There are people who believe that there were no Black Pete characters in the Netherlands more than 150 years ago. But this is not true. There are various sources which tell us otherwise.One very important clue here is the fact that until the 1950's Black Pete was still known under his various regional names in the Netherlands. The names Pieterbaas and Pieter however have been in use for a long time also. Also there are a lot of pictures available from various places in the Netherlands with Black Petes that very likely have a different background than the book Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht, written by Schenkman. A selection of them can be found here.
With the evidence that has come to the surface also in recent years, one has to conclude that Black Pete wasn't an invention by Schenkman but a continuation of a much older practice, from which a lot of things are preserved in the current Black Pete. Not only in the Schenkmans story but certainly also outside the story in everyday life. Nowhere in Schenkmans book the knight (or servant) is coming through the chimney! As an author he didn't make that "mistake". What he didn't realise probably is that his variation of the companion would be mixed up with much older folklore stories of the dark helper in which soot (and also the chimney) does play an important role in explaining the blackness of the companion. The idea that this is the "Original" Black Pete is not correct as he does have black predecessors that obviously didn't just disappear when Schenkman wrote his book! Our Black Pete tradition is based very much on these predecessors. It is easy to be confused because of this. It would be nice if more people knew this and came to their conclusions accordingly.The recurrence of the ageold chain is, with the black face, the switch and de bag, as well as the similarities in the story in which the bag is used to carry the (little) sinners off (to hell or in the case of Black Pete to Spain), an important visual sign of this. Also in it's being the figure preserved a lot of this older figure. It is important to acknowledge the fact that the way of dressing up the figure and information on it's nature were passed on through oral history from generation to generation. This is the reason that it plays such an important part for a lot of people when they interpret this figure. Often this fact is denied by people who oppose to Black Pete.
Why Schenkman chose an (Indian, African or oriental) boy for this role, except for his obvious dark appearance , will perhaps always remain a mystery. We don't know for sure. It could be that educational or even emancipatory motives played a role and not the racist motives antipetes suspect here. Human figures in this role as dark helper are not uncommon. They are never perceived as humans though since everyone "knows" these helpers are mythical figures. Especially when his current looks are the basis of interpretation of media such as books, songs etc. without acknowledging the Dutch and European history of Black Pete and when the findings are, without reservation interpreted as racist, things go wrong. It is a fact that only in later printings of Schenkmans book the visual image that looks like blackface was used. This may have had some influence on the nature of the figure given for example his surinamese accent that was sometimes heard. This however never fully replaced or surpressed the original character and is since long in decline. People who oppose Black Pete prefer to let his history start with Schenkman so as to not have to take this into account. This is an important reason that the celebration doesn't change in the pace they wish to see. When you accuse people who like Black Pete of celebrating slavery every year, looking at the celebration only from this narrow perspective on history it cannot be expected that the other group will consider this. Not if their own history is left out of the analysis. Even when you look at the resemblance to blackface this still isn't the essential factor of this celebration for people who are pro Black Pete and never has been. The celebration, the figure of Black Pete and the people who celebrate the Sinterklaasfeest every year are sold short absolutely when you do this. Everyone wants his history be it large or small acknowledged and valued. Ignoring it doesn't work. The emphasis people who oppose Black Pete put on colonial history and slavery proves this. Seeing that the Sinterklaascelebration is very important to people, it is important not to overlook this point too lightly, especially if you want to come to a solution, just because some history is deemed more important than other history. It is not possible to determine this for another human being. We also have to be aware of the roll of the Reformation on the Sinterklaascelebrations as is explained in the next paragraph.
During the reformation the new protestant Religion and its churches wanted to wipe out all things Roman Catholic. So Saint Nicholas and his companion were forbidden during this time. It is interesting to note that they didn't succeed in wiping out the celebrations. In the famous painting of Jan Steen we see all kinds of signs that represent both Saint Nicholas (a cookiefigure in the shape of the Saint in the hands of the little girl and his companion (represented by the switch in the boys shoe his sister shows him.) It is often said that the mothers kept the tradition alive for their children. That is a big possibility as that is probably what has been happening through time. In many of the countries the celebrations are not as visible anymore now (but they are there (Scheer) ). In the Netherlands it can be imagined that the celebrations have endured because of the fact that there was so much opposition from the church. It can be seen as a kind of civil disobediance against what people thought was unreasonable patronizing.
