In Dirk van Hogendorp’s sentimental abolitionist play Kraspoekol, of de slaaverny (Kraspoekol, or slavery, 1800), a philanthropic Dutch merchant speaks to his compatriots quite directly in the final act: ‘Batavians! Why don’t you abolish this disgraceful and vicious slave trade in your colonies? These slaves are fellow humans, they are our brothers! Their tears and their blood are our responsibility, if we remain unfaithful to our ground principles.’1 With his strong emphasis on the tears and misery of enslaved people, Van Hogendorp engages in what Brycchan Carey has accurately termed ‘the abolitionist rhetoric of sensibility’. Coinciding with the sentimental episode in Europe, antislavery discourse employed ‘the power of sympathy to raise awareness of suffering, to change an audience’s view of that suffering, and to direct their opposition to it’.2 Changing mentalities within the growing European urban middle classes and philanthropic reforms were mutually reinforcing.3 Catering to audiences that cherished sympathetic feelings, sentimental fiction thus invariably took a stand on the side of victims of sexual oppression, social exclusion or unjust (colonial) policies, and sought to play upon bourgeois values of common humanity and compassion.4

Antislavery dramas such as Kraspoekol cultivated these middle-class ideals and invited their spectators to sympathize with enslaved people. As in the genre of the ‘humanitarian narrative’, authors and playwrights developed techniques to bridge spatial and emotional gaps between suffering slave characters and the audience, and represented remedial action as morally imperative.5 In her paper on the ethical movements in Dutch colonial politics, Maartje Janse claimed that sentimental literature could instruct people in the metropole on how to become the victims’ ‘rescuers’.6 Whereas the Dutch word burger had merely legal implications until the 1750s, it now referred to ideals such as integrity, sympathy, and morality.7 Voicing his concerns about the corruption of the Dutch ‘ground principles’, the merchant in Kraspoekol does not only refer to Enlightenment values; he wants to restore this Dutch bourgeois identity of being compassionate benefactors.

Looking at two early nineteenth-century plays set in the Dutch East and West Indies, Kraspoekol (1800) and Stedman (1805), this article contributes to the understanding of the complex nexus between antislavery, sympathy, and the self-representation of the white middle class in the Netherlands of 1800. Both plays take a quite radical stance in the abolitionist debate. Although historiography has long emphasized that the Dutch were among the last to abolish slavery in 1860 (East India) and 1863 (Surinam and the Antilles), many individual actions were initiated by Dutch petitioners, politicians, and authors who severely critiqued Dutch colonial and slavery politics.8 My analysis of Kraspoekol and Stedman will demonstrate, however, that abolitionism was also an exquisite instrument of Dutch self-fashioning.

As several scholars of Anglo-American literature have shown, the relationship between sentimentalist literature and empire is indeed a paradoxical one.9 It served both to stimulate readers and audiences to change imperial ideologies and as a tool to soothe them; it propagated equality and at the same time structured social categories in racial and gendered terms. In a Dutch context, such incongruities have received little attention from literary scholars.10 In the sections that follow, this article seeks to illuminate the ambiguous relationship between bourgeois drama and abolitionist ideologies by examining the constellations of slave characters and the two white heroes of Stedman and Kraspoekol. My central argument will be that bourgeois dramaturgy succeeds in conveying antislavery messages, yet at the same time strictly delineates and secures a superior Dutch (and male) identity. It was, in other words, primarily a means to publicly display a ‘white morale’.

Recently, the Afro-Surinamese Dutch anthropologist Gloria Wekker has pointed to similar paradoxes in the present-day Netherlands. In her book White Innocence she suggests that the Netherlands tends to frame itself as an innocent, progressive, and ethical nation that is color-blind and free of racism, while race is in fact the ‘fundamental organizing grammar in Dutch society’.11 Drawing on Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism, Wekker expands on the notion of the ‘cultural archive’ that has always represented white consciousness as the principal authority and European power as only natural.12 The cultural archive of the Netherlands, then, is the result of four centuries of Dutch imperial rule. It is the large reservoir of memories, knowledge, and affects that has been crucial to the creation and continuation of white dominance in modern Dutch society.13

Because I will read Stedman and Kraspoekol as instruments helping to mark the contours of a superior white, middle-class identity, I consider them as segments of this Dutch cultural archive. Whereas Said reads a body of literature produced in the metropoles against their beneficial or supposedly innocent purposes, Wekker observes modern Dutch culture and organizational phenomena in order to illustrate how the effects of colonialism are still present today. This article attempts to combine these two approaches. To be sure, it is not my intention to doubt the abolitionist intentions of these early-nineteenth-century writers, nor will I unquestioningly project modern concepts upon historical texts. Quite the reverse: I will read these dramatic texts as clues to understanding present-day thinking about race in Dutch society.

