“Black Pete Was Influenced by the Blackface Tradition of the 19th Century”

Advertisement for a British minstrel show in the NRC Handelsblad, August 12, 1847; Image Credit: Koninklijke Bibliotheek

Interview According to historian Elisabeth Koning, Dutch minstrel shows, in which white artists played black buffoons, served as a source of inspiration for Black Pete.

Black Pete was influenced by the international blackface tradition. The “minstrel show” was a popular theatrical genre in the Netherlands in the mid-19th century, the same period in which Saint Nicholas’s helper took on his current form. This helps explain the striking similarities between Black Pete and blackface characters: clownish caricatures of black people portrayed by white performers in black make-up.

So writes historian Elisabeth Koning in the December 2018 issue of Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis (Journal of History). In her article titled “Black Pete, a Blackface Character: A Century of Blackface Amusement in the Netherlands,” she describes the theatrical tradition of blackface in the Netherlands. This genre was at the height of its popularity during the same time that Jan Schenkman wrote his book Saint Nicholas and His Servant (1850), which is widely recognized as the source of the contemporary Black Pete tradition. Since that time, as she also demonstrates, Black Pete has been intended to be a black figure, not a white man whose face is covered in chimney soot.

Increasingly heated

Koning is investigating a highly-contentious topic. Proponents and opponents of Black Pete have been engaging in increasingly heated conflicts with one another, as was evidenced again on Saturday during protests  at more than a dozen parades celebrating the arrival of Saint Nicholas around the country. Critics argue that Black Pete is a racist, blackface character. Defenders say that is nonsense; it is a purely Dutch tradition that has nothing to do with the American blackface genre. Pete is black because he passes through the chimney.

The blackface genre, which originated in the United States, is deeply connected to the history of slavery and racism against black people. According to Koning, this theatrical genre was brought to the Netherlands in 1847 by the British theater group Neger Lantium Ethiopian Serenaders, which performed here under the name de Lantum Negerzangers van Amerika. The British continued to enjoy blackface entertainment even after it had fallen out of favor in the United States. The Black and White Minstrel Show, a popular blackface entertainment series in the UK, was broadcast on the BBC until 1978.

While the poor, dim-witted, jovial field hand was the central figure in the American minstrel shows, British shows focused on the figure of the black dandy: a parvenu who wears expensive “white” clothing and attempts to climb the social ladder, but who can never fit into white society due to his gauche demeanor. Koning refers to this as “anti-emancipatory humor.” According to her, these revues were primarily intended as entertainment, but also served to remind black people of their place.

The main Dutch variant Koning examines is the immensely popular theatrical adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, based on the influential anti-slavery novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe. French theatrical producers added two clownish, blackface characters to the story, who were eagerly embraced in the Netherlands. Both the book and the theatrical adaptations it inspired contributed to the 19th century Dutch anti-slavery movement, yet simultaneously helped reinforce the view, generally held by defenders of slavery, that black people were childlike and unable to handle their own freedom.

Elisabeth Koning (1989) studied history and American studies at the University of Amsterdam. She is an independent researcher and works at the Noord-Hollands Archief (North Holland Archives) in Haarlem. She was selected as both the Young Historian of the Year and Young Archivist of the Year in 2018.

How did you come up with this topic?

“While I was studying in the U.S. in 2011, the subject of blackface came up during a course I took on ‘African-Americans in the Media.’ I said: ‘Hey, Black Pete! How nice!’ When other students questioned me about it, I said: “I’m not racist. It’s just different in our country.” Since then, I have become increasingly critical of that viewpoint. My master’s thesis focused on blackface in the Netherlands. My professor insisted that I exclude Black Pete. According to him, he had nothing to do with blackface.”

You demonstrate that Black Pete and minstrel shows emerged at the same time in the Netherlands, but you do not describe a direct link.

“No, I did not find a smoking gun. No letter in which Schenkman states that he was inspired by blackface. There is certainly evidence that he was familiar with the minstrel shows. But my analysis focuses primarily on the striking similarities between the two.”

If you did not find a direct connection, then aren’t your findings inconclusive?

“No. The connection that I demonstrate is that Black Pete, as he was subsequently portrayed, does not differ very much from earlier blackface characters on the Dutch stage, and that both of these figures emerged during the same period.

Other researchers point to much older, non-Christian roots in European mythology, in which St. Nicholas’s companion (or even St. Nicholas himself) is a sort of devil that emerges from the chimney.

“The overall tradition is undoubtedly much older. The most well-known examples are Knecht Ruprecht (Servant Rupert) in Germany and Krampus in the Alps. But I do not see how these mythical figures have much influence on the Black Pete that we see today. However, these various incarnations do effectively serve to illustrate that the tradition is constantly changing, and that the current version of Black Pete can also change.”

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