Dutch wrestle with national apology for 250 years of slavery

The Netherlands is expected to formally apologise for its role in 250 years of slavery but the planned move is threatening to cause a split in the country, with some critics calling it “complete nonsense”.

The prime minister, Mark Rutte, will deliver a public message on 19 December that will aim to “do justice to the meaning and experience of past slavery”, according to a parliamentary briefing. It is widely anticipated that this will be an apology for the 250 years in which the Dutch funded an economic and cultural “Golden Age” by exploiting more than 600,000 people from Africa and Asia – about 5% of the 12 million enslaved by Europeans from the 17th to the 19th century. According to broadcaster NOS, plans include €200m for awareness projects and €27m for a slavery museum.

However, groups including the Nationale Reparatie Commissie in Suriname, which was colonised by the Dutch, have already protested that the Netherlands is proceeding in a “hasty and tarnished” way, with a lack of consultation that some believe has echoes of colonialism.

Yet pressure has been growing for national government action. In October, a parliamentary majority supported making an official apology after a working group reported on a research trip to Suriname, Curaçao and Bonaire. In the past 18 months, the mayors of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague, as well as the management of De Nederlandsche Bank, have apologised for their institutions’ role in, and enrichment from, slavery.

Don Ceder, an MP for the ChristenUnie party who was on the trip, is a leading advocate for action. “An apology is important for the Netherlands as a society in our attempts to combat division and polarisation within a multicultural society,” he said. “It’s hard to believe for some, but my recent visit showed me that the slave trade and the economy that was built in the former colonies still affects these countries till this day.”

Since research shows that 70% of the African-Caribbean community in the Netherlands, which mostly consists of descendants of the enslaved, considers an apology important, he said, “the persistent [absence] of an apology by the Dutch government has had more disruptive consequences for reconciliation than people seem to realise”.

Sharon Dijksma, mayor of Utrecht, said it would be an important recognition that the elites of former times had wrongfully profited from a trade with lasting effects. “For descendants of enslaved people, this is something that still has impact in their daily lives right now,” she said. “It is important to realise that, of course, Utrechters today were not involved and are not responsible for what our ancestors did wrong in the past. But that doesn’t mean you cannot take up the role of actually saying sorry, recognising that what happened historically was wrong and a crime against humanity.”

Linda Nooitmeer, chair of NiNsee, the Dutch institute for the study of slavery, said an apology was welcome, but was only the start in addressing inequality, investing in fair chances for ethnic minorities and disadvantaged communities.

“Monuments, research – but also apologies – should not be the ‘mirrors and crystals’ of the 21st century,” she said. “During the slave period, people were bought with mirrors and crystals. Even when apologies are made at the highest level, people have to live the apology and know what it means. We have to deal with views on people of African descent today.”

The Netherlands has been struggling with reports of systematic racism in its police force, and in 2020, the then UN rapporteur on racism, Tendayi Achiume, said that a self-image of “tolerance” was blocking the tackling of discrimination. Earlier this year, deputy finance minister Marnix van Rij admitted there was institutional racism in the Dutch tax office, after tens of thousands of parents, often dual nationals, were falsely accused of childcare benefits fraud.

Every year, there are aggressive protests supporting some towns that still black up Zwarte Piet clowns in children’s St Nicholas celebrations. On average, people with migrant origins have smaller houses, lower educational levels and incomes, and worse health, according to a report last week by Statistics Netherlands. An apology for slavery is a contentious topic, however, and in July 2020, Rutte said it would “only have a polarising effect”. Almost half of the Dutch do not support apologising, and 38% do, according to pollsters I&O.

“Support among people in the Netherlands without a recent history of migration has gone up,” said I&O researcher Asher van der Schelde. “Most people with migrant roots already supported an apology. People who are for an apology say we must recognise historical fact, and some say it can be helpful to the descendants of enslaved people. People who are against say it is a long time ago, it doesn’t matter, it’s about another generation. I think the fear is that if you offer an apology, you suddenly have to pay compensation.”

It is vital to listen to opinions in communities affected by slavery, according to a historian of Suriname at the University of Amsterdam, Rosemarijn Höfte. “The king really needs a role,” she said. “The king apologised in Indonesia for excessive violence in colonial times and said he was aware that this has an effect on many generations. Why would the Caribbean be any different? If you want to do this right … it needs to be with ceremonies. It is very emotional and you need to do this together.”

Some believe the Dutch – one of the last western nations to abolish slavery, on 1 July 1863 – may set a precedent for the UK after both King Charles III and the Prince of Wales expressed “personal” and “profound” sorrow in speeches in Rwanda and Jamaica earlier this year.

But others believe an apology is cheap gesture politics. The historian Maarten van Rossem said: “It is hugely trendy nowadays to make apologies for appalling things that happened in the past. I think it is complete nonsense to offer apologies for things you are not guilty of doing. If we have to say sorry for slavery, then so ought all western governments that were involved. Should France apologise for the occupation of the Netherlands at the end of the 18th century? Should the Americans apologise for pretty much everything?

“It’s a pointless process. Spend the money on doing something about appalling situations today, like forced labour or discrimination, rather than saying sorry for something that happened 11 generations ago.”

But Nooitmeer believes both actions and words are valuable. “When it was clear slavery would be abolished in Suriname, the enslaved had to change their names,” she said. “One ancestor on my father’s side six generations ago decided to give the family the name Nooitmeer. Nooit meer slavernij. Never again.”

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