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Amsterdam Travel: Review of Black Heritage Tours Amsterdam

This blog post needs another title, and that title is " Black Heritage Tours Amsterdam: The Most Important Amsterdam Experience you MUST Go On". Because that is the message I want to send to you with this review of Black Heritage Tours Amsterdam.

I swayed between giving this post that title and the one it currently has many times before hitting publish. But ultimately I wanted this post, and the experience I am about to write about, to reach as many people as possible and with Google's mystifying algorithmic ways being the way they are, I know there's a better chance of that happening when I use the title you see above this text.

Also, before you read on, consider this a huge spoiler: This tour changed my life. I don't say that lightly, but I say it because it's true.

After this walking tour of the Red Light District, I saw Amsterdam - the city I have lived in for seven years - very, very differently, and when you make a living writing about the city you live in, that is not just a personal shift, but also it must now be a professional one. I now see and feel compelled to actively change how I write about Amsterdam.

I am also going to change how I have previously written about Amsterdam. Yes, that is the beauty of running your own blog; you can always edit what has gone before. But we must also acknowledge here that it was my white privilege that allowed me to write about it one way before, and it is the same privilege that now enables me choose to change how I write about it now.

But first, let's stop and go back a bit. Let me tell you ALL about the sunny June afternoon I spent on a Black Heritage Tour in Amsterdam's Red Light District. And how that changed my life...

DISCLOSURE: This post contains NO affiliate links, and I was neither gifted the tour nor asked to write a review of it. The following is my own personal experience, and any links are given so you can book directly with Jennifer who runs the tours.

An Honest Review of Black Heritage Tour in Amsterdam

I've known about Black Heritage Tours in Amsterdam since the beginning of this year. I found out about it on Pinterest of all places, seeing and saving a pin for a blog post writing about the experience. I clicked through then and there to find out more. I found out the tours have been running since 2013 - the same year I moved to Amsterdam - and that they are run by a woman called Jennifer Tosch.

I saw that the tours aimed to bring Amsterdam's Black history to light and that slavery, colonialism and racism would all be touched on as landmarks and monuments visited on either a boat tour or a walking tour. To say I was intrigued and keen to go on a tour was an understatement.

I should also be honest and say I also felt apprehensive, nervous and uncomfortable.

Even just finding out about the tours I felt a number of strange and not necessarily pleasant questions pop up in my mind. Why didn't I know about these tours before? Why hadn't I thought to seek them out (as I was well aware of similar experiences in London)? And why was it so unsettling to find out about them now? What would I learn about Amsterdam that would cast a shadow on my cherished relationship with this city? Should I write about the tour on my blog? How would I write about the tour on my blog? Once my mind calmed down a little, I saw these questions for what they were; a sign that going on this tour was long overdue and hugely necessary.

But then life happened, or specifically a global pandemic. I wasn't getting enough (or any!) childcare to have time to myself for a tour so it fell to the back of my mind, and I focused on looking after my kids and myself as we adjusted to the easing of restrictions that had been in place.

That was until the end of May when in Minneapolis, USA, a Black man called George Floyd was murdered by a white policeman and a video of the murder was shared across the world. It followed on the heels of many other murders of Black men and women, including Black trans men and women, at the hands of both white policemen and white civilians. The uproar was rightly loud and violent.

Like many white people I saw these facts were staring me in the face, and I couldn't turn away. Not any more. The fact I'd been able to in one form or another was again, very, very telling. It was time to take action.

One of the many steps I promised to take was booking my place on the Black Heritage Tour in Amsterdam.

What is the Black Heritage Tour Amsterdam?

According to their own website, the Black Heritage Tour in Amsterdam aims to "inform, inspire and educate, whether you are a descendant, educator, student, local or international traveler, the tour is for everyone who is interested in learning more about these 'hidden histories'".

On the tour itself you "will learn about recently revealed 'Black community' of men, women and children that lived in Amsterdam as early as the 16th Century alongside the history of the wealthiest merchants who were Directors of the WIC (West India Company) or the VOC (United Dutch East India Company), shareholders or owners of plantations in the Dutch colonies."

There are a few different tours available. There's the Black Heritage Amsterdam Boat, Canal & Museum Tour (which currently run on Sundays at 12:00, the Black Heritage Amsterdam Boat Canal Tour (on Saturdays at 12:00) and then there's the Black Heritage Amsterdam Walking Tour (on Fridays at 14:00). I took part in the walking tour which takes place in and around the Red Light District.

