In June 2023, a report published by the Government of the Netherlands revealed that the Dutch had made 545 million euros between 1675 and 1770 due to their influence in the colonies and their role in slavery. These colonies included islands in the Caribbean, South America, and South Africa. Today, King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands is taking steps to address the historical mistakes of his kingdom and pursue efforts towards reparation.
Dutch government makes amend in the Caribbean
On July 1, a direct apology was issued by His Royal Highness King Willem-Alexander for the Dutch involvement in the slave trade in Suriname and the Caribbean islands. It is documented that the Dutch played a significant role in the trafficking of thousands of individuals (ranging between 600,000 to a million) from Africa to their colonies in the Caribbean and South America, constituting approximately 5% of the entire transatlantic slave trade.
As the king stated “The horrors are intensely experienced by me with heart and soul,” and asked for forgiveness for the lack of action that has been taken by his kingdom to amend the crimes carried out in the past. Even though slavery was abolished in 1863 in July, it would still take a decade more to fully put the practice to a stop.
Additionally, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte formally apologized on behalf of the Dutch State for its participation in the enslavement trade in former Caribbean colonies. Delivered during a 20-minute speech at the National Archives in The Hague, Rutte’s apology was accompanied by the announcement of a 200 million euro fund. This fund aims to support communities in the Netherlands and its former colonies, representing a step toward restitution and reconciliation.
South Africa’s response
In response to King Willem’s apology, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa recognized it as a significant step toward reconciliation. However, during a visit to the Iziko Slave Lodge museum in Cape Town on October 20, Dutch King Willem-Alexander and Queen Máxima faced a crowd of demonstrators, demanding a direct apology from them.
The demonstrators, many of whom were Khoisan, the indigenous people of South Africa, urged for concrete actions beyond the king’s prior apologies for the Netherlands’ role in the history of slavery. Tensions escalated as the number of protesters increased, leading to the precautionary closure of the museum gates. The demonstrators held signs calling for compensation and accusing the Dutch of cultural theft, emphasizing that mere apologies do not suffice for them.
As to the Caribbean islands, they were left with a bittersweet feeling as they were waiting to see the true commitment to repair the damage that the slave trade caused on the territories. The apology and visit have presented a real opportunity to hold them accountable, a first step to see that reparatory justice will happen.
Other European countries apologizing?
On the other hand, other European leaders are not following in the Dutch footsteps. Indeed, President Emmanuel Macron has stated that he will not ask for forgiveness from Algeria for the French colonization. Nor will Rishi Sunak ask for forgiveness nor offer compensation for the British involvement in the slave trade.
In any case, these apologies represent an important recognition of the atrocities of slavery and a commitment to acknowledging and learning from the past, as well as making efforts towards repairing the damages caused by these historical actions. However, some may not think it is not enough which can be seen with recent demands from the South African community. This indicates that King Willem-Alexander may need to continue his ongoing quest for forgiveness.
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