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Dutch PM Rutte moved by mention during national slavery commemoration;


Dutch PM Rutte moved by mention during national slavery commemoration;

Caretaker Prime Minister Mark Rutte was visibly moved after being personally thanked during the national commemoration of the Dutch slavery past. Linda Nooitmeer, chair of the National Institute for the History and Heritage of Slavery in the Netherlands (NiNsee), praised Rutte’s efforts in recognizing the country’s slavery history during her speech.

The victimis of the history of slavery and the slave trade were honored during a ceremony with significant public interest in Amsterdam’s Oosterpark, drawing hundreds of attendees, some dressed in traditional clothing. The event, which featured large screens broadcasting the ceremony, concluded peacefully as the crowd gradually dispersed.

“Nobody is able to reassert the broken silence about our past,” Nooitmeer said. “The polyphony about our past is finally a fact. Rutte illustrates that in his statements, that with awareness of the past, a bridge to a shared future can also be built.”

Rutte acknowledged that these words “naturally” affected him. “I have made quite a journey in that, both with regard to Zwarte Piet and with regard to the apologies for the history of slavery. I found it impressive that something was said about that,” Rutte said. It took several years in office before Rutte understood concerns from people of color about white actors using blackface to portray Zwarte Piet, and the costume of the holiday character’s connection to the slavery era.

This commemoration marked Rutte’s last full working day as prime minister. He noted the timing was coincidental. “I have no more obligations for today, but tomorrow morning I will go back to the office. A few more hours of running the country,” he said after the ceremony. On Tuesday, the new cabinet of PVV, VVD, NSC, and BBB will be sworn in by King Willem-Alexander, with Dick Schoof taking over the premiership from Rutte.

Speakers at the event included Amsterdam Mayor Femke Halsema, outgoing Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf (Education, Culture, and Science), and Nooitmeer. Many members of the outgoing Cabinet, including Rutte and Deputy Prime Ministers Rob Jetten, Karien van Gennip, and Carola Schouten, were in attendance. The ceremony featured a wreath-laying service at the slavery monument and a minute’s silence.

Halsema emphasized the importance of confronting the country’s history. “We cannot be proud if we look away at the same time. Love for our country also means truly knowing our history. It means dealing fairly with our past, and especially with all the people who feel the scars of history and who rightly draw attention to it,” she said.

Halsema also addressed those who deny or minimize this history. “Pain that is denied cannot heal,” she said, highlighting the ongoing issues of racism and xenophobia. The mayor received several rounds of applause during her speech.

Nooitmeer criticized the absence of formal representation from the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of Dutch Parliament. For the first time in 22 years, the Tweede Kamer did not send a representative to the commemoration, attributing it to recent controversies surrounding Tweede Kamer Chair Martin Bosma. “The run-up to this commemoration was restless and uncomfortable, to say the least,” she said.

Bosma was invited because of his position in Parliament, much to the displeasure of many activists. Bosma argued against the need for the Netherlands to apologize for its ties to slavery, lobbied for the country to withdraw its apology, denied the impact the history of the slave trade has had on more recent generations of people, and has argued for mandating that Zwarte Piet be portrayed in blackface only.

Outgoing Education Minister Robbert Dijkgraaf also reflected on the recent controversies in his speech. “I have seen your discomfort, heard your concerns, and felt your pain. Let us take courage from a commemoration that is dignified and shared. And from the realization of how far we have come,” he said. Dijkgraaf served as the coordinating minister for the full range of ceremonies, events, and initiatives during 2023 to honor 150 years of abolition of slavery. He acknowledged the journey and the valuable yet painful conversations he had engaged in.

Dijkgraaf praised those who continued to highlight the Netherlands’ slavery past, stating that without their perseverance, the apologies from Prime Minister Rutte and the King would not have occurred. He recognized that not all descendants are ready to accept these apologies, given the long delay in their issuance.

“The road forward is winding. Headwinds will arise. But our steps are irreversible. Just as the apologies are irreversible,” he concluded, receiving several rounds of applause.

The ceremony in Oosterpark was part of a larger day of remembrance, including the colorful and traditional Surinamese Bigi Spikri parade and the Keti Koti Festival at Museumplein, celebrating the abolition of slavery with musical performances, workshops, and food stalls.

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