I quote the website above because it neatly summarises both what I expected and what I experienced. (I also want you to know there are a number of different tours available in case a walking tour is not an option for you accessibility wise.)

It doesn't, however, fully convey what you will feel about this history, what you will learn about yourself and your own history (be you Black or white, Dutch, British, or American), and how this will make you feel and how it will move you, because it really will.

If you are even remotely interested in history, if you have ever wanted to get a closer look at some of Amsterdam's most iconic streets, landmarks and houses, if you want to know more about the Dutch's so-called Golden Age, if you want to find out just how far reaching colonialism was and is both historically and in our daily life, and if you want to know more about the past so you can do more to help improve our future, you will enjoy every moment of this tour.

Black Heritage Walking Tour of Red Light District, Amsterdam

I could see Jennifer from many metres away as I walked up to the foot of the National Monument in Dam Square. Standing at the foot of the stark and striking white sculpture, she was wearing a golden yellow top, matching beads and a woven hat on top of bright red hair. I was the first to arrive and as soon as I introduced myself, she told me that this tour how excited she was.

"It's my first since the city re-opened!" She said, and then she told me she was probably going to get emotional.

This immediately told me two things about Jennifer; she cared deeply about her work and these tours, and secondly, she was an unapologetically emotional person.

I liked her instantly. A lot.

Two other women joined us shortly after. They were both young Black Dutch women and they explained - in perfect English, of course - that one of them had already done the tour the year before, but she was doing it again with her friend after she'd spent the last 12 months telling her just how good it was.

While it seemed obvious to me that as a non-Dutch white woman and a travel writer I would want to do this tour, it was a little puzzling to me why two clearly well-educated, professional Black Dutchies would want to take time out of their working day or a sunny Friday afternoon to go on this tour. However, almost immediately they were asking me why I was there.

I told them my reasons and added that it was long overdue. They then told us they were there to find out more about their history, a history they hadn't been taught in school, and a history that wasn't often discussed in their own families and social circles. And as the tour went on I realised while they certainly knew more than I did it about many of the events and some of the people talked about, it really wasn't as much as I expected.

So what did I learn? It's hard to really quantify exactly what I learnt, and I also don't want to spoil the experience for you should you be fortunate enough to book a tour, but I do want to give you some idea of the depth and variety of history the tour explores, but first I'll talk a bit about what the tour involves from a practical and accessible standpoint.

About the Black Heritage Walking Tour of the Red Light District

As mentioned above, I went on the walking tour offered. It begins at the meeting point at the foot of the National Monument in Dam Square. (Don't worry, you will notice Jennifer easily as she carries a sign for the tours). The tour also starts here.

The rest of the tour was on foot and took us on a loop of the Red Light District, criss-crossing the Oudezijds-Voorburgwaal and then ending up at the rear of the Royal Palace. I didn't track the route, but I wear a fitness tracker watch and it showed that I walked around 7km that day, and I would say that easily 5km was on the tour. For that reason, I would only recommend the walking tour to you if you are comfortable walking such a distance, especially on a day that is potentially hot and sunny (like it was for me).

The tour lasted about 2.5 hours and was done at a relaxed pace; I never felt we had to walk far before we stopped to look at something else, and I only really felt tired from walking once I was back on my bike cycling home and my legs ached a little. You would definitely need to wear comfortable walking shoes and perhaps ensure your bag/s aren't too heavy. Jennifer also recommends bring layers and waterproof jackets should you be doing the tour when the weather is unpredictable (which for Amsterdam, could be any day!).

Another note on accessibility, there aren't many steps or inclines you have to navigate during the tour, but the Red Light District is a busy part of town and the streets are narrow and many are cobbled, so do also take this into consideration. I also wouldn't take a young child on this tour for both practical reasons - it is not a tour catered to children under-10, possibly older - and also for your own enjoyment and experience of the tour as you really want to have your mind focused on what Jennifer is showing and explaining to you.

What you will learn on a Black Heritage Tour in Amsterdam

Back at the beginning of the tour, standing at the foot of the imposing white monolith that is surrounded by a number of sculptures, we were invited to look across the square towards the Royal Palace as well as at Nieuwe Kerk (New Church), before then turning our attention to the monument we were stood next to.

