Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe

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Ethnography and ethnicity : Dutch

  • Popular culture (Manners and customs)Racial ethnography, physical anthropologyDutch
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  • Author:
    Sysling, Fenneke
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    From c. 1800, the origins of the Dutch were discussed by ethnographers, folklorists and archeologists. They studied regional differences in dress, dialect and character in the Netherlands and grouped people into categories based on their ethnological, historical or linguistic studies.

    Anthropologists started to do the same from the second half of the 19th century onwards, with a new, positivist focus on body measurements. The early roots of this development go back to the 18th-century Dutch anatomist and polymath Pieter Camper, who shaped the history of European racial science with his mathematical definition of the “facial angle”, which scientists went on to use as an indicator of perfection, from the lowest angles of apes and Africans to the high foreheads of classical statues. Camper, however, had little interested in defining a Dutch type.

    Inspired by Paul Broca and the Swiss anthropologist Rudolf Martin, 19th- and 20th-century Dutch anthropologists conducted measurements, first on skulls and skeletons and later on living bodies. Most of their activities focussed on the Dutch colonial empire, where anthropological work could be embedded within the racial divisions on which the empire was built; but anthropologists also applied the same methods to study regional variations within the Netherlands. Anthropologists discussed their work in the Committee for Ethnology of the Netherlands Society for the Advancement of Medicine (since 1865), the Netherlands Anthropological Society (1898) and the Netherlands National Bureau for Anthropology (1922), established as a daughter foundation of the Institut International d’Anthropologie.

    Most anthropologists agreed that the Netherlands consisted of a mix of races and influences and conceptualized the country in one of two ways; one approach was to differentiate between northerners and southerners, the other to distinguish purportedly unmixed (and hence more “authentic") regions, and to link these to tribal ancestors.

    Those anthropologists who emphasized the north-south divide usually defined the northerners as Germanic (with blond hair and long heads) and southerners as Alpine (with darker hair and broad heads). Lodewijk Bolk (1866–1930) published a survey of the eye and hair colour of Dutch school children, based on a questionnaire he had sent to their teachers, which showed that eye and hair coloration gradually became darker towards the south. Like other anthropologists, Bolk excluded Jewish people from his study, as they were seen as too recent arrivals. This north-south divide neatly coincided with the Protestant-Catholic divide in the Netherlands, but it was unclear how this related to the tribal ancestors identified by archeologists or historians: Batavians or (later, as the Batavian paradigm lost credibility) Frisians, Franks and Saxons.

    Those anthropologists who focussed on the most “authentic” specimens of the Dutch population studied regions that were proverbially isolated and backward, such as the fishing villages on the coast of the Zuiderzee and the islands in the north of the country. Inhabitants of these regions were seen as an older and unmixed layer of the original Dutch. In 1828, J.F. Blumenbach bolstered this conception when he called a skull in his collection from the fishing village of Marken a Batavus genuinus, a native Batavian. Anthropologists shared this fascination for the fishing villages with folklorists and linguists, and the customs and habits in these regions are still important in narratives of national identity.

    Research in these regions took off in the early 20th century, with studies in the villages of Marken, Urk, and the island of Terschelling. A fresh flurry of anthropological activity in the villages on the Zuiderzee coast coincided with important land reclamation projects in the 1930s; these, it was expected, would cause an influx of migrants from other provinces, diluting the biological characteristics of the original population, and thus rendered anthropological fieldwork an urgent necessity.

    After the Second World War, physical anthropology lost some of its standing because it had been inextricably intertwined with racist and anti-Semitic ideas and policies. This did not mean the immediate end of the discipline. Anthropologist Arie de Froe (1907–1992), one of the anthropologists who worked in the Zuiderzee region, was and is often mentioned as a resistance hero, because he turned racial science into a tool to hoodwink the Nazi occupiers, shielding certain Dutch Jews by asserting they were of Mediterranean descent. Even so, De Froe continued, also post-1945, to believe in the concept of race, and continued his anthropological measurements on living Dutch people. Race only became discredited in the 1980s, and perhaps even lingers on in scientific research until today.

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  • Beyen, Marnix; “A tribal trinity. The rise and fall of the Franks, the Frisians and the Saxons in the historical consciousness of the Netherlands since 1850”, European History Quarterly, 30.4 (2000), 493-532.

    Dekker, Ton; Post, Paul; Roodenburg, Herman (eds.); Antiquaren, liefhebbers en professoren: Momenten uit de geschiedenis van de Nederlandse volkskunde (Amsterdam: P.J. Meertens-Instituut, 1994).

    Eickhoff, Martijn; Henkes, Barbara; Vree, Frank van (eds.); Volkseigen: Ras, cultuur en wetenschap in Nederland 1900-1950 (Nederlands Instituut voor Oorlogsdocumentatie; Zutphen: Walburg Pers, 2000).

    Henkes, Barbara; Uit liefde voor het volk. Volkskundigen op zoek naar de Nederlandse identiteit, 1918-1948 (Amsterdam: Atheneum / Polak & Van Gennep, 2005).

    Roodenburg, Herman; “Making an island in time: Dutch folklore studies, painting, tourism, and craniometry around 1900”, Journal of Folklore Research, 39.2/3 (2002), 173-199.

    Rooy, Laurens de; Snijburcht: Lodewijk Bolk en de bloei van de Nederlandse anatomie (Amsterdam: Amsterdam UP, 2011).

    Sysling, Fenneke; Racial science and human diversity in colonial Indonesia (Singapore: Singapore UP, 2016).

    Sysling, Fenneke; “Geographies of difference: Dutch physical anthropology in the Colonies and the Netherlands, ca. 1900-1940”, BMGN: Low Countries Historical Review, 128.1 (2013), 105-126.

    Zeidman, Lawrence W.; Cohen, Jaap; “Walking a fine scientific line: The extraordinary deeds of Dutch neuroscientist C.U. Ariëns Kappers before and during World War II”, Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, 23.3 (2014), 252-275.

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    All articles in the Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe edited by Joep Leerssen are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at https://www.spinnet.eu.

    © the author and SPIN. Cite as follows (or as adapted to your stylesheet of choice): Sysling, Fenneke, 2022. "Ethnography and ethnicity : Dutch", Encyclopedia of Romantic Nationalism in Europe, ed. Joep Leerssen (electronic version; Amsterdam: Study Platform on Interlocking Nationalisms, https://ernie.uva.nl/), article version, last changed 21-03-2022, consulted 19-08-2022.