS
The history of Dutch cookies begins in 1602 with the establishment of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) as the first Dutch colonial charter company. The VOC was set up especially by the States General of the Netherlands in order to profit from the Malukan spice trade. The Maluku islands is an archipelago in the east of present-day Indonesia. Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, English, and Arabs fought intensely over possession of the islands, which were valuable for its spices like nutmeg, cloves, and mace.
In 1605 the Dutch joined forces with the Islamic Hitu population and conquered the islands. The Hitu rewarded the Dutch sole rights to purchase their valuable spices. The VOC enjoyed huge profits from its spice monopoly through most of the 17th century, and by 1669, the VOC was the richest private company the world had ever seen. The earning from the spice trade helped spawn a cultural golden age in Holland with painters like Rembrandt, Johannes Vermeer, and Jacob van Ruysdael.
THE COOKIE EATERS
Half a world away from the Maluku Islands, it was Amsterdam that became the centre of the spice distribution. All the spices were stored and traded here, making exotic spices like nutmeg, cloves, and cinnamon abundant in the city. Bakers used these exotic spices to make different variations of cookies like speculaas, a type of spiced shortcrust biscuit that contained cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, cardamom, and white pepper, and peperkoek (Dutch ginger bread) made with pepper, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, succade and nutmeg. In 17th century Amsterdam, speculaas and peperkoek were popular at the annual children's holiday Sinterklaas on December 5. Because of their large appetite for cookies, inhabitants of Amsterdam were nicknamed ‘cookie eaters’. Even the English word ‘cookie’ comes from the Dutch word koek.
In 1949 the Dutch reluctantly gave up their East Indian colonies after pressure by the international community, and Indonesia was finally independent. The Maluku however, were denied autonomy from Indonesia and many fled to the Netherlands. After 200 years of plantations, slave trade, and huge profits, the days of Dutch colonialism came to a halt, but the influence of the spice trade and colonialism remained. During the 1950s, racial and cultural sensitivity was hardly a topic. The Dutch sweets still had their offensive names: 'Negro kiss’, ‘Moor’s head’, ‘Old hags’ cake’, ‘Jew Cookie’, ‘Jew fat’, and ‘Bastard Sugar’. Although the names were not necessarily derived from racial slurs, the fact that few found them offensive, reveals how colonial history influenced a lack of cultural and racial understanding.
Amongst the 10 Dutch Sweets in the booklet, the ‘Negro Kiss’ is the most infamous example of offensively named candy. A kind of marshmallow dipped in chocolate, the Negro Kiss’ originated in Denmark 200 years ago as Negerkys and spread throughout Europe as Negerzoen (Holland), Negerküss or Mohrenkopf (Germany), Negerinnetetten (Belgium) and Neekerinsuukot (Finland). In almost all European countries, the name was changed to ‘Chocolate Kiss’ by the 1980’s, but in Holland it didn’t happen until 2005 after a complaint by the Stichting Eer en Herstel Betalingen Slachtoffers van Slavernij (Foundation for Honor and Restoration for Victims of Slavery). Today, only in the German-speaking part of Switzerland the name ‘Negro Kiss’ is still in use.
The colonial era is a dark chapter of Dutch history but its influence cannot be disconnected from Dutch society today. Tourist flock by the millions to see the beauty of Amsterdam’s canal streets and the works of Rembrandt and Vermeer, which could not exist without the colonial profits of the VOC. They bring home Stroopwafels (Syrup waffles), Peperkoek, or Speculaas to enjoy some of the spiced cookies the Dutch are known for. There is still a strong link with Holland and the Maluku islands. Many Maluku have immigrated to Holland after Indonesia’s independence, and the Maluku government in exile (Republik Maluku Selatan) is still based in the Netherlands today.
SPICING UP TRADITION
In the last decade many of the offensive names of these sweets have been changed, although there has been strong opposition. This is the reason why some sweets like the ‘Jew Cookie’ and the ‘Moor's Head’ have yet to be renamed. In recent years the debate has divided the country even more: the children's holiday Sinterklaas, where people dress up in blackface as zwarte pieten alongside a white saint called Sinterklaas. Activist and artist Quincy Gario has been at the forefront of the peaceful civil movement to rid the Netherlands of these racist traditions that are still being celebrated today. Although the first steps have been taken to end the blackface traditions, the fact that Gario is continuously threatened for his work says a lot about the inability of the Dutch to confront their colonial history.
Dutch Sweets is designed, collected and written by Leon Dijkstra and Ruben Pater.
Mimeographed by the Stencilzolder, Amsterdam in blue and red. For sale for €9 (NL) or €16 (World) at Motto bookstore.
Van Boven, M. W. ‘Towards A New Age of Partnership (TANAP): An Ambitious World Heritage Project (UNESCO Memory of the World – reg.form, 2002)’. VOC Archives Appendix 2, p.14.
de Smet, Tom. ‘Koek aan de gracht’, Biscuitworld, 2007.