Dutch King Willem-Alexander has apologised for his country’s role in slavery and asked for forgiveness in a speech greeted by cheers and whoops at an event to commemorate the anniversary of the abolition of slavery.
The king’s speech on Saturday followed Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s apology late last year for the country’s role in the slave trade and slavery.
It is part of a wider reckoning with colonial histories in the West that have been spurred in recent years by the Black Lives Matter movement.
In an emotional speech, Willem-Alexander referred back to that apology as he told a crowd of invited guests and onlookers: “Today I stand before you. 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 king said he has commissioned a study into the exact role of the royal House of Orange-Nassau in slavery in the Netherlands.
“But today, on this day of remembrance, I ask forgiveness for the clear failure to act in the face of this crime against humanity,” he added.
Willem-Alexander’s voice appeared to break with emotion as he completed his speech before laying a wreath at the country’s national slavery monument in an Amsterdam park.
Slavery was abolished in Suriname and the Dutch colonies in the Caribbean on July 1, 1863, but most of the enslaved labourers were forced to continue working on plantations for a further 10 years.
‘No healing without reparations’
Research published last month showed that the king’s ancestors earned the modern-day equivalent of $595 million (545 million euros) from slavery, including profits from shares that were effectively given to them as gifts.
When Rutte apologised in December, he stopped short of offering compensation to descendants of enslaved people.
Instead, the government is establishing a $217-million (200 million-euro) fund for initiatives that tackle the legacy of slavery in the Netherlands and its former colonies and to improve education about the issue.
That isn’t enough for some in the Netherlands. Two groups, Black Manifesto and The Black Archives, organised a protest march before the king’s speech under the banner “No healing without reparations.”
“A lot of people including myself, my group, The Black Archives, and the Black Manifesto say that (an) apology is not enough. An apology should be tied to a form of repair and reparatory justice or reparations,” Black Archives director Mitchell Esajas said.
Marchers wore colourful traditional clothing in a Surinamese celebration of the abolition of slavery. Enslaved people were banned from wearing shoes and colourful clothes, organisers said.