THE HAGUE — Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is delivering a speech Monday in response to a report on the country’s historical role in the global slave trade, prompting reports he may offer a formal government apology.
Rutte has said only that his speech at the National Archive in The Hague will be a “meaningful moment.”
News of a possible apology upset some activist groups in the Netherlands and its former colonies that think it should be offered next year on the July 1 anniversary of the abolition of slavery 160 years ago. Activists consider next year the 150th anniversary because many enslaved people were forced to continue working in plantations for a decade after abolition.
“Why the rush?” asked Barryl Biekman, chair of the Netherlands-based National Platform for Slavery Past. Some of the groups went to court last week in a failed attempt to block the speech.
The Dutch government previously expressed deep regret for the nation’s historical role in slavery but stopped short of a formal apology, with Rutte once saying such a declaration could polarize society. However, a majority in parliament now supports an apology.
Rutte’s speech comes at a time when many nations’ brutal colonial histories have received critical scrutiny because of the Black Lives Matter movement and the police killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in the U.S. city of Minneapolis on May 25, 2020.
The prime minister’s speech is a response to a report published last year by a government-appointed advisory board. Its recommendations included the government’s apology and recognition that the slave trade and slavery from the 17th century until abolition “that happened directly or indirectly under Dutch authority were crimes against humanity.”
The report said that what it called institutional racism in the Netherlands “cannot be seen separately from centuries of slavery and colonialism and the ideas that have arisen in this context.”
Dutch ministers fanned out Monday to discuss the issue in Suriname and former colonies that make up the Kingdom of the Netherlands — Aruba, Curacao and Sint Maarten as well as three Caribbean islands that are officially special municipalities in the Netherlands, Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba.
The government has said that the year starting July 1, 2023, will be a slavery memorial year in which the country “will pause to reflect on this painful history. And on how this history still plays a negative role in the lives of many today.”
That was underscored earlier this month when an independent investigation found widespread racism at the Dutch foreign ministry and its diplomatic outposts around the world.
In Suriname, the small South American nation where Dutch plantation owners generated huge profits through the use of enslaved labor, activists and officials say they have not been asked for input, and that’s a reflection of a Dutch colonial attitude. What’s really needed, they say, is compensation.
The Dutch first became involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the late 1500s and became a major trader in the mid-1600s. Eventually, the Dutch West India Company became the largest trans-Atlantic slave trader, said Karwan Fatah-Black, an expert in Dutch colonial history and an assistant professor at Leiden University.
Dutch cities, including the capital, Amsterdam, and port city Rotterdam already have issued apologies for the historic role of city fathers in the slave trade.
In 2018, Denmark apologized to Ghana, which it colonized from the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century. In June, King Philippe of Belgium expressed “deepest regrets” for abuses in Congo. In 1992, Pope John Paul II apologized for the church’s role in slavery. Americans have had emotionally charged fights over taking down statues of slaveholders in the South.