Netherlands set to formally apologise for 250 years of slavery

The apology is expected to redress how the Dutch exploited more than 600,000 people.

Guests arrive for a nationally televised annual ceremony, closed to the public for coronavirus related measures, in Amsterdam
Guests arrive for an annual ceremony in Amsterdam that marks the abolition of slavery in its colonies in Suriname and the Dutch Antilles on July 1, 1863 [File: Peter Dejong/AP]

In an effort to come to terms with its colonial past, the Dutch government is expected to apologise for the Netherlands’ role in 250 years of slavery.

The formal apology is set to be issued on December 19 and is expected to redress how the Netherlands exploited more than 600,000 people who worked as slaves in its former colonies.

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But groups from former Dutch colonies like Suriname in South America have criticised the Dutch government’s whimsical timing in issuing this apology, highlighting that they were not consulted about this date and also felt the decision was made in a haphazard and hurried manner.

They would prefer the apology to be issued on July 1, 2023 – a day which marks the 150th anniversary of the Netherlands abolishing slavery in its former colonies.

But Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte told reporters in the Hague last week that a “significant moment” on this issue will take place on December 19.

Johan Roozer, of the Suriname National Committee for the Remembrance of Slavery, speaks to reporters
Johan Roozer of the Suriname National Commemoration of Slavery Remembrance Committee speaks to reporters in The Hague [File: Remko De Waal/EPA]

Johan Roozer, chairman of the Surinamese National Commemoration of Slavery Remembrance Committee told reporters last week that Rutte probably wanted to stick to this date because of the “changing political situation” in the Netherlands, with far-right Dutch political parties against the apology.

According to local media reports, the government also plans to announce a 200 million-euro ($212.8m) fund to promote more awareness about the Netherlands’ role in slavery and another 27 million euros ($28.7m) to open a slavery museum.

“All of this definitely gives a form of acknowledgement that finally the country, which is still a democratic monarchy, is ready to talk about the past. Basically, everything that the Netherlands stole from the former colonies, especially Suriname, they carried out through slavery,” Colin de Bie, 27, with Dutch and Surinamese roots, told Al Jazeera.

“While this acknowledgement is also a form of investigation to understand what exactly happened in the past, it is also important to question what the next step looking into the future will be,” he said.

“Will the government invest in the countries they stole money from? What are their plans to support all the descendants of former slaves who are still struggling?” de Bie, who is based in Amsterdam and works part-time at the Anne Frank House, asked.

“I’ve been to Suriname myself and I’ve seen how the Black community, especially the Creole people who are descendants of Dutch slavery, still suffer from the past. While this apology is the first step, the government should do more,” he added.

Dutch slave trade history

The Netherlands’ involvement in slavery began in the 17th century when the transatlantic slave trade was already being carried out by other former European colonial powers like Spain and Portugal.

Through the Dutch West India Company (WIC), the Dutch Empire began colonising large parts of land in South America and the Caribbean, and bought slaves from Africa to work on the sugar, cotton and coffee plantations of these lands.

According to a study by Leiden University, “between 1612 and 1872, the Dutch operated from some 10 fortresses along the Gold Coast (now Ghana), from which slaves were shipped across the Atlantic”.

The study also highlighted that the Dutch role in the transatlantic slave trade involved exploiting about 550,000-600,000 Africans.

Moreover, in the 18th century, today’s Suriname and Guyana also became prominent markets from where the Dutch bought slaves.

Rotterdam's Dutch Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb (R) lays a wreath of flowers during the commemoration of the abolition of slavery in Suriname and the Caribbean Netherlands, in Rotterdam
Rotterdam’s Mayor Ahmed Aboutaleb (R) lays a wreath of flowers in Rotterdam during the commemoration of the abolition of slavery in Suriname and the Caribbean Netherlands [File: Robin Utrecht/ANP/AFP]

Meanwhile, the Dutch East India Company (VOC) also began enslaving people in Asia from the 17th century.

A 2008 study by the International Institute for Asian Studies highlighted that the VOC enslaved people mainly from Arakan (today’s Rakhine state) and shipped them to Batavia, which was the capital of the VOC and is today’s Jakarta, in Indonesia.

In 1863, the Netherlands abolished slavery, becoming one of the last countries to do so. But in places like Suriname, Dutch slavery ended only in 1873 since the law ruled that a 10-year transition period was mandatory, according to Leiden University.

However, discussions about issuing an apology for Dutch slavery gained momentum after the 2020 Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, according to Dutch-Moroccan politician Salima Belhaj, from the Democrats 66 (D66) political party in the Netherlands.

