Why Is the Dutch Royal Family’s Golden Carriage So Controversial?

Critics say the coach, which is set to go on view at a museum next June, features racist, colonialist imagery

Golden Coach in 2011
The Golden Coach, as seen during Budget Day celebrations in 2011 Minister-President Rutte via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0

An elaborate gilded carriage used by the Dutch royal family may be retired after years of debate over the racist, colonialist imagery that adorns its side panels, reports Titia Ketelaar for local newspaper NRC Handelsblad.

The artwork at the heart of the controversy is an 1898 triptych by Nicolaas van der Waay titled Homage of the Colonies. As Hakim Bishara writes for Hyperallergic, the scene depicts half-naked black and South Asian people “kneeling, prostrating, and offering gifts to a white woman seated on a throne.” Critics argue that these figures—likely enslaved people—are presented as submissive to royal authority.

Known as the Golden Coach, the royal carriage, which has been under restoration since 2015, is slated to go on view at the Amsterdam Museum next June. Per Dutch broadcaster NOS, King Willem-Alexander will make a final decision regarding the carriage’s fate following the exhibition’s conclusion in November.

News of the coach’s potential retirement arrived ahead of Budget Day, an annual event held on the third Tuesday of September to mark the start of the Dutch parliamentary year. Normally, the Golden Coach plays a key role in the celebration, shepherding the Netherlands’ reigning monarch to the Hall of Knights in the Hague, where they deliver a ceremonial speech. (Another royal carriage, the so-called Glass Coach, has filled in for the Golden Coach while the latter undergoes restoration.) But this year’s Budget Day, or Prinsjesdag, will be a muted affair: To help prevent the spread of Covid-19, the Dutch government has canceled the carriage procession and barred spectators.

A close-up view of the 1898 triptych
A close-up view of the 1898 triptych Minister-President Rutte via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0

Over the past several months, protests against racism and systemic injustice have sparked the removal or recontextualization of controversial monuments and artifacts across the globe. As Hyperallergic notes, an online petition to move the Golden Coach to a museum has received nearly 8,000 signatures to date.

Criticism of the carriage mounted during a series of protests in 2015, reported Timothy W. Ryback for the New Yorker the following year. But public debate over the triptych dates back to as early as 2011, when Suriname-born Barryl Biekman and a number of other Dutch politicians argued in an op-ed that it should be removed from the coach and placed in a museum.

The people of Amsterdam gifted the carriage to Queen Wilhelmina in honor of her coronation in 1898. Per the New Yorker, local craftsmen carved the coach—funded by donations from the “rich and poor alike”—out of teak wood and gilded it with gold.

In June, Prime Minister Mark Rutte acknowledged that the carriage “summons emotions” but noted that “it’s all part of our history,” according to Reuters. The royal family has previously stated that the triptych itself will not be removed from the carriage.

During a press event in July, the king told reporters that he was “following the discussion” raised by Black Lives Matter protests.

Men dressed in royal garb walk alongside an elaborate coach, gilded in gold with large wheels. On the side of the coach, a triptych depicts a white woman on a throne, being offered gifts by half-naked black people, who bow or look downward
The Golden Coach and Homage of the Colonies, as seen in 2008 Julian Parker / Getty Images

“I’m listening to it,” he said, adding, “As long as there is implicit and explicit discrimination in the Netherlands, we must tackle that as a society.”

The Dutch government’s announcement also arrives amid the country’s ongoing reckoning with its colonial history. According to Leiden University’s African Studies Center, Dutch officials enslaved and traded as many as 600,000 African people across the Atlantic Ocean between the 17th and 19th centuries. Due in large part to colonial exploitation and the trade of enslaved people, the Dutch Republic became a wealthy world power.

Last fall, the Amsterdam Museum said it would stop referring to the 17th century as the “Dutch Golden Age.” To reflect this change, the cultural institution undertook measures including updating the name of its “Dutchmen in the Golden Age” exhibition to “Group Portraits of the 17th Century.”

“The Western Golden Age occupies an important place in Western historiography that is strongly linked to national pride, but positive associations with the term such as prosperity, peace, opulence, and innocence do not cover the charge of historical reality in this period,” said Tom van der Molen, a curator of the 17th century, in a statement. “The term ignores the many negative sides of the 17th century such as poverty, war, forced labor, and human trafficking.”

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.