Caribbean divided as Netherlands ponders slavery apology

PARAMARIBO, Suriname (AP) — Dutch colonists kidnapped men, women and children and enslaved them on plantations that grew sugar, coffee and other goods that generated wealth at the price of poverty.

On Monday, the Netherlands is expected to become one of the few nations to apologize for its role in slavery. Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte plans to speak in the Netherlands while members of his cabinet give speeches in seven former Caribbean colonies, including Suriname.

The symbolism surrounding crimes against humanity is controversial everywhere, and debates over Monday’s ceremonies are stirring Suriname and other Caribbean countries.

In Suriname, activists and officials say they have not been asked to comment on the apology, reflecting a Dutch colonial attitude. What is really needed, they say, is compensation.

In 2013, the Caribbean trading bloc known as Caricom made a list of requests that included a formal apology from European governments and a repatriation program for those who wish to return to their homeland, which has not happened.

“We are still feeling the effects of that period, so some financial support would be welcome,” said Orlando Daniel, a 46-year-old security guard and descendant of slaves.

Suriname is an ethnically diverse country where approximately 60% of its 630,000 people live below the poverty line and 22% identify as Maroons, the ancestors of escaped slaves who established their own communities.

The Dutch first became involved in the transatlantic slave trade in the late 16th century, but did not become significant traders until the mid-17th century, when they seized Portuguese strongholds along the west coast of Africa and plantations in northeastern Brazil. Eventually, the Dutch West India Company became the largest transatlantic slave trader, said Karwan Fatah-Black, an expert on Dutch colonial history and an assistant professor at Leiden University in the Netherlands.

Hundreds of thousands of people were branded and forced to work on plantations in Suriname and other colonies.

Portugal became the first European country to purchase slaves in West Africa with the help of the Catholic Church in the 15th century, followed by Spain. Some experts argue that large-scale sugar production in what is now Brazil gave rise to the Atlantic slave trade that saw some 12 million Africans transported to the Caribbean and the Americas over some 400 years, with at least 1 million dying on the way.

Great Britain was one of the first countries to ban the slave trade, in 1807. Dutch slavery continued until 1863.

If, as expected, the government issues a formal apology on Monday, it will put the Netherlands, which has a long history of progressive thinking and liberal law, at the forefront of global nations and institutions seeking to atone for its role in historical horrors.

In 2018, Denmark apologized to Ghana, which it colonized from the mid-17th century to the mid-19th century. In June, King Philippe of Belgium expressed his “deepest regret” over the abuses in the Congo. In 1992, Pope John Paul II apologized for the church’s role in slavery. Americans have had emotionally charged fights over tearing down statues of slavers in the South.

A Dutch government-appointed board issued a report last year saying that “today’s institutional racism cannot be seen in isolation from centuries of slavery and colonialism.”

Politicians and civil society organizations in Suriname say that July 1, 2023 would be a more appropriate date for the apology ceremony because it marks 160 years since slavery was abolished in the country.

“Why the rush?” asked Barryl Biekman, president of the Netherlands-based National Platform for the Past of Slavery.

Johan Roozer, president of Suriname’s National Committee on the Slavery Past, said Legal Protection Minister Franc Weerwind, who has slave ancestors and is visiting Suriname on Monday, should also receive reparations.

Romeo Bronne, a 58-year-old businessman from Suriname, said an apology is needed, but he wants to hear it from the king of the Netherlands or his prime minister.

“Slavery was a terrible period and degrading acts were committed,” he said as he called for economic reparations to be spent on education, health and other public benefits. “We are still poor.”

Irma Hoever, a 73-year-old retired civil servant who lives in the capital, Paramaribo, said the Dutch “do not understand what they have done to us.”

“They still enjoy what their ancestors did to this day. We still suffer. Repairs are needed,” he said.

Activists in the Dutch Caribbean territory of St. Maarten rejected the anticipated apology and also demanded reparations.

“We have been waiting for a few hundred years for true restorative justice. We think we can wait a little longer,” Rhoda Arrindell, a former government minister and member of a local non-profit organization, said at a recent government meeting.

Like many nations, the Netherlands has been grappling with its colonial past, with the history of Dutch slavery first added to local school curricula in 2006.

“There is a section of society that really clings to colonial pride and finds it difficult to acknowledge that their beloved historical figures have played a role in this history,” Fatah-Black said, referring to long-revered seafarers and merchants as heroes. 17th century. century Dutch Golden Age, when the country was a great world power.


Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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