THE HAGUE, Netherlands – Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologized Monday on behalf of his government for the Netherlands’ historical role in slavery and the slave trade, despite calls for him to delay the long-awaited statement.
“Today I apologize,” Rutte said in a 20-minute speech that was greeted with silence by an invited audience at the National Archive.
Rutte went ahead with the apology even though some activist groups urged him to wait until next year’s July 1 anniversary of the country’s abolition of slavery. Some even went to court last week in a failed attempt to block the speech.
“We know there is no one good moment for everybody, no right words for everybody, no right place for everybody,” Rutte said.
He said the government would establish a fund for initiatives that would help tackle the legacy of slavery in the Netherlands and its former colonies.
News of a possible apology now upset some groups in the Netherlands and its former colonies. Activists consider next year the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery because many enslaved people were forced to continue working in plantations for a decade afterward.
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“Why the rush?” asked Barryl Biekman, chair of the Netherlands-based National Platform for Slavery Past.
The Dutch government has expressed deep regret for the nation’s historical role in slavery but stopped short of a formal apology, and Rutte once said such a declaration could polarize society. But a majority in parliament now supports an apology.
Rutte’s speech came at a time when many nations’ brutal colonial histories have received scrutiny because of the Black Lives Matter movement and the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis in May 2020.
The prime minister’s speech is a response to a report published last year by a government-appointed advisory board. Its recommendations included the government’s apology and recognition that the slave trade and slavery from the 17th century until abolition “that happened directly or indirectly under Dutch authority were crimes against humanity.”
The report said that what it called institutional racism in the Netherlands “cannot be seen separately from centuries of slavery and colonialism and the ideas that have arisen in this context.”
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Dutch ministers fanned out Monday to discuss the issue in Suriname and former colonies that make up the Kingdom of the Netherlands – Aruba, Curacao and Sint Maarten, as well as three Caribbean islands that are officially special municipalities in the Netherlands: Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba.
The government has said that the year starting July 1, 2023, will be a slavery memorial year in which the country “will pause to reflect on this painful history. And on how this history still plays a negative role in the lives of many today.”
That was underscored this month when an independent investigation found widespread racism at the Dutch foreign ministry and its diplomatic outposts around the world.
In Suriname, the small South American nation where Dutch plantation owners generated huge profits through the use of enslaved labor, activists and officials say they have not been asked for input, and that’s a reflection of a Dutch colonial attitude. What’s really needed, they say, is compensation.
The Dutch first became involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the late 1500s and became a major trader in the mid-1600s. Eventually, the Dutch West India Company became the largest trans-Atlantic slave trader, said Karwan Fatah-Black, an expert in Dutch colonial history and an assistant professor at Leiden University.
Dutch cities, including the capital, Amsterdam, and the port city Rotterdam already have apologized for the role of city fathers in the slave trade.
In 2018, Denmark apologized to Ghana, which it colonized from the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century. In June, King Philippe of Belgium expressed “deepest regrets” for abuses in Congo. In 1992, Pope John Paul II apologized for the church’s role in slavery. Americans have had emotionally charged debates over taking down statues of slaveholders in the South.
Story Credit: usatoday.com