Apologizing for slavery: A Dutch way to make amends

Why attitudes have shifted quickly about the Netherlands’ colonial-era role in the slave trade.

Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema is greeted after giving an official apology in July, 2021, for the involvement of the city's past rulers in the slave trade.

Dutch leaders do not often visit Suriname. Their presence stirs suspicions among local critics. That’s because the South American country still bears the legacies of three centuries of colonial rule by the Netherlands – a legacy that includes Dutch merchant ships bringing enslaved Africans to Suriname and many other parts of the New World.

When Prime Minister Mark Rutte arrived yesterday on the first state visit in 14 years, he came to discuss trade, public health, and agriculture. But his two-day trip may have had a deeper historical import: a prelude to a government apology for the Dutch slave trade.

“As much as we would like to, the history of slavery is not something that the Netherlands can just shake off,” writes Wim Dubbink, a business ethics professor at Tilburg University, in an article on the school’s website. “Taking responsibility is broader than just accepting blame. ... It also carries a promise to act differently in the future. Apologies express that intention.”

Two years ago, Mr. Rutte told a parliamentary debate on racism that “apologies form a risk that society will further polarize.” A 2021 opinion poll showed that 55% of Dutch people opposed apologizing for slavery. A report by a national commission called “Chains of the Past” sharply disagreed. “Apologies help heal historical suffering, but apologies are mainly aimed at building a shared future,” the report stated last year, helping to shift attitudes.

Since then, the city of Amsterdam and the Dutch central bank, among other institutions, have apologized for their historical links to slavery. Mr. Rutte appears to have evolved as well. He told reporters last Friday that “a significant moment is to be expected later this year” concerning the Dutch role in slavery. That is expected to include a formal national apology and the creation of a fund to support academic research on Dutch colonial slavery and help the country’s former colonies, such as Indonesia, address climate change.

A national apology would mirror conversations taking place across Dutch society, within schools and museums, churches and businesses, about colonial slavery. One factor that may help explain the changes in Dutch attitudes, says Valika Smeulders, curator at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, is the recognition of what many historians know well – that “racism is not something that always existed.” It was born out of colonialism, Dr. Smeulders told the BBC, and can be unlearned.

That deceptively simple idea offers an assurance of the dignity of people caught in the trap of historical resentment, no matter what side they’re on. The Dutch are showing that official apologies need not be accusations. They can be pathways to common understanding and reconciliation.

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