Dutch king apologises over country’s role in slavery

Dutch king Willem-Alexander apologised for the royal house’s role in slavery (Pool/AP)
Dutch king Willem-Alexander apologised for the royal house’s role in slavery (Pool/AP)

Dutch King Willem-Alexander has apologised over his country’s role in slavery and asked for forgiveness in a historic speech at an event to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands.

The king’s speech followed Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s apology late last year for the country’s role in the slave trade and slavery.

It is part of a wider reckoning with colonial histories in the West that have been spurred in recent years by the Black Lives Matter movement.

Dutch king lays wreath
Dutch king laid a wreath at the slavery monument after his speech (Pool via AP)

In an emotional speech which was cheered by guests and onlookers, Willem-Alexander referred back to that apology as he told the crowd: “Today I stand before you. Today, as your King and as a member of the government, I make this apology myself. And I feel the weight of the words in my heart and my soul.”

The king said he has commissioned a study into the exact role of the royal House of Orange-Nassau in slavery in the Netherlands.

“But today, on this day of remembrance, I ask forgiveness for the clear failure to act in the face of this crime against humanity,” he added.

Willem-Alexander’s voice appeared to break with emotion as he completed his speech before laying a wreath at the country’s national slavery monument in an Amsterdam park.

Former legislator John Leerdam told Dutch broadcaster NOS that he felt tears running down his cheeks as the king apologised. “It’s a historic moment and we have to realise that,” he said.

Netherlands Slavery
A woman wears a button in her hair referring to the year when slaves were free, ten years after a law was adopted abolishing slavery (Pool via AP)

Slavery was abolished in Suriname and the Dutch colonies in the Caribbean on July 1 1863, but most of the enslaved labourers were forced to continue working on plantations for a further 10 years.

The commemoration and speech marks the start of a year of events to mark the 150th anniversary of July 1 1873.

Research published last month showed that the king’s ancestors earned the modern-day equivalent of 545 million euro (£468 million) from slavery, including profits from shares that were effectively given to them as gifts.

When Mr Rutte apologised in December, he stopped short of offering compensation to descendants of enslaved people.

Instead, the government is establishing a 200 million euro (£172 million) fund for initiatives that tackle the legacy of slavery in the Netherlands and its former colonies and to improve education about the issue.

Dutch king
Willem-Alexander asked forgiveness in a speech at the slavery monument (Pool via AP)

That is not enough for some in the Netherlands. Two groups, Black Manifesto and The Black Archives, organised a protest march before the king’s speech on Saturday under the banner: “No healing without reparations”.

Black Archives director Mitchell Esajas said: “A lot of people including myself, my group, The Black Archives, and the Black Manifesto say that (an) apology is not enough.

“An apology should be tied to a form of repair and reparatory justice or reparations.”

The Netherlands’ often brutal colonial history has come under renewed and critical scrutiny in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, a black man, in the US city of Minneapolis on May 25 2020, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

A ground-breaking 2021 exhibition at the national museum of art and history took an unflinching look at slavery in Dutch colonies.

In the same year, a report described the Dutch involvement in slavery as a crime against humanity and linked it to what the report described as ongoing institutional racism in the Netherlands.

Netherlands Slavery event
The king called for unity (Pool via AP)

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, according to Karwan Fatah-Black, an expert in Dutch colonial history and an assistant professor at Leiden University.

Authorities in the Netherlands are not alone in saying sorry for historic abuses.

In 2018, Denmark apologised to Ghana, which it colonized from the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century. King Philippe of Belgium has expressed “deepest regrets” for abuses in Congo.

In 1992, Pope John Paul II apologised for the church’s role in slavery. Americans have had emotionally charged disputes over taking down statues of slaveholders in the South.

In April, the King signalled support for research into the UK monarchy’s ties to slavery after a document showed an ancestor with shares in a slave-trading company, a Buckingham Palace spokesperson said.

Charles and his eldest son, the Prince of Wales, have expressed their sorrow over slavery, but have not acknowledged the Crown’s connections to the trade.

During a ceremony that marked Barbados becoming a republic two years ago, the King referred to “the darkest days of our past and the appalling atrocity of slavery, which forever stains our history”.

English settlers used African slaves to turn the island into a wealthy sugar colony.

Willem-Alexander acknowledged that not everybody in the Netherlands supports apologies, but called for unity.

“There’s no blueprint for the process of healing, reconciliation and recovery,” he said. “Together, we are in uncharted territory. So let’s support and guide each other.”