Between 1596 and 1829, the Dutch transported about half a million Africans across the Atlantic to their settlements in Dutch Guiana, notably Suriname, where they worked primarily on sugar plantations. Although slavery was abolished in the former colonies of Suriname and the Dutch Antilles in 1863, there was a mandatory 10-year transition period which meant the slaves were actually freed in 1873.
Social history researchers from the International Institute for Social History claim that slavery generated about 5.2% of the Netherlands’ GDP – slightly less than the proportion generated by Rotterdam port today. Despite relatively low economic gain, Author of ‘The Dutch Slave Trade 1500-1850’, P. C. Emmer argued that the Dutch, “did have a significant role in the development of the trade in the first half of the seventeenth century, not only through supplying their short-lived Brazilian colony with slaves, but perhaps more importantly by stimulating the cultivation of sugar—with the consequent urgent need for slaves—in the French and English Caribbean.” Golden Age traders, bankers, and notaries also amassed large fortunes from slave labour.
Between 1596 and 1829, the Dutch transported about half a million Africans across the Atlantic to their settlements in Dutch Guiana, notably Suriname, where they worked primarily on sugar plantations
Despite exacerbating the demand for slaves, the Dutch played a minimal role in the abolition of the slave trade, and what they did do, was because of British pressure.
150 years since Dutch legislation to abolish slavery was actually enacted, multiple Dutch entities are taking responsibility for their role in the slave trade. The city of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Utrecht and ABN Amro bank, and the Dutch central bank (De Nederlandsche Bank) are some of them. The bank acknowledged its involvement between 1814 and 1863 and paid compensation to plantation owners when slavery was abolished, including members of its board.
At the time of the announcement, Klaas Knot, the president of the bank, told onlookers, “Today, on behalf of De Nederlandsche Bank, I apologise for these reprehensible facts.”
“I apologise to all those who, because of the personal choices of many, including my predecessors, were reduced to the colour of their skin,” he said.
The bank also announced it was setting up a five-million-euro ($5.2m) fund for projects aimed at reducing, the “contemporary negative effects of nineteenth-century slavery”. And internal measures to boost diversity and inclusiveness in its ranks.
Another entity Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum hosted an exhibition in 2021 titled ‘slavery’ which boldly explored Dutch involvement in the atrocities of that era. The exhibit used more than 140 artefacts and the stories of 10 people ranging from enslaved workers to wealthy Amsterdam women to tell the story.
“We wanted to make the case, that this is a history that speaks to anybody in the Netherlands. It belongs to all of us, so that’s why we chose a personal approach,” Valika Smeulders, head of the museum’s history department, told the Associated Press.
Two years before the museum removed the “Golden Age” descriptor from its historical exhibits because the term refers to an era of unprecedented wealth in the Dutch Republic that obscures the truth behind the wealth’s source.
Speaking to AP on that occasion, Smeulders added that the museum would also revise the wall text for about 70 objects with previously undisclosed relationships to the slave trade.
Government Apology Fund
The Dutch government is planning to formally apologise for the Republic’s role in the slave trade, after much resistance and despite pressure from two of the coalition parties. Trailing behind its cities and many high-profile entities. Before the apology (or in place of one), it has set up an approx. €200 million fund to help raise awareness about the legacy of slavery.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte said in a speech in the National Assembly of Suriname, “Today I cannot and will not ignore the past. It is paradoxical that our shared history, which binds us and which we cherish, still bears so much pain. We cannot change that past, but we can and must face it.”
“In the Kingdom of the Netherlands, we are on the eve of the commemoration of 150 years of the abolition of slavery… The commemorative year 2023 should therefore be dominated by recognition. Recognition of the horrible suffering inflicted on the enslaved. Recognition of the struggle and resistance… recognition of the social impact of the period of slavery in the present. Because recognition is the beginning of healing,” he continued
Whether cultural and public relations campaigns are the best use of the fund is debatable. On one hand, it could change racist attitudes that would ease the structural oppression of black people living in the Netherlands, but on the other, it could have gone to economically empowering slave descendants and somewhat balancing the inequalities the past created.