Saturday, October 26, 2013


For Verene Shepherd and the United Nations and those who want to know about the nature and origin of Black Pete within the feast of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) in the Netherlands (and beyond). This is a research blog written and edited by a Dutch cultural anthropologist (Ph.D.; my specialism includes sociopolitical organization, mythology, epigraphy, iconography, with close to 30 years experience within the area of ancient Mesoamerica). This blog will address the who, what, where, when, and why of Black Pete and the feast of Sinterklaas, not just from the perspective of the Netherlands, but from a pan-European perspective, ultimately covering nearly some 2000 years of history (and perhaps even more).
Blog Entry 1 (2013-10-26):
Dear Verene Shepherd

A couple of days ago the Dutch news was taken over by an affair, an affair involving Black Pete. With great amazement I have followed the discussions on TV, the petition ("Piet-ition") on Facebook (2 million likes within two days in favor of the Black Pete tradition, October 22-24, 2013), the news articles in papers and weekly journals, not just in Holland, but world wide.

It is to you and the international organization named United Nations that I dedicate this blog. Based on what I have read, I understand that you do not know what Black Pete is all about. You even played judge, jury, and executioner to "order" the Sinterklaasfeest (the feast of Saint Nicholas) and Black Pete to be abolished.

This blog will be my Sinterklaas gift to you. This blog will carry all information I can find on Black Pete, his origins and his current prominence in the Sinterklaas feast. My research starts with a simple question: Who is Black Pete? I am Dutch, and the Sinterklaas feest is part of my cultural heritage. Now I want to know all what is to know about Saint Nicholas and Black Pete.

Why this gift, or present if you will. If a person is over a certain age, the gift is not received from Saint Nicholas and Pete (note that "Black" is not always the adjective that preceeds the name Pete), but the gift she or he receives is accompanied by a poem and presented through family and/or friends. (The "poem" part of this tradition will be explored as well.) The assistant to the assistant to the assistant of the Rhyme Pete send me the following poem (also part of Dutch tradition). First in Dutch, after that in the English translation:

"Pas sinds kort denken Sint en Piet
over een kado, voor Verene Shepherd.
Zij, waarvan de naam in het Grote Boek staat,
spreekt woorden
over intolerantie en slavernij,
en gaat helemaal voorbij
aan wat ons feest eigenlijk betekent,
voor jonge kinderen, jong volwassenen, en zelfs ouderen.
Een traditie van vele, vele eeuwen,
die wil zij bij het afval zetten.
Nou, dat moet ze toch maar eens op dit blog gaan letten.
Want dat wordt haar kado,
een educatie over
Sint en Piet, ons feest, toen, nu, en voor altijd.
Educatieve woorden, daar zijn wij altijd toe bereid.
Een verhaal over Odin, Wodan, Vader Tijd,
over de Duivel, Zwarte Raven, Sinterklaas,
en een Spaanse Moor.
Wie weet vinden zij nu eindelijk bij haar gehoor."

Probably not the best rhyme he ever produced, but it covers all what this blog is about. In English:

"Since a couple of days do Saint Nicholas and Pete
think about a gift for Verene Shepherd.
She, whose name is found in the Big Book, speak words
of intolerance and slavery,
but completely ignors
what our feast is about and means
for young children, adults, and even the elderly.
A tradition of many, many centuries,
that is what she wants to eradicate.
Well, she may now pay some attention to this blog,
because that will be our gift,
on Saint and Pete this blog will educate,
on our feast, then, now, and for eternity.
Educational words, those we are always prepared to provide.
A story about Odin, Wodan, Father Time,
about the Devil, Black Ravens, a Saint, and a Spanish Moor.
Maybe now by her they will be heard."

And so this blog begins. This blog will be a long and in-depth journey into the history of Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas) and Black Pete (Zwarte Piet).

