Amsterdam apologises for slavery, will the Dutch government follow?
Speaking at the national ceremony to commemorate the abolition of slavery in the Dutch Antilles and Suriname, Amsterdam mayor Femke Halsema apologised for the role the city played in the Dutch slave trade. As more Dutch cities consider doing the same, the government is facing mounting pressure to recognise and apologise for the role the Netherlands played in slavery.
Amsterdam mayor apologises for slavery
Speaking at a historic ceremony in the Oosterpark in Amsterdam on Keti Koti (July 1), Halsema issued a heartfelt apology on behalf of the city council for the Dutch capital’s history. “From the end of the sixteenth century until well into the nineteenth century, Amsterdam’s involvement [in the slave trade] was direct, worldwide, large-scale, multifaceted, and long-lasting,” Halsema explained.
“Between 1500 and 1880, at least 12,5 million people fell prey to the transatlantic slave trade,” she said. “They were dragged from their homes, families were torn asunder, their freedom was crushed. People were robbed of their surnames, of their history, of their identity. They were humiliated, beaten, killed.”
The mayor acknowledged the role the slave trade had in generating significant wealth for Amsterdam and its inhabitants, and how the legacy of that wealth can still be seen across the city today. She also highlighted the “long ignored” legacy of slavery, and how the slave trade is “indivisible with the persistent and rampant racism” in the Netherlands today.
“We want to be a government for all Amsterdammers," Halsema announced. "We strive for a fair handling of our history. Reconciliation, around a shared past, makes room for a shared future. On behalf of the Municipal Executive, I apologise for the active involvement of the Amsterdam city council in the commercial system of colonial slavery and the worldwide trade in enslaved persons.”
Will the Dutch government issue an official apology?
Halsema’s words yesterday made Amsterdam the first governmental body in the Netherlands to apologise for slavery - but it surely won’t be the last. Rotterdam has investigated the city’s role in the slave trade, and is set to make a final decision about an apology in the autumn. The municipality of Utrecht would also like to apologise for this “painful page” in the city’s history.
Last year, Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced that the cabinet would not apologise for the Netherlands’ history with slavery, saying that his previous government had already expressed deep regret for slavery and that an official statement of apology would only serve to further polarise the country.
But a new report published by the Ministry of Internal Affairs says the state must be prepared to “remedy this historical injustice” and apologise. This report, combined with the fact that cities are calling for Keti Koti to be a national holiday, means the Dutch government is facing mounting pressure to recognise the Netherlands’ problematic history.
In her speech in Amsterdam on Thursday, Deputy Prime Minister Kajsa Ollongren acknowledged the report’s recommendations, opening the door for further conversations to be had in The Hague over the coming months. “By facing our past, we can change our future. That is not a luxury, but a necessity.”
Thumb: National Monument to Slavery, via Stadsarchief Amsterdam / Martin Alberts.