Henk van Benthem: The origin of Zwarte Piet

The origin and status of the character of Zwarte Piet have never been properly established. He could be based on the Saracen valet of Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe, writes Henk van Benthum


The Sinterklaas celebration is changing. The role of Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) has been controversial for some time. It’s not that Sinterklaas couldn’t do the job without him, it’s just that without Piet the bishop would end up a lonely old man, like Santa  with his sled and reindeers. Zwarte Piet looks too much like an African slave, however, and that is something we should no longer tolerate.

But is that what he originally was? In spite of all the papers written on the subject, we don’t really have much to go on.

The writers of the children’s books of a century ago fantasised to their hearts’ content: Piet is from India, he is from Rome, from Ethiopia or Mexico. Forays into the folklore surrounding bogey men, pères Fouettard and Friesian incarnations of Sinterklaas don’t bring us any closer to the origins of our Zwarte Piet either, nor do Moortje (lit: ‘Blackamoor’, the name of a negro slave in a 17th century work by G.A. Bredero, DN) and the black servants of the 16th and 17th century upper crust.

Sinterklaas and his servant

Let’s go back to the source. On December 2, 1850, Amsterdam schoolmaster Jan Schenkman and his publisher G. Theod. Bom, published a little book called Sinterklaas and his servant, a collection of 16 illustrated verses that could all be sung to the same tune.

In it a black servant makes his appearance. Not only has Sinterklaas acquired a servant, his character has undergone some changes as well. There’s humour, there’s poems and pictures, there is a commercial element and the fashion of the time also shines through: Sinterklaas himself goes shopping, accompanied by his oriental servant.

Schenkman himself did not have a clue where Sinterklaas came from. He gave his imagination free reign. In the last of the sixteen poems Sinterklaas even ascends to heaven, something which didn’t go down well with the blasphemy conscious Dutch at the time. Five years later, in the second edition, Sinterklaas simply departs by train.


But where did he go? An old folk song offers a clue: ‘Sinter Kloas, goot heilig man,..Gank oet rije, nao die Pikkardiên.’ Is he from Picardy, or Cockaigne (Land of plenty) or the Near East? There is a popular 19th century print in which Sinterklaas is depicted wearing a helmet with a Byzantine cross, the cross of the knights templar.

Preachers De Gènestet and Van Schaick, in their Sinterklaas writings of the 1940s, refer to ‘Spain’ as the new name for his vague and mysterious birthplace. Jan Schenkman puts an end to the uncertainty and establishes a firm and enduring link between Sinterklaas and the Iberian peninsula with his song ‘Zie ginds komt de stoomboot, uit Spanje. (Here comes the steamer from Spain).

Where did Schenkman dig up a servant? There a several theories. In 1824 Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe was translated into Dutch by W.L.H. Köster Henke. The second edition was published in 1833. Schenkman was 27 at the time.

In Ivanhoe, a knight templar returns from Palestine. In his retinue are two black Saracen servants. Scott describes them as wearing richly embroidered oriental garb and silver chains around their bare arms and legs as a manifestation of their master’s wealth.

Later, when the servants have to help torture a banker they divest themselves of their splendour and don a gambeson (padded jacket) and trousers made from coarse linen.

The parallels are clear: Schenkman thought the status of Sinterklaas would benefit from an oriental servant. He doesn’t present him in his magnificent clothes but in his work clothes. Orientalism was fashionable. The Thousand and one Nights was written in Paris at the beginning of the 19th century, Mozart’s The abduction from the Seraglio in 1782.


Sinterklaas’ mode of transport, his white horse, was introduced at a later stage. It is also described by Scott, as being Saracen in origin and so of Arabian descent. The grace and elegance of the breed is compared favourably with the heavily built Flemish warhorses.

Ivanhoe was tremendously popular. There were many translations, adaptations and plays as well as Ivanhoe parties where the women dressed as Lady Rowena or Rebecca and the men as Bois-Guilbert, Cedric or Ivanhoe himself.

People were humming Schubert’s romance from Ivanhoe, opus 86. It looks as if Schenkman modelled his black servant on Ivanhoe’s Saracen servants and made him just as exotic and dependable.

Unfortunately this image very quickly changed. In the second edition of the book the servant has been turned into a young boy who is made to look a like a black slave, merchandise from the other side of the ocean, sporting a page suit (knee breeches and tights), earrings and big lips. Schenkman died in 1863, the year slavery was abolished in the Netherlands.

Henk van Benthem is a musician and an expert on Sinterklaas

This article was published earlier in the Volkskrant

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