Black Pete Wiki

1 May

Illustration from Jan Schenkman's book Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knechtzwarte Piet (black pete)
From Wikipedia [updated 2016, edited]

Zwarte Piet (black pete) is the companion of the Dutch Santa Claus called Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas into Sint Klaas) in the ‘tradition’ of the Netherlands and other Low Countries.

The zwarte Piet character is part of an annual celebration of St. Nicholas on the evening of 5 December in the Netherlands and overseas territories of Aruba and Curaçao, and on 6 December in Belgium and Luxembourg. Presents and accompanying sweets are distributed to children and adults. The character of zwarte Piet appears in the Dutch stores, schools and media, in October, and in November an actor portraying Santa arrives on a boat to pretend to have traveled from Spain, accompanied by a flock of black pete – white people in blackface – who scatter pepernoten (spiced candy) and other special Sinterklaas sweets for those who come to meet them as he visits the mayor cities and other places. [So, it is not a ‘celebration’ of 1 day. It starts weeks, sometimes months, before. In November, each city and major village, has its own actor to play Sinterklaas and many volunteers to put on blackface to play black pete. This is repeated on December 5th – or if on a weekday, also the weekend before. NBP]

Attempts at history

The black pete character first appeared in an 1850 book by Amsterdam schoolteacher Jan Schenkman, and is commonly depicted as a blackamoor. This zwarte Piet is said to be black because he represents a Moor from Spain. Those portraying black pete typically put on blackface make-up and colourful Renaissance attire, in addition to curly wigs, red lipstick, and earrings. Understandably, the character is the subject of much controversy.

According to Hélène Adeline Guerber and others, the part of Sinterklaas riding on roofs and his helpers pushing gifts through the chimney, has its origin in the Wild Hunt of Odin. Riding the white horse Sleipnir he flew through the air as the leader of the Wild Hunt. He was always accompanied by two black ravens, Huginn and Muninn. These helpers would listen at the chimney , which was just a hole in the roof at that time, to spy on the families and then tell Odin about the good and bad behavior of the mortals below. but, this (weak) link does not explain the Sinterklaas travesty itself, nor its origin.

In medieval iconography, Saint Nicholas is sometimes presented as taming a chained devil who may or may not be dark or black. Although no hint of a companion, devil, servant, or any other human or human-like fixed companion to the Saint is found in visual and textual sources from the Netherlands from the 16th until the 19th century.

According to a long-standing theory first proposed by Karl Meisen, zwarte Piet and his equivalents in Germanic Europe originally represented such an enslaved devil, forced to assist his captor. A devil as a helper of the saint can still be found in the Austrian, German, Swiss, Hungarian, Czech, Slovak and Polish Saint Nicholas tradition, in the character of Krampus. This chained and fire-scorched devil may have re-emerged as a human representation in the early 19th-century Netherlands, in the likeness of a Moor and as a servant of Saint Nicholas.

In 1850, Amsterdam-based primary school teacher Jan Schenkman published the book Sint Nikolaas en zijn Knecht (“Saint Nicholas and his Servant”), the first time that a servant character is introduced in a printed version of the Saint Nicholas narrative. The servant is depicted as a page, who appears as a dark person wearing clothes associated with Moors. The book also established another mythos that would become standard: the intocht or “entry” ceremony of Saint Nicholas and his servant (then still nameless) involving a steamboat.

Schenkman has the two characters arrive from Spain, with no reference made to Nicholas’ historical see of Myra (Lycia, modern-day Turkey). In the 1850 version of Schenkman’s book, the servant is depicted in simple white clothing with red piping. Starting with the second edition in 1858, the page is shown in a much more colorful page costume reminiscent of the Spanish fashion of earlier days, looking much the same as he does at present.

Although in Schenkman’s book the servant was nameless, Joseph Albert Alberdingk Thijm already made reference to a dialogue partner of Saint Nicholas with the name “Pieter-me-knecht”(Peter-my-servant) in a handwritten note to E.J. Potgieter in 1850. Moreover, writing in 1884, Alberdingk Thijm remembered that in 1828, as a child, he had attended a Saint Nicholas celebration in the house of Dominico Arata, an Italian merchant and consul living in Amsterdam. On this occasion Saint Nicholas had been accompanied by “Pieter me Knecht” a Moor or Black man who, rather than a rod, wore a large basket filled with presents.

