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Dutch PM Mark Rutte Apologizes for Centuries of Slavery

Mark Rutte

On Monday, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte formally apologized for the country’s 250-year history of slavery, which he described as a “crime against humanity.”

Nearly 150 years have passed since slavery was abolished in the European country’s overseas territories, which included Suriname in South America, Indonesia in the east, and the Caribbean islands of Curacao and Aruba.

Aruba’s Prime Minister Evelyn Wever-Croes accepted the apology initially, while others in the former Dutch colonies lamented the lack of follow-through and communication.

Speaking in English, Papiamento, and Sranan Tongo, languages spoken in the Caribbean islands and in Suriname, Rutte said, “Today on behalf of the Dutch government, I apologise for the previous actions of the Dutch state.”

Rutte told a crowd at the National Archives in The Hague, “The Dutch State of the Netherlands… bears responsibility for the immense pain imposed on enslaved people and their descendants.”

We, in the present, can only recognize and condemn slavery in the strongest terms as a crime against humanity, he continued.

In preparation for the event, seven of the Netherlands’ former colonies in South America and the Caribbean have been visited by Dutch ministers.

After giving his address, Iwan Wijngaarde, the leader of the Federation of Afro-Surinamese, told AFP, “I don’t see anything with regard to action by the Netherlands and it’s a tragedy.”

Armand Zunder, president of Suriname’s national reparations panel, told AFP that “what was entirely missing in this address was responsibility and accountability.”

Complicated Situation

The Dutch government has announced numerous large-scale remembrance events beginning in 2019, as well as a 200-million-euro ($212-million) fund to support social initiatives.

Sooner or later, “we think there should be a fund that is counted in terms of billions,” Zunder said.

During her official visit to Suriname this week, Dutch Deputy Prime Minister Sigrid Kaag announced that preparations will soon begin for “another tremendously important event on July 1 next year.”

In Suriname, descendants of Dutch slaves will mark 150 years since their freedom with an annual festival called “Keti Koti” (Breaking the Chains).

But the idea has been met with opposition from NGOs and some of the impacted countries, who believe the decision was hasty and that the Netherlands’ lack of engagement smacked of a colonial attitude.

Selecting the proper time is a “difficult thing,” as Rutte put it in his Monday speech.

To paraphrase, “there is not one right time for everyone,” “there is not one right word for everyone,” or “there is not one right spot for everyone.”

Golden Era?

In the 16th and 17th centuries, the Dutch “Golden Age” of power and culture was largely financed by the slave trade of around 600,000 Africans, most of whom were taken to the Americas and the Caribbean.

Suriname, Curacao (in the Caribbean), South Africa, and Indonesia (where the Dutch East India Company was headquartered in the 17th century) were all colonies of the United Provinces now known as the Netherlands at the height of its colonial power.

The Dutch have been trying to come to terms with the truth that the wealth used to build the historic cities and museums packed with works by Rembrandt and Vermeer was mostly acquired via acts of brutality in recent years.

The Black Lives Matter movement in the United States has inspired similar discussions about racism in the Netherlands.

Increasing domestic pressure has resulted in formal apologies for their roles in the slave trade being issued by Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague, and Utrecht.

Previously, Rutte had resisted, claiming that the era of slavery was too distant and that an apology would inflame emotions in a country where the far right remains entrenched.

He’s altered tactics, but it hasn’t gone over well with everyone.

Simply said, “the beginning.”

On Monday, Silveria Jacobs, prime minister of Sint Maarten, branded it a “forced apology” but still encouraged conversation.

She stated on NOS public radio, “We are not at the stage when we can either accept or reject the statements/apologies.”

To the contrary, Wever-Croes of Aruba told the ANP news agency that while the island accepted the apology, they viewed it as “a first step.”

To “examine the cabinet response and its relevance on location with those present,” the Dutch government said that ministers would go to Suriname, Bonaire, Sint Maarten, Aruba, Curacao, Saba, and St. Eustatius on Monday in the wake of Rutte’s address.

Suriname and other Dutch-held territories officially abolished slavery on July 1, 1863; nevertheless, a “transition” period of ten years meant that slavery did not end in effect until 1873.

They argue that an apology should not be made on the “arbitrary” date of December 19 this year, but rather on the 150th anniversary of that date, in 2023.

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