Published On: Fri, Dec 30th, 2022

Present-day slavery

Door Hilbert Haar

St. Maarten will “accept nor deny” apologies for the history of slavery from the Dutch government, according to Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs in a reaction to a speech by Prime Minister Mark Rutte. The Dutch apology is loud and clear: slavery was a crime against humanity.

“We, living in the here and now, can only acknowledge and judge slavery in the clearest terms and disapprove of it as a crime against humanity.”

Rutte had of course a lot more to say, but this is the meat of the matter. The Dutch government acknowledges its role in the history of slavery and admits that this was a criminal system. Rutte said that his government does not want to close the book after the apology. “Ages of suppression and exploitation have their effects today through racial stereotyping, discriminating patterns of exclusion and social inequality. We must continue together. So let us have that debate about the history of slavery, also when that debate is difficult.”

You’d think that such an unambiguous apology would be enough, or at least a step in the right direction. But no. Prime Minister Silveria Jacobs, in a speech that seems to have been written before she knew what Rutte was going to say, speaks in a reaction of “mixed emotions” and “a forced apology.” Jacobs also mentioned reparations, though Rutte has already publicly stated that the Netherlands is not going to pay anything.

And while there is plenty of historical research into the role of the Netherlands in the slave trade, Jacobs wonders “how a nation can be sorry for something they know little or nothing about.”

The main issue seems to be that St. Maarten has not been consulted before the Dutch government decided to apologize. And therefore, the government in Philipsburg has installed an advisory committee that will speak with citizens about this subject. Only then will the island take a position, I read.

Really? Slavery was abolished almost 160 years ago and St. Maarten does not have a informed opinion about possible excuses? Where was everybody all this time?

I would think that, looking at that history with today’s eyes, one can hardly maintain that slavery was good for the economy (or rather, that it was acceptable that it was good for somebody’s economy) or that is wasn’t all that bad. It simply is a black page in the history of the Netherlands. End of story.

But is it, really? Elsewhere I read that some activist demands 40,000 euro for every descendant from slaves before he is ready to accept apologies. So now, it is suddenly about money. Never mind that it will probably take a hell of a long time (and plenty of money) to define who is a descendant from a slave (and who isn’t). We don’t even have to have this discussion because Rutte has already announced that the Netherlands is not going to pay reparations.

Some years ago, St. Maarten established July 1 as an official holiday to mark the abolishment of slavery. I remember local politicians saying that this should not become just another day off. It had to be meaningful. I totally agreed with that.

But how do you make such a day meaningful? By teaching kids in school how bad slavery was? By demanding reparations of which anybody with half a brain knows darn well that they will never materialize?

I had a different idea. I wrote that to make July 1 meaningful, our community ought to do something about the slavery that is taking place on our island today, right under our noses. I mean, you can complain about the history of slavery all day long, but it will never change the facts. Liberating people who are held, in different ways, in slavery today seemed much more productive to me.

That observation hit a nerve: by saying this I was denying slavery. That is of course bullshit. I have never, and I will never, deny the history of slavery. It was terrible. Shameful. But it is also water under the bridge.

Up to a point, I feel for people who claim that they are still feeling the pain of slavery. But it has to stop somewhere. You cannot go through life playing victim all the time. To all those people who think that slavery was so terrible I say: I agree with you. But since you find this so horrible, why don’t you use your energy to do something about present-day slavery?