Kraspoekol, Stedman, and the Dutch Antislavery Repertoire

Unlike the German, French, and particularly Anglophone cases, the theatrical imaginings of colonialism, slavery, and race have been largely neglected by scholars of Dutch colonial history and literature.14 Therefore, I will first briefly introduce this so far unstudied repertoire and locate Stedman and Kraspoekol in it. Around 1800, both major and smaller Dutch playhouses produced and translated a large collection of theatrical works that dealt with issues of empire. I have compiled a list of more than twenty plays that explicitly treat slavery. Half of them are original Dutch productions, while the other plays are translations, mainly from German and French. The repertoire consists of ballets, pantomimes, and operas, which, partly motivated by stylistic conventions, normalized colonialism and did not critique slavery.15 To name but two examples: Isabelle & Don Ferdinand, or the Indian festival (Isabelle & Don Ferdinand, of het Indiaansch feest, 1802) and Zamor and Lilli, or love between two negroes (Zamor en Lilli, of de liefde onder de negers, 1815). As these titles suggest, these genres offered exotic spectacles rather than antislavery plots. In contrast, tragedies and bourgeois (melo)dramas unanimously maligned colonial slavery: Abolition by the French (De Verlossing der slaaven door de Franschen, 1794), The negro slaves (De negers, 1796), and Zuma (1819).

Kraspoekol and Stedman occupy a unique position within this second group of dramas. Whereas most plays prudently represent slavery in Spanish, French, or English contexts, these works explicitly focus on the Dutch colonies. Dirk van Hogendorp, the author of Kraspoekol, had good reasons to address the Dutch case in particular. Unlike many authors, he had served the Dutch East India Company (VOC) himself. In his position as governor of East Java, he called for structural reform in favor of Javanese and enslaved people. After a long fight against the corruption and wrongs of the VOC, he was imprisoned by the colonial authorities.16 Van Hogendorp’s aversion to the Dutch colonial system resulted in various critical writings in which he drew up plans to immediately abolish ‘the brutal [slave] trade and the disgraceful oppression of our fellow humans’.17Kraspoekol is written in the same vein. The drama is set within an urban and familial context in the Dutch East Indian capital of Batavia (present-day Jakarta). The play is named after a cruel slave-owning Indian woman who lives with her Dutch philanthropic brother-in-law Wedano, a senior VOC merchant. As an exemplary middle-class citizen, Wedano urges Kraspoekol to stop using brutal force against her slaves, but she refuses. In the final act, she is killed in a rage by her slave Ali, whose wife Philida she had cruelly abused.18

Although published without a preface, Stedman (1805) is clearly written for antislavery purposes. It is the anonymous translation of Die Sklavin in Surinam (Frankfurt 1804, and Vienna 1805) by Franz Kratter, a popular writer of the Austrian Enlightenment.19 The play is a dramatic adaptation of the famous autobiographical notes of John Gabriel Stedman (1744–1797), who, as a Scottish-Dutch officer in the regiment of Colonel Fourgeoud, helped protect Dutch planters against ‘rebellious maroons’ in Surinam. After much censoring, his diaries were published as A Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam (1796).20 This narrative was rapidly translated into several European languages, including German and Dutch, and its numerous detailed engravings of the abuses on Dutch plantations were eagerly used as abolitionist propaganda across Europe. Like many of the cultural adaptations of the Narrative, the play revolves around the two prevailing motifs in Stedman’s diaries: the gruesome crimes against enslaved people in Surinam and the awaking love between the officer and the fifteen-year-old slave Cery (in the Narrative, she is called Joanna).21

Lifting the Black Veil: Representations of Slave Suffering

Sentimental abolitionist discourse as defined by Carey fits into the larger genre of ‘the humanitarian narrative’. According to Thomas W. Laqueur, this type of story speaks in an extremely detailed fashion about the pain and suffering of ordinary people ‘to make apparent the causal chains that might connect the actions of its readers with the suffering of its subjects’.22 In other words, for the politics of reform authors had to describe actual suffering to arouse compassion, then offer examples of effective social action, and subsequently make audiences aware of their own ability to protest. This section will discuss this first step: how do Stedman and Kraspoekol represent slavery, and how do they expose slave suffering to elicit sympathy? Thereafter, I will shift focus to the bourgeois heroes of these plays and examine how they engage in antislavery efforts and encourage reform. The final section of this article asks how these abolitionist dramas connect to the creation of a persistent Dutch sense of superiority.

Although decorated with peaceful and picturesque scenery of lemon and orange trees surrounding a Paramaribo sugar estate, Stedman comes to bear out Surinam’s bad reputation regarding the treatment of slaves. The sadistic manager Lude is in charge of the plantation. He is assisted by his even crueler overseer Sixtus, who embodies the stereotypical drunk plantation aggressor who lashes innocent slaves to death. Opening with a typical plantation theme, the second act shows Lude sitting in front of his house, keeping watch (gazing in the distance with binoculars) over the laboring slaves on his estate. As Sixtus approaches Lude, he narrates how he punished a slave for running away:

LUDEis sitting at the table on his terrace in front of the house, smoking. In front of him: books, binoculars, and a bottle of wine.SIXTUSstanding near Lude, greeting him with respect.

