The Netherlands, one of the leading players in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, has issued an apology over a century and a half after the country stopped practicing the sale and purchase of human cargo. The statement was made despite some Dutch leaders calling for officials to not address the global atrocity.
On Monday, Dec. 19, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologized on behalf of his country’s government for its role in the African slave trade, an enterprise that removed millions of Black people from the continent of Africa and sold them into the most brutal form of involuntary servitude ever seen in history, according to Time Magazine.
The official gave a 20-minute address at the National Archive that was surmised with three words, “Today I apologize.”
Many did not want him to give the apology just yet.
Barryl Biekman, chair of the Netherlands-based National Platform for Slavery Past and Black Dutch woman, asked the question, “Why the rush?”
She and other activists would have preferred the Prime Minister had waited until July 1, when the country is set to celebrate the 160th anniversary of abolishing the practice of slavery on its land and territories.
Similar to America’s Juneteenth story, enslaved people of African descent were forced to continue to work on plantations years after the institution’s official end, leaving many to recognize it as the 150th anniversary, a marker when undoubtedly all Black people in the country were considered free.
The Dutch first became involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the late 1500s. By the 1600s, the Netherlands was a major trader, with the Dutch West India Company becoming the largest trans-Atlantic slave trader, according to Karwan Fatah-Black, an expert in Dutch colonial history and an assistant professor at Leiden University.
Biekman and others took the issue to court a week earlier with hopes of blocking Rutte’s remarks, but were unsuccessful.
In his speech, Rutte made mention of the conflicting approaches to the delivery of the apology, recognizing his own urgency might be perceived as dishonoring the wishes of people of African descent fighting for equity and equality.
“We know there is no one good moment for everybody, no right words for everybody, no right place for everybody,” he said.
For him, it is a radical reversal. In the past, Rutte stated he believed giving an apology would polarize the society and spotlight its shameful history.
It would also make them have to reconsider their involvement with countries like Suriname and former colonies that make up the Kingdom of the Netherlands, including Aruba, Curacao, and Sint Maarten, and additionally the three Caribbean islands that are officially special municipalities in the Netherlands, Bonaire, Sint Eustatius, and Saba.
With his formal apology, the prime minister addressed those occupations and what this means for the European nation and its citizens’ future.
In the past, the Dutch government has expressed deep regret for the nation’s participation in slavery but has never issued a formal apology. Now he and his colleagues in Parliament have evolved, and a majority of the members support the issuing of the apology.
Much of the evolution has been prompted by social movements originally sparked in the United States like Black Lives Matter and the summer of civil unrest connected to the deathss of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery.
The public sorry is also a response to a government-appointed advisory board report published in 2021 that recommended the Netherlands apologizes and recognizes the slave trade and slavery from the 17th century until abolition “happened directly or indirectly under Dutch authority were crimes against humanity.”
Further pointing to the institutional racism in the Netherlands and saying it “cannot be seen separately from centuries of slavery and colonialism and the ideas that have arisen in this context.”
Denmark, France, the United Kingdom and the European Parliament have either apologized or made an officially recognition that slavery and the slave trade were crimes against humanity. Moreover, on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church, former Pope John Paul II issued an apology in 1985 for the church’s role in slavery stretching as far back as the late 1400s and early 1500s.
Bartolomé de las Casas, a Dominican priest and missionary, in his book the “Short Account of the Devastation of the West Indies,” detailed how the church sanctioned slavery and used the enslavement of native people to almost wipe out the indigenous populations on Hispaniola, Cuba and other islands and brought in African bondsman to do labor and repopulate the lands in the 16th century.
The former pope said, “Christians were to always look at the man who is in need, on the side of the road, is their brother, their neighbor. In the course of history, men belonging to Christian nations did not always do this, and we ask pardon from our African brothers who suffered so much because of the trade in Blacks.”
The United States, though not a European nation, has also officially apologized for slavery in 2008, according to the Smithsonian. While the apology, introduced as a resolution to congress by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn), was symbolic, the country had never officially apologized for the perpetuation of slavery and Jim Crow.
Euro News reports Almaz Teffera, a researcher on racism in Europe for Human Rights Watch, said the Dutch apology was “a big deal”, and “an important first step” that “will also lay the path for accountability of the Netherlands” and allow for some “healing for the descendants.”
Tefflera continued, “You could say that obviously, this apology comes 150 years too late since the abolition of slavery, but it is nevertheless a signal that things will change and change that will now need to be translated into action.”
“For an apology to really go as far as it should, it really requires a recognition that crimes have been committed during the colonial era and a true commitment also to repair these wrongs,” she continued. “Royal families also have their role to play and should similarly issue apologies.”
Teffera pushed, “The Dutch royalty should also issue an apology since they also profited from the Dutch slave trade and the argument that royal apologies would lead to polarization in society or other arguments against it, they just don’t hold up.”
A way to give flesh and meaning to the apology would be financial reparations to countries that used to be colonized by the Dutch (or other European nations) and to individuals who are descendants of the enslaved would be appropriate, she suggests. She also believes having a more accurate and honest representation of colonialism and slavery in school curricula would be a step forward.
The prime minister says the country has plans, starting on July 1, 2023, to memorialize slavery for a year. He said 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.”