Divided Caribbean as Netherlands mull pardon for slavery

PARAMARIBO, Suriname (AP) – Dutch colonizers kidnapped men, women and children and enslaved them on plantations growing sugar, coffee and other commodities that created wealth at the expense of misery.

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

The symbolism surrounding crimes against humanity is widely disputed, and debates over Monday’s ceremonies rocked Suriname and other Caribbean countries.

In Suriname, activists and officials say they have not been asked to comment on the apology, and that is a reflection of 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 demands including a formal apology from European governments and the creation of a repatriation program for those who wish to return to their home country, which has not happened.

“We’re still feeling the effects of that time, so some financial assistance would be welcome,” said Orlando Daniel, a 46-year-old guard and descendant of slaves.

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

The Dutch first became involved in the transatlantic slave trade in the late 15th century, but only became a major trader in the mid-16th century when they conquered Portuguese forts 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 was the first European country to buy slaves in West Africa with the help of the Catholic Church in the 14th century, followed by Spain. Some experts argue that large-scale sugar production in modern-day Brazil then gave rise to the Atlantic slave trade, which transported an estimated 12 million Africans to the Caribbean and Americas over about 400 years, with at least 1 million dying en route.

Britain was among the first countries to outlaw the slave trade in 1807. Dutch slavery lasted until 1863.

If the government formally apologizes on Monday, as expected, it will place the Netherlands, which has a long history of progressive thinking and liberal laws, at the forefront of nations and global institutions seeking to atone for their role in historic horrors.

In 2018, Denmark apologized to Ghana, which it colonized from the mid-17th to mid-19th centuries. In June, King Philippe of Belgium expressed his “deepest regret” for abuses in Congo. In 1992, Pope John Paul II apologized for the Church’s role in slavery. Americans have fought emotionally charged battles over the destruction of statues of slave owners in the South.

A panel appointed by the Dutch government released a report last year that said “today’s institutional racism cannot be separated from centuries of slavery and colonialism.”

Politicians and civil society organizations in Suriname say July 1, 2023 would be a more appropriate date for the apology ceremony as it marks the 160th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the country.

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

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

Romeo Bronne, a 58-year-old businessman in Suriname, said an apology was needed but wanted to hear it from the King of the Netherlands or its prime minister.

“Slavery was a horrible time and degrading acts were committed,” he said as he called for financial redress to be spent on education, health and other public services. “We stayed poor.”

Irma Hoever, a 73-year-old retired civil servant who lives in the capital Paramaribo, said the Dutch “don’t understand what they did to us”.

“They still enjoy what their ancestors did to this day. We’re still suffering. Reparations are required,” she said.

Activists in the Dutch Caribbean region of St. Maarten have rejected the expected apology and have also called for redress.

“We’ve waited a few hundred years for real restorative justice. We think we can wait a bit 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 come to terms with its colonial past, with the history of Dutch slavery being introduced into the curriculum of local schools for the first time in 2006.

“There is a sector of society that really clings to colonial pride and finds it difficult to acknowledge that their beloved historical figures played a part in this story,” Fatah-Black said, referring to sailors and traders who have long been considered heroes 17th century Dutch Golden Age, when the country was a major world power.

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Coto reported from San Juan, Puerto Rico.

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