In 1833, an Amsterdam-based magazine made reference to “Pietermanknecht” in describing the fate that those who had sneaked out of their houses to attend that year’s St. Nicholas celebrations were supposed to have met upon their return home. In 1859, Dutch newspaper De Tijd noticed that Saint Nicholas nowadays was often accompanied by a (black) servant “who, under the name of Pieter, mijn knecht, is no less popular than the Holy Bishop himself”. In the 1891 book Het Feest van Sinterklaas, the servant is named Pieter. Until 1920 there were several books giving him other names, and in contemporaneous appearances the name and looks still varied considerably.

According to a story from the Legenda Aurea, retold by Eelco Verwijs in his monograph Sinterklaas (1863), one of the miraculous deeds performed by Saint Nicholas after his death consisted of freeing a boy from slavery at the court of the “Emperor of Babylon” and delivering him back to his parents. No mention is made of the boy’s skin colour. However, in the course of the 20th century, narratives started to surface in which zwarte Piet was considered a former enslaved boy who had been freed by the Sinterklaas, and subsequently had become his lifelong companion.

According to another popular explanation that came to prominence in the later decades of the 20th century, zwarte Piet is a white Spanish or an Italian chimney sweep, whose ‘blackness’ is due to a layer of soot on his body, acquired during his many trips through the chimneys. [A racist reference to Black people. NBP]

Late 20th and 21st century
Head Piet carrying the Boek van Sinterklaas on the way from the Steamboat to the City Hall, where they will be officially welcomed by the City Mayor (Groningen 2015)

Due to the character’s depiction, which typically involves actors and volunteers covering their skin in black makeup, wearing black wigs and large earrings, the traditions surrounding zwarte Piet became increasingly controversial as more migrants from the former and current Dutch colonies settled in the Netherlands in the 1970s. Their children as native Dutch and more media-savvy, became more vocal and demonstrative in their objections in the late 20th century. Outside of the Netherlands, the character has received criticism from a wide variety of international publications and news organizations.

Demonstrators at an anti-Zwarte Piet protest in Amsterdam in November 2013

File:Intocht van Sinterklaas in Schiedam 2009 (4103582848) (2).jpgStill too many of the white Dutch public do not perceive zwarte Piet to be a racist character or associate him with enslavement of Africans [too many blissfully unaware of the role of the Netherlands in the Trans Atlantic slavery system and unable to locate “overseas territories” on a map. NBP] They are opposed to altering the character’s appearance, because they like dressing up as black pete themselves. Opposition to the figure is mostly found in the most urbanized provinces of Holland. In Amsterdam, the capital city, most opposition towards the character is found among the African and Caribbean communities the stereotypical character is linked to. The predominance of the Dutch African and Caribbean community among those who oppose the zwarte Piet character also shows in several of the main anti-zwarte Piet movements, Zwarte Piet Niet and Zwarte Piet is Racisme which have established themselves since the 2010s. Generally, adherents of these groups consider zwarte Piet to be part of the Dutch colonial heritage, in which Black people were enslaved by whites and/or are opposed to what they consider a denigrating stereotype (like the American Sambo) as can be derived from the features of the figure, such as bright red lips, curly hair and large golden earrings.

The public debate surrounding the figure can be described as polarized, with some protesters considering the figure to be an insult to their ancestry and supporters considering the character to be an inseparable part of their recent cultural heritage. The Dutch government and police choose the side of the white majority, resulting in anti-zwarte Piet demonstrators being arrested by the police for supposed disturbance of the peace, as well as (death) threats being made towards prominent figures in the anti-zwarte Piet movement by white supporters of the character.

Meanwhile, schools and businesses across the Netherlands have begun changing zwarte Piet’s clothing and makeup or phasing the character out entirely. One in three Dutch primary schools announced plans to alter the character’s appearance in their celebrations. TV Medianin the Netherlands also decided to use a racially-mixed group of actors to portray Piet in their holiday broadcasts instead of people in blackface, or  actors with a few streaks of soot on their faces. [Never mind that most apartments in the cities do not have chimneys, and houses do not have chimneys that allow for any package to go through. NBP]




Leave a Comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: