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A reminder of our slavery past

Karwan Fatah-Black of Leiden University, an expert in the area of Dutch colonial history, wrote the text for a slavery remembrance memorial that was unveiled on 1 July in Hoofddorp. The official abolition of slavery was proclaimed 155 years ago on 1 July 1863. On Sunday 1 July 2018 the national remembrance of the Netherlands’ slavery past took place. As yet, however, the national Slavery Remembrance Day is still not an official national remembrance day.

No official expression of regret

Kajsa Ollongren, the Minister of the Interior, offered an expression of regret for the slavery past on behalf of the government. She spoke of profound regret, shame and remorse. Ahmed Aboutaleb, the mayor of Rotterdam, and Jan Hamming, the mayor of Zaanstad, have previously asked for an official apology from the Dutch government, but no such apology has been issued. Fatah-Black: ‘Every year, many people hope that the government will apologise. In my opinion, offering an apology is so important that it should come from the head of state and not a minister. It’s something that people are waiting for, and at some point it will surely happen.’

Slavery memorials

Karwan: ‘1 July is starting to become part of our collective memory and is included much more in our education. It’s becoming part of the national identity and our self-image. Other memorials are also planned, for communities that wish to join with each other in remembrance of slavery.

‘I was recently at the unveiling of a slavery memorial in Hoofddorp. This makes it the fourth city with a memorial. In Hoofddorp too there are people who are descendants of the enslaved. The municipality of Haarlemmermeer doesn’t have a direct link with the slavery past, but the executive councillor spoke about how, when a lot of money was being put into building dykes to drain the land of Haarlemmermeer, the abolition of slavery was considerably delayed for financial reasons. This says a lot about the attitude in those times.’

Slavery education on a structural basis

‘We’re still not aware enough of how the colonial past continues to have effects in the present. It would be good to talk about this more in Dutch education. It would have to be done on a structural basis, because then you can also explain the different facets of this history. It’s important to understand why there are still Caribbean parts of the Kingdom and that people from Suriname aren’t newcomers, but have been part of Dutch history for a very long time. This can give a clearer understanding of why the Netherlands is as it is today, and how the past still has effects in the present.’

Memorial in Hoofddorp

‘The memorials and remembrances that are now organised in many cities are an important aspect of the growing awareness of the colonial roots of the present day, so I felt highly honoured when Haarlemmermeer municipal council asked me to help with developing their memorial: both the text on the memorial itself, and the accompanying text on a stone next to the memorial. The memorial itself bears a quotation from its initiator, Elaine Veldema: “What happened then is not yet over” (Wat gebeurd is, is nog niet voorbij).

‘The council didn’t want it to be an exclusively Suriname-Netherlands memorial, so for the memorial itself I chose to include several abolition dates: first the slave trade, then on Sint Maarten in 1848, coinciding with the French abolition, then in the Dutch East Indies, and finally in 1863 in Suriname and on the Caribbean islands.

‘For the accompanying text it was a challenge to give a nuanced explanation in just a few words, which does justice to the extreme violence, the historical context and the present-day relevance. The text is:

“Descendants of the enslaved are to be found in all parts of the Netherlands. During colonial times, when international law and human rights did not exist, people were dragged violently into Dutch history. On plantations, in households and on ships, what followed was often a short and traumatic life.

Since the abolition of slavery was proclaimed worldwide, everyone in the world is born free. No-one is now permitted to own another. The abolition of slavery is one of the fundamental principles of human rights. But this history has not ended. Even today, there are still people who live in modern slavery.”’

New life for freed slaves

‘In my own research, you see that people who came out of slavery at that time found it extremely important to obtain a piece of land. Wherever it might be: part of a former plantation or in the city. Because slavery was really an uprooting, having a piece of land meant that as free people they could start to become attached to a new place. Owning land and being able to pass it on to subsequent generations was incredibly important for those people. This has resulted in many problems, and land ownership in Suriname is hopelessly fragmented. People from Suriname often complain about the inheritance problems with dividing estates and the family arguments that these cause. In fact, all those land ownership leftovers are the link between themselves and the beginning of their ancestors’ emancipation. My book on this, Eigendomsstrijd (Ownership Conflict), will be published in September.’

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