These are all landmarks in Amsterdam that I have seen before. I've visited Nieuwe Kerk many times, have met other tours at the foot of the monument, and less than two weeks previously I was at the Black Lives Matter demonstration that took place in the same spot, where I looked back and saw people climbing on the white monument.

Jennifer was there too. Her speech at the demonstration was one of the most memorable, and during our tour she also referred to that. Jennifer also talked about seeing people climbing on the monument and why this was so notable for her. She explained why by asking us to look and compare images of the people on the monument. It was only then that I noticed one of the men, on the right side, is a Black man. That was the first time I felt foolish on this tour, yes, for not noticing the Black man before, but also how differently his stature and what he symbolised compared to the figures of white men and a white woman on the same monument.

Here's another spoiler for you - it wasn't the last time I felt foolish on the tour for the same reasons... But again. This discomfort is important. It's what I like to call my Unlearning Discomfort, which has helped me own it, experience it and almost welcome it.

At the beginning of the tour, Jennifer explained what brought her to Amsterdam, and how she ended up doing the tours and the more I learned about Jennifer, the more I liked her. Born in the US, Jennifer has been living in the Netherlands for eight years and she arrived in the Netherlands to further her studies of Black history in Europe. She is currently a dual Masters student in Heritage and Memory Studies at the University of Amsterdam. Her own heritage is Surinamese-American and she has Surinamese family in the Netherlands so her area of work is deeply personal.

For those who are unaware, the South American nation Suriname was one of many countries colonised by the Dutch, although it was originally a British colony and the Dutch bought in from them in the 1670s. It was home to numerous plantations during the colonial rule and as well as local indigenous people being enslaved to work these plantations, the Dutch trafficked tens of thousands of enslaved Black people from West African nations.

Although independent since 1975, the history of Suriname, and its relationship with the Netherlands is complex and raises lots of questions about exploitation, even after the abolition of slavery. My knowledge of this comes from looking into it on and off over the years and to this day I've not had a single conversation about this with a white Dutchie, aside from maybe talking about how yummy Surinamese food is (and it really is).

At this point, it's really important to highlight while Jennifer and many of her colleagues and fellow historians and researchers have done years and years of digging to discover many records and stories of Black people living in Amsterdam, and the Netherlands, the evidence of Black life in the city dating back many hundreds of years is actually everywhere. And that is what you really do learn on this Black Heritage Tour. You just need to open your eyes to it, which I mean in a very literal sense, but also in a more deliberate and critical way too.

One of the most obvious ways evidence of Black life in Amsterdam is seen is on the gable stones, or gevelstenen, that adorn hundreds of houses in Amsterdam.

These markings date back to the 1600 and 1700s (and beyond) and hail from a time when they told passers by, and importantly, arrivals from overseas or elsewhere, what trade or professions could be found in that building. I suppose it's the equivalent of the modern day logo or brand imagery, and in the same vein of thought you could consider that many ways these gevelstenen were also marks of pride and wealth.

There are numerous images of Black men and women in gevelstenen all over Amsterdam, and on our relatively short walk around the Red Light District, we actually saw more than I could keep a count of (and I was taking notes!). And there are many other images of Black men and women on plaques, statues and other kinds of emblems on houses.

One of my companions on the tour even spotted a few that caught her eye as we walked to the tour's end. They were a pair, a man and a woman facing each other, like sort of bookmarks in the frame of a window for a mobile phone shop. I know that as I move around in Amsterdam from now on, I will continue to look out for them.

On a beautiful pedestrian-only side street that reminded me of a London mews, one house had a gevelsteen with a Black man's face and neck positioned between two swans facing each other. A Bible verse is etched into the stone, a verse that tells the story of an Ethiopian Eunuch being baptised by Philip the Apostle, a happy and celebratory event. The Dutch, like other Western European colonising nations were effective at using Christianity to "save" the people of nations that colonised. And then there were the swans; what did they mean? And what about the gold band around his neck? Was this decorative or symbolic of slavery?

While their faces are all over Amsterdam, Jennifer explained throughout the tour that what exactly they told us then and what they tell us now, is not known for sure. Do they mark where Black people once lived? Do they mark where Black people worked in some form or another? Do they relate to the slave trade in any way?

