Colonialism in Your Cup: Remembrances of the Dutch Empire in Amsterdam

The sinking Cafe de Sluyswacht in Amsterdam, where I enjoyed both beer and coffee. The building dates to 1695. Photo by author.

As I walked the streets of Amsterdam in late September of 2011, I sensed the oldness of the place all around me. As an American, I often find myself awestruck by the visible age of European cities. In terms of the built environment, the United States is a young place. I grew up in New Hampshire, one of the original thirteen British colonies, and have seen my fair share of old New England. I have eaten at “America’s Oldest Restaurant,” The Union Oyster House (established in Boston, Massachusetts in 1826), and have taken care of business in one of the nation’s oldest plumbed indoor toilets, at Harvard University. But, there is something different about Amsterdam, a city that was founded around 1300. Its oldness, and all that represents, is on the surface, looking back at you, as you look at it. Maybe it’s the distinctive and uniform architecture of the original brick buildings that line the city, or they way they tip toward and away from its streets, and slant sideways, due to their slow sinking. Maybe it’s the canals, which remind me of the role of waterways and seafaring in the building of the Dutch empire.

Street art in Amsterdam. Photo by author.

I really like Amsterdam. The canals and boat traffic provide a dreamy, romantic backdrop to daily life. The wet climate keeps the city green and lush. There is an unending list of things to see and do, and a vibrant cultural life of art and music. I appreciate that people take the time to sit and enjoy themselves at cafés and in parks, and that most people travel by bicycle, or on the public trams. I like the gritty edginess that one finds expressed in the street art, and in the prominent youth culture. As a traveler, I enjoy wandering the city. As a sociologist, I see in Amsterdam’s old buildings and canals the deep historical roots of the contemporary problems that plague our world today. I see the remnants and legacy of a colonial empire.

The Dutch began their ascent to empire status in the 1600s. Prior to that, Genoese (Italian) traders controlled the budding system of global trade, and the earliest phase of the capitalist economy. Italian sociologist Giovanni Arrighi explains in his book The Long Twentieth Century: Money, Power, and the Origins of Our Times, that from 1640 on, through a combination of political, military, and economic power, the Dutch were able to protect their trade routes, and so controlled the Baltic trade of grains and naval supplies. This allowed them to begin a period of wealth accumulation that established their dominance over the world-economy. Their reign, the “Dutch Golden Age”, was short, but significant. The British rose to power during the 1790s, but not before the Dutch globalized the coffee trade through colonial expansion.

Through the Dutch East and West India Companies, they colonized far-flung parts of the world. Their empire grew to include New York (then, New Amsterdam), Suriname, the western edge of Brazil, some of the “West Indies,” or today’s Caribbean islands, the southern tip of Africa, the “East Indies,” known today as the archipelago of Indonesia, parts of southern India, and of course, the Netherlands. After Dutch traders smuggled a coffee tree out of Yemen in 1616, they wrested control of the supply chain from the Ottoman Empire. They cultivated trees in Amsterdam, gave a tree to King Louis XIV of France, and started planting in their colonies. France followed suit.

Coffee tree at the Hortus Botanicus. Photo by author.

During my recent visit, I saw the descendent of the tree that was smuggled from Yemen. It lives in the Hortus Botanicus, a garden founded in 1638 as a facility for studying the medicinal uses of flora collected from the colonies. For someone who has hatched her career on the study of coffee, standing at the foot of this tree, the living vestige of an empire that brought coffee to the Americas and the South Pacific, and created both the global trade and demand for the bean, was a momentous occasion. By cultivating coffee trees, the Dutch broke the monopoly on supply traded out of the port of Mocha. They installed coffee plantations in Suriname (South America), in Ceylon (1659) and in Java (1699). According to historian of coffee, Mark Pendergrast, they also planted in Sumatra, Celebes, Timor, and Bali, among other islands in Southeast Asia. Using forced peasant labor in their colonies, the Dutch were able to surpass Mocha in imports to Amsterdam. Once again leveraging their control of a supply chain, the Dutch dominated trade in the Indian Ocean, which bolstered their status as the leading empire during the 1700s. Due to the simultaneous growth in consumption (in North America and Western Europe), and production of coffee (throughout the colonies), the Dutch expanded the scope of the world-economy, and fostered mass exploitation.

While the story of the Dutch relationship to coffee told at the Hortus Botanicus makes no mention of enslavement of indigenous people and Africans ripped from their native lands, the Tropenmuseum, which presents a critical, self-reflective history of Dutch colonialism, confronts the issue head on. The museum opened in 1871 as an exhibition on the colonies and their riches. Today, it maintains this function, but its exhibits also include the history of indigenous resistance to colonization, the real conditions of life under colonial rule, and the political, social, and economic realities of the post-colonial period.

