The Prime Minister of the Netherlands, one of the more conservative states in Europe, on Monday of this week made a public landmark apology for the Dutch role in slavery and colonialism in the Caribbean and Asia. Seven Caribbean nations- Suriname, Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, St. Maarten, Saba and St. Eustasius suffered at the hands of the Dutch under centuries of slavery and colonial rule.
Only Suriname has achieved its independence up to today.
The Dutch were among the primary slave traders in the western hemisphere, not just in the Dutch colonies, but supplying kidnapped Africans as slaves to other
Caribbean islands and even to North America. In his historic December 19 speech, the Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte acknowledged the role of the Dutch state in slavery, describing that system as “evil, ugly, painful, and even downright shameful”, describing it as a “crime against humanity”.
In offering the public apology, Mr. Rutte said “…by 1814, more than 600,000 African women, men and children had been shipped to the American continent in deplorable conditions by Dutch slave traders”, mainly to the Caribbean countries mentioned above.
He specifically singled out the role of the Dutch state via the Dutch West India Company.
The Dutch leader also spoke of what he called the “horrific treatment” of the enslaved and their descendants, in “a system so inhuman and unjust that in 1863 [when slavery was made illegal in the Dutch colonies], it was not the enslaved people who received financial compensation from the state but the slave owners” .
This was not some Caribbean Reparations advocate speaking, but the leader of one of the major slave trading nations, one of the principal colonial powers in the Caribbean. Significantly, the Dutch approach to what was called “emancipation” by the Europeans was no different to that in the British colonies where the plantation owners were compensated.
In addition, just as in the British colonies, the supposedly “freed slaves” had to work for free for four years after “emancipation”. Our brothers and sisters in the countries colonized by the Dutch were forced to do the same, for an even longer period of 10 years.
The Dutch Prime Minister admitted that he had been previously opposed to any apology, considering it “a thing of the past” and “behind us” but had changed his opinion as he recognized that the legacy of slavery is today still affecting the descendants of the people enslaved and many racist stereotypes still existing today.
The Dutch state bears responsibility for “the terrible suffering inflicted on the enslaved people and their descendants”, Mr. Rutte stated, and must be guided by the key words of “Acknowledgement, Apology, and Recovery”.
In this light he offered the formal apology of the Dutch government, “for past actions of the Dutch state to enslaved people in the past ….and to all descendants up to the present day”. This apology, the Dutch leader said, was “not a full stop, but a comma” indicating ongoing actions. He also announced the establishment of a 200-million-euro fund to tackle the legacy of slavery and for education on the subject.
Caribbean reaction: Not enough
In the Caribbean territories affected, while there was acknowledgement of the apology as a step in the right direction, the overall sentiments were that it did not go far enough nor was there consultation with the people affected, their leaders and institutions on the matter.
The President of Suriname, who incidentally is Caricom Chairman, Mr. Chan Santokhi, said that there was no Caribbean input into the Dutch initiative and that his government should have been consulted. A spokesman for the Suriname Reparations Committee was more forthright, saying that the apology “was not accepted”.
The Committee, he said, was “going to evaluate and discuss it and then advise the Surinamese government”.
The opposition NDP condemned the Dutch government for failing to adequately consult the descendants of those enslaved, and, deeming the Dutch offer as “not enough”, demanded full reparations. It was a demand specifically made by Lorette Belfor of the Federation of Grassroot Surinamers who demanded a compensation payment of 400,000 euros for everyone affected by the legacy of slavery.
Use it as boost for reparations
While the Dutch apology and social fund offer are far from satisfactory, it is nevertheless important that we use the opportunity to press our collective claims for reparations. Even among us, victims of slavery, there are people who still buy the line that the time has past and that it does not make sense to pursue the claim.
The fact that the Dutch government, still a colonial power in the Caribbean, can acknowledge its role in the shameful history of slavery and colonialism, should strengthen our case for reparations. Specifically, the government of SVG should stop its stalling on the matter and give full support to the functioning of an independent Reparations Movement to lead the charge. We have stalled on this important initiative and must reinvigorate this critical instrument.
Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.