Why Netherlands’ formal apology for slavery fell flat

Why Netherlands’ formal apology for slavery fell flat

Sorry really seems to be the most difficult word.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s apology on Monday for the Netherlands’ role in slavery and the slave trade, while long overdue, was not well received.

Rutte’s 20-minute speech was met with silence by the invited audience at the National Archives.

Let’s take a look at the country’s role in slavery and the slave trade, the apology itself, and how activists responded:

The role of the Netherlands in slavery

The Dutch first became involved in the transatlantic slave trade in the late 15th century.

It wasn’t until the mid-17th century that the Dutch began to play an important role – after conquering Portuguese forts along the west coast of Africa and plantations in northeastern Brazil.

acc The guard, The Dutch West India Company took the first major step in 1634 by seizing 1,000 people from the Gold Coast (Ghana) to Brazil to work on their plantations.

Curaçao, the Caribbean island, fell that same year and the Dutch conquered Suriname in 1635.

Historians say that at the height of slavery in the 1770s, the practice accounted for 10 percent of Dutch GDP.

Eventually, the Dutch West India Company became the largest transatlantic slave trader, said Karwan Fatah-Black, an expert on Dutch colonial history and an assistant professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Hundreds of thousands of people were branded and forced to work on plantations in Suriname and other colonies.

acc The New York Times, The Netherlands transported around 600,000 people across the Atlantic.

It also traded with people in Indonesia, India and South Africa under the East India Company.

That New York Times Piece found that more than a million people from the 17thth until 19th Century and that Dutch colonies such as Brazil, Indonesia and Suriname relied on the institution.

Explains why the Netherlands' formal apology for slavery failed

Slavery in Brazil by Jean-Baptiste Debret. Wikipedia

In short, the Dutch colonizers kidnapped men, women, and children and enslaved them on plantations that grew sugar, coffee, and other commodities that created wealth at the cost of misery.

Portugal was the first European country to buy slaves in West Africa with the help of the Catholic Church in the 14th century, followed by Spain.

Some experts argue that large-scale sugar production in modern-day Brazil then gave rise to the Atlantic slave trade, which transported an estimated 12 million Africans to the Caribbean and Americas over about 400 years, with at least 1 million dying en route.

Britain was among the first countries to outlaw the slave trade in 1807.

Dutch slavery lasted until 1863.

acc The guard, The Netherlands was one of the last countries to outlaw slavery.

Worse, the practice continued in Suriname due to a mandatory 10-year transition period.

Like many nations, the Netherlands has come to terms with its colonial past, with the history of Dutch slavery being introduced into the curriculum of local schools for the first time in 2006.

“There is a sector of society that really clings to colonial pride and finds it difficult to acknowledge that their beloved historical figures played a part in this story,” Fatah-Black said, referring to sailors and traders who have long been considered heroes 17th Century Dutch Golden Age, when the country was a major world power.

Rutte’s apology

“Today I apologize,” Rutte began.

Rutte apologized “for the actions of the Dutch state in the past: posthumously to all enslaved people worldwide who have suffered from these actions, to their daughters and sons and to all their descendants to the here and now.”

Rutte described how more than 600,000 African men, women and children were shipped “like cattle” by Dutch slave traders, mostly to the former colony of Suriname, and said the story was often “ugly, painful and even downright shameful”.

Rutte delivered his speech at a time when the brutal colonial history of many nations was being questioned due to the Black Lives Matter movement and the police killing of Black man George Floyd on May 25, 2020 in the US city of Minneapolis.

The Prime Minister’s speech was in response to a report released last year by a government-appointed advisory body.

Among their recommendations was the government’s apology and acknowledgment that the slave trade and slavery from the 17th century to the abolition “that took place directly or indirectly under Dutch authority were crimes against humanity”.

The report states that so-called institutional racism in the Netherlands “cannot be seen separately from centuries of slavery and colonialism and the ideas that arose in this context”.

Rutte told reporters after the speech that the government does not offer compensation to “people — grandchildren or great-grandchildren of enslaved people.”

