On July 1, a special ceremony was held in the Oosterpark in Amsterdam in remembrance of the abolition of slavery in the Dutch realm. Each year this Keti Koti ceremony is held at the Monument of Dutch Slavery and its Heritage to remember that slavery was abolished in 1863. Already in 1860 slavery ended in a major part of the Dutch East-Indies, but it finally also came to an end in 1863 in the Dutch Antilles and Surinam. The Netherlands was one of the last countries to abolish slavery. Ceremonies were also held on July 1 in other cities in the Netherlands, in particular in Middelburg which at one time was a major center of the Dutch slave trade.
The Netherlands did not only use slaves in its colonies to make the plantations more profitable, but also had an important part in the international slave trade. It is estimated that the Dutch share is this trade was between five and eight percent and that this concerned between 500.000 and 850.000 men and women.
Today we can only look back with disgust when we think of this horrible trade in human flesh and all the crimes and dehumanizing procedures that were part of this. It is a good thing that our society focuses from time to time on this scandalous part of its history. And, naturally, these regular ceremonies have a profound meaning for all those who trace their ancestry to slaves.
From time to time the question arises whether the offspring of the slaves should received a financial compensation for the pain and misery that was inflicted on their ancestors. This question is perhaps extra relevant in the light of another scandalous matter from the past that is presently getting a lot of attention. I am referring to the role of the Dutch Railways Company during the Second World War in transporting Jewish compatriots to the concentration camp in the eastern part of the country. The Dutch Railways has decided the follow the advise of a special commission, chaired by Job Cohen, a former mayor of Amsterdam, to pay a compensation to the few survivors and to the families of those who did not come back alive. I do not think the two cases can be compared in all respects. The current railways company is the same legal entity as it was when it was willing, some 75 years ago, to assist the Nazis with their project of eliminating the Jews. Perhaps it is only right that this company—although rather late—accepts its responsibility. But should the government, after more than 150 years, also give some form of financial compensations to the posterity of the slaves? I am not so sure. Slavery was a terrible thing, but through the centuries other population segments in the Netherlands have also been treated very unfairly. Historians must make sure we do not forget this. But should this always lead to financial compensation?
My wish would rather be that these regular ceremonies in remembrance of the Dutch role in the international slave trade, and of the Dutch enthusiasm to bring slaves to the plantations in our colonies in order to make these more profitable, would lead us to the point that we will begin to treat all human beings—far and near—as fully equal. We have not fully left our past involvement with slavery behind us until all discrimination has been abolished and until all people who live in our country are treated as equals, irrespective of ethnic origin, color of skin, gender, sexual orientation or religion. Not only equal for the law, but treated as equals in everyday life and accepted as truly equal in the way we think! Giving money to the posterity of slaves may be a nice gesture. It may assuage our national sense of guilt. However, we remain guilty of a subtle form of slavery if regarding and treating all people as fully equal has not been become a reality.