LUDE So, one hundred strokes of the cane. I do hope you hit that slave hard enough?
SIXTUS Oh, it was delightful to see. Ha, ha, ha, after the sixth blow he was already bleeding. […] After the tenth, his flesh stuck on the canes. […] He won’t run again!
LUDE Are you sure?
SIXTUS Honestly, he won’t be able to run away anymore. I finished him off very quickly, and cut off all his toes. […] Now he can drag himself along the plantation, and he’ll be weeding and raking until we hear his ribs rumble with hunger. […]
LUDE Ha, damn you, Sixtus! Here, you deserve a glass of Mallaga [wine].23

Not only does this scene of slave suffering display the inhumane discourses and logic of the Dutch plantocracy. By explaining in detail the harsh mistreatments of this particular slave and by representing Lude and Sixtus as detached from all sympathetic emotions, it is specifically designed to let spectators feel the pain of slaves and understand why they would run away from Lude’s plantation. Only a few scenes later, Cery displays two fresh lashing wounds to Stedman, whose reaction then exemplifies the intended sentimental reaction of the audience. Whereas Cery stays calm, Stedman exclaims how the sight of such abuse physically affects him, thus emphasizing his authentic fellow-feeling: ‘Oh! Cery, I cannot bear this. […] Oh! I’m becoming senseless.’24 We find another horrible scene of black oppression in the fourth act, in which Sixtus enjoys abusing enslaved people:

SIXTUS, enters with a bunch of slaves. We hear whiplashes and desperate cries of slaves.

March! Back to your cages! Three of you stay here. (To one of them.) Prepare me a seat, you have the honor that I will rest on your back. (The slave leans down, resting on his hands and his knees. Sixtus sits down.) Well, this is more comfortable than the best chair! (To the other two slaves.) Make me some breeze! (They kneel and start to wave two big fans.) Ha! (Sixtus slaps one of them with his fist.) You scoundrel! You smashed your fan into my face! Do you want to get flogged? (He takes out a bottle of alcohol and starts drinking.) Ah! It’s good to rest after such intensive labor!25

Interestingly, this scene stands completely isolated from others. It draws an unambiguous picture of Surinam as place of despotism, brutality, and racism. With stage directions explicitly calling for on-stage representations of slave violence and suffering, Stedman employs physical (and mental) harm as a universal language to shape sympathetic feelings among the bourgeois audience. In The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Adam Smith had fostered compassion as a principle inherent to human nature, and as a sentiment that could be easily derived from the lively portrayal of the misery of others.26 Kratter provided ‘visual evidence’ of the wrongs in the Dutch colonial empire to emphasize the urgency of sympathy and action.

At the same time, however, these vivid re-enactments of slave suffering lay bare the sadomasochist nature of slave torturing not only within imperial power constellations, but also between white spectators and black characters. As scholars have convincingly argued, the sentimental and graphic presentation of slave suffering often entailed ambivalent pleasurable feelings among the audiences.27 Moreover, sympathy itself could be seen as the embodiment of a controlling attitude. In her influential book Scenes of Subjection, Saidiya Hartman sharply noted that the convergence of (colonial) violence and pleasure should be identified as ‘one of the primary attributes of the economy of enjoyment’.28

Pain and suffering in Kraspoekol are represented mostly verbally, yet in a more detailed fashion than they are in Stedman. The fourteen-year-old girl Tjampakka, who is said to be Wedano’s favorite slave, testifies of her enslavement. She narrates how she was kidnapped from her parents, brothers, and sisters in Boni, and how she was chained and gagged so she could not run or scream for help. Thereafter, she was imprisoned in a dark cave on Makassar, together with twenty other people. For six months they were given only rice and water. One of the main arguments against the slave trade was the cruelty of the passage from the African West coasts to the Caribbean Basin. However, and according to Tjampakka’s testimony, the East Indian colonial slave trade was equally inhumane. She explains that:

by night, we were embarked on a boat; this vessel was very small yet packed with 120 men, forty women and some children. Male slaves were chained together and were not allowed to leave the cargo space for fresh air – women were sometimes allowed on deck. This way, we were transported to Batavia, where we were publicly sold on the slave market.29

To advance an abolitionist ideology, Van Hogendorp overtly contrasts the cordiality and familial sentiment of enslaved Indonesians with the hypocrisy and inhumanity of the European colonial policies. Captivity narratives and horror stories about the slave trade were very effective and a recurring motif in abolitionist writings, as they underscored the brutality of slavery as an institution. Moreover, this type of narration singled out the capacity of feeling of black people, who were conventionally depicted as numb and naive.30 In Slavery and Sentiment on the American Stage, Heather Nathans has proposed that such representations could look beyond what Thomas Jefferson in 1788 had described as the ‘immoveable veil of black’ which covered all the emotions of African people. Not only did this supposed veil preclude people of color from experiencing and expressing the same set of feelings as whites, it would also prevent bourgeois audiences from sympathizing with them. Countering Jefferson’s assertion, Nathans suggests that sentimental productions in which black characters were staged as suffering victims capable of ‘middle-class feelings’ could ‘lift up the veil of black’ and elicit sympathy with their white counterparts.31

