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King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands apologizes for slavery in Dutch colonies

The head of state officially recognizes for the first time a trade that enriched his ancestors on the 150th anniversary of the emancipation of Suriname and the Dutch Antilles

Guillermo de Holanda Países Bajos
King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands, during a speech at the Slavery Remembrance Day celebration, in which he apologized for the trafficking and exploitation of human beings in the Dutch colonies, Saturday, in Amsterdam.Remko de Waal (AP)
Isabel Ferrer

King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands apologized Saturday for slavery on the 150th anniversary of the emancipation of the former colonies of Suriname (South America) and the Dutch Antilles in the Caribbean. The apology, delivered during a ceremony called Keti Koti (broken chain) in Amsterdam, was greeted with cheers and applause by an audience largely made up of descendants of slaves. His words are doubly historic. It is the first time the sovereign has spoken out about the consequences of colonial control as head of state, and his direct ancestors grew rich from a system inseparable from the slave trade, according to a study commissioned by the Dutch government. Last December, Prime Minister Mark Rutte also acknowledged his country’s slave-trading past.

“I stand before you as your king and as such I ask forgiveness with all my heart and soul for slavery,” the monarch said. He added: “I am with you in the capital of a country that fought against tyranny and for freedom, that banned slavery within its borders, but did not do so overseas.” He then recognized the value and respect that all traditions and beliefs deserve, and expressed his wish to “live in a country where we all recognize each other without racism, discrimination and exploitation”. His words also mark the beginning of the commemorative year that remembers this tragic legacy in all corners of the kingdom. The recognition of the current repercussions of colonial abuses and the obligation to reverse them is the repeated request of all organizations involved in this struggle.

Chronologically speaking, it is 160 years since the abolition of slavery in Suriname and the Caribbean Dutch Antilles in 1863. During the following decade, however, freed slaves were forced to work for starvation wages so that their former owners could amortize the investment made in buying them. That is why the chains mentioned in the expression Keti Koti are considered to have been finally broken 150 years ago, in 1873. People from Asia were also brought to Suriname to work in appalling conditions under Dutch colonial rule. They were, among others, poor peasants from India, China or Java (Indonesia), who signed abusive contracts, the breaking of which could result in a criminal conviction.

The Dutch colonial period lasted from the 17th century to the 20th century, with its various independence processes, including that of Indonesia. The slave trade covered, roughly speaking, Southern Africa and Asia, as well as Suriname, Brazil and the Caribbean, and the plantations included tobacco, cocoa, cotton, coffee and sugar. Historians estimate that Dutch ships transported 5% of the total of 12 million people subjected to the slave trade by Europeans between the 15th and 19th centuries across the Atlantic. The estimate appears in the Canon of the Netherlands, which condenses the national history.

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