From slavery to abortion: the Dutch King's apology to Africa falls short
Willem-Alexander, king of the Netherlands, recently apologised for the role of his country in the Atlantic slave trade. Speaking on 1st June, at the 150th annual commemoration of the abolition of slavery in the Netherlands' former American colonies, the king said, to rapturous applause, “I feel the weight of [these] words in my heart and in my soul.”
He joins a growing group of contemporary European leaders reckoning with the crimes committed by, and in the name of, their ancestors during the heady centuries of European exploration and colonisation of the world. Last year, his neighbour to the south, King Philipe, expressed regret for Belgium’s crimes in Congo. And across the channel, Charles III of the United Kingdom faces growing calls to do the same.
Now, although the prudence of claiming responsibility for crimes one didn’t commit, and then apologising, in public, to people against whom they weren’t committed, can be questioned, there is nothing intrinsically wrong about apologising, or proffering similar consolations, for the crimes of one’s ancestors.
After all, the crimes associated with the slave trade and colonialism were real and grievous, and their negative financial, political and psychological effects are still with us, even if the details are debatable. Given that the principle of succession transfers liability across generations, however diluted, we all get to suffer for the sins of our fathers, just as we get to enjoy the fruits of their virtues.
That said, for an apology to be any good, it must be accompanied by sincere efforts at restitution, as well as the resolve to not offend again. In the matter of slavery and other colonial-era crimes, activists tend to focus a lot on the former. In fact, all the participants at the Dutch event interviewed by Al Jazeera, though pleased by the king’s apology, added that it must be followed, at some point, by reparations.
Though controversial, this view isn’t new. Attempts at reparations for historical wrongs have been made various times over the years, with varying outcomes. After its civil war, for example, the American government famously tried to gift each newly-freed slave family “40 acres and a mule;” the plan fell through after the relevant order was struck down by Lincoln’s slavery-sympathetic successor, Andrew Johnson.
Other initiatives have faced better prospects, like New Zealand’s ongoing efforts to compensate the Maori for violations of colonial-era territorial treaties; payments by Germany to survivors of the Shoah, as well as to Namibia for the Herero and Namaqua genocide; and the ongoing efforts by some Western museums to return stolen artifacts, among others.
Nevertheless, reparations for these violations will always be insufficient, and more so for older offences. Except in very rare concrete cases, there is no way to determine, even roughly, who owes what, who is owed, and how they are to be repaid, for offences committed by one’s ancestors when such acts were normal and legal.
Even if such calculations could be credibly done, the debt is bound to be so large, having compounded for so long, as to be impossible to pay off. In 1999, for instance, when the global GDP was US$33 trillion, the African World Reparations and Repatriation Truth Commission calculated that the “nations of Western Europe and the Americas, and institutions, who participated and benefited from the slave trade and colonialism,” owed Africa US$777 trillion.
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The talk of reparations also fails to take into account the modern privileges associated with these historical crimes. For instance, by being citizens of the world’s richest and freest country, African Americans, most of whom are the descendants of slaves, arguably make up the freest and most prosperous large population of black people in the world, even if they are relatively worse off than white Americans.
Finally, there is also the question of the responsibility of the African regimes and businessmen that participated in the slave trade. The Kingdom of Dahomey, for example, got quite rich off the sale of slaves to European merchants. Should the government of dirt-poor Benin, which now governs the same territory, also pay reparations? If not, who should bear Dahomey’s blame?
For these reasons, it is technically impossible for the Dutch king and his government to ever offer adequate restitution for the crimes of their forebears. They should want, and try, to do something about it, to the extent that this is reasonably possible. But trying to completely expunge this stain would not only betray a performative self-hatred, but would also expose them to a never-ending cycle of escalating claims.
Thankfully, of the two conditions for a proper apology, restitution is not the necessary one. If it were, children would despair of apologising to their parents, since they can never really offer them sufficient reparation. Likewise, though unable to pay up, the Dutch king and his government, as well as any others in their position, can resolve to do their best to not repeat the crimes of their ancestors on the descendants of the people their ancestors enslaved and colonised.
This is the one condition without which an apology falls flat.
Unfortunately, on this front, Willem-Alexander and his government are no better than their ancestors. They might even be worse, having the benefit of hindsight as they do. For when the Trump administration, in 2017, pulled funding for organisations that provide abortions abroad (especially in Africa), the Netherlands proudly set up an initiative to corral funding for the continued massacre of Africa’s unborn.
The initiative, known as SheDecides, is still up and running. It still sloganeers about abortion being healthcare, and actively advocates for the expansion of “abortion rights,” especially in African countries whose people have repeatedly expressed their overwhelming disapproval of the practice. It is, for all intents and purposes, a neo-colonial initiative, started and sustained by the same government that grovels about sins from the past about which it can do precious little.
The duty to redress the negative effects of slavery belonged primarily to the generations that practised and, thereafter, abolished the vile practice. Those who had the chance to do something about it then but did not, either out of practical expediency or personal weakness, can only answer to God, not the present generation, for their conduct.
This generation can, however, justifiably condemn those who, like the Dutch king and his government, commit crimes to which we are witness, against victims who move among us, carried about in the wombs of their mothers.
Mathew Otieno is a Kenyan writer, blogger and dilettante farmer. Until 2022, he was a research communications coordinator at a university in Nairobi, Kenya. He now lives in rural western Kenya, near the shores of Lake Victoria, from where he's pursuing a career as a full-time writer while concluding his dissertation for a master's degree. His first novel is due out this year.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
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