At the end of their visit in the Caribbean, the Dutch Royals were met with a protest during a lecture at the University of Aruba. A student stood up and sang “Oh, Freedom”, criticizing the lack of a Royal apology for the slavery history of the country.
The incident occurred after Prime Minister Mark Rutte released a speech in December last year, apologizing for the crimes against humanity committed during the colonial period. “People were exploited and abused in the name of the Dutch state” and “human dignity was violated in the most horrific way possible,” said the PM.
The Dutch still seem to have difficulty in understanding what they have to do with something that happened so long ago. “Many people aren’t aware that the slavery and colonial past still impacts the lives of many people in the present. People are still discriminated against because of their color, or have less chances of finding a job or high positions in their jobs,” says Sofia Lovegrove, independent researcher and heritage professional working at the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands.
However, the apology doesn’t seem to be enough for people. “What was completely missing from this speech is responsibility and accountability,” said Armand Zunder, chairman of the National Reparations Commission of Suriname.
“Recognition is the first step, then repairing,” says historian and professor Martha Campos, “it is a form of racism to not recognize that there has been a policy of inferiorization of Africans that was not repaired”. The historian also explains that besides financial compensation, there’s a need for affirmative actions in order to combat racism nowadays.
Education to combat racism
Nowadays racism can be uprooted only by educating the new generation and helping them develop critical thinking skills. “It’s important not just to apologize, but to insist on an anti-racist education, one that helps change the minds of people who keep discriminating,” stresses Sofia Lovegrove.
“The foundations of today’s history education were laid some 20 years ago. Historical events are mainly highlighted from the European point of view,” refers Hanneke Tuithof, assistant professor at the Department of History at Utrecht University, to the Dutch outlet NOS.
Professor Tuithof believes that at the current pace, it might take years to modernize school curricula and teachers are the only ones who can frame the teaching of slavery and colonialism in a way that makes room for a more nuanced portrayal of enslaved people, as individuals whose identities go beyond a story of exploitation. Nonetheless, these often lack expertise on how to approach these topics with a fresh perspective.
Michael, father of a two-year old, was interviewed by the Groningen Observer believes that slavery should be featured in history textbooks and should definitely be part of the school system. But he calls for moderation. “There is a balance between owning a past mistake and raising kids who feel guilty for something they had no part in,” he says.
However, teaching about slavery is not just enough. “We end up directly associating black people with slavery, in a context of submission, inferiorization, pain and suffering,” says Campos. She explains that in Brazil there is a law that mandates schools to teach Afro-Brazilian culture and history.
The Groningen Observer tried contacting multiple primary and secondary schools in the province of Groningen, but they all declined to provide commentary on the matter
A long way to go
The Netherlands is still the first western country to issue a formal apology for slavery. Although it’s just the beginning, Lovegrove is positive that it can be an encouragement for other European countries to do the same: “Other countries then start to look at the past of slavery more significantly and seriously. The Portuguese government for example is still far from acknowledging the country’s role in slavery”.
This year will mark the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. The Netherlands was among the last countries to ban this inhumane practice, but according to Leiden University, Suriname went through a ten-year phase-out period before outlawing it entirely.
The country sometimes still struggles acknowledging its colonial past. “We as a Dutch society thought and taught for a very long time, actually until the early 21st century, that slavery was mainly an American history. We wanted to break that,” says Nancy Jouwe. She is a cultural historian and initiator of Mapping Slavery, a research project that keeps track of Dutch colonial history.
In order to allow for greater recognition of the slavery legacy, “we must learn to unlearn in order to re-learn”.