Good Hope at the Rijksmuseum

There’s an exhibition on at the Rijksmuseum that documents the relationship between South Africa and the Netherlands, which goes back to 1600. The exhibition is titled; Good Hope. South Africa and The Netherlands from 1600. I went, I was very curious about how the Dutch national museum would present their history.

It starts with the “postal stones”, which were stones used by passing ships as a safe place to leave mail by passing ships in the pre-colonial times, and moves quickly into the colonial period. Here’s Deed of Purchase from 1672, by which the Dutch acquired the Cape Peninsula. To Europeans it makes sense, to the local Khoekhoe the contract meant nothing – in their minds no-one owned the land, water or sky.

Initially the colony started by Jan van Riebeeck was tiny, and confined to one bay on the Cape of Good Hope, but it soon grew. The colonialists traded tobacco and alcohol for the cows of the local Khoekhoe people, this eroded their financial independence. The colonialists also imported slaves from Indonesia, India and Madagascar, the locals being considered too likely to run away. On display is a slave bell – the bell by which slaves would begin and end working in the fields. Also on display are pieces of furniture and clothes that seem European but in fact owe much to Asian connections. This colony might have been small but it was right in the middle of trading routes and connected the world.


In the 1770s the colony was mapped and documented, largely by Robert Jacob Gordon, a Dutchman of Scottish descent.

His maps and scenes were incredibly accurate and his sketches of wildlife are charming. (His whole collection has been made available online by the Rijksmuseum)

The colony was constantly at war, acquiring or defending land from the local tribes, and with the British who wanted to control the trade routes and later fought to unify and control the country including the diamond mines. At the time European colonisers from Belgium, Germany, Portugal were also expanding their influence. The piece of trivia that struck me about these wars was that the brothers of Vincent van Gogh and Piet Mondriaan fought there. It was to escape these wars that Dutch settlers, who by then thought of themselves as Afrikaaners, embarked on a series of internal migrations to found new states to the east, away from the British, this has become known as “the Great Trek” and is a cultural watershed for the Afrikaaners, in one room two flags hang, the one in the background belongs to the Orange Free State, the one in the foreground is from the South African Republic, also know as the Transvaal.

The last section of the exhibition bring us up to the present time, and looks at the period of apartheid, sometime in the second half of the 20th century sentiment in the Netherlands changed, moving from colonial pride to “sympathy with the black and coloured South Africans”. There are protests, fundraising, hiding of ANC leaders and more, but the feelings aren’t universal and one video of an interview shows that some colonial pride remained. The exhibition points to “post-colonial feelings of guilt and shame” among Dutch people even as the Dutch government took a position of non-interference. The exhibition features some of the Dutch protest signs, some call for boycotts against Dutch companies that I am a customer – or have been employed by.

The final images of the exhibition are from the post-apartheid era, one series features images of young people born in this era and seems hopeful. Those born in the year apartheid ended turn 23 this year, they’re the students, and new employees entering the workforce of a new country. But the colonial legacy remains troubling, this image is of a protest sign “I stole your land, so what?” being hung around the neck of a statue in Cape Town. The statue is of that original colonial settler, Jan van Riebeeck.

It’s a good exhibition, and is clear about the disturbing and painful colonial relationship between the two countries.The point of view is still largely that of the coloniser, but there are images of and artifacts from the local tribes, and the language is clear about who was colonising, importing and owning slaves. There is more to be explored about the Dutch colonial history, but this exhibition offers a beginning, and events around the exhibition explore in more depth the changes in culture and diversity in South Africa.

The Good Hope exhibition is on in the Philips’ wing of the Rijksmuseum until 21 May.

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