Dutch King Apologizes for Country’s Role in Slave Trade

King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands apologized for the Dutch role in the slave trade in a move that could set a new precedent for the royal families of Europe’s former colonial powers.

(Bloomberg) — King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands apologized for the Dutch role in the slave trade in a move that could set a new precedent for the royal families of Europe’s former colonial powers. 

“As your king and as part of the government, today I apologize personally,” Willem-Alexander said in a speech in Amsterdam on Saturday. “For the obvious lack of action against this crime against humanity, I ask for forgiveness today.” 

The apology, aimed at the descendants of enslaved people in the country, comes months after the Netherlands became the first European country to apologize for its historic role in the slave trade.

His address marked the 150th anniversary of the annual Keti Koti celebration that commemorates the abolition of slavery in Suriname, a former Dutch colony in South America. The government earlier set up a €200 million ($213 million) fund for projects that raise awareness of the legacy of slavery.

The decision could set a new precedent in Europe, where former colonial powers have so far avoided pressure to fully reckon with their role in the slave trade. Activists called on King Charles III, head of the Commonwealth, to apologize for Britain’s actions ahead of his coronation in May.

Read More: Dutch Apology for Slave Trade Overshadowed by Racism Debate

The Netherlands played a key role in slavery in Suriname, Brazil and the Caribbean, as well as South Africa and Asia, where the Dutch East India Company operated. More than 600,000 people were transported from Africa across the Atlantic on Dutch ships to be sold into slavery, and 75,000 of them didn’t survive the crossing, Willem-Alexander said. 

The mayor of Amsterdam formally apologized for the city’s part in slavery in 2021, and state-run lender ABN Amro Bank NV and the Dutch Central Bank followed suit last year.

ABN said its predecessor, Hope & Co., was actively involved in the day-to-day business of plantations. The central bank said several prominent bank officials were personally involved in colonial slavery, and part of its startup capital came from business owners with direct interests in plantations in Suriname, according to an independent study carried out by Leiden University. 

Read more: Dutch Government Plans to Launch Slavery Apology Fund 

Willem-Alexander in 2022 decided to pause using his controversial golden carriage in ceremonies after facing criticism for a painting on the side panel that depicts Black and Asian people from Dutch colonies kneeling and offering gifts to a seated white woman symbolizing the Netherlands.

“We cannot rewrite the past but we can try to come to terms with it together,” he said at the time. “As long as there are people living in the Netherlands who feel the pain of discrimination on a daily basis, the past will still cast its shadow over our time and it will not be over yet.”

The Netherlands continues to have heated debates over discrimination and racial controversies that show the European nation is yet to come to terms with its colonial past, despite official apologies. 

The debate over Zwarte Piet remains one of the most sensitive issues for people of color in the country. For decades, the Dutch have celebrated the arrival of St. Nicholas, known as Sinterklaas in Dutch, in the run-up to Christmas with a parade during which he arrives in the company of legions of “Black Petes” — helpers in blackface with red lips and curly wigs, wearing 17th century costumes. 

The tradition has fallen out of favor in recent years, with many major retailers dropping the sale of face paint and other merchandise. But some reject claims that the tradition is racist, arguing that Piet’s dark skin comes from soot that has rubbed onto his face when he climbed down the chimney. 

–With assistance from Diederik Baazil.

More stories like this are available on bloomberg.com

©2023 Bloomberg L.P.