For the second time in six months, Amsterdam district counselor Vayhishta Miskin is braced for a historic occasion that may long have seemed unthinkable to many people of Surinamese descent like her.
After Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologized for the tiny country’s slave-trading past and pledged €200 million ($216 million) for educational initiatives in December, King Willem-Alexander is widely expected to follow suit on Saturday, July 1, according to local media.
“What people told me is that they felt emotional about the prime minister’s apology, because these were words people were waiting for since 1863,” Miskin told DW’s Christine Mhundwa in the Dutch capital this week, referring to the date when the Netherlands abolished slavery by law. “It’s a first step in order for us to move forward and heal as a society.”
July 1 marks 150 years since the de facto end, and 160 years since official abolition, of Dutch-organized slavery in the Caribbean. The occasion is known as Keti Koti, or Broken Chains day, in former colony of Suriname.
Willem-Alexander has not given any indications of exactly what he will say. But in Miskin’s neighborhood of Amsterdam South-East, where many locals have roots in former colonies like Suriname and the Dutch Antilles, the bigger question for many is what comes after.
In fact, the community has held meetings to discuss precisely that question. “What people told us is that they need the wrongs and the injustice that they experienced in the past and still continue in the present day to be nullified,” Miskin said.
“Even if we receive an apology from the king, what does it mean?” she added. “What people really need is for their children to have a professional education, their children to get a job,” she said, pointing to ongoing inequality in one of the world’s richest countries.
A dark chapter remembered
At the height of its colonial era, the Netherlands presided over a huge global trade network as one of the world’s major imperial powers. Over centuries, the Dutch were responsible for about 5% of the overall transatlantic slave trade, buying and shipping close to 600,000 enslaved people from Africa to Caribbean colonies as well as other European colonies across the Americas.
Enslaved Africans were also forcibly moved to Dutch colonies in the Indian Ocean, like present-day Indonesia, and enslaved Balinese or Javanese were transported to modern-day South Africa.
Overall, 15% of those taken from Africa to the Americas in the transatlantic trade did not survive the abysmal ship conditions of the crossing, not to mention the many, many more who died before they had even left Africa.
The survivors and their descendants faced a brutal plantation life of hard labor and often violent punishment for perceived insubordination. The Dutch were one of the last European nations to end slavery in colonial territories.
To commemorate this dark chapter, a ceremony involving the king and marking the start of a memorial year is planned in Amsterdam’s Oosterpark. The Keti Koti festival celebrating Surinamese emancipation, anticipated to be larger than usual this year, will be held at Amsterdam’s Museumplein.
Sorry seems to be the hardest word
One person who will be watching the exact wording of Willem-Alexander’s speech closely is Wouter Veraart, a professor of legal philosophy at the Free University of Amsterdam.
“[Prime Minister] Rutte’s speech was well received, but when you look more closely… he seems only to say that in light of the present values, it has been a crime against humanity,” the academic told DW.
This is different from saying it was a crime at the time, he pointed out. “There is this idea of the colonial space as a place in which the civilized laws do not really apply.”
While pressure on Europe’s former colonial powers to atone for past wrongs has mounted in recent years, Willem-Alexander’s royal counterparts in Belgium and the United Kingdom stopped short of offering outright apologies when addressing similar legacies.
Last year, Belgium’s King Philippe offered his “deep regrets” over atrocities committed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In April, Britain’s Charles III spoke of his “personal sorrow” over slavery.
Leaders seem to carefully craft such statements to minimize the risk potential of repercussions, Veraart said. “There is this this whole language game within the apology about what exactly is stated [and] what is the legal meaning of the statements, which could or could not have consequences for liability.”
In reality, chances for claims for compensation for crimes against humanity in either Dutch or international courts are extremely low, according to the scholar. “You can go to court, but the chance of winning is still really, really slim.”
“You must prove in court that you have a direct interest in the injustice of the past. There are statutes of limitation,” he elaborated. “Then there is this problem of causality. Is there proof of a direct relation between the history of colonial slavery and the problems that you have right now?”
From apology to reparations?
What Willem-Alexander says will be closely watched on a political level, not just for descendant communities in the Netherlands, but in the Caribbean and far beyond.
For Mia McMorris, a research fellow at University of the West Indies’ Center for Reparations Research, it is very clear what a proper apology for slavery should look like, and where it should lead.
“An apology should have three dimensions, the first being taking responsibility, which hopefully means that you understand what you’ve done wrong and admit fault,” the researcher said. Second comes dealing with the present-day legacy – “continuing colonial narratives, racial profiling, anything that promotes a racial inequality,” McMorris highlighted – and, third and finally, making amends.
“In Jamaica, we had the largest figure of persons brought to Jamaica. Something like 1 million. And at the end of slavery, there were only about 300,000 enslaved persons on the island,” she stressed. ” When you understand those figures and the historical implications, how can you deny that an apology is necessary, that reparation is necessary?”
Founded in 2013 by Caribbean heads of government, the Caricom Reparations Commission drew up a 10-point plan. The first step is an apology. Other demands include funding for public history and to tackle massive health and education problems, as well as the right to development through knowledge transfer and debt cancellation. To date, only the Dutch have given a partial response to reparations demands, McMorris said.
Scant precedent for compensation
As Veraart points out, there are very few real-world examples of reparations. A key one would be 1952 negotiations between the post-Nazi Western German state, Israel and the Claims Conference (a Jewish diaspora umbrella body) in the wake of the Holocaust. “The reparations offered and negotiated between West Germany and Israel were not based on counting how much profit was made or all the losses, but on what was needed in Israel at that moment,” he explained.
Last year, Germany officially acknowledged its early 20th century genocide in Namibia and promised around €1 billion in development aid as a form of reparation.
“If you really want to face this history and no longer ignore it, then why shouldn’t you enter into a dialogue with Suriname, for example, about what reparations could mean?” Veraart said.
Willem-Alexander’s expected speech on Saturday may well be relatively ambitious, at least compared to Belgium’s Philippe, and could even spur on others, the scholar said.
Researcher McMorris sees a lot to be done, but also grounds for optimism. “We’re in a changing world right now,” she said, pointing to a number of recent moves by non-state institutions to investigate their own links to slavery, like the British newspaper The Guardian.
“People are rebelling,” she said. “They’re saying this isn’t right. And that’s the heart of the reparation movement, understanding that these things are not right, and we need to repair that injustice.”
Edited by: Emily Schultheis