What is Keti Koti? How the Netherlands commemorates the abolition of slavery
July is here, which means that once again people across the Netherlands will come together to celebrate Keti Koti. But what is Keti Koti, and why is it celebrated annually on July 1? Read on to find out!
What is Keti Koti?
Known officially as Dag der Vrijheden and sometimes spelt as Ketikoti, Keti Koti is a festival in the Netherlands to commemorate the abolition of slavery in Suriname and the Dutch Antilles. It’s celebrated annually on July 1 to mark Suriname’s Emancipation Day.
What does Keti Koti mean?
Dag der Vrijheden, which translates directly to “Day of Freedoms”, is more generally known as Keti Koti, which means “broken chains” in Sranan Tongo - the language spoken in Suriname.
The history of Keti Koti
The Netherlands has a pretty dark history, as the country played a significant role in the international slave trade from the 17th to the 19th century, and the former Dutch colonies of modern-day Suriname and Guyana became prominent markets in the 18th century. Over a 150-year period, the Dutch are estimated to have shipped hundreds of thousands of slaves from fortresses along the Gold Coast in West Africa.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the Netherlands’ role in the slave trade started to diminish, and over time anti-slavery sentiments spread throughout countries across Europe. It took a few decades, but by 1850 the British and French empires had both passed laws to abolish slavery.
It took a little longer in the Netherlands. In 1814, the Dutch monarch at the time, King Willem I, issued a royal decree, banning Dutch ships from taking part in the transatlantic slave trade. A few decades later, in 1848, the Dutch government made the decision to abolish slavery, although it took some time for the law to be passed.
On July 1, 1863, the Dutch government passed the Emancipation Act (Emancipatiewet), banning the ownership of slaves and abolishing slavery in Suriname and the Dutch Antilles. On the morning of July 1, 21 cannon shots were fired from Fort Zeelandia in Paramaribo to celebrate the abolition of slavery.
While theoretically the Emancipation Act led to over 45.000 slaves being freed, Dutch law stipulated that Suriname needed a 10-year transition period, meaning many slaves in Suriname weren’t freed until 1873. Slave owners were also compensated for their losses, receiving between 150 and 300 gilders per slave.
Is Keti Koti a Dutch public holiday?
Keti Koti is a public holiday in Suriname, and recent years have seen the Dutch government face increasing pressure to recognise Keti Koti as a national holiday in the Netherlands - and calls from Dutch cities have only grown louder since President Joe Biden officially recognised the anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the United States as an American holiday, known as Juneteenth.
However, so far, little change has been made here in the Netherlands. While some mostly left-leaning political parties would like to see the holiday recognised, others have repeatedly spoken out against the idea.
However, while initially Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced that the Dutch government wouldn’t apologise for the Netherlands’ history of slavery, December 2022 saw Rutte apologise on behalf of the government for the role the Netherlands played in the international slave trade and practice of slavery. The speech was historic - but for now there remains no real likelihood that Keti Koti will be made a national holiday.
How does the Netherlands celebrate Keti Koti?
It might not be a public holiday, but that doesn’t mean that the Netherlands doesn’t celebrate Keti Koti in different ways. Keti Koti has been celebrated in a number of Dutch cities since 2002 with various festivals and events. Unsurprisingly, the most notable one is the Keti Koti Festival in Amsterdam, which is held in the Oosterpark and attended by the city’s mayor as well as other representatives of the Dutch government and foundations such as NiNsee.
Events are also held in Rotterdam, where the abolition of slavery is commemorated on June 30 and celebrated on July 1. The festival features two church services and a variety of fun and educational events. For the sixth year in a row, the National Theatre in The Hague has also put together a special programme in honour of Keti Koti, which features a city walk and a theatrical performance.
Thumb: 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, via Stadsarchief Amsterdam / Ton van Rijn.