Speech by Wopke Hoekstra, Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, during Keti Koti

Speech by Wopke Hoekstra, Dutch Minister of Foreign Affairs, at the Kwakoe monument in Paramaribo, Suriname, during Keti Koti on 1 July 2023.

Mr President, Madam First Lady, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen,

Good afternoon.

I would like to start by thanking you for inviting me to be here today.  

It means a lot to me to be given the chance to speak to you here today: here, at the Kwakoe monument in Paramaribo; today, on Keti Koti, Day of the Freedoms, when we commemorate the abolition of slavery.

It means a lot to me because the histories of Suriname and the Netherlands are inextricably linked. And because we can only look each other in the eye – and look ahead to the future – if we also look back, and confront a past that for too long has not received the attention it deserves.

Slavery is a crime against humanity, and one in which the Netherlands played an important part. The traces of this painful legacy are still visible in many places in the world. In Africa and Asia. In Guyana, in Brazil. In the Caribbean parts of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. And of course here, in Suriname.

Here in Suriname, where hundreds of thousands of adults and children were brought – against their will and with extreme violence – with the assistance and approval of Dutch administrators.

Here in Suriname, where they had to work on plantations in thick forests and swamps, under inhuman conditions. And where, for those who managed to escape – the maroons – an extremely uncertain life awaited, with great hardships.

Here in Suriname, where the indigenous population also suffered greatly under this reign of terror. It was they who were the first to be forced into slavery, and also the first to rise up in revolt. It was they who were robbed of their land by colonizers and driven away by force. And they were also the first group whose identity and dignity were taken away.

And after the abolition of slavery, it was here, to Suriname, that tens of thousands of people  – mainly from India, China and Java – were lured under false pretences. Instead of the better life they’d been promised, they were forced to perform hard labour. This, too, was the product of a greedy, colonial administration. This, too, is an extremely painful history.

Today, though, we are here to commemorate the role of the Netherlands in the history of slavery. And that is why I would like to take this opportunity here, in Suriname, and today, on this important day, to repeat loud and clear the words that the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte spoke on 19 December:  

For centuries, the Dutch State and its representatives facilitated, stimulated, preserved and profited from slavery.

For centuries, in the name of the Dutch State, human beings were made into commodities, exploited and abused.

For centuries, under Dutch state authority, human dignity was violated in the most horrific way possible.

And successive Dutch governments after 1863 failed to adequately see and acknowledge that our slavery past continued to have negative effects and still does.

And today in Amsterdam the King gave a speech addressed to all the people of the Kingdom, and also specifically to you, the people of Suriname. In that speech he, too, offered his apologies, affirming that they came from his heart and soul. I can only fully endorse, and repeat, his sentiments: on behalf of the Dutch government, I apologise.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It was on Wednesday 1 July 1863 – 160 years ago – that slavery was abolished by law in Suriname and the Caribbean islands. Yet enslaved people in Suriname were forced to toil in the plantations for another decade under the supervision of the State.

For many, slavery did not truly come to an end until 1873. This year marks the 150th anniversary of the true abolition of slavery. During this commemorative year people across the Kingdom of the Netherlands – and of course, in Suriname as well – will be reflecting on my country’s involvement in the history of slavery. As a result, more and more people will come to gain a better understanding of this past.

A few weeks ago I was in Ghana, where I was able to see a piece of that history for myself. There I visited the Ussher Fort, one of the places on the African coast from which adults and children were abducted and shipped as human cargo to various destinations, including Suriname.  

The visit made a deep impression on me. A sense of claustrophobia still lingered in the dank chambers of the Fort. Nowadays the place is silent – and that very silence brought home the suffering that was once endured there. Much had been preserved, but what was missing were the voices and faces of the men, women and children who awaited their terrible fate here in great uncertainty. It was here that they were knowingly robbed of their identity. And where they were herded onto ships, bound for an unknown world. A world full of cruelty, it would emerge.

Yet in the crammed holds of these vessels, where every last centimetre was exploited for profit, there proved to be room for something of intangible value: the will of these individuals to resist their inhuman treatment. Whether silent or full-throated, there was resistance from the start. From the moment that they were torn away from everything they knew. To be continued in Suriname by freedom fighters like Jolicoeur, Boni, Baron and many others.

But there were also countless day-to-day acts of personal resistance, for example by the courageous African women aboard the ships, who wove grains of rice into their hair, so that they could later plant them and feed their loved ones. Grains of rice that the brave Ma Pansa and Ma Sapali once again hid in their hair when they managed to escape captivity and seek refuge deep in the forests.

It shows the duality of this painful history. On the one hand: brutal dehumanisation for financial gain, on the other: extraordinary bravery and resilience, whose legacy we still see in so many different ways.

On the coast and in the interior, where native people cherish and preserve their traditions, as difficult as that is. And in the streets of Paramaribo, and in the rest of your country, where everyone has their own individual history, but at the same time everyone is also a Surinamer. Wan Pipel (One People), as Dobru put it in his wonderfully powerful poem.

It is the same resilient, inclusive gaze with which you look to the future here in Suriname. To the steps that are necessary to heal. To the path that will follow the apologies, a path that we would like to shape with you together. Because if we have learnt anything, it’s that we must truly take every step together. And that we will achieve more by acting cautiously than in haste.

With this in mind, a Special Envoy appointed by the Netherlands is now engaging in dialogue with civil society organisations and the Surinamese government. Together we are discussing the personal significance of the apologies for the Surinamese people, as well as how the impact of slavery continues to resonate in the present, and how both countries can jointly look to the future. The talks are also about the resources that will be made available for social initiatives. These discussions are still ongoing. As I said, caution is our watchword, and I think it’s wise not to rush things.  

What is clear is that there must be a shared path forwards. A path from which no one feels excluded and which we must pave together.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Earlier this month I spoke with Judith and Ad de Kom, the daughter and son of the resistance fighter and anti-colonial author Anton de Kom. It was a deeply moving conversation, and on behalf of the government, I apologised to them for the suffering inflicted upon their father and his family. Anton de Kom was a brave man who spent his entire life fighting for justice, equality, human dignity and freedom with all the strength he had, and against overwhelming odds. Because he was obstructed, persecuted and imprisoned by the Dutch authorities, who finally shipped him off to the Netherlands – banishing him from his own country.

Yet despite everything, he continued his struggle for freedom. Indeed, he ultimately gave his life for that cause, after joining the Dutch Resistance during the Second World War.

His renown in the Netherlands increases every year. Because more and more Dutch people are reading his book We Slaves of Surinam. More and more are reading about the terrible injustice that he describes so compellingly. And about his great love for his native country.

That’s an achievement for which I am deeply indebted to Anton de Kom. And to the people in Suriname and the Netherlands who have taken up the torch that he lit. Because I can see evidence of the resilience and perseverance of which I spoke in the Netherlands as well, in the way Dutch people of Surinamese origin have for years highlighted the importance of recognising, commemorating and engaging in dialogue about our shared history. Thanks to them, Kwakoe has become a more widely known symbol, representing the rejection of racism and the celebration of cultural diversity and freedom. And Dutch people have increasingly come to realise how the legacy of slavery continues to cast a shadow over the present. Both in the Netherlands and in Suriname.

So the monument where we stand now also points the way ahead. But we can only move forward if we acknowledge where we have come from. We can only leave behind a fair and equitable world for our children if we move beyond that dark shadow, thus breaking the chains of the past.

Wan Pipel’ testifies to the solidarity that is so evident here in Suriname. A solidarity that is also my hope for future generations.

One tree

So many leaves

One tree.

Thank you.