The Netherlands’ apology for its legacy of colonial slavery exposes divisions in Dutch society | International
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte delivers a speech at the National Archives in The Hague, December 19, 2022, in which he apologizes on behalf of the government for the country’s slave-owning past. ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN (EFE)
December 19, 2022 has become a historic date for the Netherlands. On that day, Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologized for the first time on behalf of the Dutch government “for the role played by the state in the past in trade and exploitation of people during the 250-year Dutch colonial period”. Rutte also used the language of international justice to describe slavery as a “crime against humanity” committed by the Netherlands in Suriname (South America) and the former Netherlands Antilles (Caribbean). He also mentioned the country’s harsh colonial rule by Indonesia. The speech was universally praised, largely because Rutte had previously refused to apologize for something “that today you can’t blame anyone for.” However, his words did little to defuse internal tensions, nor did they placate the descendants of slaves in Suriname, who wanted the apology to be served on July 1, 2023, the 150th anniversary of emancipation in that country.
Much needs to be done to completely eliminate discrimination against the descendants of slaves, according to a November 2022 public opinion poll commissioned jointly by newspaper Trouw and public TV broadcaster NOS. The poll found that only 38% of respondents were in favor of asking for forgiveness. In January 2021, a similar poll showed that only 31% thought it was a good idea. As the numbers rise, “the poll shows the ethnic divide in Dutch society,” said historian Pepijn Brandon. Brandon, University Professor of History at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, said: “A large majority of Afro-Dutch people wanted the apology, as did other citizens of non-Western origin, but only a minority of white citizens supported it.”
Brandon said: “The Netherlands is at odds with its colonial past, as are other European countries. There’s a lot of debate about accepting that colonization is a central part of our history.” The Dutch and other Europeans prefer to remember what made them great nations, says Brandon, so “they focus the national discourse on that Trade that led to freedom, tolerance and wealth” for the Netherlands. But the colonial conquests and slavery are only “mentioned in school books as an unfortunate detail of the main story … It was portrayed as something gone wrong, when in fact colonial violence is an integral part of how the Dutch got rich,” Brandon said.
The influence of the past on the present
The Keti Koti Table is all about bringing the past into the present. Founded by Dutch activist Mercedes Zandwijken and her husband Machiel Keestra, a philosopher and Head of Diversity at the University of Amsterdam, the Keti Koti Table brings together black and white Dutch citizens to reflect on centuries of colonialism, international trade and the contemplating slavery in their nation. Keti Koti means “break the chains” in the Surinamese language and commemorates the emancipation of slaves in this country. Although the abolition was officially declared in 1863, the plantation owners received compensation for each freed slave who then had to work for another 10 years in cruel conditions for miserable wages. For Suriname, 160 years have passed since abolition and 150 years since emancipation.
The slavery exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in May 2021 featured various stocks used to immobilize slaves in the colonial era. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD (AFP)
Zandwijken and Keestra met with the prime minister and other groups ahead of Rutte’s December 19 speech, but criticize the lack of dialogue with the Afro-Dutch community ahead of such a big speech. “We have been promoting dialogue about racism and systemic racism for a decade,” they told EL PAÍS, preferring the government to be less hasty. They believe that “a national dialogue is needed to convince more citizens of the value of apologies” and have received assurances from the government that they will work together to develop a program to bring about this transformation.
While Zandwijken and Keestra’s work has gained momentum through the Black Lives Matter movement, they are concerned at the far-right’s rejection of the government’s apology initiative and warn of the dangers of ignoring these voters. “It’s entirely possible that Rutte was in a hurry to avoid further rejections,” they said. “He has not spoken about financial compensation, and some conservative voices in his own party opposed the €200 million educational program on our colonial past.” They mention Belgium’s interruption of a similar process “because of possible financial demands”. Since slavery is synonymous with injustice, historian Pepijn Brandon points out that “far-right political parties are not trying to deny slavery, but instead rationalize it and say there are other terrible things we should also focus on.” .
The ties of the Dutch royal family to slavery
In his speech, the Dutch Prime Minister asked forgiveness in particular for Suriname and the former Dutch colonies in the Caribbean, but also referred to Asia several times. It’s a lesser-known part of the nation’s colonial history than the Atlantean plantation system, so closely linked to slavery. “Slaves also existed in Asia, but while the descendants of African slaves have been demanding an official gesture for years, there has been no similar movement in Indonesia today. Slavery is not a central part of our national consciousness of this colony.” King Willem-Alexander recently ordered an independent investigation into the Dutch royal family’s (House of Orange-Nassau) ties to slavery
a further investigation to identify objects with a colonial background in the royal collections. “This research suggests that the king will make some sort of gesture in the future because the House of Orange was directly responsible for colonial policy,” Brandon said.
Brandon, Zandwijken and Keestra all agree on how poorly the country’s colonial history is taught in schools. Perhaps that’s why the 2021 slavery exhibition at the Rijksmuseum – the national museum in Amsterdam dedicated to Dutch art and history – was so well received. Museum director Taco Dibbits said: “This is a part of our past that many still feel today. And the Rijksmuseum plays an important role in developing critical thinking among schoolchildren.” Dibbits stressed: “We are not activists, but we need to address crucial historical issues in order to stimulate people to think and form opinions. Only then can we tell the whole story and move forward together.” The museum’s collection includes one million works of art with an estimated 4,500 objects related to colonialism. What happens to these objects? “A restitution commission has been formed and we are also working with a consortium of museums and institutions to ensure transparency about the provenance of our collections,” Dibbits said.
This collaborative consortium includes institutions from the different countries of origin of some of the pieces, and Dibbits considers it very important “to initiate a dialogue without preconceived positions, so that we can find solutions together”. He believes they must decide “where these objects can best tell their stories and where they are best displayed, namely in the countries where they were produced… As a national museum, we need to integrate different perspectives into a unified history of the.” integrate country. In February, part of the Dutch Slavery exhibit will be on view at the United Nations Headquarters in New York City. Dibbits told us the UN requested the exhibition because of “the global nature of colonial exploitation of people.”