By this token, Van Hogendorp represents Tjampakka as an innocent child who is brutally taken from her family and severely traumatized. She attests that her memories haunt her and that she keeps thinking about her mourning parents: ‘Oh, what a fatal memory! Excuse me, master, I cannot speak of this without bursting into tears. […] My emotions suffocate my throat.’32 She expresses the inability to produce a coherent story because she is physically affected by her authentic emotions. The melancholy in Tjampakka’s testimony suggests an incurable desire to be reunited with her family in Boni. Thus Van Hogendorp violates the sanctity of the family so central in bourgeois mentality.

The frontispiece of the drama text represents a key scene in the play (fig. 1). Despite its unsatisfactory depiction of Tjampakka’s young age, the engraving provides many additional details concerning costumes, scenery, and plot. Tjampakka is to be punished for breaking a plate while serving Kraspoekol some tea – it was a trap set by Kraspoekol herself: the plate was already broken. Kraspoekol, literally meaning ‘to beat hard’ (‘pukul keras’), furiously points to the splinters. She orders her male slaves, standing in the back of the gallery with rattan sticks in their hands, to rope the girl to a ladder in the garden and to lash her brutally. Kraspoekol, like Sixtus in Stedman, expresses the pleasure she derives from these abuses: ‘Well, well. Roped to a ladder – that’s perfect; so they will not miss! I hope the boys close down on her.’33

Fig. 1 

Frontispiece of Kraspoekol, of de slaaverny (Van Hogendorp 1800). Special Collections of University of Amsterdam, UBA 692 D 58.

Moved by her story, Wedano eventually liberates Tjampakka. As a consequence, Kraspoekol and her nijai (overseer) Ignis now target Philida, who is married to Ali. Jealous of this marriage, Kraspoekol severely beats Philida and chains her up to a heavy wooden block. Ali responds to the abuses of his pregnant wife in a lengthy monologue:

ALI Oh Philida! Unfortunate Philida! […] – Cruel Dutchmen! Are we not human, then? You treat us like animals – worse than animals. Not even dogs are punished without a crime; but we, unfortunates, we are. – Why is Philida burdened with this torture? – because she wanted to be with her husband. – What is her crime? what kind of law system could legitimize such unjust practices? – however, where shall we, unfortunates, find justice? – who will even hear us? […] Oh, unfortunate Philida! – what dire fate do we have now? – torn apart – heaven! I cannot bear this thought! No! – I would rather – oh! What can I do?34

Again, the strong affective ties and the genuine family bond are articulated. Ali’s emotional and desperate tone represents both physical and mental pain, strongly rooted in the feeling of the iniquity of the colonial ‘legal system’, which prevents him from charging Kraspoekol for abusing Philida. Excessive sentiment is indicated in the drama text by exclamations, while silences and an untidy accumulation of acute questions suggest Ali’s limited ability to express his feelings through rational language. Theater is a privileged medium able to employ this technique of style haché, as the inability of coherent speech to convey the physical effects of inner sentiments can be rendered more explicitly in the performance of the actor.35

A modern audience might consider all this as hyperbolic sentiment, yet it corresponded to the late-eighteenth-century dramaturgical practice of gesticulating and expressing inner feelings to elicit a compassionate response. In order to raise awareness and arouse sympathy, both Stedman and Kraspoekol displayed details about suffering and cultivated authentic emotions to which the audiences could relate. Put simply, the authors forged a unity of shared feelings between slave characters and the white bourgeoisie. The emotional portrayals of slavery emerging on the Dutch stage during the decades around 1800 should be interpreted as an effort to remove the supposed veil of black, which described skin tincture, yet did not ‘obscure the texture of the mind’.36

Benevolence of the Bourgeoisie

One of the most important genre conventions of bourgeois drama was the staging of a representative benevolent hero from the middle class who could instruct the audience to become perfect burgers. Propagating sympathy and philanthropy, the tears of the bourgeois hero were not symptoms of weakness but of humanity.37 Made eyewitnesses of the suffering, Laqueur argues, the audience should subsequently be made aware that the suffering can and should be stopped.38 Through the representation of Wedano and Stedman as exemplifying heroes capable of sympathetic feelings and supporting the abolitionist cause, Van Hogendorp and Kratter could persuade their audiences to take action.

