A week after Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte courageously ignored critics and formally apologized for the Dutch role in the transAtlantic slave trade, the country’s monarch has also done likewise, even calling the genocide a crime against humanity.

Dutch King Willem-Alexander incorporated the remorse of the Dutch in his Christmas message to locals, saying the move by the Dutch cabinet is the “beginning of a long journey,” as the Netherlands tries to grapple with a horrid past and to cope with pressure from Caribbean Community nations and other victim descendants fighting former European nations to pay reparations for slavery.

“But by viewing our joint history in an honest way and by acknowledging the crime against humanity that slavery was, we are however laying the foundations for a joint future,” he said of a nation of which 49% of the population still opposes any formal apology.

Last week, Caricom governments reacted to Rutte’s apology, thanking the Hague for doing so, contending that it has now opened a portal for future engagement but branding the Dutch as brutal pioneers of slavery.

“The Dutch state was Europe’s pioneer of the global slavery enterprise. For most of the 17th century, it monopolised the transAtlantic slave trade, and provided the finance and technology that enabled the English, French, Spanish and Portuguese to establish their own slave-based empires. As a result, Amsterdam became the financial center of Europe, and the leading supplier, globally, of capital for colonization,” said Hilary Beckles, chair of the regionally appointed Caricom Reparations Commission and Vice Chancellor University of the West Indies.

Willem-Alexander did not address calls from former Dutch Caricom member nation, Suriname, for him to visit the country mid next year for the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery. Activist groups want him to make the effort to fly to Paramaribo and say the Dutch were sorry and to pressure the government to begin addressing the issue of reparations.

The CRC says it is, however, encouraged by Rutte’s remarks when he said that he was ending his apology with a comma rather than a full stop, leaving the door open for some form of talks in the near future.

The region has long asked Europe for a formal summit to discuss the issue. Very few have given positive signals but the CRC believes that the apology will put pressure on other nations to begin some form of engagement. Those nations identified so far for their role in slavery include the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland. They have also hired a British law firm which had won compensation for Kenyan tribesmen who were slaughtered by British soldiers to represent their case.

Rutte described slavery as dehumanizing and says the Dutch cannot escape responsibility for this.

“Until 1814, more than 600,000 enslaved African women, men and children were shipped to the American continent under appalling conditions by Dutch slave traders. Most to Suriname, but also to Curaçao, Sint Eustatius and other places. They were taken from their families, dehumanized, transported and treated like cattle. Often under the government authority of the West India Company. We read of flogging and torture to death, of people having their limbs cut off, of branding in the face. The fate of one person is more terrible than the other, injustice and more injustice on every page. And as Anton de Kom described it for Suriname, it also happened elsewhere, under the same Dutch government authority. We read it, we know it, and yet the horrible fate of enslaved people is hard to comprehend.”

Supporting Beckles was Hilary Brown, the secretary to the CRC. She called the slave trade “a crime against humanity committed during one of the darkest chapters in human history. We call on the European governments to follow the lead of the Netherlands, and accept liability for their actions and commit to an appropriate program of repair. Reparations now,” she said.

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