AMSTERDAM — In 1896, the City of Amsterdam decided to build Queen Wilhelmina a very special gift: a carriage covered in gold. The “Golden Coach” is designed to represent the entire kingdom and its riches, with leather from Brabant, cushions filled with flax from Zeeland and teak from the Dutch colony of Java.
A prominent Dutch artist of the time, Nicolaas van der Waay, was commissioned to create panel paintings on all four sides. One of them, Tribute from the Colonies, depicts a virgin on a throne. To the left, Africans bow before her in loincloths. On the right, Southeast Asians present their gifts in colorful batiks, representing the Dutch East Indies colony.
All these parts that glorify the empire would have been appreciated by most of the Dutch at that time. But it is precisely these elements – memories of slavery and colonial oppression – that make the carriage a sore point in the Netherlands, especially for descendants of previously colonized people.
In the context of the worldwide Black Lives Matter protests, the coach has become the center of anti-colonial and anti-fascist protest. The controversy echoes similar debates in the United States over Confederate statues and other monuments, and in Europe over monuments honoring settlers and slave traders.
An online petition to retire the Golden Coach has received more than 9,000 signatures.
The carriage was first used in 1898 to carry Queen Wilhelmina to what the Dutch call her “inauguration,” eight years after she became queen at the age of 10. In recent years, the Gouden Koets was mainly used for the ceremonial opening of the Dutch Parliament in The Hague, and occasionally for weddings and coronations. Since the 1960s, royal journeys in the carriage have often been met with street protests.
It was last used in 2015, without incident, after which it underwent a five-year $1.4 million renovation before being put on display at the Amsterdam Museum, where it will remain until February 27, 2022.
What will happen to it after that – whether it should be put back into the service of the king and queen; or keep it in the museum with lots of explanatory content; or keep it somewhere out of sight; or destroy — has become a matter of intense public debate. Ultimately, the decision is made by the royal family.
“We must finally end this practice of parading colonial images as a show of power,” Sylvana Simons, a MP and the founder and leader of an anti-racist political party, BIJ1, said in June.
Gideon van Meijeren, legislator at Forum for Democracy, a right-wing populist party, had no patience with that. “We must not allow ourselves to be emotionally blackmailed by a small group of intrusive extremists who see racism under every rock,” he said.
His comment echoed the 2020 Twitter sentiments by a populist Dutch politician, Geert Wilders, who labeled the attempts to dismantle the coach, known in Dutch as the Golden Coach, as “leftist, anti-racist terror.” He continued, using drop-dead slang, “I say don’t bow, don’t kneel, let them all get the rambam!”
Emile Schrijver, director of the Jewish Cultural Quarter, wrote an opinion piece in the Amsterdam newspaper Het Parool last month, in which he called the coach “an outdated and unacceptable glorification of a colonial sense of superiority”, which should be dismantled and permanently housed in a museum.
Speaking at a press conference on July 16, King Willem-Alexander said he “listened” to public forums on the matter organized by the museum. “The discussion is ongoing,” he added. After the exhibition, the carriage returns to The Hague. “Then you’ll hear from us,” he said.
The Golden Coach was hoisted over the top of the museum by crane for the grand opening of the exhibition in June, attended by the King, and now stands in a large glass box in the courtyard. The exhibition exploring the history of the 19th-century concept fills six rooms in the museum, with another room devoted to visual responses to the carriage by 15 contemporary artists.
Margriet Schavemaker, artistic director of the Amsterdam Museum, said she hoped the exhibition would inform the public about all matters related to the bus.
“What I hope this exhibit shows is that there are many different histories and perspectives,” she said in an interview. “I hope that through these many perspectives we can be open and listen to each other. A museum is a perfect place to look at all the different angles in peace.”
Before the carriage arrived at the museum, the sculptor Nelson Carrilho, an Amsterdam-based artist from the Netherlands Antilles, performed in the courtyard what he called “a ritual to give wisdom to this exhibition.”
The great-grandmother of Mr. Carrilho, an Indian woman living in Suriname, was brought to the Netherlands in 1883 and exhibited in a human zoo as part of the World’s Fair, a colonial display case. During her time in Amsterdam she was studied and photographed. Mr. Carrilho has used the photo to create a contemporary work of art for the museum exhibition.
He was a critic of the carriage, but said it should still remain in use until society is ready for change. “Society has to reach a point of saying, ‘We don’t want this Golden Coach anymore,’ he said in an interview. “It can’t come from us, because we are just the messengers.”
The exhibition emphasizes that the discussions about the carriage go back to the time of its creation. To build the coach, royal supporters, known as Oranjegezinden, collected money from workers from Amsterdam’s Jordaan district. The socialist press of the time argued that poor people should not have to support “the lifestyle of these idlers.”
Since then, the coach has been a lightning rod for criticism from opponents of the monarchy. In 1966, after the marriage of Queen Beatrix and Claus van Amsberg, a German prince who had been a member of the Hitler Youth, activists threw a smoke bomb at the Gouden Koets in Amsterdam.
“To me, the carriage represents a lineage, a long history of using these kinds of symbols to reinforce a national identity that the Dutch are very proud of,” says Jennifer Tosch, cultural historian and founder of Black Heritage Tours in Amsterdam. , who was a member of a group of experts convened by the museum to advise the curators of the exhibition. “It has been in recent years that descendants of the colonized have reinforced their objection to constantly reproducing this memory in this way.”
If the Royal Family continues to use the bus in the future, it will only increase national tensions over social justice issues, she says.
“It would certainly send a very strong message to those who have advocated the removal of public usage that those votes don’t matter,” she said. “We can’t put the genie back in the bottle or unleash the bell. The matter is over. The question is, ‘What do we do with it?’”