Dutch Prime Minister Apologizes for His Country’s Role in the Slave Trade

AMSTERDAM — Prime Minister Mark Rutte of the Netherlands on Monday formally apologized on behalf of his government for the country’s role in abating, stimulating, preserving and profiting from centuries of slave trading, saying his apology marked “not a period, but a comma.”

“For hundreds of years, people were made merchandise, exploited and abused in the name of the Dutch state,” Mr. Rutte said. He also said Dutch governments had not done enough to acknowledge that slavery had had lasting negative effects since it was abolished in the Dutch colonies in 1863.

“We’re not doing this just to come clean,” Mr. Rutte said. “We’re not doing this to leave history behind us.”

The run-up to Mr. Rutte’s apology was fraught, with multiple groups of descendants saying that the government had not consulted them and that the occasion lacked any significance.

“This apology marks a historic moment,” said Pepijn Brandon, a professor of global economic and social history at the Free University of Amsterdam who has studied 18th-century Atlantic slavery for the Dutch economy. But, he added, “they couldn’t have been prepared any worse.”

Armand Zunder, the chairman of the National Reparations Commission of Suriname, said the speech did not go far enough.

“What was completely missing from this speech is responsibility and accountability,” he said, emphasizing the need for reparations.

July 1 marks 150 years since the end of slavery in the Dutch colonies, and next year was declared a national year of remembrance. Part of the reason the apology happened on Monday, Mr. Rutte said, was because he wanted to do it before the start of the official commemorations.

This month, six Surinamese organizations in the Netherlands had hoped to push the apology to that date, but a judge denied their request.

“We know there’s no one right moment for everyone,” Mr. Rutte said. “There aren’t the right words for everyone or the right place for everyone.”

He also acknowledged that the run-up to the apology “could have been better.” But, he said, “don’t let that be a reason to do nothing.”

The Netherlands played a key role in the trans-Atlantic trade of enslaved people, primarily through the Dutch West India Company and the Dutch East India Company. The organizations were established with private and state capital and governed by Dutch state officials and, later, royalty.

Foot stocks on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam in 2021 during an exhibition to draw attention to the Dutch role in the international slave trade.Credit…Ilvy Njiokiktjien for The New York Times

The Netherlands was responsible for the transport of an estimated 600,000 people over the Atlantic Ocean. And under the East India Company, the Netherlands also traded people in Indonesia, India and South Africa.

From the 17th century through the 19th century, the companies enslaved more than a million people. While slavery was forbidden in the Netherlands, it was legal — and crucial to the profitable plantations — in Dutch colonies such as Brazil, Indonesia and Suriname.

Even after slavery was abolished in the colonies, enslaved people were required to continue working on plantations for another decade afterward to minimize losses for the slave owners.

Government apologies for slavery are rare. The House gave one in 2008 for the institution of slavery and for the Jim Crow laws in the United States. In 2018, Denmark apologized to Ghana for the Danes’ role in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. During a visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo this summer, the king of Belgium expressed his “deepest regrets for these wounds of the past,” but stopped short of an apology.

“I think that all countries with a colonial past are going through this process right now, and I wouldn’t say the Netherlands is ahead,” Professor Brandon said. “Up to a few years ago, there was a deep silence in the Netherlands about its slavery past.”

He added that there had also been a backlash to the apologies, mostly among white Dutch people. “A minority of white Dutch people think apologies are necessary,” he said.

Mr. Rutte admitted that he had changed his mind about the need to apologize for the country’s role in the slave trade. His change of heart, he said, was partly spurred by the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis in 2020.

Paramaribo, Suriname. Several organizations tried to persuade the Dutch government to delay the apology until next year to mark the 150th anniversary of the end of slavery in the country.Credit…Adriana Loureiro Fernandez for The New York Times

The Dutch government has announced the creation of a 200 million euro fund to increase “awareness and involvement and follow-up” about the country’s role in slavery. It is also proposing the foundation of an independent remembrance committee.

“It’s not about money,” said Joe Mendes, 34, who has lived in the Netherlands for 20 years after moving from Angola. “The way the Dutch government is trying to bring slavery to the forefront isn’t decent.”

Mr. Mendes said he believed that the government’s apology was not sincere, and that many people in the Netherlands still did not take the issues of slavery and racism seriously.

On Sunday, the day before the apology, a group of descendants of enslaved people stood in frigid temperatures in front of the Royal Palace in the center of Amsterdam to protest the apology and the way the government had handled it.

Many said they felt the apology had been forced upon them.

“We came here to make noise against an apology that’s being rammed down our throats,” said Reggie Hoogvliets, who, with Mr. Mendes, was among those at the protest.

He said he would not accept Mr. Rutte’s apology, partly because the government did not speak to the right stakeholders and descendants of enslaved people.

More communication and a meaningful date would have made the apology more palatable, many people said.

“We want to tell our own history to our children from our own vantage point,” said Regilio Bruinhart, who was also at the protest in Amsterdam on Sunday.

“The pain isn’t that long ago,” Mr. Bruinhart added. “My father’s grandfather lived through it.”

Franc Weerwind, the Dutch minister of legal protection, who is the only member of the Dutch cabinet of Surinamese descent and is a descendant of enslaved people, was in Suriname on Monday on behalf of the government.

“Accepting the apology, as expressed by the prime minister, is up to each person himself,” Mr. Weerwind said. “Now we have to start building — together.”

Ank Kuipers contributed reporting from Paramaribo, Suriname.

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