It’s bitterly cold on this December day in Amsterdam. Cultural historian Jennifer Tosch stands in front of the mayor’s official residence at Herengracht 502, a magnificent building on the Gouden Bocht, the most prestigious stretch of the canal. The founder of Black Heritage Tours Amsterdam points to a plaque embedded in the ground in front of the house. “As long as the memory lives, the suffering is not in vain,” it says.
The house was built in 1672 for Paulus Godin, an administrator of the Dutch West India Company. Like many of his Herengracht neighbors, he owed at least some of his wealth to slavery, as the plaque reads.
Tosch came to the Netherlands as an exchange student. “I was so surprised that the dominant narrative was so dominated by this idea of a glorious golden age,” she says, referring to the period when the Netherlands was rapidly becoming one of the richest countries in the world.
About five percent of those who have been enslaved in Africa over the centuries – about 600,000 people – were shipped from the Dutch to their own colonies in the course of the transatlantic slave trade. The destinations of the slave ships in the Caribbean were, for example, Suriname and Curaçao. Or the prisoners were shipped to the colonies of other European countries across the American continent.
Slaves from Africa were also transported to the Dutch colonies in the Indian Ocean, for example present-day Indonesia, while enslaved Balinese or Javanese were brought to present-day South Africa. Many people died during the crossing.
A lifetime of hard labor on the plantations awaited the survivors and their descendants. There was Wally, for example, who was forced to work as a slave on a sugar plantation in Suriname and took part in an uprising in 1707. His story was told last year as part of an exhibition at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum.
The punishment for his rebellion was incredibly cruel: pieces of flesh were torn from his body with red-hot tongs, then he was burned alive. His head was then impaled on a stake and put on display.
Evidence of this more than 250 year old history can be found all around Amsterdam. “You just have to know where to look,” says cultural historian Tosch. Her parents are from Surinam, she counts enslaved people among her ancestors.
In 2013 she started offering her tour to educate locals and tourists alike about the importance of slavery in the Netherlands. She wants to break the “willful ignorance in Dutch society” about this.
In the meantime, there has been movement in the debate: This Monday, the Dutch government wants to apologize for its role in the slave trade. But not all addressees are ready to accept this excuse.
For example, various Surinamese organizations have complained that they have not been sufficiently consulted. They would prefer to hold such a ceremony on July 1, 2023, when Suriname is celebrating the end of slavery. Then 160 years have passed since the official abolition and 150 years since the actual abolition.
The Dutch government’s plans were only published by the media in November. However, there was no official confirmation of the date and content of the apology. Since then, the topic has dominated the headlines in the Netherlands.
The apology is also to be read out by a black MP of Surinamese descent, the Minister for Legal Protection, Franc Weerwind. An emergency meeting was held in The Hague on December 13 with representatives of Dutch people with roots in Surinae or in the Antilles.
Two days later, Deputy Prime Minister Sigrid Kaag traveled to Suriname to try to “put the pieces back together,” as Dutch newspaper Trouw put it.
But not only the timing of the apology is disputed, but also the amount of the planned reparation payments. The Dutch government is reportedly planning to invest 200 million euros in slavery education. A further 27 million euros are to flow into the construction of a museum.
Armand Zunder, chairman of Suriname’s National Commission for Reparations, says this is not enough. “What has been destroyed must be restored. Our frame of reference is billions of euros, certainly not hundreds of millions of euros,” Tinder told the media.
In doing so, Tinder joins the position of the Caribbean Commission on Reparations. The group of former colonies, where many people were enslaved, have drawn up a ten-point plan for reparation. The demands include not only an official apology, but also funds for literacy, health care, historical research and knowledge transfer.
Groups in the Netherlands, such as the Ocan Foundation, which represents the Dutch-Caribbean community and fights for their rights, emphasize that the choreography of an apology is far less important to them than the form of reparation. There are many current problems to be solved, says spokesman Xavier Donker. “Racism, both overt and subtle, disproportionately high unemployment, discrimination,” he enumerates. All of these problems are part of the “enduring legacy” of the colonial era.
The figure of “Zwarte Piet”, the buck, has been discussed in the Netherlands for a long time. Traditionally, at the beginning of December, numerous Dutch people paint their faces black and don curly wigs to play the helper of St. Nicholas in processions. Many black Dutch people find the practice offensive, but when they criticize they are often accused of just trying to attract attention, Donker says.
A government-commissioned report a year and a half ago recommended an apology and further action to combat institutional racism. Prime Minister Mark Rutte had previously spoken out against an apology. In 2020, he argued that it could lead to societal polarization.
An official apology is also controversial among the population. In a poll by broadcaster NOS earlier this year, half of the Dutch spoke out against it. However, several cities, including Amsterdam and The Hague, have already apologized for their role in the slave trade. Likewise the Dutch central bank and bank ABN AMRO.
The pressure on Europe’s former colonial powers to make amends for past atrocities has increased. The Black Lives Matter movement from the USA is also responsible for this, which primarily criticizes police violence against non-whites, but has also sharpened the eye for historical atrocities.
In 2020, King Philippe of Belgium expressed “deep regret” for the acts of violence committed by his country, particularly under his predecessor and relative Leopold II, during the Congo’s colonial rule. However, he did not offer an apology.
Last year, Germany apologized for the Herero genocide in Namibia in the early 20th century and promised one billion euros in reparations. But such declarations rarely lead to actual reparation payments.
When city guide and historian Tosch heard about the Dutch government’s plans for an apology, her first spontaneous reaction was: “It’s not enough. Honestly, it’s about time,” she says. “I don’t think that 200 million euros will make up for 400 years of colonialism.”
Adapted from the English by Phoenix Hanzo.
Author: Ella Joyner
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The original of this post “Netherlands argue over apology for slavery” comes from Deutsche Welle.