Every year since 1903, on the third Tuesday of September, the Golden Coach—Gouden Koets—has carried the reigning monarchs of the House of Orange from the royal palace to the Dutch parliament for a “throne speech,” an annual assessment of the state of the kingdom. Thousands of jubilant subjects gather to watch the horse-drawn carriage clatter along the leafy streets of The Hague and to catch a glimpse of their beloved monarch. It is known asPrinsjesdag, the day of the little prince.
Last September, the Golden Coach, drawn by a team of eight horses and fitted with the full regalia of empire—crests, murals, gold-gilt curlicues—had a headlong collision with the twenty-first century. On September 5th, two weeks before the annual carriage ride, several dozen protesters gathered on Museum Square, in Amsterdam, to denounce the carriage itself. The Golden Coach, which dates to 1898, has on its left flank a triptych painted by the decorative artist Nicolaas van der Waay, called “Homage from the Colonies.” The two outer panels show half-naked black men shouldering massive bales and satchels. The central image is of a statuesque woman seated on a throne, with two black figures in supplication before her. One kneels in reverence, hands clasped and head bowed as if in prayer. The other prostrates himself, back bent, head lowered, with his right arm outstretched over clusters of bananas and other produce offered as homage to the allegorical queen. It is an appalling sight.
“When the king and queen ride around in such a coach, it glorifies this era,” Harry Westerink, one of the protest organizers, said in an interview at the time. Westerink is a founder of the Gray Coach—Grauwe Koets—movement, which for more than a year has sought to banish the Golden Coach to a museum. Westerink says that the supposed Dutch Golden Age, in the seventeenth century, was in fact a “gray era,” tainted by colonialism.
Westerink’s scorching rhetoric is part of an impassioned, sometimes violent confrontation between the country’s traditional historical memory and its current population. An estimated three million citizens now trace their origins to the former Dutch colonies of Indonesia, Suriname, and a number of Caribbean nations, and to countries such as Turkey, Morocco, and the Balkans, which have long been a source of guest workers. Nearly one in five Dutch people now has ancestry outside the twelve provinces that constitute the Netherlands. This demographic shift has been cause for growing social tensions, and occasional violence. The fiercely racist politician Pim Fortuyn was assassinated by Volkert van der Graaf, in 2002, a white Dutchman shooting another white Dutchman in defense of Dutch Muslims. The filmmaker Theo van Gogh, the great-grand-nephew of the painter Vincent van Gogh, was murdered, two years later, by a Dutch Moroccan who was offended by the filmmaker’s depiction of women in Muslim society. Geert Wilders, the leader of the right-wing Party for Freedom, has reaped the harvest of this extended season of hatemongering. Wilders, who compares the Koran to “Mein Kampf,” now commands the third-largest voting bloc in the country. The minorities in the Netherlands feel increasingly embattled, but also increasingly assertive. Many are second-generation, even third-generation citizens. They consider themselves Dutch, and they are insisting that their fellow-citizens do the same.
The first person to draw public attention to the Golden Coach’s triptych was Barryl Biekman, the Suriname-born chairman of the National Platform for the History of Dutch Slavery, which seeks to address the country’s unresolved colonial legacies. Biekman had previously helped drive a public campaign againstZwarte Piet, or Black Peter, a black caricature who in Dutch tradition is an assistant to St. Nicholas. During the Christmas season, Dutch revellers put on blackface, red lipstick, and Afro wigs as part of the holiday cheer. Biekman expressed concern over the Golden Coach just before Prinsjesdag in 2011, writing an opinion piece with two members of parliament for the NRC Handelsblad, a leading Dutch daily. The authors said it was time for the Dutch to confront the “horrific history” of colonialism. They proposed that Queen Beatrix, then the monarch, might “give a push in this direction, by removing the panel, ‘Homage of the Colonies,’ from the Golden Coach and putting it where it belongs, in the Reichsmuseum.”
The article provoked outrage and dismay. The curator of the royal coach collection, Paul Rem, insisted that the Golden Coach was inviolable. “It is a work of art that happens to stand on wheels,” he said in an interview in De Telegraaf, in August, 2015.“It represents the Netherlands as it was during the time it was built.” Rem repeated this conviction to me last week. He spoke of aGesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art. “The Golden Coach is part of the Dutch identity,” he said. “It is part of our history. Can you imagine the Statue of Liberty without her torch?” When the Biekman proposal was raised in a cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Mark Rutte dismissed it out of hand. “To rewrite history by wrecking the Golden Coach?” he said. “I am not for that.” Rutte found the very idea “bizarre.” “I think it is a beautiful coach,” he said.
