On Saturday, July 1 the Netherlands once again commemorated the abolition of slavery and celebrated Keti Koti. As part of this year’s ceremonies, King Willem-Alexander made a historic speech in which he apologised for the Netherlands’ history of – and his ancestors’ involvement in – slavery. 

But why has King Willem-Alexander asked for forgiveness, and why did he decide to make his apology now? 

King Willem-Alexander apologises for Dutch involvement in slavery 

During the national commemoration ceremony, held annually at the National Slavery Monument in the Oosterpark in Amsterdam, King Willem-Alexander addressed the public in an emotional speech. The Dutch king apologised for the Netherlands’ role in the international slave trade, and asked for forgiveness for the part his ancestors played in “this crime against humanity”.

“Today I stand here before you. As your King and as part of the government I make these apologies myself,” King Willem-Alexander said. “They are intensely felt by me with heart and soul. But for me, there is also a personal aspect: the slave trade and slavery are recognised as a crime against humanity – the stadtholders and kings of the House of Orange-Nassau did nothing against this.” 

As part of his speech – which was broadcast live, not just in the Netherlands but also in Suriname and the Dutch Caribbean – the king said that society continues to “carry…the horrors of slavery,” and that the “consequences can still be felt today”.  

Why has the king apologised for the Netherlands’ history of slavery?

King Willem-Alexander’s apology comes just a few months after Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologised, on behalf of the Dutch government, for the role the Netherlands played in the international slave trade and the practice of slavery. 

A recent investigation commissioned by the Ministry of the Interior and Kingdom Relations found that, between 1675 and 1770, the House of Orange-Nassau earned the equivalent of at least 545 million euros in today’s money from slavery in the Dutch colonies. The king himself has also commissioned a study into the role of the royal family in slavery in the Netherlands, the findings of which are expected to be published in 2025. 

Royal correspondent for NOS, Albert Bos, explains at King Willem-Alexander’s speech “has been a long time coming,” adding that the king “has great personal involvement in the subject.”

“In the speech, you clearly saw that the king uses his connecting role on this theme to bring groups together, including people who see little in apologies,” Bos adds, going on to say that “according to the king, healing is important and, in his eyes, apologies are part of it.”

Why is King Willem-Alexander’s speech so important?

While King Willem-Alexander didn’t apologise on behalf of the royal family, many have still labelled his speech as “historic” and “significant” – but why? One key reason is that, not only are apologies within the Netherlands a relatively recent development – in 2020, the Prime Minister said the Dutch government wouldn’t issue an apology – but apologies from royals are also extremely rare. 

As NOS reports, both the British King Charles and Belgian King Philippe have expressed their regrets for their countries’ colonial histories, but neither has issued formal apologies. The timing of the king’s apology is also notable, as 2023 marks 150 years since slavery was officially abolished in all Dutch colonies. 

Talking to NU, various experts explained why an apology for something that happened over 100 years ago remains important. For example, Kathleen Ferrier – chair of the Dutch UNESCO committee for education, science, culture and communication – said the government has a responsibility to correct mistakes made by political predecessors. Others have noted that only once an apology has been made can society begin to heal and move forward. 

Thumb: Dutchmen Photography via Shutterstock.com.

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