I think that's what I liked most about Jennifer's tour.

She definitely asked more questions than she answered. Throughout our time together, she was very clear about how her work and the tour we were on was all led by research. She highlighted what was known for certain and why - because of documents found, personal accounts, artwork, diaries, etc - and she also highlighted what still remains unknown.

This all gave greater power not only to the tour's effect on me - it's much more inclusive and involving when you are asked questions to simply consider rather than to have or wait for an emphatic answer - but it also re-affirmed what she also said multiple times to us; her activism is this history. It is in understanding the racism in our history, that we can shape the anti-racism of our future.

But back to the gevelstenen of the Red Light District...

Even in gevelstenen where there are no people, there are symbols that relate to Black people, or rather the products and colonialisation that so greatly impacted them. These symbols - sugar palms, tobacco leaves, fruits, barrels of coffee, tea, spices, and the barrels above the door of Amsterdam's most famous genever distillery - included many I'd noticed before on other tours like the Eating Amsterdam tour in Jordaan and my previous private walking tour of the Red Light District, but I'd never fully understood the connection and significance between these products, the colonisation of many countries in Africa, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia, and the huge growth of the Netherlands' wealth and its status in the world, both back then and today.

Understanding Colonial History as Part of the Black Heritage Tour Amsterdam

As a Brit, I know about colonial history. I knew about slavery and I knew about Great Britain's complicity in it. I knew about this mostly from reading about it on-off over the years, by choice, and watching movies and some documentaries. It was also touched on at school in my history lessons, likewise the Civil Rights movement, but often, in those lessons it was taught in the context of it being something that happened in the USA, i.e. somewhere else.

What wasn't taught in my history lessons was how the much celebrated Industrial Revolution and the British Empire was only possible because of colonisation, because of slavery, because of the oppression of Black people. Many of the materials and products that catapulted the UK to the forefront of industry and global prosperity - metal, sugar, coffee tea, tobacco, cotton - were things that were discovered and effectively stolen from lands we effectively invaded and took ownership of. Aside from these products that are now a daily part of most Brits' lives, the British economy also profited exponentially from the trade of enslaved people.

And then there are the things I didn't know until recently. About how when abolition finally did happen it was a slow and perfunctory process. That the reparations money paid for enslaved people's freedom in both UK and the Netherlands was paid to the slave OWNERS and that the amounts paid were the modern day equivalent of millions. That families who received these payments in the UK are members of parliament. That families who received this money lived all over the Netherlands, over 50 in Amsterdam alone.

From what I understand, it's a similar story for Dutch people - both Black and white - of the same generation in terms of what they do and don't know about this period of history. Jennifer and my tour companions confirmed this, how they are taught about the prosperity and excellence of the so-called Golden Age in Dutch history as the Dutch empire expanded and grew. What was also interesting on this tour was that I learned how Dutch people are apparently quick to highlight how there was no slavery in the Netherlands (as in on Dutch soil), but this has become a claim that absolves closer examination in the complicity of the Dutch in establishing and profiting from the slave trade.

According to the University of Leiden, the Dutch trafficked between 550,000 and 600,000 enslaved people from Africa and trafficked them across the world to their various colonies in the Caribbean and Southeast Asia. This quantifies as around 5-7% of the total number of enslaved people from African nations,. If enslaved people did not actually step foot in the Netherlands, but the trafficking, the buying and selling, the administration of the trade was carried out in the Netherlands, then is it still appropriate to uphold this viewpoint?

With Black Heritage Tours Amsterdam, Jennifer is very much prompting people to ask themselves this very question. With the gevelstenen she shows us, the historic records she and her colleagues have found, and the stories of old buildings in the Red Light District, which was once the heart of Amsterdam's main port - the Netherland's primary harbour for the ships leaving to and arriving from the colonies - I felt it was impossible to ignore this question myself. It also became very difficult to ignore the answer to that question too; the Netherlands profited exponentially from the slave trade. It was a founding pillar of the country's Golden Age.

And if we pride ourselves on that period of history - and indeed many of the buildings built during that time are protected heritage buildings, and gevelstenen themselves are also protected by law and you can even get money from the government to refurbish one on your house - how is that in any way acknowledging how that was really achieved? Where are the discussions about the cost of colonisation?

There was also much more than gevelstenen to look at and ask questions about.

