Dutch PM apologises for Netherlands’ role in slave trade

Mark Rutte says Dutch state ‘enabled, encouraged and profited from slavery’ for centuries

Mark Rutte has offered a formal apology on behalf of the Dutch state for the Netherlands’ historical role in the slave trade, saying slavery must be recognised in “the clearest terms” as a crime against humanity.

In a speech at the national archives in The Hague, the Dutch prime minister acknowledged the past “cannot be erased, only faced up to”. But for centuries, he said, the Dutch state had “enabled, encouraged and profited from slavery”.

People were “commodified, exploited and traded in the name of the Dutch state”, he said, adding: “It is true nobody alive today bears any personal guilt for slavery … But the Dutch state bears responsibility for the immense suffering of those who were enslaved, and their descendants. Today, on behalf of the Dutch government, I apologise for the past actions of the Dutch state.”

Rutte’s words were due to be echoed by Dutch ministers who had travelled to seven former colonies in South America and the Caribbean that suffered untold misery during the 250 years of the slave trade that helped fund the Netherlands’ economic and cultural “golden age”.

The move followed the conclusions of a national advisory panel set up after the 2020 killing of George Floyd in the US, which said Dutch participation in slavery had been a crime against humanity deserving of a formal apology and financial reparations. The government has ruled out reparations, but will set up a €200m educational fund.

Its formal apology, however, has caused considerable controversy, with descendants’ groups and some of the countries affected criticising it as rushed and arguing that the lack of consultation from the Netherlands showed colonial attitudes still persisted.

Campaigners have said an apology should instead come from the Dutch king, Willem-Alexander, and be made in the former colony of Suriname, on 1 July next year, the 150th anniversary of the end of slavery there. Rutte said choosing the right moment was a “complicated matter” and there was “not one right time for everyone”.

Slavery was formally abolished in all Dutch overseas territories on 1 July 1863, making the Netherlands one of the last countries to outlaw the practice, but it took a further decade to end in Suriname because of a mandatory 10-year transition period.

The prime minister of the Dutch Caribbean territory of Sint Maarten, Silveria Jacobs, told Dutch media at the weekend that the island would not accept any government apology “until our advisory committee has discussed it and we as a country discussed it”.

A Sint Maarten activist, Rhoda Arrindell, said: “We’ve been waiting for a few hundred years for true reparatory justice. We believe that we can wait a little further.”

Roy Kaikusi Groenberg of the Honour and Recovery Foundation, a Dutch Afro-Surinamese organisation, said there had not been enough consultation with descendants, describing the government’s handling of the issue as a “neocolonial belch.”

The Netherlands has taken time to address its colonial past, adding the history of Dutch slavery to the school curriculum only in 2006. “There is a sector in society that really clings to colonial pride,” said Karwan Fatah-Black, of the University of Leiden.

Historians estimate that at the height of its 16th- to 17th-century empire, Dutch traders shipped up to 600,000 enslaved Africans to South American and Caribbean colonies such as Suriname and Curaçao, and as many or more to South Africa and East India, modern-day Indonesia.

Dutch cabinet ministers were in Suriname, Bonaire, Sint Maarten, Aruba, Curaçao, Saba, and Sint Eustatius to “discuss the cabinet response and its significance on location with those present” after Rutte’s speech, the government said.

The first major Dutch foray into slavery was in 1634, when an initial 1,000 people were abducted from the Gold Coast – today’s Ghana – to Brazil by the Dutch West India Company to work on its plantations.

The Caribbean island of Curaçao, captured the same year, became a slave-trading hub and in 1667 the Dutch seized Suriname, on the north-east coast of South America, turning it into a plantation colony heavily dependent on slave labour from Africa.

In the Indian Ocean and Asia the Dutch East India Company brought enslaved people mainly to Cape Town from modern-day Madagascar, and to modern-day Indonesia from the Indian subcontinent.

At its height in the 1770s, historians have calculated slavery accounted for more than 10% of the gross domestic product of Holland, the richest of the seven Dutch provinces that made up the then United Provinces of the Netherlands.

Dutch cities including Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht have apologised for their roles in the slave trade and the government had previously expressed “deep regret” but stopped short of a formal apology.

Rutte said on Monday that the year from next July would be a slavery memorial year in which the country would “reflect on this painful history”.

The Dutch prime minister’s remarks follow Denmark’s 2018 apology to Ghana, which it colonised from the mid-17th to the mid-19th century, and King Philippe of Belgium’s “deepest regrets” for abuses in Congo, expressed in June this year.

MPs in Belgium failed, however, to reach a consensus on Monday on how to formulate an apology for the notoriously bloody excesses of the country’s rule in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.

They had been due to meet to approve 128 recommendations from a commission set up to examine Belgium’s record in its former central African colonies, but in the end none went to a vote. The left said their liberal coalition partners had refused to approve a report including an apology.


Jon Henley Europe correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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