As noted, Stedman reacts in a very emotional way to Cery’s wounds, thus behaving as an excellent citizen. He even suggests that he is experiencing pain as well: ‘I cannot bear this’. Marianne Noble has called this effect ‘sentimental wounding’, analyzing this rhetorical strategy in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin as ‘a bodily experience of anguish caused by identification with the pain of another’. Of course, this is the effect of sympathy that both Carey and Laqueur have identified as indispensable to cause white characters and audiences to ‘recognize intuitively the urgency of the antislavery cause and to redouble [their] commitment to it’.39

Directions in the script of Kraspoekol indicate that Wedano ‘radiates sincerity and philanthropy’. In the course of the drama, he urges Kraspoekol to at least treat her slaves humanely. He himself decides to liberate Tjampakka, thus bringing into practice the bourgeois drama convention of benevolence. In the context of this manumission, Wedano criticizes the ignorance of his countrymen and questions their cold-bloodedness in the slavery debate:

WEDANO Why is your soul incapable of these noble and virtuous emotions? How is it possible for a human heart to become so wrong and insensitive? Unnatural slavery, abhorrent slave trade, when will you be banished from the earth? When will you, oh! my beloved Dutch nation!, erase this bloodstain from your law books?40

Employing the language of the heart and speaking directly to his ‘beloved Dutch nation’, Wedano complains about his countrymen’s lack of emotions. Not only does he criticize their insensitivity, he also refers to the Dutch legal system and calls for slavery to be abolished. In other words, he demands that the Dutch campaign against slavery. In his 1798 political pamphlet Proeve van den slaavenhandel (Thesis on the Slave Trade), Van Hogendorp applied the same rhetorical procedure to directly confront the Dutch nation with its irresponsible attitude. He urges his compatriots to ‘openly express their feelings regarding this case, in order to restore human bliss, especially for our fellow humans, our brothers, the slaves who have been – alas! – the subjects of our injustice, cruelty and ignorance for too long’.41 Both in his political writings and in Kraspoekol, Van Hogendorp connects unjust colonial practices to the mother country that profits from the colonial exploitations and is responsible for it.

The premiere of Kraspoekol took place on 20 March 1801 in The Hague. Due to a boycott organized by slavery supporters, however, the performance was stopped right before the second act, and it was never staged again.42 A review of the 1801 performance in the journal Janus Janus-Zoon reports how delegates of the East and West Indian Company disrupted the presentation as soon as the curtain rose. Men started yelling and blowing cheap whistles, preventing other spectators from understanding what was being said on stage. One spectator, John Carleton, who also translated Van Hogendorp’s political writings into English ‘for the benefit of all white men’, observed that if these demonstrators would have had the chance, ‘they would have also extinguished the stage candles, to keep in darkness what [they] and their ancestors never intended for the light’.43 Near the end of the first act, theater manager Ward Bingley came on stage, furious, requesting the audience to remain silent so that the performance could continue. After mixed responses of curious spectators shouting ‘yes!’ and demonstrators yelling ‘no!’, Bingley decided to call the play off.

In the same period, Van Hogendorp’s critical Berigt van den tegenwoordigen toestand der Bataafsche bezittingen in Oostindiën (An Account of the Present State of the Batavian Colonies in the East Indies) was republished and his Proeve van den slaavenhandel came out in Delft and The Hague.44 Considering Van Hogendorp’s reputation as a severe opponent of the Dutch colonial system and his clear stance towards slavery in Kraspoekol, which was available in print months before the actual premiere, the slavery lobby was afraid of the exposure of its corrupt and inhumane practices. All copies of the play were sold out one the day after the performance, and the publisher claimed that he could have sold ten times more.

Interestingly, the review in Janus Janus-Zoon mentions the attendance of Willem van Irhoven van Dam, a Dutch Patriot active in the same circles as Pieter Vreede. In 1797, Vreede had given an impressive speech condemning the Dutch slave trade and slavery during the First National Assembly of the new Batavian Republic.45 The same review also applauds the managers of the playhouse in The Hague for staging Kraspoekol, because ‘it was about time to inform the nation and the Dutch citizens about the unfortunate fate of these fellow humans’.46 As this performance and its reception indicate, abolitionist drama affected the minds and hearts of the Dutch bourgeoisie, wherein a (still disorganized) web of concerned and engaged citizens and political representatives started to develop. As Janse has shown, representations of suffering and political awareness worked in a mutually reinforcing way and led to the emergence of Dutch ethical antislavery movements in the decades that followed.47 Abolitionism belonged to the age of the democratic revolution. Framed as a concerned and sympathizing ‘rescuer’, Wedano sets a perfect example.

