The mayor of Amsterdam apologised on Thursday for the extensive involvement of the Dutch capital's former governors in the global slave trade, saying the moment had come for the city to confront its grim history.
Debate about the role of Amsterdam’s city fathers in the slave trade has been going on for years, but it has gained more attention amid the global reckoning with racial injustice that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
“It is time to engrave the great injustice of colonial slavery into our city’s identity. With big-hearted and unconditional recognition,” Mayor Femke Halsema said. “Because we want to be a government for those for whom the past is painful and its legacy a burden."
While apologising, she also stressed that “not a single Amsterdammer alive today is to blame for the past.”
The Dutch government has in the past expressed deep regret for the nation's historic role in slavery, but has stopped short of a formal apology. Prime Minister Mark Rutte said last year that such an apology could polarise society.
An independent commission that discussed the issue in recent months issued a report on Thursday advising the central government to apologise, saying it would “help heal historic suffering.”
Interior Minister Kajsa Ollongren attended the ceremony in Amsterdam but did not comment directly on the call for a government apology.
Black activist and actor Patrick Mathurin said some in the Netherlands try to ignore the country's colonial past, "but through our activism, we forced them to look at it. And also what happened, of course, with George Floyd made it all ... evolve faster.”
Halsema said history casts a shadow that reaches into the present day.
“The city officials and the ruling elite who, in their hunger for profit and power, participated in the trade in enslaved people, in doing so entrenched a system of oppression based on skin colour and race,” she said. “The past from which our city still draws its distinctive commercial spirit is therefore indivisible from the persistent racism that still festers.”
She closed her speech with the words: “On behalf of the College of Mayor and Alderpersons, I apologise.” Cheers and applause erupted from the small group of invited guests sitting on socially distanced white chairs.
The apology came during an annual ceremony marking the abolition of slavery in Dutch colonies in Suriname and the Dutch Antilles on July 1, 1863. The anniversary is now known as Keti Koti, which means Chains Broken.
Activists say many people who had been enslaved were forced to work without pay for their former masters for a further decade.
Research into the involvement of Amsterdam's city fathers in the slave trade and slavery was commissioned by the municipality in 2019.
Halsema said it showed that “from the end of the 16th century until well into the 19th century, Amsterdam’s involvement was direct, worldwide, large-scale, multifaceted and protracted.”
Amsterdam municipality is not alone in apologising for its role in slavery. In 2007, then-London Mayor Ken Livingstone made an emotional speech apologizing for the city’s involvement. And a year ago the Bank of England apologized for the links some of its past governors had with slavery.
Halsema doesn't have to leave her official residence on one of Amsterdam's mansion-lined canals to be reminded of the city's deeply rooted ties to slavery.
The residence was formerly the home of Paulus Godin, who was a board member of the West-India Company and director of the Society of Suriname that were both heavily involved in slavery in the 17th century.
A stone plaque outside the house recalls that history and calls the slave trade and slavery crimes against humanity.
Amsterdam municipality says that former city fathers in the time that slavery was rife in Dutch colonies were deeply involved in the trade.
“Mayors were also owners of plantations or traded in people. They helped, through their public office, to maintain slavery because they profited from it,” the city says on its website.
The Dutch national museum, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, is currently staging a major exhibition entitled simply “Slavery” examining the country's role in the global slave trade.
Thursday's anniversary is the Dutch equivalent of Juneteenth in the United States, which President Joe Biden made a federal holiday earlier this month. There are calls to make the Dutch day of commemoration a national holiday.
The U.S. federal government has not apologized for slavery. The U.S. House and Senate both have passed resolutions apologising for slavery and racial segregation laws.
During a press conference in 2007, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he was sorry for Britain’s role in slavery, which he called “entirely unacceptable.” But eight years later during a trip to Jamaica, Prime Minister David Cameron sidestepped calls for an apology and ruled out paying reparations.