My tour of the museum provided great insight into Dutch colonial policy around coffee and other cash crops, and, illuminated some interesting parallels between Dutch “ethical policy” and contemporary models for the ethical sourcing of coffee. Just as today’s ethical sourcing models (Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, Bird Friendly, Direct Trade) were hatched in response to critique of exploitation of producers at the hand of large corporate buyers, the Dutch revised their colonial policy after Eduard Douwes Dekker published in 1860 Max Havelaar, a satire of Javanese conditions under colonial rule. From that point on, the Dutch emphasized social and economic development in their colonial holdings. During the first half of the twentieth century “ethical policy” focused on progress in infrastructure, education, health, and transportation, with the goal of developing strong export economies.

The parallels between the discourse and goals of Dutch ethical policy, and those found in the marketing and packaging of ethical coffee today, are striking. In the research I conducted on this topic for my dissertation I found that the same markers of progress and success are used by the industry today: infrastructure, education, healthcare, housing, and the long-term sustainability of the supply chain. For example, a roaster and distributor based in Portland, Oregon, states in a company brochure:

“The heart of our company lies in our Farm Friendly Direct Program – our direct coffee sourcing program where we develop relationships with farmers and establish fair pricing for the purchase of green coffee. We pay above market prices for the coffee and an additional premium finances community assistance projects such as tree planting, constructing water treatment facilities and community centers, building schools and funding teacher’s salaries – among others. Projects are created through a collaborative process with community members and farmers. Not just a vague program operating out of view of our company – our employees are engaged in and help manage every project. From Papua New Guinea to India and Ethiopia, from Peru to Guatemala, Portland Roasting employees travel to designated countries to participate in programs, ferry supplies, services or contributions to build community projects on the farms or in surrounding communities.”

The goals and implementation of ethical policy were showcased in exhibitions on the European continent. Photographs and installations of schools and teachers represented the education the Dutch instilled in their subjects; mannequins were used to create displays of Indonesians working for the interests of the empire; model houses showcased local architectural styles and idealized rustic life; indigenous styles of music and dance were celebrated; and mannequins designed to show the physical appearance and dress of Indonesians were featured.

A recreation of an “Allegory of Plenty” featuring coffee, at the Tropenmuseum. Photo by author.

Importantly, these exhibitions also included displays of the goods culled from the soil and labor of the colonies. They called this display an “Allegory of Plenty.” Photographers employed by the empire captured images of the landscape and daily life that were displayed in exhibitions, and physical anthropologists used them to formulate early, and quite faulty, understandings of racial difference. Many photos were taken of peasants working for the interests of the empire, like these, from the museum’s collection.

Indonesian peasants plant tea trees under supervision of Dutch colonists.
Plantation overseers inspect coffee trees.
Indonesian peasants mill coffee at a washing station.
Male peasants rake milled coffee beans as they dry.
Indonesian women remove defective coffee beans prior to export.

In my study I found that photos and artistic renderings of coffee producers at work are a key feature of contemporary marketing, and that they bear striking resemblance to those of yore.

From an industry NGO brochure, a woman plants coffee tree seedlings. Photo by author.
From a brochure of a multinational specialty coffee chain, a company representative inspects trees with a producer. Photo by author.
A display in a specialty chain coffeehouse in Oakland, California. Photo by author.
From a brochure for a specialty roaster based in Portland, Oregon. Photo by author.

I point out these similarities because it is important that we recognize that while much has changed in the relations of capitalist production over the last 400 years, much has also remained the same. Just as the Dutch introduced ethical policy to soften their powerful grip on colonized people, today’s ethical sourcing models are designed to soften that of large corporations on laborers in the global south. To be clear, I do not wish to disparage the good-hearted efforts made by those who wish to equalize wealth and power, and improve conditions of laborers. I think that building social and environmental protections into relations of trade is a good thing. Like many of you, when presented with a range of consumer options, I reach for products branded as the “right” choice.

What I want to draw attention to with this comparison is the lens through which we in Western nations, particularly those of us who are white, view those in the “developing” world. The lens through which we see racial and cultural difference is not a neutral lens. As Edward Said explained through historical analysis in his book Orientalism, the Western European sense of self developed in juxtaposition to perceived difference from people met through colonial expansion. The Western lens, then, is colored by notions of difference that were formulated through the eyes of white European explorers. These were recorded in travel narratives, government and commercial documents, art, literature, music, and photographs. Notions of Western difference and superiority organized academic, scientific, and political approaches to dealing with colonial subjects. Importantly, we must recognize that these notions of difference and superiority were developed by the very people who profited from their existence. Far from neutral, the Western lens is loaded with consumer desire and profit motive.

That the same images and discourse permeate the policies that broker relations between the global north and south today as during the era of colonial rule suggests that the lens through which we see southern populations, and our relationship to them, has not changed much at all, despite the passage of time. I close with some questions that I think we must continue to ask ourselves if we would like to live in a just world. What is it that we really want from, and for, those who produce the goods we consume? Are our expectations for them fair? If they are fair, why do we maintain such a different standard of living for ourselves? I struggle with the answers to these questions everyday. I hope you will join me in wrestling with them.


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