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Netherlands apologizes for role in historic slave trade

December 19, 2022

Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologized for Netherlands' slavery past. Some affected nations and groups have criticized the move.

The National Slavery monument in Amsterdam.
The Dutch slave trade happened in the 16th and 17th centuries.Image: Remko de Waal/ANP/AFP

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte delivered a speech on Monday formally apologizing for his country's historical role in slavery and its consequences into the present day.

"Today on behalf of the Dutch government, I apologize for the past actions of the Dutch state," Rutte said in a speech.

"For centuries the Dutch state and its representatives have enabled and stimulated slavery and have profited from it. It is true that nobody alive today bears any personal guilt for slavery ... (however) the Dutch state bears responsibility for the immense suffering that has been done to those that were enslaved and their descendants," he added.

He also said that slavery must be recognized in "the clearest terms" as "a crime against humanity."

According to Rutte, the government will establish a fund for initiatives that will help tackle the legacy of slavery in the Netherlands and its former colonies.

The move marked a U-turn for the Dutch prime minister, who had previously refused to deliver the apology, arguing that it would start a "polarizing" debate in the Netherlands.

Rutte spoke in The Hague, while other Dutch ministers were traveling to seven former colonies in South America and the Caribbean for this event.

The ministers headed to Suriname, Bonaire, Sint Maarten, Aruba, Curacao, Saba and St. Eustatius to "discuss the Cabinet response and its significance on location with those present" after Rutte's speech, the government said. 

Criticism of apology

Some groups and affected countries have criticized the move, saying they were not consulted by the Netherlands about this.

Activist groups in the Netherlands said the apology should have been delivered on July 1 instead — on the annual celebration of "Keti Koti," or Breaking the Chains in Surinamese, marking the anniversary of the abolition of slavery 160 years ago.

Caribbean nation Sint Maarten's Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs told Dutch media on Saturday that the island would not accept a Dutch apology if made. "Let me be clear that we won't accept an apology until our advisory committee has discussed it and we as a country discussed it," she said.  

Sint Maarten activist and academic Rhoda Arrindell of the ONE SXM association criticized Amsterdam's apology in comments to DW, saying that it does not "measure up to the standards of what an official legal apology should look like."

Arrindell said that reparations should "be part of the conversation," arguing that in ruling them out Amsterdam showed it was not "sincere" in its apology.

The fact "that there's going to be €200 million set aside 'for awareness' says to us it's almost an insult," she said.

"Nowhere in the process were we engaged in the conversation of what the policy should look like," Arrindell said.

"It's a one-sided, colonial approach, and we reject it," she concluded.

Dutch slave trade

The Dutch empire in the 16th and 17th centuries shipped around 600,000 Africans as part of their slave trade, mostly to the Caribbean and South America.

The United Provinces, now known as the Netherlands, had colonies in Suriname, the island of Curacao, South Africa and Indonesia during the height of its power. It was the third-largest colonial power.

Slavery was formally abolished in 1863, but the practice only ended in 1873 after a transition period of 10 years. 

tg/fb  (dpa, AFP)