During the daytime they lie in their hammocks in front of the huts that they built themselves for the exhibition, and at night they sleep in hard Dutch bunkbeds. This is the strange life of a group of Surinamese people, ‘as mixed as possible’, during the International Colonial and Export Exhibition, which attracted over a million visitors to Amsterdam’s Museumplein in the summer of 1883.
Historical author Arend van Dam, who has written around one hundred books, mostly educational titles, has been astounded by this story for as long as he can remember. For this book, he researched the life of one of the participants in the exhibition: the 60-year-old former plantation slave Syntax Bosselman. Ten years after the abolition of slavery, at the invitation of one of the exhibition’s organizers, he went to the Netherlands to put himself on display.
As Van Dam tells the story of this man, he also talks about the general history of slavery. As well as a piece of historical research that is explained clearly to children, this has also become a personal story for the author. A story about the shame of a man with a multicultural upbringing who finds it very difficult to write outdated and denigrating Dutch terms such as ‘Hottentotten’, ‘kaffers’ and ‘bosnegers’. In the book, he wonders: ‘Are those quotation marks at the beginning and the end enough to make sure no one is hurt?’
It is his personal involvement and self-examination that are the strength of this layered history book. Crafting stories around the often scant historical facts is his calling. But when writing this book, the author felt an increasing need to put all his cards on the table and to explain how to make a book like this and also the effect that the process has on the author, while making it clear that, as a writer, you can’t always stay on the side-lines.
The result is a history book for children that can be read in different ways. By taking this approach, Van Dam magnificently transcends his usual more one-dimensional work. De reis van Syntax Bosselman (The Journey of Syntax Bosselman) is a fine children’s book about a sensitive subject, and one that everyone should read.