Erwin de Vries

Every year, in the week before 1 July (Keti Koti), a large group of Amsterdam locals, most of them of Surinamese descent, travel to the Jewish cemetery Beth Haim in Ouderkerk aan de Amstel by canal boat to pay homage to Elieser, a black man who was buried there in 1629. Since 2013, a sculpture of Elieser made by Surinamese sculptor Erwin de Vries (1929-2018), who also designed the National Slavery Monument in the Oosterpark, adorns the entrance to the cemetery. 

In 2002, a tombstone bearing the words ‘bom servo Elieser’ was uncovered in Beth Haim. Did servo mean ‘servant’ or ‘slave’? Slavery was officially forbidden in the Netherlands, but in practice it did occur in the Jewish families who had fled from Portugal to Amsterdam. In 1927, the authorities even decreed that black servants/slaves had to be buried outside the cemetery perimeter. The archives say that Elieser was ‘moreno que foi de Paulo de Pina’ (Paulo de Pina’s brown one). De Pina was a wealthy merchant and one of the founders of the Jewish cemetery. This is probably why Elieser’s grave is in such a first-class location, beside slave trader Jacob Israel Belmonte. 

When Perez Jong Loy (1954-2019) heard about Elieser, he decided to organize memorial trips with his organization Opo Kondreman. He invited me to one of these trips and told me about the plan to erect a sculpture for Elieser. De Vries had already made a design sketch, but did not know how to obtain the necessary money. I put him in touch with several funds and with the costume curator of the Rijksmuseum, who advised on the clothes Elieser would have worn. In 2013, when the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery was commemorated, the sculpture was unveiled by the mayor of Ouderkerk. The path next to the cemetery was renamed ‘Elieserpad’.

The ‘iconoclastic fury’ kindled by the Black Lives Matter movement, with colonial statues criticized, defaced or removed all over the world, led to a counter-reaction in Ouderkerk. On 27 June 2020, after the annual commemoration, Elieser’s statue was smeared with the orange letters WLM (White Lives Matter).

– Annemarie de Wildt