Cery’s Complexion: The Morality of the White Middle Class

Albeit less pronounced, Kratter’s protagonist clearly identifies himself as an abolitionist. Stedman openly indicts the abuses on Lude’s plantation, and together with Governor Walmoden he orders Lude to remove Sixtus from his position as overseer. Stedman compassionately laments the fate of the slaves in Surinam, calling them the ‘unfortunate victims of barbarous avarice and arbitrary oppression’ and remarking that his memories of Surinam will always be fused with ‘the lingering image of the oppressed, imprisoned and tormented humankind’.48 As he embarks for Europe in the final act, Stedman is carrying with him reports on how Europe ‘could abolish the slave trade and […] turn cruel planters into human beings again’.49 The reports he is taking across the Atlantic presumably refer to the actual diaries of John Gabriel Stedman, which were generally interpreted as abolitionist writings.50 Like Wedano, Stedman functions as an exemplary hero, whose good intentions are to be followed by middle-class audiences. Whereas Die Sklavin in Surinam was definitively staged in the German states, Stedman was not performed in the large theaters of the Low Countries.51 Nevertheless, the Dutch adaptation seems to be specifically designed for staging – probably in smaller playhouses – and definitely circulated in printed form.

More explicitly than Kraspoekol, Stedman grounds abolition and emancipation in a domestic bourgeois sphere. Near the end of the play, Kratter deviated completely from the original Narrative and made some essential changes to the plot in order to suit the generic conventions of bourgeois drama. As recorded in the Narrative, John Gabriel Stedman repeatedly proposed to ‘his mulatta’ Joanna to purchase her and to take her to Europe as his wife. He paraphrases the firm answer of Joanna, who is not willing to accept these offers:

[Joanna] could not but prefer remaining in Surinam: first, from a consciousness that, with propriety, she had not the disposal of herself; and secondly, from pride, wishing in her present condition rather to be the first among her own class in America, than a reflection or burthen on me [Stedman] in Europe, as she was convinced must be the case, unless our circumstances became one day more independent.52

Joanna insisted on her rights of self-determination and prefers to be respected ‘among her own class’ instead of being a disgrace to Stedman in Europe. As Mary Louise Pratt observed in Imperial Eyes, Joanna alludes in this citation to the independence of the Americas as a prerequisite for a successful relationship between an ex-slave and a Westerner.53 I believe that, additionally, these lines refer to the almost insuperable power relation between a white European officer and an Afro-American woman of color, which would persist even in Europe. Joanna’s principal and persistent conviction not to assimilate into European culture may in some ways rectify this power relation.

Well aware of the bourgeois demand for a nuclear family, Kratter replaces the separation of the two lovers with an entirely new plotline of the happy marriage. His novel interpretation of this love bond is significant for many reasons. As in the Narrative, Stedman repeatedly asks Cery to marry him and to sail to Holland. In the course of the first acts, Cery expresses her reasons for remaining in Surinam in terms similar to those Joanna used:

CERY [Stedman] is worth a better fate. What would I be doing in Europe, surrounded by beautiful and proud European women who stand supreme in every possible way? Would he not be ashamed of his American slave?54

Here, Cery is talking to her friend and ‘patroness’ Augusta, a Dutch planter widow who secretly also has amorous feelings for Stedman.55 Suppressing these feelings, Augusta decides to purchase the girl from Lude and orders Cery to eventually join her lover to Europe. This way, Cery is manumitted and can go to Holland as a ‘free’ woman:

AUGUSTA To unite two beautiful souls, this is my luck!
STEDMAN (To Augusta.) Big-hearted woman!
CERY (Kneeling for Augusta.) Oh! Let me cry in front of your feet. […]
AUGUSTA Oh! Watch the tears of joy glistering in his eyes! […] – Walk into his arms, girl!
CERY (To Stedman.) I want to be your slave, I want to be owned by you; but being your wife…
AUGUSTA (In a joking but demanding tone.) Obey, slave! Your master obliges you.
STEDMAN Give me your hand, and become my wife! (Cery reflects for a moment and then intensely embraces Stedman’s chest.)56

These lines conclude Kratter’s drama and directly situate slave emancipation within the bourgeois sphere. The middle-class assumption that love rather than shared class or race should be the basis of marriage had prevailed by the incorporation of Cery into Stedman’s family. Moreover, it encourages and emphasizes the virtuousness of small individual actions. As Augusta indicates, sympathetic feelings are the most fortunate: ‘To unite two beautiful souls, this is my luck!’

Despite the ‘emancipatory’ scheme of this turn of events, Kratter’s happy ending is problematic in many respects. Quite obviously, Cery is denied all agency by being forced into this marriage (as we will see in the next section), but the ways in which she is portrayed in terms of bourgeois ideals also counteract the abolitionist aim of the play. In a general note in the German text, Kratter describes Cery’s appearance in much detail and in similar terms as Joanna was depicted in the Narrative (fig. 2).57 Remarkably, however, he adds that Cery is ‘a white slave’. The Dutch version does not mention her complexion, but gives Cery ‘whirling blond hair’ instead of ‘frizzy tresses’.58

Fig. 2 

Copperplate of Joanna in A Narrative of a Five Years’ Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam. Illustrated with 80 elegant engravings from drawings made by the author, by William Blake and others (London: J. Johnson & Th. Payne, 1813). Collection Buku Bibliotheca Surinamica.

