A canal tour is a must when
visiting Amsterdam, and even more so this year during the 400th
anniversary of the canal ring. Though I’ve done many over the years, the Black
Heritage Amsterdam Tour that I recently took, stood out.

The Black Heritage
Amsterdam Tour is the first tour of its kind in the Netherlands, and takes visitors
along Amsterdam’s ‘canal belt’, revealing the hidden histories of the city and
the contributions of the African Diaspora to Dutch society from the 16th
century to the present seen from historical buildings, canal house museums,
city landmarks, and fine art.

The tour is the
vision of founder and tour guide Jennifer Tosch. A desire to learn more about
her Surinamese parents who grew up in Amsterdam, lead Jennifer to the Summer School on Black Europe,
an intensive study program that focuses on the impact of historical and
colonial legacies on the African diaspora in Europe.

While participating in
this program Jennifer discovered the role Africans have played in Amsterdam’s
history, as well as the rarely acknowledged role the Dutch played in the slave
trade, and developed the tour as a way to tell the story.

The tour starts
in the historical center of Amsterdam, Dam Square. We take a short walk from
Dam Square to Singelgracht, looking every bit the tourist as we constantly look
up and take note of the African images and symbolism that is literally carved
into the architecture. 
The images I found most interesting were the Vergulde
Gaper. These images of Moors displayed with an open mouth with a pill resting
on his tongue were placed on the front of buildings to indicate that the
building was a pharmacy.

The apothecary would travel to markets, taking his
assistant, often dressed as a Moor -symbolizing the exotic origin of the
medicines – who would pretend to be ill. After taking a pill, the assistant
would feel better and perform a dance. In later times when apothecaries stopped
traveling and opened shops, the Vergulde Gaper served as a sort of billboard
for the pharmacy.

Photo credit: Black Heritage Amsterdam Tours
The boat portion of the tour begins at Singelgracht. This part of the tour takes
us past the stately mansions that line Amsterdam’s storied canals, many of
which were used as storage facilities to house the goods the seafaring Dutch
brought back from the Far East. We passed a house with a commemorative plaque
out front noting that it was a former sugar factory. Though we passed many
other houses owned by families and businesses whose wealth, according to public
records, was a result of their participation in the slave trade.
Black Heritage
Amsterdam Tours last between 2 – 3 hours and Jennifer, who is
extremely passionate about the subject, provides you with a wealth of
information. And while the tour is worth taking at any time, since the
Netherlands commemorated the 150th anniversary of the abolition of
slavery on July 1, it would be good to take the tour now in combination with some of the other
events and exhibitions marking the occasion
happening in Amsterdam in 2013.
For information
on Black Heritage Amsterdam Tours visit the website.