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Dutch slavery apology isn't enough, descendants say

Ella Joyner in Amsterdam
December 18, 2022

The government in the Netherlands, one of the last European nations to abolish slavery, has made a historic apology. But some on the receiving end say they've not been consulted.

Opponent against the Zwarte Piet or Black Pete tradition demonstrate in Amsterdam, with a shirt featuring a red circle and line through Black Pete's face
The Christmas tradition of Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete, is still a controversial topic in the NetherlandsImage: Imago/Paulo Amorim

It's a crisp December day in Amsterdam. Jennifer Tosch is standing in front of the mayor's official residence at Herengracht 502, prime canal-side real estate in Amsterdam's wealthy Golden Bend district.

The founder of Black Heritage Tours Amsterdam, herself US-born to Surinamese parents, points out a stone plaque in the ground to the right of the front door.

"As long as memory lives, suffering is not in vain," it reads. The house was built in 1672 for Paulus Godin, an administrator in the colonial Dutch West India Company. Like many of his neighbors along the Herengracht canal, the merchant's wealth was amassed at least in part due to slavery, as the sign denotes.

Dutch involvement in the transatlantic slave trade

Over centuries, the Dutch bought and shipped some 600,000 enslaved people from Africa in the trans-Atlantic slave trade — about 5% of the total — taking them to Caribbean colonies like Suriname and Curacao, as well as other European colonies across the Americas.

Enslaved Africans were also forcibly moved to Dutch colonies in the Indian Ocean, like present-day Indonesia, and enslaved Balinese or Javanese were transported to modern-day South Africa. 

With a flag hanging outside, a row-house sits along a canal in Amsterdam
Herengracht 502, with its flag hanging out front, was built with wealth from the slave tradeImage: Sushmitha Ramakrishnan / Astrid Benölken DW

Many perished in the crossing. For those who survived and for their descendants, the life of hard plantation labor was brutal. Take for example the case of Wally, an enslaved man on a Surinamese sugar plantation who took part in a revolt in 1707 and whose story was featured in an exhibition at Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum last year.

As punishment for his insubordination, Wally had his flesh torn off with red-hot pincers and was burned alive. His head was later displayed on a spike.

Apology aims to address 'willful ignorance' over racism

Signs of this more-than-250-year history are everywhere in Amsterdam's built environment if you know where to look, explained cultural historian Tosch, whose own ancestors include enslaved individuals. She set up her tour in 2013 to educate people — locals and tourists — and break down what she saw as "willful ignorance" in Dutch society about this dark period and its modern legacy.

In a sign of shifting times, however, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologized on Monday for his country's "slavery past." 

But before the apology was made, several Surinamese organizations protested over a lack of community consultation and a perceived rush. On July 1, known as Keti Koti Day, Suriname celebrates the anniversary of its emancipation. Next year marks 150 years since the de facto end of Dutch slavery there, or 160 years since official abolition, and would have been a more meaningful date, activists have said.

Jennifer Tosch stands in front of exhibit featuring her ancestor Petrus Tosch at the Amsterdam City Archives
Despite positive societal change in recent years, for Tosch there's still a long way to goImage: Ella Joyner/DW

When the apology plans were leaked in the Dutch press late last month, the matter dominated headlines, including the plans to have a Black lawmaker of Surinamese descent, Minister for Legal Protection Franc Weerwind, be among those delivering the apology.

An emergency meeting with Surinamese and Antillean community representatives was held in The Hague last week, and Deputy Prime Minister Sigrid Kaag traveled to Suriname to try and "glue the shards back together," as Dutch newspaper Trouw described it.

Billions, not millions, needed: reparations groups

Armand Zunder, the chairman of the Suriname National Repair Commission, has indicated that neither an apology alone nor the reported plans to dedicate €200 million ($212.6 million) to raising awareness about slavery, plus €27 million for the construction of a museum, would suffice.

"That which was destroyed, must be repaired. Our frame of reference is billions of euros and certainly not hundreds of millions of euros," Zunder told local media last week.

Zunder echoed the position of the Caribbean Reparation Commission. The group of 15 countries where many were enslaved, published a 10-point reparation plan, which includes an official apology, but also funding for public history, health and literacy, as well as knowledge transfer.

Within the Netherlands, groups like the Ocan Foundation, which represents and advocates for the Dutch-Caribbean community, stress they are more concerned with what comes next in terms of reparative justice than the choreography of the apology itself.

There are many contemporary issues to address, said spokesperson Xavier Donker, including, "racism whether blatant or subtle, disproportionate unemployment, discrimination." These are all part of what he calls the "lingering legacy" of the colonial era.

An ever-raging debate in the Netherlands is the tradition of Zwarte Piet, or Black Pete. That's when Dutch people paint their faces black and don curly wigs to play an assistant to St. Nicholas in parades, a custom that is offensive to many Black people in the country. When raising such issues, his community is "often met with claims that we are attention-seekers," Donker said.

The Dutch apology comes a year-and-a-half after a government-commissioned report recommended it, as well as other measures to address institutional racism. Prime Minister Rutte had previously spoke out against the idea of an apology, saying in 2020 that it risked causing societal polarization.

A survey earlier this year by broadcaster NOS showed that half of Dutch people were opposed to an apology. Nonetheless, a number of Dutch cities — including Amsterdam and, more recently, The Hague — have already said sorry for their role in slavery, as did the Dutch central bank and bank ABN AMRO.

Apologies rarely translate into reparations

Pressure has grown for Europe's former colonial powers to atone for past atrocities, fueled in part by the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, which has primarily criticized police violence against people of color but also sharpened the gaze on historic atrocities.

In 2020, Belgium's King Philippe expressed "deep regret" for the atrocities committed during his country's colonial rule in Congo, in particular under his predecessor and relative, Leopold II, but stopped short of actually saying sorry. Germany apologized last year for its early 20th genocide in Namibia and promised around €1 billion in development aid. Such declarations rarely translate into actual reparations.

Examining Germany's brutal history in Namibia

When tour guide and historian Tosch heard about the Dutch plans to apologize, her first reaction was that it wasn't enough. "It's about time, to be honest," she said. "[But] I don't think that you can say 200 million really covers 400 years of colonialism."

Tosch first came to the Netherlands as a university exchange student. "I was just so surprised that the dominant narrative […] was so centered around this notion of the glory of the Golden Age," she explained, referring to the period when the Netherlands became one of the world's richest countries.

During the 17th century, the Netherlands bounded ahead in science and culture, with famous artists like Rembrandt and Vermeer increasing the country's international prestige. But this was also a time of "war waged against Indigenous people, exploitation of their resources, enslavement of people," said Tosch. "You can't talk about one thing without also talking about the other."

Pepijn Brandon, a professor of global economic and social history at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, believes the Netherlands' modern prosperity — it has one of the world's highest ratios of gross domestic product per capita — can be traced back to this era. 

In the late 18th century, around 5% of the Dutch economy depended on slave labor, he told DW. In wealthy Holland, the region which encompasses Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, it was 10%.

Tosch has seen positive societal change in recent years, like more acknowledgement in public institutions, which she attributes to decades of campaigning by descendant communities. But for her, there's still a long way to go.

There is "so much social injustice, inequality, the gaps in education and in wealth production, in language," she stressed. "If we just stop there and there's no direct action that follows this apology, then it will seem like a token or gesture that wasn't really intended to produce any social change."

This article was originally published on December 15, 2022. It has been updated to show that the Dutch government has now apologized for its role in the slave trade.

Edited by: Martin Kuebler