Stedman seems to lay bare some of the new ways of racial thinking which began to develop during the last decades of the eighteenth century.59 As Roxann Wheeler influentially argued in The Complexion of Race, from the 1770s onwards, skin color was increasingly considered as a primary signifier of ‘racial difference’.60 This new racialization is tangible in the ways in which Stedman and Kraspoekol stage characters of color. Barbara Riesche has proposed that Cery’s female sex was given priority over her complexion to juxtapose her pureness with the cruel male plantocracy.61 Although this interpretation is valuable, it denies how culture connects to changing ideologies of empire. The ambiguous descriptions of Cery’s character in the German and Dutch texts are symptomatic of racial thinking in which neither civility nor religion, but skin color, became a prime marker of racial categories and of assumptions about an ‘inherent’ inferiority of people of color as opposed to a privileged white identity. While Joanna in the Narrative is a ‘mulatto’ girl with a black mother and a white father, the dramatic adaptation explicitly and repeatedly mentions that Cery’s mother herself was a ‘mulatta’. This ‘Westernization’ of Cery implies that she could marry Stedman only if she paralleled European (beauty) standards. Thus, it would be easier for white spectators and readers to sympathize. Cery’s bleached skin served as a foil to justify an otherwise provocative interracial marriage between an enslaved woman and a white European officer, which was rather unlikely in the metropoles.62

Kratter takes off Cery’s ‘veil of black’ quite literally. Yet in doing so he reaffirms Thomas Jefferson’s assertion that a black complexion hampered the capacity of emotions and, apparently, the possibility to marry people of the white middle class. Other slave characters of Stedman and Kraspoekol, then, are explicitly rendered as colored and would have been performed by white actors in blackface.63 The focus on their ‘otherness’ by means of blackening their face and adding local color helped define the white bourgeois identity and its middle-class values, to which Cery had to assimilate before she could marry a Stedman.

‘Let me be your savior’: Sympathy and White Self-Representation

The concluding benevolent act in Stedman was intended to epitomize the morality of European middle-class representatives, and to mark the liberation of an enslaved girl. Strictly speaking, however, and as noted earlier, Cery is more than ever deprived of all agency. Like Joanna in the Narrative, Cery had decided to not leave Surinam for fundamental reasons. In spite of her efforts, she is purchased by Augusta and donated to Stedman as ‘a little souvenir’.64In a joking but demanding tone’ Augusta subsequently orders her new slave to accept Stedman’s proposal. Not only is Cery disrespectfully objectified, Augusta’s intendedly ironic remark (‘Obey, slave!’) also (re)establishes a white supremacy that reaches far beyond the colonial borders and apparently still holds even when the contours of the slave-master relationship are gone. In this final section, I will read Stedman and Kraspoekol as segments of what Gloria Wekker has called the ‘Dutch cultural archive’: the reservoir of knowledge, culture, and affects with regard to race that circulated in the metropoles, and the power relations they implied.65 I will elaborate further on how these bourgeois abolitionist dramas helped produce and retain a superior white Dutch identity against the subjugated reality of (enslaved) people of color.

Without being explicitly racist, Augusta’s joking tone towards Cery licenses her to extend notions of white supremacy. In White Innocence, Wekker has identified humor as a key strategy of white self-representation, as it enables white people to get away with racism without being criticized: ‘Just joking, I am not racist’.66 This justifying discourse, and especially its cheap and recurring nature, is closely related to the ways in which the Netherlands tends to still frame itself as a stainless and color-blind nation. Following Paul Gilroy’s argument in ‘Black Bodies, White Bodies’, however, Wekker notes that this studious need for innocence and control is a projection of white inner fears.67 Right before Cery’s emancipation, Augusta clarifies her motives for helping her and Stedman: ‘I am a proud woman, who will not let herself be surpassed in nobleness by slaves.’68 In fact, it was a manifestation of Augusta’s anxiety over losing her dominance to an enslaved woman and her effort to stabilize her morally superior identity. This recalls Homi Bhabha’s notion of ‘colonial mimicry’, or the white desire to see the colonial subject as ‘almost the same but not quite’. In this way, a substantial element of inferiority remains apparent.69

Forcing Cery into marriage, Kratter’s play seems to view women of color as sexual commodities rather than human beings with sexual or emotional agency. As Marianne Noble acknowledged, fictional slave characters, even in abolitionist writings, were frequently ‘positioned as erotic objects of sympathy rather than subjects in their own right’.70 Stedman establishes his position towards Cery very early in the play: ‘Were you not a slave, my eye would not find you half so pleasing.’71 Again, Stedman’s ‘sympathy’ embodies a controlling attitude. Officer Stedman in the Narrative had several sexual partners during his stay in Surinam: Joanna was one of many.72 Obviously, this was censored from Kratter’s bourgeois play and replaced by an exclusive love story, which would ironically transfer Cery into the bondage of a patriarchal marriage in which women by rule took a subservient position. It illustrates how female slave characters were valued in terms of sexual property and servitude. Both Joanna and Cery have internalized a sense of inferiority and fear to become the subject of disdain and racial biases.73 In White Innocence, Wekker highlights similar cases in modern Dutch society and explains how women of color in all kinds of family configurations are easily mistaken as a nanny of their own child, a domestic worker or a prostitute.74