The Golden Coach controversy has cleaved the kingdom. Traditionalists remind you that the ornately carved carriage was not the result of conquest or exploitation. It was a gift by the people of Amsterdam to Queen Wilhelmina on the occasion of her coronation, in 1898. The carriage, carved from teak by local craftsmen, was financed with individual donations of twenty-five cents per person, to permit rich and poor alike to share in the veneration of their monarch. Roelof Jan Minneboo, a co-founder of Nederland Wordt Beter, or the Netherlands Is Getting Better, a driving force in the anti-Zwarte Piet campaign, told me that Dutch society has yet to confront its colonial legacy openly and honestly. He speaks of the need for “decolonizing the Dutch mind.” Minneboo believes that the entire carriage belongs in a museum, ideally in an exhibition devoted to the history of Dutch colonialism that can provide commentary on van der Waay’s “Homage from the Colonies.” An anti-monarchist with whom I spoke agrees with Minneboo. “The carriage belongs in a museum,” he said, “along with the entire royal family, as Exhibit A and Exhibit B. In that order.”
Last year, on the Monday before Prinsjesdag, Selçuk Öztürk, a member of theTweede Kamer, the lower house of Dutch parliament, who belongs to the Turkish minority in the Netherlands, appeared on national television to read an open letter to his king. He spoke of the “pain” caused by images on the Golden Coach. “The colonial past of one Dutchman is the slavery past of another Dutchman,” he said. Öztürk assured the king that he respected the annual carriage ride. He called it a “mooie traditie,” a nice tradition. Like Biekman, he urged the king to have the triptych removed from the royal carriage. “We are turning to you because you are the king of all the Dutch people,” Öztürk said. “We count on your wisdom, your historic conscience, and your human compassion.”
This is not the first time the Golden Coach has carried the House of Orange into controversy. The carriage was pelted with smoke bombs in 1966, when Queen Beatrix married a German prince, Claus von Amsberg, who had served in the Hitler Youth. A wedding-day photograph shows the glittering carriage emerging from a ten-story-high cloud of billowing white smoke. The Golden Coach was pelted yet again in 2002, this time with smoke bombs and a paint ball, when Crown Prince Willem-Alexander married Máxima Zorreguieta Cerruti, the daughter of a former Argentine cabinet minister implicated in his country’s “dirty war.”
This past Tuesday, King William-Alexander and Queen Maxima departed the Noordeinde Palace at exactly twelve-fifty for the ritual Prinsjesdag carriage ride. It was a pleasant, late-summer day with clear skies and a slight breeze. Thousands of monarchists, three and four ranks deep, lined the sidewalks and leaned out windows to watch the royal couple pass in the Glass Coach—Glazen Koets—a stately but modestly appointed carriage, built in 1826, with the royal crest—three lions, a crown, and the rather cryptic motto “Je maintiendrai,” or “I will maintain”—emblazoned on the side and flanked by two winged Putti.
For the first time in more than a century, the Golden Coach sat idle onPrinsjesdag. The royal court’s Department of Transport, which is responsible for vehicles used by the House of Orange—cars, helicopters, boats, airplanes, and carriages—had recalled it for servicing. The wheels need reinforcing. The gold leaf is flaking. The leather straps are worn, as is the interior upholstery. Tiny cracks have appeared in “Homage from the Colonies.” The restoration is expected to keep the Golden Coach off the streets of The Hague, and away from public controversy, for the next three to four years.
On the elegant Lange Voorhout street, the Glass Coach clattered by the British and Angolan embassies. It passed the Hotel des Indes, constructed in the heyday of Dutch colonialism using riches plundered from Indonesia. Finally, the carriage turned right at the corner of the Maurits House, home to Vermeer’s painting “Girl with the Pearl Earring,” and the former residence of Johan Maurits, the governor of “Dutch Brazil,” who made a fortune selling indigenous Brazilians and Africans into slavery.
At ten past one, the Glass Coach arrived at the Ridderzal, the Hall of Knights, where the parliament waited. Trumpets blasted. People waved and cheered. The royal couple descended from the carriage, and the king took his seat on the throne. Willem-Alexander praised the vibrant Dutch economy. He expressed carefully worded concern over the threat of terrorism and the political upheaval in Britain. “It would be unwise to underestimate the problems and international uncertainties facing the Netherlands,” he said. “But history teaches us that steady progress is possible by working together toward solutions, both in our own country and with our international partners.” He wished the parliament “wisdom” in its deliberations, as well as God’s blessing. He then departed. A popular newspaper, De Volkskrant, reported that everything was as it has always been—“only the coach was different.”