The Netherlands looks set Monday to finally embark on a path leading to a formal apology for its tainted 250-year history of slavery.
Prime Minister Mark Rutte is giving a speech on slavery in The Hague in what he has called a “meaningful moment” while Dutch ministers are travelling to seven former colonies in South America and the Caribbean for the event.
Sigrid Kaag, the Dutch finance minister and deputy prime minister, said on an official visit to Suriname last week that a “process” would begin leading up to “another incredibly important moment on July 1 next year”.
Descendants of Dutch slavery will then celebrate 150 years of liberation from slavery in an annual celebration called “Keti Koti” (Breaking the Chains) in Surinamese.
But the plan has caused controversy, with groups and some of the affected countries criticising the move as rushed, and saying the lack of consultation by the Netherlands smacked of a still-colonial attitude.
As a result, Rutte has still not yet confirmed he will actually apologise, saying last week that details of his speech are “something that I would really like to keep under wraps until Monday”.
Local media said “everything points to the fact that he will indeed apologise” for the Dutch role in a trade that caused centuries of untold misery, but it remained unsure.
The Dutch funded their “Golden Age” of empire and culture in the 16th and 17th centuries by shipping around 600,000 Africans as part of the slave trade, mostly to South America and the Caribbean.
At the height of its colonial empire, the United Provinces known today as the Netherlands possessed colonies like Suriname, the Caribbean island of Curacao, South Africa and Indonesia, where the Dutch East India Company was based in the 17th century.
In recent years, the Netherlands has been grappling with the fact that its Rembrandt and Vermeer-filled museums and historic towns were largely built on the back of that brutality.
Spurred by the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States, it has also raised questions about the racism in Dutch society.
Pressure has been growing at home with the cities of Amsterdam, Rotterdam, The Hague and Utrecht formally apologising for the slave trade.
Rutte had long resisted, previously saying the period of slavery was too far back and that an apology would ignite tensions in a country where the far-right remains strong.
He has now changed tack, but that has not pleased everyone.
Sint Maarten’s Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs told Dutch media on Saturday the island would not accept a Dutch apology if made on Monday.
“Let me be clear that we won’t accept an apology until our advisory committee has discussed it and we as a country discussed it,” she said.
The fact that another Dutch minister sent to Suriname, Franc Weerwind, is himself of Surinamese descent sparked criticism from the slavery restitution group there on the grounds that he is a “descendant of enslaved people”.
On Monday, Dutch cabinet ministers would be in Suriname, Bonaire, Sint Maarten, Aruba, Curacao, Saba, St. Eustatius to “discuss the cabinet response and its significance on location with those present” after the Dutch PM speaks, the government said.
Slavery was formally abolished in Suriname and other Dutch-held lands on July 1, 1863, but the practice only really ended in 1873 after a 10-year “transition” period.
Slavery commemoration groups say any apology should come on the 150th anniversary of that date, in 2023, instead of the “arbitrary” date of December 19 this year.