Foreword State Secretary Alexandra van Huffelen

Nothing has had a greater impact on how I see the Dutch slavery past than the conversations I had with school pupils in the Caribbean Netherlands. These young people told me explicitly that they felt like second-class citizens who were seen as ‘inferior’ to their peers in the European Netherlands. During these conversations, I was confronted with how much work we still have to do.

Just as it is impossible to do justice to the history of centuries of exploitation, torture and dehumanisation in a single speech, it is equally impossible to convey the weight of the speeches collected in this book in a single page. However, I will attempt to do so.

It will come as no surprise that the title of this collection is A comma, not a full stop. The most conspicuous phrase in the speech made by Mark Rutte, the Dutch Prime Minister, seems to be the common denominator in these 13 speeches. However, it is also at the core of the extensive ongoing debate in the Kingdom and the policy that determines how we come to terms with that history and the relationship between the Netherlands and Aruba, Curaçao, Bonaire, Sint Maarten, Sint Eustatius and Saba. The goal is not to bring the past to a close, but to place a historical comma, to turn a page in a centuries-old book filled with suffering and injustice and to write the next chapter together. 

On 19 December, the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologised for the slavery past on behalf of the government. This system, established by the state, enabled 400 years of colonialism, oppression and dehumanisation and was the social, economic and political foundation of Dutch society for centuries. More than 150 years after the abolition of slavery, 19 December was the day we truly acknowledged that history. As a society, we must however be aware that we know too little about that past and that the lives of enslaved people were often unrecorded. While visiting Bonaire, Karien van Gennip, the Dutch Minister of Social Affairs and Employment, posed the following question: ‘If we could have accompanied enslaved people during the six hours it took to walk from Mangazina di Rei to the salt pans, which stories would we have heard?’

In the period leading up to the apology, it became even clearer how carefully we must approach this past and how diverse the opinions held are. There were discussions about who exactly would be apologising to whom, why this was happening and whether it was even necessary, as well as about the form, date and process. These questions dominated the news coverage for some time and also appear to be reflected in the speeches. The fact that the process was sometimes referred to as ‘colonial’ is a painful but important lesson. It reminds us of the importance of constant dialogue, for example about how the Memorial Year should be structured.

Listening, learning lessons and transforming each new insight into action is also a recurring theme in these speeches. This is exactly why this apology is important not just to the descendants of enslaved people, but also to the rest of the Dutch population. For example, Prime Minister Rutte devoted extensive attention to how his own awareness of the issues at stake developed and to the fact that listening, listening to the people who literally carry that history in their blood, is the route to changing our collective consciousness. We must do so as we seek answers together to a range of questions, including about what is needed to play a full role in Dutch society, about the future of the Kingdom Relations, about how we can raise awareness and create a well-balanced society together. As Prime Minister Rutte said, ‘Centuries of oppression and exploitation can still be felt here and now, in patterns of discrimination and exclusion, in social inequality.’

In this light, it is remarkable how specifically the suffering of the slavery past is highlighted here, sometimes in direct and unmistakable terms: Prime Minister Rutte refers to an ‘inhuman system’ and a ‘crime against humanity’, while Evelyn Wever-Croes, the Prime Minister of Aruba, speaks of ‘the identity of the enslaved people, which was crushed and mutilated by colonialism.’ Many speakers refer to terrible cruelties: flogging and torture, amputations and branding. For too long, the Netherlands has ignored the darker sides of that history. Meaningfully addressing historical injustice first of all requires us to have the courage to face up to these horrific details.

There are also unequivocal calls to rehabilitate various heroes of the resistance. For example, many speakers advocate the rehabilitation of Tula. Prime Minister Rutte mentioned One-Tété-Lohkay, and Eric van der Burg, the Dutch Minister for Migration, mentioned Virginia Dementricia while visiting Aruba. Along with many others, their heroic struggle for a dignified existence cost them their lives, and they were subsequently labelled as terrorists. The outpouring of emotions I saw when I announced the rehabilitation of Tula next to the memorial to the heroes of the resistance in Willemstad on 19 December will always stay with me as one of the most emotionally charged and special moments in my career.

The stories of Tula, Gaai and others will undoubtedly have a place in the future Slavery Museum. The government is also investing in raising awareness of, and education about, the colonial and slavery past, including on the islands. The government’s aim is that our society should become aware of the past and its effects today – effects that are ‘visible, invisible and still felt every day’ as Edison Rijna, the Governor of Bonaire, put it. They can be felt in the inequality between the European Netherlands and the Caribbean part of the Kingdom, as effects on physical and mental health. In the European Netherlands, they can be heard in racist chants in football stadiums and are reflected in statistics on discrimination in the labour market. These effects are as specific and direct as they are complex and intangible.

All this emphasises that the apology does not bring that history to a close. Instead, it forms the starting point for healing, recognition and reconciliation as we look forward to the Memorial Year.