A Royal Apology

July 1, 2023

Slowly and painfully, the unfinished business of the Dutch slavery heritage is forcing its way into the collective conscience of the Dutch population.

Today the speech of King Willem-Alexander at the Keti Koti (broken chains) Festival in Amsterdam’s Oosterpark, celebrating the end of slavery in the Caribbean and Surinam, was awaited apprehensively by descendants of former ‘enslaved’ Africans and Asians. Dare they hope that he would follow the lead of Prime Minister Mark Rutte who last December expressed ‘excuses’ on behalf of the Dutch government for involvement in slavery, a ‘crime against humanity’? 

Expectations and emotions were sharpened after the revelation last month of a royal inquiry that the House of Orange profited by the equivalent of over €500 million in today’s money from slavery in the Dutch colonies from 1675 to 1770.

Festivals featuring Caribbean music and dance in various Dutch cities this weekend are marking the 150th anniversary of the end of slavery in the Dutch West Indies on July 1, 1873. They also signal the start of the Slavery Memorial Year to encourage reflection on this history and its legacy of institutional racism.

Officially slavery was abolished in 1863. Yet in some twisted logic, the ‘enslaved’ were forced to serve their masters another ten years as compensation for the slave-owners’ losses! 

By comparison, slave trafficking in the British Empire was abolished in 1807. However, most slaves in the British colonies were not freed until 1838 – and only after slave-owners rather than the slaves themselves (following the same distorted logic) received financial compensation from the government.

The shameful heritage of slavery is shared by both Protestant and Catholic countries in Europe, including Denmark, Sweden, Germany, Belgium, France, Spain and Portugal. The Netherlands was one of the last western nations to abolish slavery, which was quietly and in some cases vocally endorsed by most of the churches of the day. 

Mention of slavery in British evangelical circles inspires a sense of pride that William Wilberforce – ‘one of us’ – fought against all odds to abolish the trade in human cargo. He then fought for the rest of his life to end the institution of slavery itself. Just three days before his death in 1833, the House of Commons voted to emancipate all slaves in the British Empire. 

However, there was no Dutch Wilberforce. Dutch sea heroes and civic leaders were heavily engaged in both the trade and deployment of the ‘enslaved’. [Current dialogue in Holland uses the term ‘tot slaafgemaakte’ (‘enslaved’) rather than ‘slaves’ to stress that being enslaved was not the essential identity of that person.] 

Freedom and tolerance?

The city fathers of Amsterdam and other Dutch cities controlled the colonial companies, the VOC (East Indies Company) and the WIC (West Indies Company). These discovered or conquered territories in Asia, Africa, South America and the Caribbean to set up slave plantations to produce the coffee, cotton, tobacco, sugar, spices, tea, indigo and other goods shipped back to Holland during the so-called ‘Golden Age’ beginning in the 17th century.

From 1578 (when the city became Protestant) to 1665, Amsterdam’s population grew in number (from 30,000 to 160,000), in wealth and in size. The city expanded in concentric semi-circular canals lined with luxurious mansions for the elites, declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010.  

While the city’s reputation for freedom and tolerance attracted philosophers and refugees, that was not experienced by the estimated 135,000 Africans trafficked by Amsterdam traders on ships built in Amsterdam to the slave plantations in Surinam and the West Indies; nor by similar numbers of East Asians enslaved by Amsterdammers. 

Only over the past two decades has there been a growing realisation among the Dutch of the enormity of the nation’s involvement in a horrendous crime against humanity. The nation’s first monument recognising the dark past was unveiled only in 2002, in the Oosterpark where the king spoke today. 

Two years ago I wrote a weeklyword about the apology by the mayor of Amsterdam, Femke Halsema, which followed earlier examples of London and Liverpool, and was followed by Rotterdam, Utrecht and The Hague. After much procrastination, the Dutch Prime Minister finally expressed excuses last December on behalf of his government, as successor to Dutch administrations promoting the slave business.

The king’s turn

Today it was the king’s turn. The crowd in the Oosterpark, many dressed in colourful traditional Caribbean and African garments, stood in hushed expectation as the king walked to the podium in front of the Keti Koti monument. Eager to witness this historic moment, I sheltered from the rain under the trees watching proceedings on a large screen through a forest of umbrellas.

After referring to his prime minister’s apology last December, Willem-Alexander told the thousands in the park and the millions following on live television in The Netherlands, Surinam and the Caribbean: “Today I stand before you as your king and as part of the government. I am making these excuses myself today.” Applause and cheers broke out all around me. 

The king continued: “But for me there is another personal dimension. Slave trade and slavery are recognised as a crime against humanity. The stadholders and kings of the House of Orange-Nassau did nothing to combat this. They acted within the framework of what was then considered legally permissible. But the slavery system illustrated the injustice of those laws. 

“World War II taught us that you cannot hide behind laws when fellow human beings are reduced to beasts and are at the mercy of those in power. At some point the moral imperative to act grows – especially since slavery was strictly forbidden here in European Holland. What was considered normal in the colonies and in overseas trade and widely practised and encouraged, was not allowed here. For the obvious lack of action against this crime against humanity, I ask forgiveness this day.”

I left the Oosterpark sensing that the shroud of ignorance and indifference that has for too long enveloped us all – Christians included – was beginning to lift.

Till next week,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sign up for Weekly Word