Government should offer apologies for shameful history of slavery

29 June 2013

Government should offer apologies for shameful history of slavery

On 1st July 1863 celebratory cannon shots were heard In Surinam. They signalled the end of slavery in the Dutch colonies. Our country was one of the last in Europe to move to abolition, and tens of thousands of slaves were freed. 150 years on, it’s high time that the government at last offered an official apology for this shameful history.

SP Member of Parliament Harry van Bommel

Harry van BommelThe Netherlands was for a long time active in the slave trade on a grand scale, with the region of Zeeland being involved through the Middelburg Commerce Company. In the space of two centuries the Netherlands deprived some 450,000 Africans of their freedom, shipping them to South- and Central America under wretched conditions. Those who survived were forced into physically exacting labour on plantations in what is now Brazil, as well as in Surinam. Disobedience was met with harsh corporal punishment. Many were worked to death. For hundreds of thousands of slaves, the Gouden Eeuw – our country’s 17th Century Golden Age – was an unceasing nightmare.

After its long silence the Netherlands finally, at the UN’s 2001 anti-racism summit, expressed its profound regrets about the slave trade. In 2002, in Amsterdam’s Oosterpark, Queen Beatrix unveiled the National Monument to Dutch Slavery and its Legacy. This expression of regret is an important gesture, but does not go far enough, as it is not proportionate to the crime which slavery represents. Profound regret is not the same as an apology, moreover. When you offer apologies, these are aimed specifically at the victims in the hope that these apologies will also be accepted.

The call for an official apology has in the last few months become ever louder. The chair of the district council of Amsterdam South-East, Labour Party member Tjeerd Herrema, recently announced that in his view it would be best if the apologies were presented by King Willem-Alexander, who recently succeeded Queen Beatrix to the throne. The Afro-Surinamese organisation the Broki Collective is demanding an apology from the Dutch government, which the National Platform on Slavery and its Legacy has also called for.

This call has taken on a new urgency now that the Council of Churches has recognised its responsibility for slavery and its legacy, stating that the churches are conscious of their part in slavery’s past and that theology has at times misused to justify the institution.

It isn’t clear why the Netherlands is unwilling to take this step and present its apologies, although fears over financial compensation may play a role; yet this hasn’t prevented several states of the USA from doing so. At federal level, both the House of Representatives and the Senate have also apologised for slavery.

To date no Western government has presented formal apologies for slavery, though this takes nothing away from the fact that some have indeed given perfectly respectable apologies for other cruelties of their colonial past. Australia, for example, apologised in 2008 to the country’s Aboriginals for their enormous suffering and terrible losses. In New Zealand the same thing occurred two years earlier when apologies were given to the biggest of the country’s Maori groups.

On 1st July in Middelburg and in Amsterdam the abolition of slavery will be commemorated. In Amsterdam, Deputy Prime Minister Lodewijk Asscher, in the presence of King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima, will speak on behalf of the government, a moment which should be seized in order to present unambiguous apologies for the huge suffering inflicted on the ancestors of many of those who will be attending. The Netherlands was one of the last countries to abolish slavery; let it be the first to apologise officially.

On 1st July, Harry van Bommel will join the Queen's Commissioner in Zeeland in laying a wreath slavery a wreath on the slavery monument in Middelburg.

This article first appeared on 28th June, 2013, in the Zeeland regional newspaper the Provinciale Zeeuwsche Courant

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