Merged figures of Saint Nicholas and the companion
It is interesting to note here that apparently a pagan companion of the Saint was even worse than a Roman Catholic Saint and even though he didn't disappear he did disguise himself. And very often he took on the name of Saint Nicholas in one form or another (f.e. Stapklas, Ruklas, Clas Bur, Hell-Niklas and Klaaskerel (Janssen) or just plain Klaus, Klaas or Sinterklaas) Often he combined the two functions of both the Saint and the companion. So much that we now often think there was only the Saint left. But that wasn't the case at all. People "in the know" always recognized him with his black face, the switch, the chain and the bag or basket. In the Netherlands there is mention of the Black Nicholas's in Amsterdam and there is a drawing of the Black Saint Nicholas of the Veluwe. But we recognize the chain, the black face, the lengthened! switch and the rather small! basket probably with coals in it, immediately. Also his appearance and clothing symbolize more the untidy dark things and additionally, a poem in which Saint Nicholas is walking around with a chain from 1802 exists. We have to wonder if these were actually St. Nicholas or his companion in disguise.
uit: Het vrolyk Catootje. S. en W. Koene,
Amsterdam 1802 (2de druk)
The Black Saint Nicholas of the Veluwe: We recognize the chain, the black face, the lengthened! switch and the rather small! basket probably with coals in it. Also his appearance and clothing symbolize more the untidy dark things.
Looking for bad kids!
Hieronymus van Alphen
Another source we have is Sinterklaaspoem from about 1778 from Hiëronymus van Alphen. He wrote a book with childrens poems that contains a Sinterklaaspoem.This book was published between 1778 and 1782. It is possible that he had to still be a bit unclear about what he was referring to seeing as the Sinterklaascelebrations were forbidden for so long. There are however a few things that "people in the know" will recognize immediately: Namely the names Klaasje (for Saint Nicholas), Pietje (Pete) and a reference to the zwarte man (black man, a kind of bogeyman one of the other influences on the current Black Pete). This poem is also included in the book Sinterklaasgedichten (Bas, de en Bijl)
Klaasje en Pietje
Pietje, zo gij niet wilt deugen,
Dan verschijnt de zwarte man.
Klaasje foei, dat is een leugen!
Laat hem komen, als hij kan.
Die aan zulk een man gelooft,
Is van zijn verstand beroofd.
Mattheus van Heijningen Bosch
In 2013 this information from Groningen came to the surface. It is interesting to see that the author in this piece does not recognize that the Black Pete character that is described in this piece just wears a different type of masquerade than the Black Pete of today. It is however an interesting read that describes the memory of Matheus van Heyningen Bosch visiting his Grandmother on Saint Nicholas eve when he was about seven years old (ca. 1780) and describes a visit of a monsterlike person in a cowhide with horns and chains (we see these in other companions of the Saint as well). Wearing a "scherbilskop" which is a form of masquerade as well. Also other pictures identified as companions of the Saint before 1850 in the province of Groningen are provided on this website. This picture on the left was also used in Rotterdam in an ad. There he is identified as Sint Nikolaas in the book "De beminnelijke Gerrit" and therefore also by the author of this piece Henk van Benthem. Knowing that the figures of Saint Nicholas and Black Pete were often merged before 1850 it is good to think about this possibility here also. The figures on the left and on the right both look like they are wearing masquerades.
Gebelskop and blackening of the face
Thisis a description of what a "scherbilskop" or "Gebelskop" (a form of masquerade also common in companions of Saint Nicholas throughout Europe.) is in the Saxon language of Groningen. Masking and blackening of the face goes back to prehistoric times. The language basis is Germanic because the word it stems from is Germanic. See the explanation here. and here. And more of it's practice here. Please scroll down for the entire explanation on that link.