As the word slavery has been used in so many of the recent TV debats and news articles, I do want to present the following. Recently Jovejoy (2011, in Gad Heuman and Trevor Burnard, editors, "The Routledge history of slavery") defined slavery in Africa and elsewhere in the following way: "Slavery is a form of exploitation, whether in Africa or elsewhere, historically or in contemporary times. Its definition derives from the idea that slaves are property, and that slaves are outsiders who are alien by origin or who could be denied their heritage through judicial or other sanctions. With slaves, coercion could be used at will, and their labor power was at the complete disposal of the master. They did not have the right to their own sexuality or, by extension, to their own reproductive capacities and gender options. Enslaved women separated from their children and eunuchs are examples of this complete subordination. Slave status was inherited unless provision was made to ameliorate that status. Slavery was fundamentally a means of denying outsiders the rights and privileges of a particular society so that they could be exploited for economic, political, and/or social purposes."
He adds:
"Historically, slavery has to be viewed as a common theme in the history of not only Africa, but virtually everywhere, always in historical context and never as a generalized and timeless concept applied to different historical situations. This approach is essential in examining the history of slavery in Africa and the dispersal of enslaved Africans within Africa, as well as to the Mediterranean via the Sahara, to Asia by caravans or across the Indian Ocean, and to the Americas and the “Middle Passage” of the Atlantic. The enslavement of people was intimately associated with the trade in slaves. Africa “produced” slaves, traded them and consumed its own people. The academic discussion of this theme in history has now become a major area of research, transcending older scholarship that ignored the issue, or treated slavery as an anachronism, or was dismissed by a colonial perspective that considered “African slavery” benign. Moreover, scholars have been encouraged to treat African slavery within wider contexts. It is now widely recognized, for example, that to study slavery in Africa is a way of showing that African history is not only the history of the continent, but also that of the regions where enslaved Africans were taken."
Much in the whole Black Pete debate is based on poor research, speculation, and playing the blame game. As a colleague recently wrote (on a completely different subject), and I can not put it in better words, "the danger in speculating, rather than letting the facts remain pregnant with tacit possibility, is that ideas enter the public consciousness, and over a period of time their speculative origin is forgotten and they are taken as fact." How to the point is that in this case.

Through this blog I hope to introduce and discuss all the myths surrounding the Saint Nicholas and Black Pete feast. The characters that will pass by include Black Pete, Rainbow Pete, Knecht Ruprecht, Krampus, Schmutzli, Père Fouettard, Devils, the Black Ravens Huginn and Muninn, Yule Lads, Hoesecker, and Elves. Also, and of no less importance, Odin, Wodan, Father Time, Saint Nicholas, Sankt Nicolaus, Sinterklaas, Father Christmas, and Santa Claus. And when space and time are willing also Saturn, Chronos, Cronus, Thor, Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr, the Grim Reaper, the Yule Goat, and Tomten.

But back to the Netherlands and the origin of Black Pete. A source that has been mentioned many times in recent years on the origin of Black Pete is a small booklet published in (most probably) 1850, a booklet which many take as the beginning of the Sinterklaas and Black Pete tradition. Is that really the case? Only that booklet can tell us.

Blog Entry 2 (2013-10-26):
St. Nikolaas en zijn knecht - "Saint Nicholas and his Servant"

Author: Jan Schenkman, G. Theod. Bom, Amsterdam. Published without a date indication, reconstructed as 1850.
Online edition (not all pages are reproduced):

This booklet contains pairings of short poems and drawings. It seems to be, at present, the first publication in which Black Pete can be found. However, this name occurs nowhere in this booklet. The drawings and the rhymes do provide tentalizing details. The second poem and drawing (poem in original Dutch, followed by my translation into English [which is as literal as possible, and does not seek to imitate the original 19th century Dutch rhyme format]):

Dutch: Plegtige intogt van Sint Nikolaas.
 Daar rijdt hij de stad door,
 Op 't prachtigst gekleed;
 Zijn knecht draagt de geldkist
 O, zie hoe hij zweet.
 Het regent er bloemen,
 Elk jubelt en juicht,
 Terwijl zich Sint Niklaas
 Op 't vriendelijkst buigt.
 Één echter verschuilt zich,
 En tracht hem te ontvliên,
 't Is Willem, een domoor,
 Maar 't wordt ras gezien.

Translation: Solemn Entry of Saint Nicholas.
 "There he rides through town,
 Dressed at his most splendid;
 His servant carries the money box
 Oh, see how he sweats.
 It rains flowers,
 All jubilate and cheer,
 While Saint Nicholas
 Bows in his most friendly manner.
 One however hides,
 And tries to escape,
 It is William, the fool,
 But it has been seen."

