Old source, new spring

Sinterklaas’s servant

5 min
Text Hilde Smeesters
Image Sebastian Steveniers

In short

  • Sinterklaas didn’t always have a servant. Black Pete made his first appearance in 1850.
  •  It’s not because we ‘mean well’ that Black Pete isn’t racism.
  •  Living traditions will always keep changing.

It has become a given: when Saint Nicholas - known in Dutch as Sinterklaas - arrives, so does the debate about Black Pete. But where does this extraordinary character come from? How was he depicted in the course of history? And were the people that wrote about him racist? We put these questions to Paavo Van der Eecken, PhD researcher in Arts at UAntwerp and UGent.


Black Pete as a status symbol


Paavo Van der Eecken’s research project revolves around the representation of certain groups in historical children’s literature between 1800 and 1940. Based on four parameters – age, race, gender and social class – patterns are mapped out to prepare the ground for further research. The characters of Sinterklaas and Black Pete are also part of this study. We asked the researcher about their emergence in children’s books.


‘For a long time, there wasn’t any real distinction between children’s books and books for adults, but stories from the cult of Saint Nicholas date back to at least the sixth century. Black Pete emerged significantly later as a character. The first children’s book in which he makes an appearance is Jan Schenkman’s St. Nikolaas en zijn knecht (Saint Nicholas and his servant), published in 1850.’

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Within European visual culture, black pages were recognisable status symbols. In a way, Black Pete becomes a similar status symbol to Sinterklaas.

Paavo Van der Eecken

In the text, Schenkman talks about a black servant, and the illustrations also depict a man with a black skin colour. This character, however, mainly stays in the background. It would take until subsequent stories before he was named Zwarte Piet (Black Pete), and he developed a more prominent role. ‘What’s interesting in this respect, is that the evolution of this role is in line with certain social developments’ says Van der Eecken. ‘In early stories he’s the boogey man who punishes kids and stuffs them in his burlap sack. Later, as societal views on child upbringing change, he becomes a personable character and a friend to children.’


‘But we mean well…’


Van der Eecken points out that those early children’s books display evident traces of colonialism and slavery. ‘Within European visual culture, black pages were recognisable status symbols. In a way, Black Pete becomes a similar status symbol to Sinterklaas. What’s more, in later editions of Schenkman’s book the servant is depicted wearing typical page attire, complete with velvet breeches and a feathered cap. He is always cast in a subservient role to his superior, Sinterklaas.’


The exact origins of Black Pete are up for debate, but soot is definitely not the reason for his black appearance. ‘The earrings, the frizzy hair and the prominent lips were important elements in the stereotyping of black people,’ says Van der Eecken. ‘Besides, Black Pete’s outfit always stays clean, which is inconsistent with the narrative that he becomes blackened by descending chimneys.’

Does this mean that the illustrators and authors of those children’s books were racist? Van der Eecken says that’s a sensitive matter. ‘For many people in the Low Countries, Black Pete is pure nostalgia, so it can be quite distressing to come to terms with the racism that is embedded in this tradition. That’s because we tend to see racism as something intentional, something you do on purpose. But structural racism makes us internalise lots of views on a subconscious level. That way, racism can keep manifesting itself without us realizing it. I think rather than asking whether historical individuals were racist, we should therefore focus on the effects certain depictions of characters have on societal views.’


The researcher explains that books are generally mirrors for white children. They recognise the world they live in without having to ask any questions. Being white is unmarked, a given that doesn’t seem to have any connotations. When a child with a non-white skin colour reads a book, it’s like they’re looking out a window. They see what the characters are going through, but don’t recognise their own experiences. ‘Non-white characters are often burdened with a range of stereotypes. They’re a kind of umbrella for all ideas white people have about people whose skin colour is different from theirs. This practice often goes unnoticed, and that’s exactly what makes this type of racism so dangerous.’


The next step for Piet 


In Van der Eecken’s opinion, the most important thing is to have the courage to admit that the stereotypical image of Black Pete – but also that of many other non-white characters – is problematic. He urges teachers and library staff to become conscious of the latent racism in certain books. This would allow them to address those issues with children and to introduce alternative materials. ‘In addition, it’s important that we do more than make mere superficial changes. Rainbow Petes, for instance, are still non-white servants to a white man, especially if they retain other stereotypical features such as the frizzy hair.’

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Living traditions always evolve in line with the needs of their time.

Paavo Van der Eecken

It’s a given that Sinterklaas and Black Pete will keep evolving. ‘In a few years’ time we may feel that the Petes need to unionize, who shall say,’ the researcher says with a smile. ‘Either way, it’s not a bad thing to look at stories with a critical eye and to realise that living traditions always evolve in line with the needs of their time. I hope my research can contribute to this development.’


* Paavo Van der Eecken’s research is funded by the Research Foundation – Flanders.

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