Dhe golden carriage of the Dutch royal family, which is at the center of a debate on how to approach the colonial past, is temporarily withdrawn from circulation. “The Golden Coach will only roll again when the Netherlands are ready,” King Willem-Alexander said in a video message on Thursday, “and that’s not the case now.” The vehicle is now in the royal stable.
The King last used it in 2015 for the Opening Ceremony of Parliament on Prince’s Day. The car built in 1898 was then extensively restored over a period of six years; since June of last year it has been on display at the Amsterdam Museum as part of a historical and critical exhibition. As the exhibition will end next month and the museum itself will be completely rebuilt afterwards, the king had to decide the fate of the carriage. It allegorically depicts how the Netherlands brought civilization to the colonies they conquered.
Willem-Alexander combined his decision with basic statements about historical commemoration. You cannot rewrite the past. “Simply banning historic symbols and objects is certainly not a solution,” he said, dismissing calls for the offending side sign to be removed. At the same time, he admitted that the portrayal – of black people obsequiously worshiping the Dutch girl – could hurt people. “As long as people live in the Netherlands who feel the pain of discrimination every day, the past will continue to cast its shadow over our times.” Only if we walk the “path of reconciliation” together will the horse-drawn carriage be able to roll again on the Prince’s feast day.
The representation on the cart has been the subject of controversy since 2011. At the time, two activists won MPs for a demonstration against the “glorification of colonialism and slavery”. One of the two militants even demanded that the carriage be set on fire, while his comrade in arms proposed to remove the panel from the left side wall. In doing so, they aroused the ire of royalists, many historians and politicians opposed to “the censorship of our history”.
“I am not in favor of rewriting history by disfiguring the Golden Coach,” Prime Minister Mark Rutte said. The controversy died down while the car was restored; On Prince’s Day, King Willem-Alexander used another vehicle he owned. But he returned to center stage last summer during the “Black Lives Matter” protests following the violent death of George Floyd in America. Within days, 8,000 people signed an online petition calling for the horse-drawn carriage to be moved permanently to the museum.
It was first displayed in a showcase as part of the Amsterdam exhibition, which is well worth seeing. Willem-Alexander said at the opening of the exhibition that it was in his place – which some understood as if he had already made up his mind. With Thursday’s decision, however, the king retains the option of using the car again one day. This is perhaps the most diplomatic way to settle the conflict, which is part of a larger debate about the colonial past and slavery.