The history of slavery in the Kingdom of the Netherlands

The history of slavery in the Kingdom of the Netherlands is a very painful and important part of our history that, until recently, has received too little attention. Its impact is still felt in society today.

The history of slavery

For more than 300 years, adults and children were abducted from various parts of Africa ─ by Dutch and other slave traders ─ and transported under the most appalling conditions to the former Dutch colonies of Suriname and the Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao, Saba, St Eustatius and St Maarten. There they were forced to work as slaves on plantations producing sugar, coffee and other crops.

The indigenous peoples of the Dutch colonies were not spared either. In Asia, enslaved people were sold and transported to areas governed by the United Dutch East India Company (VOC). For generations, people were born into slavery and forced to work on Dutch plantations their entire lives. Slavery enabled the Netherlands to become an economic world power.

Impact on society

For too long, the Netherlands’ role in the history of slavery received little or no attention. But it is important to know our history. And to commemorate the suffering, the struggles and the far-reaching effects of slavery. This is important not only to ensure that we know what happened and acknowledge that it must never happen again, but also because its impact is still felt in society today. We see this in a lack of equal opportunities, discrimination and racism. This can lead to unequal treatment in, for example, education, employment and the legal system. 

Unequal distribution of wealth due to slavery

Wealth acquired through the slave trade was passed down to later generations. But people who had been enslaved and their descendants had little or nothing to build on. As a result, the distribution of wealth and opportunity between different groups in society remains unequal to this very day. 

Culture suppressed by slavery

During slavery many elements of people’s cultural heritage were suppressed. Families were separated and sold to different slave traders. As a result, cultural expressions, such as language, religion, art, trades and crafts, were lost. This sometimes added to the challenges of developing a strong cultural identity. The slavery system also affected political and power relations in various countries, leading to instability and tensions in some cases. Particularly in former colonial countries, where ethnic and racial divisions play a role.
It is important for us to know and acknowledge this, so that from our shared past we can build a future together.

Apology for the Netherlands’ role in the history of slavery

In a  speech on 19 December 2022, Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologised for the past actions of the Dutch government. The apology was extended to all people who were sold into slavery and suffered as a consequence, as well as to their children, grandchildren and all their descendants, up to the present day.

After the speech, members of the government travelled to Suriname and the islands of Aruba, Curaçao, St Maarten, Bonaire, St Eustatius and Saba, where they met with representatives of organisations and authorities to talk about what the apology means for the local community.

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