Instead, it is setting up a €200 million fund for initiatives to help address the legacy of slavery in the Netherlands and its former colonies, and to promote education on the subject.

The report states that so-called institutional racism in the Netherlands “cannot be seen separately from centuries of slavery and colonialism and the ideas that arose in this context”.

The Netherlands are hardly alone in their apologies.

According to the BBCKing Charles III and the Prince of Wales, in separate speeches, expressed their “personal” and “deep” regret at Britain’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade.

Explains why the Netherlands' formal apology for slavery failed

King Charles III has expressed sadness at Britain’s role in slavery. AP

In 2018, Denmark apologized to Ghana, which it colonized from the mid-17th to mid-19th centuries.

In June, King Philippe of Belgium expressed his “deepest regret” for abuses in Congo. In 1992, Pope John Paul II apologized for the Church’s role in slavery.

Americans have fought emotionally charged battles over the destruction of statues of slave owners in the South.

Now the Netherlands are joining them. But the speech left activists cold and divided people.

Even before the speech, Waldo Koendjbiharie, a pensioner who was born in Suriname but lived in the Netherlands for years, said an apology is not enough.

“It’s about money. Apologies are words and words can’t buy anything,” he said.

Activists give the speech the cold shoulder

Rutte went on with the apology, although some activist groups in the Netherlands and its former colonies had urged him to wait until July 1, the anniversary of the abolition of slavery 160 years ago, and said they had not been adequately consulted beforehand to speech.

Activists regard next year as the 150th anniversary because many enslaved people were forced to work on plantations for a decade after abolition.

Mitchell Esajas, director of an organization called The Black Archives and a member of the Black Manifesto activist group, did not attend the speech despite being invited, citing the “almost insulting” lack of consultation with the black community.

He said it was a historic moment but lamented the lack of a concrete plan for redress.

“Reparation was not even mentioned,” Esajas said. “So, fine words, but it’s not clear what the next concrete steps will be.”

“For many people it’s a very beautiful and historic moment, but with – in Dutch we say – a bitter aftertaste… and it should have been a historic moment with a sweet aftertaste,” said Esajas.

In Suriname, the small South American country where Dutch plantation owners made huge profits by using enslaved labor, the main opposition party, the NDP, condemned the Dutch government for not adequately consulting the descendants of enslaved people in the country.

Activists across the country say what is really needed is compensation.

“The NDP therefore expresses its disapproval of this unilateral decision-making process and notes that the Netherlands is comfortably resuming the role of mother country,” the party said in a statement.

The divided Netherlands fights with racism

But many in the Netherlands just don’t support apology – let alone redress.

That BBC cites a poll showing nearly 70 percent of the African-Caribbean community in the Netherlands believes an apology is important.

But almost half of the Dutch do not believe in offering it at all, according to the report.

The Netherlands is also fighting racism.

BBC cites a report by Statistics Netherlands that says people with a migrant background have smaller homes, less education and income, and poorer health.

“Migrants are treated as second-class citizens from the start,” Pepijn Brandon, a professor of global economic and social history at the Free University of Amsterdam, told the outlet. “That means an unequal starting position. And then racism as a justification for slavery, that is visible today.”

“We like to tell ourselves we’re tolerant,” said another. “We celebrate that tolerance, but tolerance is inherently accepting of what you don’t like, and that’s how we feel, we’re not welcome, just tolerated.”

The top official at the Dutch foreign ministry issued an apology in early December after an independent investigation found widespread racism at the government agency in the Netherlands and at its diplomatic outposts around the world.

“Racism cannot and should not have a place in our organisation,” said the ministry’s secretary-general, Paul Huijts.

“We are sorry that we could not seem to provide a working environment in which such incidents have no place,” he said. “For that, I apologize on behalf of the board.”

Officials have brought in an independent research bureau to study racism at the ministry following Black Lives Matter protests around the world and in the Netherlands.

The bureau’s report states that racism at the ministry “ranges from aggressive, direct, overt and conscious to subtle, indirect, covert, unintentional or unconscious – and that bicultural staff and locally employed staff of color experience various forms of racism.”

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