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Dutch king apologizes for the monarchy's role in global slave trade

Dutch King Willem-Alexander lays a wreath at the slavery monument Saturday after apologizing for the royal house's role in slavery in a speech greeted by cheers and whoop.
Remko de Waal
Dutch King Willem-Alexander lays a wreath at the slavery monument Saturday after apologizing for the royal house's role in slavery in a speech greeted by cheers and whoop.

The King of the Netherlands, Willem-Alexander, on Saturday apologized for his ancestors' role in perpetuating a global slave trade that saw hundreds of thousands of colonized peoples trafficked away from their homes to work on enterprises that enriched the Dutch state.

"Today, on this day of remembrance, I ask forgiveness for the clear failure to act in the face of this crime against humanity," the monarch said.

Willem-Alexander, whose family has ruled over parts of the Netherlands for more than two centuries, was speaking at the 160th commemoration of the end of slavery in his country and its once widespread colonial territories, that ranged from Indonesia to the Caribbean.

He joins leadersacross Europe that have expressed contrition for their respective nations' enslavement policies that for some continued well into the second half of the 19th century.

Late last year the long-standing Dutch prime minister, Mark Rutte, also apologized during a speech at the country's National Archives. The apology came amid a growing sense of frustration among those descended from the roughly 600,000 enslaved people who were transported to Dutch possessions, particularly in the Caribbean, including Suriname and Curaçao.

Many of the descendants of enslaved people now live in the Netherlands as Dutch citizens.

Of the activities enacted on behalf of the Dutch state over centuries, Rutte said he wished to apologize "posthumously to all enslaved people worldwide who have suffered from those actions, to their daughters and sons, and to all their descendants into the here and now."

But at the time the premier had insisted the Dutch government was not prepared to pay any form of financial reparations directly to such descendants. Instead, he announced the establishment of a dedicated fund that would underwrite initiatives designed to confront the legacy of slavery in the Netherlands and its former colonial territories, and enhance educational programs focused on the subject.

The Dutch were at one point — through a state-sanctioned private enterprise called the Dutch West India Company — the most prolific trans-Atlantic slave traders of all the European powers.

A report written by a government-appointed body of experts issued several recommendations, including one that called for the state to recognize the trade in human cargo had constituted "crimes against humanity" and that modern institutional racism was directly linked to this history of enslavement.

Willem-Alexander's address Saturday inside a park in the city of Amsterdam was laden with emotion, as he told a crowd that occasionally cheered: "Today, as your King and as a member of the government, I make this apology myself. And I feel the weight of the words in my heart and my soul."

The Dutch monarch also promised a similar effort to that recently undertaken by King Charles III of Britain to examine his own family's history of involvement in the slave trade.

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Willem Marx
[Copyright 2024 NPR]