Several of the Red Light District's oldest buildings have histories that shaped the lives of Black people, both on and off Dutch soil. There was a number of the many former headquarters of the VOC, the company that pioneered the Dutch slave trade. There was the Filing House - now part of the University of Amsterdam - where bankrupt businesses and households liquidated their assets, amongst which were often a certain number of Black men, women, and children. Jennifer explained how Amsterdam's churches (of which there are many, and most are now accessible to visitors) have proved one the most fruitful of sources for her history with records of Black people's marriages, births and deaths, dating back to the 1590s. Inside Oudekerk, in the heart of Amsterdam's Red Light District, one of the city's oldest churches, there are the graves of over 20,000 people and only one of these people is Black.

At one point standing outside the terrace of one of Amsterdam's oldest buildings and busiest cafes, De Waag, Jennifer explained how it was Dutch scientist Petrus Camper who conducted dissections on Black bodies in support the theory of eugenics or scientific racism, i.e. the ideology that white people were biologically superior than Black people, even though his findings from the dissections actually showed no difference between the races under the skin. A bust of Camper still watches over tourists and locals as they drink coffee in the busy historic Nieuwmarkt square.

One of my favourite moments on the tour was when we were a little further south of the Red Light District on and Jennifer explained how recent research had revealed there had been a community of Black people living in this part of town back in the 1600s based on records found at nearby Zuiderkerk, as well as at the Jewish Synagogue in Waterlooplein.

Sint Antoniesbreestraat was also the neighbourhood Rembrandt lived in and he himself painted a number of Black men and women so again. Rembrandthuis Museum is still located on the street and there is currently an exhibition displaying his works of Black people. With all this in mind, Jennifer invited us to think about what that could tell us about those Black families he lived among. What was their position in society? Did they experience racism? What work did they do? What was life like in 17th, 18th century Amsterdam for a Black person?

These are the questions Jennifer and her work is trying to answer, and it got to a point where I was asking them myself. And I've continued to ask myself similar questions. I've also been more intentional and inquisitive in considering what life is like now for Black people in the Netherlands.

Because while I learned so much on this tour, I also learnt how much I didn't know or hadn't learnt before. And that I have much work to do to fill in those knowledge gaps. Jennifer is also helping me and us all with that as she and her team literally map slavery in the Netherlands (and in New York, USA) on the website Mapping Slavery. She is also the co-author of three books on the topic - Amsterdam Slavery Heritage Guide, The Netherlands Slavery Heritage Guide, Dutch New York Histories - and all three (which I now proudly own) are guiding me well as I dig deeper into the history of Dutch colonisation, the slave trade and Black lives in the Netherlands.

Whether you do go on this tour or not, I hope this review of Black Heritage Tours Amsterdam has at least spoken to you about how there is this huge gap in our history, and that this in itself is both a symptom and a cause of the world we live in now. A world where racist atrocities like George Floyd's murder are not unique or standalone, but repeated. A world of systemic racism.

This violently volatile lack of understanding of our history has caused us to allow this world to continue to exist in this harmful, biased, poisonous way for so long. I do wholeheartedly agree with Jennifer that getting to know our history better both in terms of what has been hidden but also understanding WHY it was hidden, is the only way to bring about real change.

My afternoon spent in the glowing company of Jennifer on my walking tour with Black Heritage Tours Amsterdam helped me realise all these things. And I want to sign off this post by sharing with you what Jennifer said to me just before we said goodbye, although I will admit I'm paraphrasing as I sadly can't remember it word for word, but her message was crystal clear.

"Dismantling systemic racism is down to white people and Black people, but our roles are very different. For white people, you have to show up, do the work, learn the history, use your vote... Act. For Black people, the time has come to heal."

Further Reading About Colonial History and Slavery in the Netherlands

If you'd like to read more about the history of colonisation and slavery in the Netherlands, and its white-washing over the years, this one page summary from the University of Leiden will give you an overview and link to numerous books and other sources of information, and this article is a great place to understand other ways this history is still very deeply ingrained in the country's psyche.

This US-based resource also has information on the Dutch slave trade, and while it is now quite an old article, this BBC post shares a history of the Transatlantic slave trade from origins to present day racism and its impact on African nations to this day.

Again, the website Jennifer works on Mapping Slavery, is also a fascinating resource too.

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