May 2007


Dutch + British =

The Empire State BuildingOn the last day of my trip to New York City I found myself with time to kill and, consequently, on the doorstep of the Museum of the City of New York.

It was not my first visit: my first visit was a young child with my father who was exploring his old stomping grounds. The New York City I was introduced to was not the one that everybody else knows, but the one that he knew as a child. I learned more about how he viewed the city than anything else, and some how that included a trip to that museum.

Oddly it was with great fondness that I found myself entering the museum—and after I was informed by a septuagenarian native that he was to give a tour in a few minutes, I decided I would join him to see what he had to say.

Clearly he loved his native city and everything it has to offer; and I would tend to agree with his assessment that it is the “World’s Greatest City.”

He made an attempt to explain why New York City became great—noting that, in fact, the city had started its life as “New Amsterdam” under Dutch control. He then continued and noted that the British had taken control of the city and that it was this combination of Dutch and British influences that was the underpinning of New York City’s dynamic, alive, and vibrant success.

Being the wise-ass that I am, I observed, out loud, that South Africa was also an example of what happens when Dutch and British influences combine.

I was reminded of that when CQ and I sat down on the Sea Princess at 11 this morning. We were on our way to Robben Island to tour the prison where male anti-apartheid political prisoners were held by the White government of South Africa starting in the early 60s.

The dominate question I have when confronted with this kind of insanity is… why?

Why did the leaders of South Africa think that “European” citizens were better than everybody else? Why would you ever think that you could tell people where they must live? Why would you ever put people in prison because they disagreed with a governmental policy?

(Ok, that last one needs to be asked of George Bush.)

The tour of Robben Island was divided into two parts. In the first part, a young college student took us on a bus and drove us past island sites and talked briefly about his experiences with apartheid as a young child. Invoking the holocaust, amongst other tragedies recent and not-so-recent he asked that fundamental question about how man can treat other men so poorly.

Robben Island Tour GuideAfter the bus tour of the island we were passed into the hands of an ex-prisoner who took us around the maximum security portion of the prison, stopping, amongst other sites, at Nelson Mandela’s cell, the toilets, and other cell blocks on the grounds. For some reason nobody asked, until the very end, why our guide had been imprisoned—but when somebody finally did, he revealed that he had been protesting.

Robben Island ToiletNaturally when I observed that Dutch plus British influences led both to New York City and to South Africa, there were other issues that affected how the different places came out, but the basic issues remain: Why did New York City pick up on Dutch tolerance and British acceptance, whilst South Africa managed to take the worst aspects of Dutch and British self-superiority attitudes? It’s a puzzling conundrum, and one that probably cannot be answered—and for all I know, my question might not be the right one.

Regardless, after I made my observation to my tour guide at the museum, he agreed with me about the perplexing nature of history, time, and space.

And today, I felt tremendous sadness and great hope for the future, all within the confines of an old Maximum Security prison on Robben Island, 5 kilometers from the mainland.

2 comments to Dutch + British =

  • You brought back memories of a day spent with a South African diplomat as he tried to explain apartheid to a class of high school students. Two of us who had just spent years dealing with busing. He never had a chance. 🙂

    The ones with the power always tell themselves they arrived at that position because they are “better.”

    As for the differences: I could be cheeky and say it was because the English and Dutch in NYC were civilized by the Italians and Irish.

    But, I think the truth is: NYC quickly eradicated their native population. Then had constant immigration where they pick a new group to hate and fear every few years. We all took our turn.

    In South Africa, they (British and Dutch) were the minority and would always be. Humans who have gained power by taking it from a less powerful majority are always afraid the sleeping giant will wake.

  • […] is something I wasn’t always cognizant of until I started travelling. Touring Robben Island with an ex-prisoner, going to Tsitsernakaberd, and enduring snow at Heart Mountain are truly the […]