The Netherlands’ apology for its legacy of colonial slavery exposes divisions in Dutch society

Activist groups express dismay that the prime minister hasn’t pushed harder for broader dialogue about the need for an official state apology

Isabel Ferrer
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte delivers a speech apologizing on behalf of the government for the country's slave-owning past, at the National Archives in The Hague, on December 19, 2022.
Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte delivers a speech apologizing on behalf of the government for the country's slave-owning past, at the National Archives in The Hague, on December 19, 2022.ROBIN VAN LONKHUIJSEN (EFE)

December 19, 2022 has become a historic date for the Netherlands. It was the day that Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologized for the first time on behalf of the Dutch government “for the role played in the past by the state in the trade and exploitation of human beings during the 250 years of the Dutch colonial era.” Rutte also used the language of international justice to describe slavery as a “crime against humanity,” perpetrated by the Netherlands in Suriname (South America) and in the former Netherlands Antilles (Caribbean). He also mentioned the country’s harsh colonial rule of Indonesia. The speech was widely praised, especially because Rutte had previously declined to apologize about something “for which no one today can be blamed.” However, his words did little to dispel internal tensions, nor did they appease the descendants of slaves in Suriname, who wanted the apology delivered on July 1, 2023, the 150th anniversary of emancipation in that country.

Much needs to be done to completely eradicate discrimination against descendants of slaves, as revealed by a November 2022 public opinion poll jointly commissioned by the Trouw newspaper and the NOS public television channel. The poll showed that only 38% of the people surveyed were in favor of asking for forgiveness. In January 2021, a similar poll showed that only 31% thought it was a good idea. While the numbers are climbing, “the poll reveals the ethnic divide in Dutch society,” said historian Pepijn Brandon. A university professor of history at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Brandon said, “a large majority of Afro-Dutch people wanted the apology, as do other citizens with origins in non-Western countries, but only a minority of white citizens supported it.”

Brandon said: “The Netherlands is conflicted about its colonial past, as are other European countries. There is a lot of argument 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 trade, which led to freedom, tolerance and wealth” for the Netherlands. But the colonial conquests and slavery are only mentioned “in schoolbooks as a regrettable detail of the main story… It was portrayed as something that went wrong, when colonial violence is actually an integral part of how the Dutch got rich,” said Brandon.

The impact of the past on the present

The Keti Koti Table is all about bringing the past to bear on 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 their nation’s centuries of colonialism, international trade and slavery. Keti Koti means “breaking the chains” in the Surinamese language, evoking the emancipation of slaves in that country. Although abolition was officially declared in 1863, plantation owners received compensation for each freed slave, who were then forced to work for miserable wages under cruel conditions for another 10 years. For Suriname, it has been 160 years since abolition and 150 years since emancipation.

Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam during the exhibition "Slavery" shows multiple foot stocks for constraining ensclaved people
The exhibition on slavery at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam showed in May 2021 various stocks used in colonial times to immobilize slaves.KENZO TRIBOUILLARD (AFP)

Zandwijken and Keestra met with the prime minister and other groups before Rutte’s December 19 speech, but are critical of the lack of dialogue with the Afro-Dutch community preceding such a major speech. “We have been promoting dialogue about racism and systemic racism for a decade,” they told EL PAÍS, and would have preferred less haste by the government. They believe “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 gained some momentum from the Black Lives Matter movement, they are concerned about the far right’s repudiation of the government’s apology initiative, and warn about the dangers of ignoring those voters. “It’s quite possible that Rutte was in a hurry to avoid more rejection,” they said. “He didn’t talk about financial compensation, and some conservative voices in his own party were against the €200 million awareness program about our colonial past.” They mention Belgium’s pausing of a similar process “due to the potential for financial claims.” Because slavery is synonymous with injustice, historian Pepijn Brandon points out how “far-right political parties don’t try to deny slavery, but instead they rationalize it, saying there were other terrible things that we should also focus on.”

The Dutch royal dynasty’s ties to slavery

In his speech, the Dutch prime minister specifically asked Suriname and the former Dutch colonies in the Caribbean for forgiveness, but he also referred to Asia several times. It’s a less well-known part of the nation’s colonial history than the Atlantic plantation system so closely associated with slavery. “There were slaves in Asia too, but while the descendants of African slaves have been demanding an official gesture for years, there hasn’t been a similar movement about what happened in present-day Indonesia. Slavery is not a central part of our national consciousness about that colony.” King Willem-Alexander recently ordered an independent investigation into the Dutch royal family’s (the House of Orange-Nassau) ties to slavery and another investigation to identify objects with a colonial background in the royal collections. “These investigations suggest that the king will make some sort of gesture in the future because the House of Orange had direct responsibility for colonial policy,” said Brandon.

Brandon, Zandwijken and Keestra all agree on how poorly the country’s colonial history is taught in schools. Perhaps this is why the 2021 Slavery exhibition at the Rijksmuseum – the national museum dedicated to Dutch arts and history in Amsterdam – was so well received. Museum director Taco Dibbits said, “This a part of our past that is still felt by many today. And the Rijksmuseum plays an important role in developing critical thought in schoolchildren.” Dibbits stressed, “We are not activists, but we have to address crucial historical issues to make people think and form opinions. Only then can we tell the whole story and look forward together.” The museum’s collection holds a million works of art, with an estimated 4,500 objects with colonial ties. What will happen to these objects? “A restitution commission has been formed, and we also are collaborating with a consortium of museums and institutions to ensure transparency about the origins of our collections,” said Dibbits.

This collaborative consortium includes institutions from the various countries of origin of some of the pieces, and Dibbits considers it very important “to initiate a dialogue without preconceived positions so we can find solutions together.” He believes that they must decide “where these objects can best tell their stories and where they are best exhibited, which may be in the countries that produced them… As a national museum, we must integrate different perspectives into a unified history of the country.” In February, part of the Dutch Slavery exhibition will be on display at the United Nations headquarters in New York City. Dibbits told us that the UN requested the exhibit because of “the global nature of the colonial exploitation of human beings.”

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