Comments: The illustrations shows Sinterklaas, a bearded old man and dressed in his best fineries, riding his horse. He is accompanied by a "knecht"; this knecht is not given a name in this poem, he just is referred to as "knecht."
The Dutch word "knecht" can be found in Old Dutch as kneght ‘krijger (warrior), soldaat (soldier)’ (ca. 1100). In Middle Dutch (ca. 1200-1500) knegt (mostly written as knecht) can be defined as ‘dienaar (servant); horige (serf), leenman (vassal); slaaf (slave)’.
The word knecht can be connected to Old Saxonian kneht; Old High German kneht (New High German Knecht); East Frisian kniucht, knecht; Old English (pre-1000) cniht, cnieht (New English knight); all mean 'jongeman (young man), dienaar (servant), leerling (pupil)’, in Old English/New English the word also means ‘soldaat (soldier), ridder (knight)’.
(All entries after Nicoline van der Sijs, compiler, 2010, Etymologiebank, at, entry knecht.)

One entry for knegt contains the definition "slave". This definition of knecht as "slave" occurs only (as far as the presently available sources show) within Middle Dutch (ca. 1200-1500), spoken during the Late or High Middle Ages when the sociopolitical landscape in (most of) Europe and the Netherlands was still defined by the feodal system. As the word knecht is not defined as "slave" after this period, the word knecht can thus be defined as "dienaar (servant)."

Within the poem also note that the servant (knecht) is said to carry the money box, a phrase followed by the expression "Oh see how he sweats." I would call this a clear case of empathy by the writer for the servant, not one of disdain for a supposed slave.

The next poem reads:

Dutch: St. Nikolaas houdt Boek.
 Sint Niklaas, de Bisschop,
 Schrijft hier in zijn boek,
 Al wat hij gehoord heeft
 Bij 't jaarlijksch bezoek.
 Wie zoet was of stout was,
 Hij voegt het er bij;
 Wat zou hij wel schrijven
 Van u en van mij? -
 O, vraag het zijn knecht eens,
 Die maakt toch dit jaar,
 Voor al, wie niet stout was,
 De zakjes weèr klaar.

Translation: Saint Nicholas keeps His Book.
 Saint Nicholas, the Bishop,
 Writes here in his boek,
 All that he has heard
 At his yearly visit.
 Who was good or was bad,
 He includes it all;
 What would he be writing
 About you or me? -
 Oh, ask this his servant,
 Who certainly this year,
 For all, who have not been bad,
 Prepares the small bags.

Comments: Again, the poem only refers to the servant as "knecht". He is introduced in line 9, he is the one who can be asked what would have been written in the book. One could ask a very simple question: Ask a slave? Or perhaps, at the same time, ask a servant? One of the next poems in the booklet provides even more pertinent detail on the servant.

Dutch: St. Nikolaas op Strooiavond.
 Het leeft in den schoorsteen,
 Hoor, hoor dat geraas!
 Hoe rollen hier de app'len,
 't Is vast Sint Niklaas!
 Maar neen... 't Is zijn knechtje,
 Dat zwart is van kleur;
 Want ginds staat de Bisschop,
 Voor de opene deur.
 Zing spoedig een liedje,
 Zie, zie, hoe hij gooit!
 Hoe harder wij zingen,
 Hoe ruimer hij strooit.

Translation: Saint Nicholas on "Scatter-Around" Evening
 The chimney is alive,
 Hear, hear that noise!
 How do the apples roll,
 It must be Saint Nicholas!
 But no ... It is his little servant,
 Who's black of color;
 Because overthere is the Bishop,
 In front of the opened door.
 Sing a song soon,
 See, see how he throws!
 The louder we song,
 The more he scatters.

Comments: The first line reads "The chimney is alive", and all think it is Saint Nicholas. Lines 5 and 6 make it clear that it his servant. The servant is referred to as knechtje; this is the diminutive form of knecht. Does this mean that he is of small stature? Being of small stature would be a (logical?) prerequisite to make those rolling sounds in the chimney. Even more, the first line "The chimney is alive" thus connects to "But no ... It is his little servant, Who's black of color." The chimney, the little servant, and the color black seem to be in direct association. Would it thus be possible to (preliminarily and tentatively) conclude that the little servant, because he is of small stature, does fit into the chimney, which gives him the black color?

More on these poems at a time in the near future (I will be in Belgium for the period October 27 - November 3, 2013)

Blog Entry 3:
Saint Nicholas and his companion in 1828

[To be added]

Blog Entry 4:
Het Sinterklaasfeest (Saint Nicholas feast), painting by Jan Steen (ca. 1665-1668)

[To be added]

To be continued.

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