I went recently to Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, the guardian of Dutch culture and a central repository of European art. Entire floors and wings were replete with Greco-Roman statues, Renaissance landscapes and Flemish still-lives. Amidst all this, I decoded a history that was recognisable, but not wholly my own.

It was early summer and I was with my children. We entered a gallery and my son faced an oil painting. I glanced blankly at a familiar 17th-century scene: people of wealth, with powdered wigs and lace sleeves, feasting on delicacies. My boy, Roshan, with black hair and eyes, lingered. So I looked closer and saw, startlingly, another brown boy, with black hair and eyes, in the painting.

That boy was Filander van Bengalen. In breeches and grey livery, he holds a tray obligingly. Filander is said, in the exhibition catalogue, to be 10-year-old, like my son. They are in Dokkum, close to the North Sea, in this painting from 1697. How did Filander come to serve in this remote place? And what does his journey tell us about our contemporary parsing of difference?

The Dutch national museum, the Rijksmuseum. Photo credit: Marco Almbauer, via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Slavery in Netherlands

The context for the painting was this year’s Rijkmuseum exhibition: “Slavery”. Taking children there is perhaps a parent’s perverse idea of the kid-friendly. For the exhibit plainly details kidnapping, confinement, mutilation and erasure. We see a branding iron that seared possession onto the skin. A brass collar that encircled a person’s neck. A foot stock of heavy timber in which one sat stuck.

These materials propped up Dutch global supremacy in the 1600s. The Netherlands built on Portuguese forays in the 1500s and would anticipate British overseas breadth from the late 1700s. Slaves – from West Africa, the Malay archipelago and the Indian subcontinent – stitched together this Dutch world.

Maritime prowess and capitalist speculation, in this sense, are heroic abstractions. What this world rested upon was intimate terror. Beheading, burning, flaying and drowning: slaves’ actual present and hypothetical future.

At their Amsterdam school, my children learn another history: that of the Gouden Eeuw or the Dutch Golden Age. It is a parable of intrinsic unfolding, of cultural genius. Innovations in science and technology, art and aesthetics, become native inventions. This pedagogical industry insists that the contemporary – democracy, modernity, capitalism – was birthed in the Netherlands.

The Rijksmuseum reckons with the suffering that constituted the Golden Age’s underside. But making such violence explicit seems to preserve narrative privilege. Europeans are the historical actors, non-Europeans the mute victims. Cue the telling response of pity and guilt.

Looking at the Rijksmuseum exhibit implicitly, however, invites a counter-reading of the past. For it was the sugar-producing and spice-picking Dutch slaves in Brazil, Ceylon and Suriname who, in their productivity, politics and pleasures, embodied the emergent and dynamic. By pounding mace and distilling molasses, slaves generated the commodities and cash-flow which produced the likes of Rembrandt.

Slaves also forged novelties in political organisation. In the exhibit is a silk map with Maroon settlements. Maroons comprised Africans of disparate traditions and tongues, brought to the Caribbean.

Remarkably, they forged autonomous communities outside of plantation hierarchies. Fleeing into the interior, they organised and nurtured a new kind of society, despite relentless Dutch manhunts.

And it was slaves who anticipated the now-fashionable keyword of creative hybridity. The exhibit shows a painting of rare plantation festivity: slaves singing and dancing, and in that, affirming existence.

‘Van Bengalen’

In the Rijksmuseum is an image of plantation Du dances, where slaves could express dissent in vital form. These moments of joy and critique channelled musical and linguistic inheritances from Africa and generated new ones. This brings us to the painting with Filander.

A 1665 painting of the trading post of the Dutch East India Company in Hooghly, Bengal. Photo credit: Hendrik van Schuylenburgh, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

He belonged to a swath of people from North India and the Bay of Bengal. Abducted, branded and sold from 1621, Indians were prominent in Dutch estates and shipyards through the 1660s. They remind us that the history of slavery is not confined to the Atlantic or those taken from Africa. Like other Dutch slaves, those extracted from India were severed from their relations and self-understandings. Their pasts were deleted, their last names became, uniformly, “van Bengalen”.

During this period, the Dutch East India Company supercharged human trafficking in Asia. Traders siphoned people from South India, Arakan, and the Gangetic delta. The Dutch East India Company intensified this quantity of human cargo and stretched its geographical distribution. Yoked to farms and households across Dutch possessions, they dried nutmeg in the Banda islands, peeled cinnamon in Ceylon and picked grapes in Africa’s Cape Colony.

And some of them, like Baron van Bengalen and his son, Filander, accompanied their Dutch masters home. Filander arrived in the Netherlands in 1689. Eventually, he and his mother, Rosette – from Sumbawa, in Southeast Asia – became servants in Friesland province.

Analysing the past

If the larger Rijksmuseum exhibit qualifies a nativist reading of the past, this painting of unexpected proximity unsettles narratives of today. Let us consider three ways we might read the portrait.

We first have the white supremacist story of “The Great Replacement”. It suggests that shadowy elites are facilitating demographic transfer in the West. A theory of how the European present became muddled, its purity and traditions lost.

Yet here is Filander and his mother, 320 years ago, in about as Aryan and Christian a place as Europe gets. Is a pristine indigenous population getting impinged upon? White nationalists need to thank the Dutch East India Company and Europe’s other early multinational corporations.

Then there is, from a different political direction, the “empire strikes back” or “we are here because you were there” story. This, too, is a tidy narrative, yet one that strains. Remember that Filander is moving through a time and space of legal and moral disagreement on subjugated status. Moving between slave and servant, child and adult, Asia and Europe, he falls into the impasses of human worth.

And finally, there is the integration story: a tranquil and tranquilising one of distinct others blending in. In real life, after his tray-hoisting days were over, Filander van Bengalen became chief of police in Dokkum. He married a Frisian woman and had five children. We might, however, hesitate to share pride in his trajectory. It is too hagiographic and orderly, as are all stories of assimilation.

I wish, at the Rijksmuseum with Roshan, looking at the painting with Filander, I knew what to say. For the stories of white people’s replacement, of south-north migration, of dutiful integration, flatten and domesticate. All buckle against the silences, the contingencies, of how we get to where we are, of what such movements mean.

Here American novelist Toni Morrison’s distinction between fact and truth instructs. For a novelist like her, the truth of how a slave thinks and feels entails going beyond fact. Because slavery, as a system, relentlessly obstructed the capacity to represent inner life. The ability to write, the means to record: with few exceptions, these were, by European slaveholders, denied.

Filander’s provenance, his self-knowledge, was excised, so that we, as much as him, have shreds where something whole existed. In the painting, he is visible but not audible – evident as a supporting actor, but silent as consciousness.

The picture of Filander allows us the tantalising possibility of a different story. Yet his story remains unintelligible insofar as we move among scraps of biographical fact. Or rely on familiar, sometimes comforting, but often deficient readings. For my boy, Roshan – Dutch-born yet doomed to be asked “where are you from?” – the truth of our pathways, past and present, is yet to be written.

Ajay Gandhi is a faculty member at Leiden University and Senior Fellow at the Maria Sibylla Merian Centre Conviviality-Inequality in Latin America.