History of Black Pete

Important Note before reading: 

On October 26th, 2016 the Saint and Petes guild released an article that proves beyond doubt that the origin of the figure Black Pete can be traced back to the black and masked noble clauses that were found in the Netherlands well before 1850. Please read, before you proceed, the article “Black Claus is Black Pete”.

History of Black Pete

There is a widespread myth that before the year 1850, so just over 150 years ago, Black Pete did not exist in the Netherlands. However, there are a multitude of sources, that describe black or masked Clauses and other devilish creatures with masks or black faces well before this date.  Primary source of this misconception seems to be the release of a book titled “Saint Nicholas and his servant” by Jan Schenkman in Amsterdam around 1850. Schenkman was a teacher and it is assumed he adapted the age-old Saint Nicolas story to make it more suitable for small children. In his book a nameless servant is introduced, a dark (Indian, African or even Oriental) youngster. Like the Saint himself this servant rides a steed in the book. Some critics suggest a relation between this figure and dark pages and interpret it as the origin of Black Pete. However, in addition to the historical evidence on pre Schenkman Black Petes, there are many photos from across the Netherlands featuring Black Petes with a clearly different attire than the one described by Schenkman. An overview of these can be found here. Also, until the 50’s of last century Black Pete was known under many old names that varied regionally, although, the name “Pieterbaas” or short Pete has also been in use for a very long time. 


 It is important to not only consider literature but also take masquerades in parades on the streets into the equation. In these parades, older versions of Black Pete alongside Black Noble Clauses, Popanz and other devilish creatures survived for a long time. 

From an historical view, the current Black Pete can simply not be dated back to the Schenkman book, as is illustrated in great detail in the article referred above: “Black Claus is Black Pete”. Research points to a development of Black Pete into a dark servant originating from the figures historically known as black and masked Clauses. This heritage has greatly influenced Black Pete’s attire and appearance. A comparison to or worse assuming a relation with the US blackface tradition is out of scope, as Black Pete is much older and does not even represent a real person.  Interpreting ancient European traditions in the context of recent blackface habits and debate in the US does not lead to a sensible discussion.

Please follow this link for a picture of Black Pete (locally known as Sjaak Sjoer) dated 1900-1910 from Brabant.


The dead horse from W.Mets “Saint Nicolas tales”, 1895

The text of the famous Song “Zie ginds komt de stoomboot” is from “Saint-Nicolas and his servant”of which two versions are known.

Follow this link to the version of “Saint Nicolas and his servant” in the royal library

Follow this link for the 1850 version of Bom of “Saint-Nicolas and his servant”

Follow this link for the SlideShare of the 1850 version of Bom of “Saint-Nicolas and his servant”

In view of all, sometimes recently recovered, evidence, the conclusion that Black Pete is not an invention of Schenkman is unavoidable. The figure we know today is an evolution of a far older tradition, of which important characteristics have been maintained even in the current day Pete.  Many of his features can verifiable not be dated back to Schenkman’s book. A simple example of this is that the book does not mention at all the use of multiple Petes which was widespread even around 1850. Also, the chain carried by Black Pete and his hunting for naughty children, so characteristic in the figures of old and last but not least his name Black Pete do not appear in the book of Schenkman. Also the use of a chimney is nowhere mentioned in the book. Yet, as commonly known, Black Petes throws peppernuts in there and make a lot of noise (geraas) in the chimney.  What applies to Pete also applies to the Saint, in real life the bishop was not always clad in the red robe described in the book, but often dressed completely in white.

All studies of the figure Black Pete point in the same direction; Black Pete is not a creation of Schenkman. Claims that the servant from Schenkmans book is the original Black Pete are delusional. There is overwhelming evidence that Black Pete descends directly from ancient black predecessors that did not suddenly disappear at the issue of this work in 1850. Documents show that the tradition even hardly changed under influence of the book. So, we can safely state that Black Pete, including his clothing, is based on traditional black figures. For a fair discussion it would be good that one takes notion of this before drawing far fetching and divisive conclusions. The use of the chain, in addition to his black face, the rod and the sack as well as many smaller details like the carrying off, of sinners to hell or Spain, are tangible remains of premodern times. The soul of the old character has been maintained remarkably unscathed, handed down by oral history from generation to generation.

Many more details on this can be found in the document “Black Claus is Black Pete”

The exact motives of Schenkman when writing his book will never be clear. Probably there were educational or even emancipatory thoughts behind this and certainly not any racist motives. In the book the servant is black, but this is completely in line with the traditional figure. The historical view on Black Pete passed down the years plays an important role in the Saint Nicolas tradition for many, a fact completely ignored by some its critics. And when the dark appearance and behaviour of the figure is interpreted in media without any reference to the Dutch and European history and worse, is marked as a racist expression, this blocks any reasonable discussion. Calling him blackface while there is no relation at all to this US custom, further deepens the divide. 

There might have been some occasional tensions around Pete, but there is no reason to completely ban the figure in all its appearances as is being done now. Lovers of the tradition are often genuinely surprised that people depict black Pete as racist. This is a very logical reaction in view of the background and historically acceptable forms of Black Pete.  It is important that these processes become more visible and are given appropriate attention so that this important festivity in the Netherlands and the figure Black Pete can be better protected.

