The Dutch and slavery

Former President of Suriname, Desi Bouterse.
Former President of Suriname, Desi Bouterse.
Associated Press / Edward Troon/File

Now that there is a government with no links to past military coups in 1980 and 1990 is in power, relations between Suriname and former colonizer, The Netherlands, are on the upswing even as The Dutch are facing increasing pressure to apologize for its slave past and to pay reparations for the genocide.

Dutch Prime Minister, Mark Rutte returned home this week after a two-day visit to the Dutch speaking Caribbean Community nation of about 500,000, where among other things, he was forced to address Holland’s brutal links to its transatlantic slave past. The Dutch had severely downgraded relations with the previous National Democratic Party (NDP) government because of the role of its leaders during military rule in the 1980s and the conviction on drug charges in The Netherlands of former president and ex-military strongman Desi Bouterse.

Rutte’s visit has come just week after a parliamentary delegation had made a fact-finding visit to Suriname, Curacao and Caribbean nations which are either independent or are still colonies saying it wanted to fully understand the social and other effects of slavery on descendants of slavery.

He addressed parliament before heading home on Tuesday, saying this might well be a first step to healing and conciliation. This is the wish of The Dutch government.

“We cannot change that past, but we can and must face it. That is also why I came to Suriname. Recognition of the horrible suffering inflicted on the enslaved, recognition of the struggle and resistance that there was and of course recognition of the social impact of the period of slavery in our present,” he said. I want to hear first-hand what the slavery past means today for the different population groups in Suriname,” as both sides prepare to observe 150 years of abolition. He did describe the slave trade as inhumane, saying The Netherlands should recognize its past role.

During the special parliamentary sitting, local lawmakers did not waste the opportunity to remind the PM about slavery. Assembly Speaker Marinus Bee argued that slavery remained a sore and thorny point in relations between the two.

He complained about the treatment Surinamese encounter while trying to obtain visas to travel to Europe, noting that “It seems nowadays more the rule than the exception that Surinamese are arbitrarily denied entry into Dutch territory without giving a thorough reason for rejecting the required visas for the Schengen area. As much as we would like to assume that by 2022 the fight for equality should have ended, we are repeatedly confronted with the opposite”.

In recent years, The Dutch have been giving indications that they want to take some action relating to its brutal links to slavery. The Dutch central bank, for example, earlier this year admitted that its early directors had profited from plantations in the Caribbean and South America and had apologized. Additionally, regional reparations activists have said that demand letters sent by governments in recent years to those in Europe have in some cases not been replied to. The Dutch have been an exception to this.

“On behalf of DNB, I apologize today to all people who by the personal choices of my predecessors were reduced to the color of their skin,” Klaas Knot, the central bank governor, said at a recent event. Investigations had revealed that some directors had owned or held shares in Caribbean plantations and that many of them had fought against abolition of the slave trade.