Last week it was leaked that the Dutch government intends to apologize for its role in the Dutch slavery past. Prime Minister Mark Rutte will do so in the Netherlands on December 19, other ministers will visit Suriname and the Caribbean part of the Kingdom to convey the message there, although this has not yet been officially confirmed. The organizations involved are surprised and do not feel heard.
“This is a unilateral Dutch action, with a high risk of failure,” said Armand Zunder, chairman of the National Repair Commission Suriname, in the Surinamese newspaper. The True Time. ‘This is premature. I don’t know what a hurry these Dutch people are suddenly in.’
There is also criticism from Curaçao. “Of course we want apologies, and we are happy when they come. But if you do it this way, you will get a spanner in the works,” predicted Gibi Basilio, president of the Association for the Promotion of Historical Consciousness, on Radio 1.
Philosopher of law Wouter Veraart of the Free University of Amsterdam understands the annoyance about the sudden haste. “A lot has happened in the run-up to the apology, but now that it’s almost time, a number of steps are being skipped,” he says. For example, the government has not yet officially responded to a recent advice from the Slavery Past Dialogue Group. That calls for acknowledgment, apology and recovery. ‘The advice contains all kinds of proposals about the content and form of apologies,’ says Veraart. ‘It would be nice if there was a response first in which the government explains what it is taking over and what it is not.’
Surinamese and Antillean descendants of enslaved people state that they were not involved in the decision. ‘They heard about it from the media,’ confirms Surinamese political scientist Glenn Truideman. ‘The Dutch government should discuss with them exactly what it is going to say, instead of confronting them with a fait accompli.’
Veraart sees that these organizations now feel that they are not being taken seriously, ‘while apologies should restore those kinds of feelings’.
Linda Nooitmeer, chair of the National Institute of the Dutch Slavery Past and Legacy (Ninsee), has less difficulty with the fact that the Dutch government is in a hurry to apologize. ‘We have been pleading for apologies for twenty years, as far as we are concerned they are one hundred and sixty years too late. I do hope that the government will use the period up to December 19 to respond to the dissatisfaction that has arisen.’ She does not rule out that the government’s response to the advice of the Slavery History Dialogue Group will come before 19 December.
The Ninsee is in favor of apologies in the former colonies, preferably by the king. ‘But I can imagine that on July 1, 2023 (exactly 160 years after the abolition of slavery, ed.) is still making an appearance’, says Nooitmeer. “All things considered, we can live with this solution.”
Historian Karwan Fatah-Black, who has done a lot of research into the Dutch slavery past, had found July 1 a more logical moment. ‘The previous apologies from De Nederlandsche Bank and the municipality of Amsterdam on that date were clearly more solemn than those from, for example, Rotterdam and The Hague at other self-chosen times. This would be the first time that a Dutch institution has apologized to a partly foreign public for its slavery past. That requires care.’
Fatah-Black is also annoyed by Prime Minister Rutte, who does not want to draw the king into ‘the political debate’ by having him apologize. “This is not politics, we abolished slavery a long time ago and have not liked it for a long time. That recognition is done by the head of state, not by state secretaries who come and go.’
Veraar draws a comparison with the World Cup in Qatar: ‘It makes a difference whether there is a minister, the prime minister or the king. The fact that a minister is going to Suriname means that it is not chefsache.’ According to political scientist Truideman, the fact that the relevant minister, Franc Weerwind, is of Surinamese descent and descends from enslaved people, makes it ‘all the more painful’.
According to Ninsee, even more important than the who, what, when and how of apologies is the repair. ‘Descendants of enslaved people and Dutch youths of Surinamese or Antillean origin have no use for apologies in themselves’, says Nevermore. For them it is much more interesting what happens in terms of repair, that affects them. They benefit much more from an investment in awareness and the elimination of exclusion mechanisms.’ The government is making 200 million euros available for awareness of the slavery past, and 27 million for a museum.
According to Veraart, fear of repair payments dominates the discussion in the Netherlands. Because of the haste with which the government is now proceeding, and the lack of involvement of descendants, he understands the fear that such a restoration will not materialize. The government is now firmly in control while it is important for a meaningful discussion about repairs that it adopts an open and helpful attitude.’
The content of the apology will determine any reparation payments, thinks Truideman. The government will also have to find a tone that also appeals to descendants. For a successful apology, both parties must be satisfied. If the other party is not satisfied, you cannot close the book unilaterally.’ If the will is there, he believes it can be done. ‘The Dutch are very good at talking until everyone is satisfied.’
Members of the House of Representatives are also critical of the leaked plans for slavery apologies. ‘What surprises me is that such a sensitive subject has not been fine-tuned’, says PvdA Member of Parliament Kati Piri in Fidelity. She believes that the cabinet should agree with all interest groups on what the apologies should look like.
Volt MP Marieke Koekoek, who traveled to Suriname and the Antilles this summer with Piri and several other MPs, is surprised that interest groups of descendants have not been involved in the decision. Apologies should mean more than words, she was told in the former colonies. ‘Repair what still exists from the past, such as economic and social inequality. But it is also about practical things, such as a tribute to Tula (a Curaçaoan resistance hero who rebelled against his plantation owner in 1795, ed.).’