Mon | May 29, 2023

Editorial | Dutch slavery apology is just the start

Published:Wednesday | December 21, 2022 | 12:48 AM

Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister, should have gone further. And he must.

Nonetheless, this newspaper welcomes his apparently sincere apology, issued on behalf of the Dutch state, for Holland’s participation in slavery.

Other European leaders, or their heads of state, have previously acknowledged the “abhorrence of slavery”, as Britain’s David Cameron did during his 2015 visit to Jamaica. Or that slavery was an “appalling atrocity”, as Prince Charles, as he then was, put it in his speech in Barbados a year ago. Or they might have noted that the cruelty of slavery, as Charles said at the Commonwealth summit earlier this year, caused them deep “personal sorrow at the suffering of so many”.

None before Mr Rutte, however, uttered the words ‘apology’ or ‘apologise’ on behalf of their countries for their deep involvement in the system that moved millions of people from Africa to be held, and bred, as chattel to work on plantations in their colonies.

That is a deeper acknowledgement of responsibility.

Said Mr Rutte, in a speech delivered at the Netherlands’ National Archives: “Today, on behalf of the Dutch government, I apologise for the past actions of the Dutch state: to enslaved people in the past, everywhere in the world, who suffered as a consequence of those actions, as well as to their daughters and sons, and to all their descendants, up to the present day.”

Dutch ministers delivered similar messages in former colonies, as well as in those constituent parts of the kingdom in the Caribbean where slavery existed.

Holland was among the last of the 19th-century European powers to abolish slavery, formally doing so only in 1863 – half a year after America’s Emancipation Proclamation came into effect. But in its colony of Suriname, a current member of the Caribbean Community (CARICOM), it took a decade before slaves there were freed. The institution persisted under the prolonged farce of ‘apprenticeship’.

In essence, similar to Jamaica, where slavery continued for four years after its abolition in 1834, Dutch planters enjoyed 10 years of free labour from supposedly free people.

Yet, as Mr Rutte noted, it was slaveowners, “not the enslaved people, who received financial compensation from the State”.

The prime minister’s apology followed last year’s publication of a report by an advisory panel that, among other things:

· likened Holland’s participation in slavery to a crime against humanity;

· blamed slavery, in part, for much of the institutional and other forms of racism that persist in the Netherlands;

· recommended that the Dutch government apologise for slavery; and

· suggested reparations.

Prior to the report, Mr Rutte had resisted calls for an apology for slavery. He had a change of heart.

He said on Monday: “For a long time, I thought that we could not easily take meaningful responsibility for something that happened so long ago. Something that none of us experienced first-hand. For a long time, I thought that the Netherlands’ role in slavery was a thing of the past, something we had put behind us. But I was wrong.”

That’s a start. Indeed, we accept Monday’s apology, as Mr Rutte put it, as a comma, rather than a full stop, in the dialogue on slavery.

Mr Rutte’s government hasn’t embraced the idea of reparations in its full sense. But he has come part of the way.

He admitted that a wrong was committed and that the Dutch state, operating in perpetuity, is obligated to accept responsibility. That obligation is not only moral, but legal. Reparatory justice, in this context, insists on atonement and restitution.

That must now be the next epiphany in Mr Rutte’s journey of growth. That enlightenment will hopefully be soon.

Indeed, Mr Rutte should recommend that his European colleagues follow suit and apologise and set the basis for serious negotiations with their former colonies of the formulas to determine quantum, and formats for the delivery, of reparations.