Netherlands PM Rutte Apologizes for Role of Dutch State in Slavery
Prime Minister Mark Rutte on Monday apologized on behalf of the Dutch State for its historical role in slavery, and for consequences that he acknowledged continue into the present day.
"Today I apologize," Rutte said in a nationally televised speech at the Dutch National Archives.
"For centuries the Dutch state and its representatives have enabled and stimulated slavery and have profited from it," he added.
"It is true that nobody alive today bears any personal guilt for slavery...(however) the Dutch state bears responsibility for the immense suffering that has been done to those that were enslaved and their descendants."
The apology comes amid a wider reconsideration of the country's colonial past, including efforts to return looted art, and its current struggles with racism.
The prospect of an apology on a December afternoon in The Hague had been met with resistance from groups who say it should have come from King Willem-Alexander, in former colony Suriname, on July 1, 2023 -- the 160th anniversary of Dutch abolition.
"It takes two to tango - apologies have to be received," said Roy Kaikusi Groenberg of the Honor and Recovery Foundation, a Dutch Afro-Surinamese organization.
He said it felt wrong that activists who are descendants of slaves had struggled for years to change the national discussion but had not been sufficiently consulted.
"The way the government is handling this, it's coming across as a neo-colonial belch," he said.
Rutte acknowledged that the runup to the announcement had been handled clumsily and said the Dutch government was sending representatives to Suriname, as well as Caribbean islands that remain part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands with varying degrees of autonomy: Curacao, Sint Maarten, Aruba, Bonaire, Saba and Sint Eustatius.
The Prime Minister of Aruba, Evelyn Wever-Croes, said on Monday the apology was welcome and a "turning point in history within the Kingdom".
Rutte was responding to a national advisory panel set up following the 2020 killing of George Floyd in the United States.
The panel said that Dutch participation in slavery had amounted to crimes against humanity and in 2021 recommended an apology and reparations. Rutte on Monday said his government embraced those conclusions, including that slavery had been a crime against humanity.
However, he ruled out reparations at a news conference last week, though the Dutch government is setting up a 200-million-euro educational fund.
"What was completely missing from this speech is responsibility and accountability," said Armand Zunder, chairman of Suriname's National Reparations Commission, though he said it had been a "step forward".
"If you recognize that crimes against humanity were committed then the next step is you say I'm responsible for it, we're liable for it .... Indeed I'm talking about reparations."
Dutch press agency ANP reported that in Curacao a Dutch government delegate said in a speech that Tula, a historical figure who led a slave revolt in 1795 and was executed, would have his reputation restored. The report said the speech was greeted with long and loud applause.
Historians estimate Dutch traders shipped more than half a million enslaved Africans to the Americas, mostly to Brazil and the Caribbean. As many or more Asians were enslaved in the East Indies, modern Indonesia.
Many Dutch people take pride in the country's naval history and prowess as a trading nation. However, children are taught little of the role in the slave trade played by the Dutch West India Company and the Dutch East India Company, key sources of national wealth.
Despite the Dutch reputation for tolerance, racism is a significant problem.
Citizens of Antillean, Turkish and Moroccan ancestry report high rates of discrimination in their everyday lives and recent studies have shown they face significant disadvantages in the workplace and in the housing market.