King apologizes for Dutch slavery role

Dutch King Willem-Alexander lays a wreath at the slavery monument after apologising for the royal house's role in slavery and asked forgiveness in a speech greeted by cheers and whoops at an event to commemorate the anniversary of the country abolishing slavery in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Saturday, July 1, 2023. (Remko de Waal/Pool Photo via AP)
Dutch King Willem-Alexander lays a wreath at the slavery monument after apologising for the royal house's role in slavery and asked forgiveness in a speech greeted by cheers and whoops at an event to commemorate the anniversary of the country abolishing slavery in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Saturday, July 1, 2023. (Remko de Waal/Pool Photo via AP)

AMSTERDAM -- Dutch King Willem-Alexander apologized Saturday for his country's role in slavery and asked for forgiveness in a historic speech greeted by cheers and whoops at an event to commemorate the anniversary of the abolition of slavery.

The king's speech followed Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte's apology late last year for the country's role in the slave trade and slavery. It is part of a wider reckoning with colonial histories in the West that have been spurred in recent years by the Black Lives Matter movement.

In an emotional speech, Willem-Alexander referred back to that apology as he told a crowd of invited guests and onlookers: "Today I stand before you. Today, as your King and as a member of the government, I make this apology myself. And I feel the weight of the words in my heart and my soul."

The king said he has commissioned a study into the exact role of the royal House of Orange-Nassau in slavery in the Netherlands.

"But today, on this day of remembrance, I ask forgiveness for the clear failure to act in the face of this crime against humanity," he added.


Some people want action to back up the words.

"I feel good, but I am still looking forward to something more than just apologies. Reparations, for example," said Doelja Refos, 28.

"I don't feel like we're done. We're definitely not there yet," Refos added.

Slavery was abolished July 1, 1863, in Suriname and the Dutch colonies in the Caribbean, but most of the enslaved laborers were forced to continue working on plantations for a further 10 years. Saturday's commemoration and speech mark the start of a year of events to mark the 150th anniversary of July 1, 1873.

Research published last month showed that the king's ancestors earned the modern-day equivalent of $595 million from slavery, including profits from shares that were effectively given to them as gifts.

When Rutte apologized in December, he stopped short of offering compensation to descendants of enslaved people.

Instead, the government is establishing a $217 million fund for initiatives that tackle the legacy of slavery in the Netherlands and its former colonies and to improve education about the issue.

That isn't enough for some in the Netherlands. Two groups, Black Manifesto and The Black Archives, organized a protest march before the king's speech Saturday under the banner "No healing without reparations."

"A lot of people including myself, my group, The Black Archives, and the Black Manifesto say that [an] apology is not enough. An apology should be tied to a form of repair and reparatory justice or reparations," said Black Archives director Mitchell Esajas.

The Netherlands' often brutal colonial history has come under renewed and critical scrutiny in the aftermath of the 2020 killing of George Floyd, a Black man, in Minneapolis, and the Black Lives Matter movement.

A groundbreaking 2021 exhibition at the national museum of art and history took an unflinching look at slavery in Dutch colonies. In the same year, a report described the Dutch involvement in slavery as a crime against humanity and linked it to what the report described as ongoing institutional racism in the Netherlands.

The Dutch first became involved in the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the late 1500s and became a major trader in the mid-1600s. Eventually, the Dutch West India Company became the largest trans-Atlantic slave trader, according to Karwan Fatah-Black, an expert in Dutch colonial history and an assistant professor at Leiden University.

Willem-Alexander acknowledged that not everybody in the Netherlands supports apologies, but called for unity.

"There's no blueprint for the process of healing, reconciliation and recovery," he said. "Let's support and guide each other."

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