On Dutch Equivalent of Juneteenth, Amsterdam Mayor Apologizes for City's Slavery History

Amsterdam's mayor apologized Thursday for the city's former governors' key role in the global slave trade, adding that it is time for the Dutch capital to reconcile with its dark past.

The role of Amsterdam's founders in the slave trade has been debated for years, but amid a global reckoning with racial injustice following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, calls have increased for the Dutch to take accountability for the city's instrumental place in the slave trade, the Associated Press reported.

"It is time to engrave the great injustice of colonial slavery into our city's identity. With big-hearted and unconditional recognition," Mayor Femke Halsema said. "Because we want to be a government for those for whom the past is painful and its legacy a burden."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Amsterdam slavery
Amsterdam's mayor Femke Halsema (C) takes part in the national commemoration of the slavery past in the Oosterpark in Amsterdam, on July 1, 2021. On Thursday, Halsema apologized for the city's former governors' key role in the global slave trade, adding that it is time for the Dutch capital to reconcile with its dark past. KOEN VAN WEEL/ANP/AFP/Getty Images

While apologizing, she also stressed that "not a single Amsterdammer alive today is to blame for the past."

The Dutch government has in the past expressed deep regret for the nation's historic role in slavery but has stopped short of a formal apology. Prime Minister Mark Rutte said last year that such an apology could polarize society.

An independent commission that discussed the issue in recent months issued a report Thursday advising the central government to apologize, saying it would "help heal historic suffering."

Interior Minister Kajsa Ollongren attended the ceremony in Amsterdam but did not comment directly on the call for a government apology.

Black activist and actor Patrick Mathurin said some in the Netherlands try to ignore the country's colonial past, "but through our activism, we forced them to look at it. And also what happened, of course, with George Floyd made it all ... evolve faster."

Halsema said history casts a shadow that reaches into the present day.

"The city officials and the ruling elite who, in their hunger for profit and power, participated in the trade in enslaved people, in doing so entrenched a system of oppression based on skin color and race," she said. "The past from which our city still draws its distinctive commercial spirit is therefore indivisible from the persistent racism that still festers."

She closed her speech with the words: "On behalf of the College of Mayor and Alderpersons, I apologize." Cheers and applause erupted from the small group of invited guests sitting on socially distanced white chairs.

The apology came during an annual ceremony marking the abolition of slavery in Dutch colonies in Suriname and the Dutch Antilles on July 1, 1863. The anniversary is now known as Keti Koti, which means Chains Broken.

Activists say many people who had been enslaved were forced to work without pay for their former masters for a further decade.

Research into the involvement of Amsterdam's city fathers in the slave trade and slavery was commissioned by the municipality in 2019.

Halsema said it showed that "from the end of the 16th century until well into the 19th century, Amsterdam's involvement was direct, worldwide, large-scale, multifaceted and protracted."

Amsterdam municipality is not alone in apologizing for its role in slavery. In 2007, then-London Mayor Ken Livingstone made an emotional speech apologizing for the city's involvement. And a year ago the Bank of England apologized for the links some of its past governors had with slavery.

Halsema doesn't have to leave her official residence on one of Amsterdam's mansion-lined canals to be reminded of the city's deeply rooted ties to slavery.

The residence was formerly the home of Paulus Godin, who was a board member of the West India Company and director of the Society of Suriname that were both heavily involved in slavery in the 17th century.

A stone plaque outside the house recalls that history and calls the slave trade and slavery crimes against humanity.

Amsterdam municipality says that former city fathers in the time that slavery was rife in Dutch colonies were deeply involved in the trade.

"Mayors were also owners of plantations or traded in people. They helped, through their public office, to maintain slavery because they profited from it," the city says on its website.

The Dutch national museum, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, is currently staging a major exhibition entitled simply "Slavery" examining the country's role in the global slave trade.

Thursday's anniversary is the Dutch equivalent of Juneteenth in the United States, which President Joe Biden made a federal holiday earlier this month. There are calls to make the Dutch day of commemoration a national holiday.

The U.S. federal government has not apologized for slavery. The U.S. House and Senate both have passed resolutions apologizing for slavery and racial segregation laws.

During a press conference in 2007, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said he was sorry for Britain's role in slavery, which he called "entirely unacceptable." But eight years later during a trip to Jamaica, Prime Minister David Cameron sidestepped calls for an apology and ruled out paying reparations.

Amsterdam Mayor
Mayor Femke Halsema apologized for the involvement of the city's rulers in the slave trade during a nationally televised annual ceremony in Amsterdam, Netherlands, Thursday, July 1, 2021, marking the abolition of slavery in its colonies in Suriname and the Dutch Antilles on July 1, 1863. The anniversary is now known as Keti Koti, which means Chains Broken. Debate about Amsterdam's involvement in the slave trade has been going on for years and gained attention last year amid the global reckoning with racial injustice that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year. AP Photo/Peter Dejong