Ahead of the 160th anniversary of the institution’s abolition, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte issued an official apology on behalf of the Dutch government on Monday for the country’s more than two centuries of slavery.
Rutte stated during a speech at the National Archives that these millions of historical documents are “the home of our national memory” and that the story that comes out of them “often is ugly, painful, and even downright shameful.”
According to Rutte, Dutch slave traders transported more than 600,000 enslaved Africans to the Americas by 1814, the majority of whom went to Suriname on South America’s northern coast. More than a million may have been traded in Asia in regions controlled by the Dutch East India Company.
Rutte gave a roughly 20-minute speech during which he provided a brief overview of the slave trade’s history and discussed how his own perspective on apologies had changed. He then made an apology to both the original victims of slavery and their descendants. The apology, he said, will be repeated in seven additional locations, including Suriname, Curaçao, and St. Maarten, where the aftereffects of slavery are most obvious.
He continued by saying that the government would establish a fund for social programs in Suriname and the Netherlands with the goal of giving the history of slavery the consideration and attention it merits. According to The Associated Press, the fund will have a 200-million-euro ($212 million) budget.
According to Reuters, some activist groups wanted the apology to be delivered by the Dutch king on the 160th anniversary of abolition. Others criticized the lack of sufficient outreach to activist groups. When he said that he understood there wasn’t “one good moment for everybody” to offer this apology, Rutte seemed to be acknowledging this resistance.
Rutte also stated that he wanted to be transparent about his own shift in perspective on historical atonements. He claimed that for a long time, he believed that modern individuals “could not easily take meaningful responsibility for something that occurred so long ago.” He listed discriminatory exclusion, social inequality, and racism as examples of how he had come to the realization that slavery was not something that had ended in the past.
“It is true that no one alive now is personally to blame for slavery,” he said, adding that it is also true that the Dutch state bears responsibility for the suffering.
A year of remembrance, he said, will begin on July 1 to mark the 160th anniversary of the Netherlands’ abolition of slavery. The king, who “feels very engaged with this subject,” will attend the commemoration ceremony on that day, according to Rutte.
The apology was partly inspired by a report from a government-appointed advisory board that was released last year and suggested a formal government apology that specifically acknowledged that the slave trade was a crime against humanity that took place under Dutch rule.
Slavery must be denounced as a “crime against humanity” and a “criminal system that caused untold numbers of people untold suffering,” according to Rutte, who made the statement on Monday.
He cited books that list the names and some other information about slaves as registered by their owners in the national archive’s records on slavery. The records are businesslike, systematic, and dry, which makes them even more shocking, the man said. The apology and commemoration, he continued, are intended to “fill the empty pages that lie ahead with dialogue, acknowledgment, and healing.”