“The demonstrations in the US, made everyone in the Netherlands including the Dutch government realise that the country has not yet addressed its dark colonial history, which has transitioned into present-day racism in the country. That’s when I decided that it was important to start a political dialogue on apologising for the Netherlands’ role in slavery,” Belhaj told Al Jazeera.

Klaas Knot (L), president of the De Nederlandsche Bank, attends a ceremony at the National Monument to Slavery Past, during the national commemoration of the Dutch slavery past in Amsterdam
Klaas Knot (L), president of the De Nederlandsche Bank, attends a ceremony at the National Monument to Slavery in Amsterdam [File: Koen Van Weel/EPA]

“We began inviting people from former Dutch colonies like Suriname, and gave them a platform to share their past and present experiences,” she added.

“Many of these people felt like this was the first time that the Dutch parliament was actually keen to hear their stories. They shared stories of their parents, their grandparents and their views on redressing the Netherlands’ past actions.”

Belhaj, together with a few other Dutch politicians, also went on a trip to visit Suriname, Curacao and Bonaire, to understand what people had experienced during Dutch colonial rule and what an apology would mean to them.

Good starting point

After this trip, in October this year, the Dutch parliament supported the decision to issue a formal apology.

Meanwhile, Dutch cities like Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague as well as the De Nederlandsche Bank also issued apologies for their role in benefitting from slavery.

“I think this is a good starting point because since the parliament issued its decision, we’ve had a lot of conversations with people against the decision and those favouring it. This is common in politics and society,” Belhaj said.

“But next year will be important because after this apology, the government will hold a lot of events and ceremonies in order to continue the conversation about colonialism,” she added.

A statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, Dutch governor-general in the Dutch East Indies in the 17th century, on the Roode Steen in Hoorn, The Netherlands
A statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, Dutch governor-general in the Dutch East Indies in the 17th century, on the Roode Steen in Hoorn [File: Koen Van Weel/EPA]

While the Dutch government and royal family have issued statements about their plans of apologising for slavery and investigating their colonial past respectively, de Bie highlighted that Dutch people have not been educated properly about the country’s colonial history and slavery.

“It was basically a few pages in our books where there was information about Dutch colonialism in Indonesia and a few lines about slave trade in Suriname, Curacao, Aruba and other islands. Education was very Eurocentric and didn’t dig deep into colonialism,” de Bie told Al Jazeera.

‘Black Pete’

He added that discussions about slavery became more frequent when debates about cancelling “Zwarte (Black) Pete” – the controversial Dutch tradition where children and adults paint their faces with black paint during the December holiday of Sinterklaas – began.

Esmée Stek, 25, based in Utrecht and studying global criminology, shared a similar view.

“I also have Dutch-Surinamese roots and I feel many people who didn’t study history in school are also not aware about the country’s past,” she said.

“In the Dutch education system, there are three levels of education and based on the level, students can choose subjects and courses. So those who opted out of history lessons aren’t well versed in the country’s colonial history,” Stek told Al Jazeera.

“Right now, I feel some Dutch people are also confused about why this apology is being issued because of lack of knowledge. Others feel that since this happened in the past, the blood isn’t really on their hands, so an apology isn’t their responsibility. But you can’t turn a blind eye because understanding the past can help tackle present-day racism in the country,” she added.

‘Tolerant’ place

Racism continues to affect people of colour and from minority backgrounds in the Netherlands.

In a 2020 interview with Dutch newspaper Het Parool, United Nations rapporteur on racism Tendayi Achiume said that this continuous discrimination exists because the Dutch still think their country is a “tolerant” place.

She highlighted that the country’s education system should pay more attention to the Netherlands’ colonial past.

Dutch politician Belhaj said the government has begun remedying the education system.

“Children today are being told a lot more about what happened in the past compared to what I was taught. We are also focusing on broadcasting more television programmes which educate young people about Dutch and European colonialism. Processes have begun but the impact will take time,” Belhaj said.

Pathway forward

While the official apology which the Dutch government is poised to issue next week remains contentious with pressure from the far-right and groups from former colonies continuing to push for an apology next year, de Bie hopes just these discussions will steer a change in mindset in the Netherlands.

“After the apology, I would love to see the prime minister actually willing to do something to help descendants of the enslaved. That would really send a message that the Netherlands has changed and really wants to make amends,” he said.

Belhaj also added that this moment of apologising would be an important moment in Dutch politics.

“It would portray that the Netherlands is truly an adult democracy, and is capable of embracing and addressing the dark parts of its history. That is significant,” she said.

The National Monument to Slavery stands in the Oosterpark in Amsterdam
The National Monument to Slavery stands in the Oosterpark in Amsterdam [File: Remko de Waal/EPA]
Source: Al Jazeera