Critics of Black Pete have created their own version of history in which the Schenkman book is the central source and the rest of history is either forgotten, not known or ignored. As shown over and over again, the Schenkman book is not the origin of Black Pete and all sources on the situation before 1850 paint a completely different picture in which there is no room for a link to black pages, slavery or alike. 

.People just following a tradition are often accused of attending a party that glorifies slavery. Where this is “proven” from an incorrect view of the history of Black Pete one can hardly be surprised people do not feel addressed at all. Likewise also the artificial linking of the blackface tradition to Black Pete does not resonate. The influence of that link is grossly overrated, it has never played any role.  The festivity, the figures of Black Pete and the many people that each year celebrate this tradition are all badly depicted in this way. The Saint Nicolas tradition is a very deeply rooted one.  There should be recognition, in the large and in the small of its true history, as ignoring it does not work, which also applies to the artificial emphasis on the colonial past and slavery. 

We should in addition realize that the reformation in the Netherlands has played a major role in the development of the Saint Nicolas tradition and his black companion, as is explained in the following paragraph. 

The reformation

During the reformation, the new protestant religion went to great straits to eradicate everything related to Roman Catholicism.  So, Saint Nicolas, a bishop and his companion were banned during this period. Interestingly to note is, that these efforts to exterminate the festivities never fully succeeded.  In a famous painting by Jan Steen the Saint and his companion themselves are absent, but their symbols are everywhere. A little girl is holding a doll of candy (taaitaai) in the form of a bishop and his companion is embodied by the rod in the boys’ shoe, shown to him by his sister. In the background we see and old woman hand waving to a person not visible to us, who probably slammed or rattled the door.

It is often claimed that mothers kept the tradition alive for their children, which might well be the way how it persisted over the centuries. Yet, during this period the Saint Nicolas celebrations were less visible though still present as shown by the work of Arnold Jan Scheer. Possibly the religious resistance to the celebrations has contributed to its persistence in the Netherlands. A form of civil disobedience against a use of the church’s authority, widely experienced as unreasonable.

The blending of the figures of Saint Nicolas and his companion

It is interesting that the heathen companion of Saint Nicolas was apparently considered even more detestable than a roman catholic Saint. Although he did not vanish totally, we find him often back in disguise in this period. Frequently he adopted a variant of the Saint’s name (examples:  Stapklas, Ruklas, Clas Bur, Hell-Niklas and Klaaskerel (Janssen) or also Klaus, Klaas (of Sinterklaas). It was also not unusual to combine the roles of companion and the Saint in a single figure. This became so common that it was often erroneously assumed that only the Saint still remained. However, the people that knew him, recognized his black face, the rod, the chain and the sack or basket. In the Netherlands there was a notion of a  “Black Saint Nicolas” known e.g. in Amsterdam and there is also a drawing  of “Black Sint Nicolas from the Veluwe”.  At a closer look we immediately identify the chain, the black face, the lengthy rod and the rather small basket assumingly filled with coal. Also, other aspects of his appearance and attire symbolise darkness. Recently such a Black Claus has also been discovered in the booklet: “De Orgelspeler” by F.H. van Leent dated 1881. There is also a Saint Nicolas poem from 1802 in which the Saint goes around with a chain and is being laughed at.  Not a treatment suitable for a Saint and much more appropriate for his companion, again an example where we must assume that this “Saint” is in fact his companion in disguise. 

In the snippets of text below it is striking that Saint Nicolas is seen as a jester. This is likely again a blending of his role with that of his black companion, which we also found in the description of the Black Clauses above, making a lot of noise (wild geraas) and hunting for naughty children.  Such celebrations have been described in various sources and explain why there was a pushback against these. However, history teaches us that they have persisted well into modern times 



Zy laggen om zint Nicolaas

Die met een ketting loopt,

En maakt een drommels groot geraas

From: Het vrolyk Catootje. S. en W. Koene, Amsterdam 1802 (2nd edition)

The black Saint Nicolas from the Veluwe: At a closer look we immediately distinguish the chain, the black face, the lengthy rod and the rather small basket assumingly filled with coal. Also, other aspects of his appearance and attire symbolise darkness. This drawing has been made by Gait Mulder van Wessinge and can be found on page 459 of “Friese volksgebruiken weerspiegeld in Europese Folklore” by D.J Van der Ven.

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Saint Nicolas is seen as a jester in the text above. This is likely again a blending of his role with that of his black companion, which we also found in the description of the Black Clauses above, making a lot of noise (wild geraas) and hunting for naughty children.


Hieronymus van Alphen

Another source is a Saint Nicolas poem from 1778 by Hiëronymus van Alphen, author of a book full of children’s rhymes, that also contains a Saint Nicolas poem. The publication date of this book is between 1778 and 1782. It might have been the case that he still chose muffled terms as the celebration of Saint Nicolas had been banned for so long. Some cues though point immediately in this direction: the use of names like Claus (for Saint Nicolas) Pete and the reference to a black man (a golliwog another kind of influence of Black Pete). This poem is also included in the book of Saint Nicolas poems by De Bas and Bijl.