Should the Netherlands apologize for slavery?

This week King Philippe of Belgium wrote a letter to the Congolese President Tshisekedi in which he expressed his “deepest regret” for the enormous abuses during the Belgian colonial period. Especially his ancestor Leopold II, who considered Congo his personal property, was guilty of a true reign of terror with untold atrocities. But even after this period, Belgium was not exactly a good coloniser – as far as there have ever been good colonisers! This week was the sixtieth anniversary of Congo’s independence. If you want to read a fascinating, but at the same time utterly tragic book, about the state of the country when, sixty years ago now, it had to stand on its own two feet, and how that situation almost inevitably led to decades of internal struggle and chaos, I recommend the masterpiece by the Belgian journalist David Reybrouck: Congo: Een Geschiedenis (De Bezige Bij, 2010), for which Reybrouck received the prestigious Libris History Prize in the Netherlands. The book appeared in a number of languages, including English (Congo: The Epic History of a People; 2015). The Belgian king’s expression of regret will not be without consequences, because undoubtedly the call for financial compensation will now become ever stronger.

In the same week, the Netherlands was also squarely confronted with its past. The emphasis was on an aspect of the Dutch colonial period that left a lasting stain on our history: the Dutch share in the slave trade and the institution of slavery in the former Dutch colonies, especially in Surinam. Every year on July 1st the KetiKoti festival is held at the Monument to Slavery in the Oosterpark in Amsterdam. KetiKoti is a Surinamese holiday commemorating the abolition of slavery on July 1st 1863. But, in fact, the approximately 34,000 slaves in Surinam were not really free until ten years later, because during that period the former slaves still had to work for their old masters under deplorable circumstances.

An important debate on systemic racism took place in the Dutch parliament on 1 July. The death of George Floyd and the subsequent wave of Black Lives Matter demonstrations was the immediate cause. But it was not by chance that July 1st, the day of KetiKoti, was chosen to debate the “pandemic” of racism. During the debate the history of slavery in the Netherlands was extensively discussed. The general trend was that the Dutch share in the transatlantic slave trade, and in the slavery in the Dutch colonies, should not be forgotten and that new generations of Dutch people should also hear the truth about this. Some political parties suggested that 2023—one hundred and fifty years after the actual end of slavery in Surinam—be a year when attention is given, in all sorts of ways, to the Dutch history of slavery. There was also a proposal to finally offer official apologies to Surinam, because of the injustice that was done to so many Surinamese people—an injustice that is still intensely felt by a large number of the descendants of these slaves.

The Prime Minister indicated that he thought it is unwise to officially apologize. He gave a number of sensible arguments. On behalf of whom could he make such an apology? After all, we’re talking about a distant past, and how far back in history do you have to go in apologizing? What’s more, at the time there was a completely different political structure and what happened then can hardly be blamed on the Dutch government of today. In the background, there is undoubtedly also the consideration that offering an apology could have a very heavy price tag.

When honestly facing up to what was wrong in our national history, the long-term existence of the institution of alavery in Surinam, and the substantial share of the Netherlands in the international slave trade, are important points. We must not simply tear these black pages from our history books. But at the same time we must also realize that the shame of slavery in Surinam, and of the Dutch slave trade, cannot be attributed entirely to the Dutch. The African henchmen who recruited men and women from the inlands and brought them to the ports, from where the slaves were shipped, should not go shot-free either. And when I recently read a book about the transport of slaves to the New World, it became clear to me that the sailors were sometimes even worse off than the slaves during the ocean crossing. A sailor who did not survive the voyage did not have to be paid his wages, and that meant profit. But a slave who succumbed during the trip could not be sold and that would be a financial loss! And it must also be said that the general historical context should not be forgotten and that, fortunately, there were also many slave owners who treated their slaves humanely. This in no way condones slavery or slave trade, but, as is almost always the case, historical events and past processes cannot be reduced to one single factor.

Should the Netherlands apologize for what our forefathers did more than a century and a half ago? I am not convinced we should. But we should continue to remember what happened and not polish away the stains on our history. The countries that have benefited for a long time from their colonies (including the Netherlands) certainly have a moral duty to continue to generously support these lands wherever possible. Attention to the past, however, must above all inspire us to treat our fellow human beings – far away and close by – in the present, as we should. The fight against endemic racism in our own society is now a top priority. For me, KetiKoti may become a national holiday (as is advocated by some), as long as we do not forget the challenges of the present when contemplating the past.