Deel van een Gebelskop opgegraven in de 6e eeuw voor Christus in Middelstom.
He describes a memory from 1828 of a Sinterklaascelebration where someone already played the Black Companion of Saint Nicholas. It could have been someone that dressed up with frizzy hair and a black face just as the Saint does with his long white beard. Or it could have been a real darkskinned person. He also suggests that this companion doesn't exclusively visit with the Arata's where Alberdingk was a guest.
Alberdingk Thijm supposes that the black companion is a creation of the imagination of the people "born from the need for contrast".
From the viewpoint of this website the next poem is very interesting. It was published in 1894. It is a memory of Bernhard van Meurs about his childhood and in the poem he states that this memory was more than fifty years prior, which puts it in or before 1843. Which is seven years before Schenkman supposedly published his book Sint Nikolaas en zijn knecht. This correlates with the fact that Bernhard was eight years old in 1843 and that is around the age most children lose their faith in Saint Nicholas and Black Pete.
From the title "Chriestne Zielen!" it doesn't seem like a Sinterklaaspoem but it definately is! Also the poem isn't so easily accessible because it is written in the dialect of the Betuwe, an area in the province of Gelderland. Of special interest is this section:
's Aovends goeng weer 't spul beginnen. 't Joeg mien wel 'en schrik op 't lief Dâ gerammel met de ketting; maor toch was 'k op mien kievief: Went ik trok 'en bietje ien twiefel de echtheid van den Sinter Klaos, En gen zier meer kos ik gleuven aon zien knecht den Pieterbaos. ‘Stil!’ - riep vaoder bang tot moeder - ‘Heurde 'm?...Daor kumt Pieter aon!...’ Maor ze kniepten saom 'en eugske, en dâ dee mien veul verstaon. Boems! d'r valt 'en roei, en strompelt Pieter brommend uut de kas... Gauw zag 'k aon zien kromme beenen dat 'et oome Graodus was.
In the evening it was going to start again. I was very scared. This rattling with the chain, but I was alert. Because I doubted a little about if Saint Nicholas was real. And also I couldn't believe any more in his companion "Boss Pete" "Silence"- shouted Dad scared to Mom. Do you hear him? Pieter is coming! But they winked at each other and that made me understand a lot. Boom! a switch drops and stumbles Pieter burring from the closet... Soon I saw from his crooked legs that it was uncle Graodus.
Masquerade, chain, switch
From the vieuwpoint of this website including the christian and pagan history in the interpretation of the character of Black Pete this poem in dialect contains three of the four characteristics of the companion of Saint Nicholas namely the chain, the switch and the fact that a masquerade was used indicated by the fact that the young Bernhard only recognized his uncle by his legs. It is also interesting that the two figures aren't merged here but playing their seperate roles again. Immediately both the switch and chain are in the hands of the companion of the Saint again and there is possibly a changing back of the aforementioned black face seen in the Black Saint Nicholas's mentioned earlier on this page or a regional difference.
In the rest of the poem the chimney and Spain are mentioned as well.
It isn't specifically mentioned here what the masquerade entailed but seeing as it didn't get a mention it might have been the simplest and most common form there was: a black face. From this piece we cannot be really certain one way or the other. Seeing as there is so much about the Sinterklaascelebration still hidden in the archives and also the fact that pieces written in different dialects could offer a broader picture of the masquerades used. It would be premature to come to the conclusion that we know everything there is to know about the Sinterklaascelebration including about the origins of Black Pete. Also as mentioned before: Evidence from surrounding countries cannot be dismissed and should be taken into consideration interpreting Black Pete. We will be looking at an aquarell from Vienna after the next piece.
Priest from Limburg describes the black "knecht"(1840)
The priest H. Welters from Limburg (a province) writes about the celebration in his childhood in 1877: In every well organized family Sinterklaas will come and visit and leave a trace. In the chimney a ladder will be drawn that he can use to climb down. At it's foot oats for the horse. "When the song is sung, the holy man in ceremonious costumes approaches with his faithful servant. "Happy is the naughty boy when the black servant doesn't whip him thoroughly or puts him the wide bag." Louis Janssen who describes this in his book Nicolaas de duivel en de doden (1993) indicates that this modern celebration already had its form in the early forties of the nineteenth century. It has been celebrated like this for a long time by then. He thinks it may have originated in Austria. We know of an aquarell from Austria in which the celebration is portrayed in this way (with the servant that is common there!).