Although Van Hogendorp’s Batavian drama is no exact reflection of the East Indian colonial reality, it seems to illustrate how, as in Surinam, the Dutch imperial rule in the East Indies operated in tandem with gender and race politics. In both national and international contexts Kraspoekol is an exceptional play, because the abuses against slaves are not committed by a white man, but by two women of color. In the preface, Van Hogendorp emphasizes that, in contrast to large-scale West Indian plantation slavery, the mistreatments in the East Indies were generally restricted to Indian and metis women like Kraspoekol and nijai Ignis, who seriously vent their ‘innate’ jealousy and anger on female slaves like Tjampakka and Philida. Because sexual relations in colonial society were meticulously controlled and the immigration of European women was restricted by the VOC for more than two centuries, concubinage was the most popular domestic option for Dutch colonists. Being mistresses and domestic servants at the same time, concubines created a social hierarchy in which metis (a ‘new race’ of Eurasian people) were rejected by both Western and native cultures.75 Tributary to this system of concubinage and métissage, Kraspoekol exposes the problematic consequences of ‘the hybridization of European men with native women, and especially slaves’.76

Kraspoekol and nijai Ignis threaten to blur the existing colonial racial hierarchy. As Ann Laura Stoler noted in her conveniently titled essay ‘Making Empire Respectable’, concubines and metis women in the Dutch Indies ‘posed a classificatory problem, impinging on political security and white prestige’.77 Whereas in the first act Kraspoekol is assigned to lead the household, Wedano installs a new patriarchal protocol in the following acts, in order to re-establish a white European morality. Tjampakka subsequently convinces her friend Castoerie: ‘Let us serve the best we can, it is our duty to submit ourselves to this fate and to please our master.’78 Wedano’s domestic arrangements in Batavia reflect the white- and male-dominated colonial politics in the East Indies in general, which excluded metis and natives from important positions. Concerned with these notions of degeneration and miscegenation since the early 1800s, metropolitan bourgeois discourse of the late nineteenth century eventually powerfully reinforced the position of white women in the Dutch East Indies to safeguard white superiority.79

In accordance with bourgeois drama conventions, this white male identity takes center stage in both Stedman and Kraspoekol. The genre reduced characters of color to sexual property and passive victims, whereas bourgeois heroes fostered sympathy for them and provided them the necessary emotional and material comforts. These heroes are able to punish evil overseers, liberate at least some slaves, and articulate philanthropic attitudes. Slaves characters are rendered naive and infantilized, praising their benevolent tutors Wedano and Stedman. As Tjampakka gains her freedom, she thanks ‘[her] savior, [her] second father’.80 Quacko is delighted when Augusta donates him to Stedman as ‘a welcome gift’: ‘Yes, my mentor, my savior! I want to be owned by you.’81 The gratitude of these characters illustrates how the European civilizing mission infiltrated sentimental culture in which the prospect of amelioration facilitated a status quo in favor of the white colonial elites.82

However, in the frame of a bourgeois ideology, sympathetic feelings and the gratitude of these slave characters are very rewarding. After Tjampakka’s manumission, Wedano attests that ‘it feels great to do a good deed!’ He even claims that he is more blessed than Tjampakka herself, as ‘the satisfaction of performing benevolent acts is much higher than receiving them’.83 These self-serving intentions of the white hero awkwardly remind us of what Teju Cole called ‘the White Savior Industrial Complex’ in 2012.84 As Cole so aptly phrased it: ‘The white savior supports brutal policies in the morning, founds charities in the afternoon, and receives awards in the evening.’ In Kraspoekol, Wedano is a senior merchant of the VOC and owns several slaves himself. Despite his penetrating and sentimental antislavery speeches, Wedano’s philanthropic actions seem to support the self-gratification and representation of the moral and sympathetic white bourgeoisie. Rather than about justice, white saviorism is about ‘having a big emotional experience that validates privilege’.85

Without denying the popularizing and political role these plays might have had in the Dutch slavery discussion, I hope to have demonstrated that, especially in retrospect, these sentimental bourgeois dramas maintain the paternalistic and white-centered discourses they seem to criticize on the surface. As an integral part of Western imperialist culture, both Kraspoekol and Stedman are colonial segments of ‘the Dutch cultural archive’ and therefore co-responsible for the creation of a persistent white supremacy in the present-day Netherlands. Whereas 1800 abolitionist drama relocated antislavery feelings within the realm of bourgeois ideologies and therefore, as a genre, was able to inform the masses about this issue, these works simultaneously ‘made empire more respectable’ and carried with them the early syndromes of racist beliefs and white innocence.