‘Hidden in plain sight’: the European city tours of slavery and colonialism

<span>A tour group passes a replica of a colonial Dutch East India Company ship moored in Amsterdam’s Oosterdok.</span><span>Composite: Alamy/Jennifer Tosch</span>
A tour group passes a replica of a colonial Dutch East India Company ship moored in Amsterdam’s Oosterdok.Composite: Alamy/Jennifer Tosch

Dodging between throngs of tourists and workers on their lunch breaks in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol plaza, we stop in front of the nearly 3-tonne statue depicting King Carlos III on a horse. Playfully nicknamed Madrid’s best mayor, Carlos III is credited with modernising the city’s lighting, sewage systems and rubbish removal.

Kwame Ondo, the tour guide behind AfroIbérica Tours, offers up another, albeit lesser-known tidbit about the monarch. “He was one of the biggest slave owners of his time,” says Ondo, citing the 1,500 enslaved people he kept on the Iberian peninsula and the 18,500 others held in Spain’s colonies in the Americas. As aristocratic families sought to keep up with the monarch, the proportion of enslaved people in Madrid swelled to an estimated 4% of the population in the 1780s.

It is a nod to the kind of conversation – one often neglected or wilfully ignored across the continent – that Ondo and his counterparts in Europe are steadily wedging into everyday life. From Barcelona to Brussels, London to Lisbon, a cohort of guides has trained its lens on Black and African history, laying bare how the continent has been shaped by colonialism and slavery as they reshape the stories that Europe tells about itself. While California debates reparation bills aimed at compensating for generations of discriminatory policies, and the UK takes down tributes to slave traders and colonialists, similar conversations have been conspicuously absent across much of the continent.

“We’re not lifting up anyone’s mattresses,” says Ondo. “This is history hidden in plain sight.”

It is a statement that in some ways mirrors his own life. Born in Equatorial Guinea – the last Spanish colony to claim independence, in 1968 – he grew up in southern Spain, steeped in the culture of a former empire that had long ceased to remember its actions in what has been dubbed the “forgotten colony” of Spain.

Ondo and his family’s existence in Spain, however, acted as a powerful counter to this forgetting. “It was a conscious decision by European powers to disconnect themselves from the history,” says Ondo. “But history comes back to you.”

Eleven hundred miles away, the sentiment is echoed by Jennifer Tosch, who launched Black Heritage Tours in Amsterdam in 2013. The previous year, Tosch had arrived in the country as an international student from the US with a singular Dutch connection; with family roots that trace back to Suriname, she had family who had been living in the Netherlands for four generations.

Her attempts to explore this connection were futile – the result of what she describes as “wilful forgetting” or “colonial amnesia” – and convinced her of the need to bring the city’s hidden histories to the masses.

“Imagine me sitting here in courses, being told that your history wasn’t included, that you didn’t matter,” she says. “That there was nothing here for you to see that would bring you closer to an understanding about your past. It just didn’t sit right.”

As she geared up to tour visitors and locals past the gable stones that include the image of a servile, Black child and the dark-skinned figureheads with exaggerated features once used to signal pharmacies, the idea was initially met with scepticism by Dutch people of colour.

“Like: ‘No, no, there was no Black history here; no, there was no Black presence until much later’,” she says. “So questioning the notions of belonging and citizenship and identity were interwoven with my mission to prove that we belong here. And that our stories matter.”

Eleven years on, the conversation around Black history and colonialism in the Netherlands has shifted. In 2023, King Willem-Alexander apologised for his country’s role in slavery but stopped short of heeding demands for reparations, despite research suggesting his ancestors had earned the modern-day equivalent of €545m (£466m) from slavery.

The apology was a “pretty watershed moment”, says Tosch, albeit one that was carefully timed to dovetail with the growing attention being paid to this history. In other words, it was more a credit to the crucial work many had been doing to uncover the history than any royal initiative, she says.

In Berlin, this kind of shift feels a long way off, says Justice Mvemba, who founded Decolonial Tours in 2022.

The locals who take her tours are often surprised to find out that Germany’s colonial empire once ranked as the third largest in Europe. “They’ve never learned anything about Germany’s colonial past, some don’t even know that the Berlin conference happened in Berlin,” she says, citing the 1884-85 gathering in which European imperial powers wrangled for control of Africa. “I think it is also shocking to them how those colonial continuities just live among us.”

Mvemba, who was born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and raised in Germany, points to a potent example: Berlin’s African quarter, conceived in the late 19th century as a place where the city could host a permanent zoo that would exhibit both wild animals and humans in order to celebrate Germany’s colonial project.

While the zoo never came about, echoes of it resurfaced more than 100 years later, when a zoo in Bavaria sought to attract visitors by creating an “African village” that included performers and artisans.

The initiative went ahead despite widespread protests by anti-discrimination groups, Mvemba says, hinting at how Germany – a country often lauded for its efforts to deal with its more-recent past – had failed to meaningfully reckon with its history of colonialism. “So really, these tours are about making people reflect and realise that we are still living those colonial biases or reproducing them,” she says.

These efforts to connect the dots between the past and present come at a critical time for the continent, says Julia Browne. In 1994, she launched Walking the Spirit Tours, leading locals and visitors to Paris through the histories of those who had enabled slavery and confronted colonialism.

“It opens another chapter in the book of exploring French history – and European as well – and facing the facts, bringing it right out in front so that people can’t deny it,” she says. “And especially at this time, when the right wing is on the rise, the voices just have to keep getting stronger and stronger.”

In countries such as Italy, the Netherlands and Portugal, far-right parties have broken through to become key players in politics. In France and Germany, nativist parties are climbing steadily up the polls, pulling mainstream parties to the right as they compete for the attention of voters.

“They have a certain rhetoric and narration that creates fear in people, creates fear of what used to be called ‘the other’. And it gives the sense that people don’t belong if they’re not of European origin,” she says. “But it’s important for the other side to be heard, that, no, this is not the truth.”

She points to Place de la Concorde, set to be showcased to the world this summer during the Olympic Games. “But what else is there? There’s a place called Hôtel de la Marine. It’s a gorgeous building that’s been renovated, but it was in there that the system of slavery and colonialism was managed,” she says, describing it as an “administrative headquarters” for the country’s colonial empire before it was written into history as the location where the decree abolishing slavery in the colonies was signed in 1848.

Nearby, is the Tuileries Garden. “It was there that slavery in the colonies was first abolished by the National Convention, but also re-established by Napoleon,” says Browne. “If you’re a person of colour, or have origins in the islands or origins in colonial Africa, these places are part of your history.”

In Madrid, Ondo’s walking tour begins to wrap up after crossing a crowded plaza where people were once sold to the highest bidder and visiting a church teeming with tourists seemingly oblivious to the symbols linked to enslavement carved into its stone walls.

His last stop, however, is at a changing roster of African restaurants in the city centre. It’s an ending with a dual purpose: showcasing the vibrant clutch of restaurants, including Senegalese and Equatorial Guinean, that have sprung up in recent years, and reinforcing how the stories of the past continue to colour life in Madrid today.

“All this is not really a thing of the past, it’s a thing that is still going on at the moment,” he says, pointing to the power that continues to be wielded by those whose families profited from slavery, to the companies that have supplanted colonial empires in extracting resources from the global south, and the EU’s crackdown on those risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean in small boats.

“It’s a never-ending process,” Ondo says. “It’s a transformation of the same issues of 200 years ago. Projects like mine and many others kind of open up a conversation about these things.”