Harme Bevoort is a poet from the commercial town or trading town Enkhuizen. He was famous in his town. He was born in 1801 and died in 1874. He wrote a poem with the title Sint Nicolaas. According to the owner of this website the poem was written down around 1850 in a notebook. Most likely it was composed earlier than this. Interesting details are in the following verse:
Gerust kunt ge u nu buiten wagen
Geen zwarte kop
Met huiden om het lijf geslagen
En hoornen op.
Geen ketens ramm'len langs de keijen
Als van een beer,
Gij hoort geen deur, geen schot rammeijen
Geen angstkreet meer.
Safely thou can go outside
No black head
Cloaked with hides (pelts) around it's body
And horns on top
No chains rattle along the boulders
As from a bear
Thou won't hear no door, no wall pattering
No cry of distress anymore
in this poem we see in this verse - and this is important: the reference to a black head (face) as the masquerade. We also see hides and horns that remind us of the monsterlike figure described by Mattheus Van Heijningen Bosch in 1780 and of similar figures like Krampus. Also the chains are there as they often are when the companion of the Saint is described. It is obvious that this description of the companion of Saint Nicholas goes back to the older tradition of black-faced figures alongside the Saint. The poem breathes the atmosphere of the trading and commercial town with its shops and the bakery of meester Lont" in which this figure was obviously well known (as it was in Groningen). It is no wonder that Schenkman wanted a much friendlier story for children when he thought up his version of this character. It is unfortunate that his choice creates such a big commotion now. A full view on the history of Black Pete offers a lot of suggestions for a non-controversial figure. Especially linking the black face to this much older tradition.
A speculaas cookie board from France. The figure in the middle reminds us of the monsterlike creature and the one on the right looks more like a Black Pete with his white collar. But who is that mounted on the strange creature.
It is very interesting to see this picture. It's hanging in the historical museum in Vienna. It shows Krampus in the company of St. Nicholas. Of course Krampus shows the black face also. As we have seen from the descriptions above Krampuslike figures (with hides, horns, chains, sometimes also a switch and a bag) were walking around the Netherlands also. If you look at Krampus you see the little boys legs sticking out of the basket.
The combination of Christmas and Giftgiving at St. Nicholas is seen in an Aquarell in the Historical Museum in Vienna. The German Businessman Carl Baumann came to Vienna around 1800, married a women from the city and lived with her and their six children in the Weihbuggasse 10. In 1820 a friend oft he family painted the celebration: The tree stands int the middle of the table. The dad has disguised himself as Krampus and the ten year old son was put in the basket. The mother plays St. Nicholas. Maria four years old, and Alexander six years old, look in astonishment at the tree. The big sisters Rosalia, Ida and Wilhelmine are standing well-mannered to the right.
From the description given by Bernhard van Meurs when his uncle played the figure the conclusion may be that the Pieterbaas he saw coming from the closet was not so scary as the ones described in the other contributions here. So somewhere in time there may have already been a transformation to a friendlier being as parents saw fit. It is a fact that there are three separate sources that refer to a masked (black) servant before 1850. Harme Bevoorts reference to a companion of Saint Nicholas with a black face who is definately a predecessor of Schenkmans knecht, is also of importance here because people who oppose the character usually think that predecessors were not present in the Netherlands, did not have a black face/head or that this only consisted of a few sootmarks. This is not true. Blackening of the face in this way is not a part of blackface but an overlap. With the disappearance of the afro hair, the earrings and the big red lips (the latter more a problem with merchandise and not usually in the current Black Petes portrayed by actual people) the historical and original meaning remains and not the tainted one. The colours of black and white are important in the Sinterklaascelebration as a Midwinterfeast and their removal is not wanted and not necessary, given their meaning and practice in this way.