Jakarta: Dutch should apologize to Indonesia for slavery under colonial rule

Tria Dianti
Jakarta: Dutch should apologize to Indonesia for slavery under colonial rule Indonesian President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo greets Netherland’s Prime Minister Mark Rutte upon his arrival for a mangrove planting event at Ngurah Rai Forest Park, on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Denpasar, Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 16, 2022.
[Dita Alangkara/Pool/Reuters]

The Dutch prime minister should officially apologize to the Indonesian government for the Netherlands’ historical role in slave trading in the Southeast Asian archipelago, Jakarta said Friday. 

Several Indonesian citizens, meanwhile, said they accepted a general apology made by Netherlands Prime Minister Mark Rutte earlier this week for his country enabling and profiting from centuries of the slave trade. But what they need from Indonesia’s longtime colonial ruler are reparations for plundering their country’s natural resources, they said. 

The Netherlands’ apology stemmed from pressure from citizens of Suriname and Caribbean descent, said the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, referring to nations where Dutch plantation owners raked in profits using slave labor.

“If he did, just say it officially to the [Indonesian government],” Vice President Ma’ruf Amin told a press conference.

“And the government will respond. What will the response be? The government will discuss it,” he said.  

Rutte offered the apology in a speech at the National Archives in The Hague on Monday after his cabinet traveled to seven former Dutch colonies in South America and the Caribbean.

“For centuries, the Dutch State and its representatives facilitated, stimulated, preserved and profited from slavery,” the prime minister said.

“For centuries, in the name of the Dutch State, human beings were made into commodities, exploited and abused. For centuries, under Dutch state authority, human dignity was violated in the most horrific way possible,” Rutte added.

“For that I offer the apologies of the Dutch government.”

By 1814, more than 600,000 enslaved African women, men and children had been shipped to Suriname, Curaçao, St. Eustatius and other locations on the American continent “in deplorable conditions” by Dutch slave traders, often under the governmental authority of the Dutch West India Company, Rutte said.

In Asia, between 660,000 and over one million people were traded within the Bay of Bengal region under the authority of the Dutch East India Company headquartered in present-day Indonesia, he said.

“The numbers are unimaginable. The human suffering behind them, even more unimaginable,” he said.

“Countless stories have been passed down, and witness testimonies given, proving that there was no limit to the arbitrary cruelty of the slave system,” he added.

Some Indonesians were also taken to Suriname by the Dutch as indentured laborers in the 19th century, to work on sugar, coffee, cacao and other plantations.

‘Demanded by people of Surinamese descent’

The Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it “noted” the apology.

Rutte’s apology was “motivated by the increasing awareness of the Dutch people about the bleak history of their country and some of the results of historical research,” Umar Hadi, the ministry’s director general for the Americas and Europe, told BenarNews. 

“The emphasis was on countries like Suriname and Dutch colonies in the Caribbean because it was demanded by people of Surinamese descent in the Netherlands, and also considering the significant proportions of people who are descendants of victims of slavery in these countries,” he said.

The Jakarta Post, the country’s largest English-language daily, reacted to the apology by running an editorial with the headline “What took the Dutch so long?”

“‘Sorry’ is the hardest word for the Netherlands to say. It is so hard that it has taken the country more than two centuries to apologize for its role in the slave trade,” the newspaper opined.  

“[W]hat is startling about his statement is not so much that the Netherlands is finally accepting responsibility for the horrors it committed against other nations around the world, from what is now Indonesia to much of the African territories they once occupied and ruled, but that it has been able to live in constant denial for more than two centuries without ever feeling the slightest guilt.”

In February, Rutte also offered apologies to Indonesia after an investigation by three historical research institutes found that the Netherlands used systematic and excessive violence during a campaign to re-occupy the then-Dutch East Indies after the Southeast Asian nation proclaimed its independence in 1945.

The finding contradicted the long-held view in the Netherlands that Dutch troops had only engaged in “police actions” as they sought to regain control of the colony after World War II.

This year, Indonesia asked the Netherlands to return historical and scientific artifacts from its museums, including bones of the Java Man, the first known fossils of the Homo erectus species.

In 2020, Dutch King Willem-Alexander offered the first royal apology for “excessive violence” by Dutch forces during a visit to Indonesia.

“In the years immediately after the Proklamasi, a painful separation followed that cost many lives,” Willem-Alexander said, referring to Indonesia’s proclamation of independence on Aug. 17, 1945.

“In line with earlier statements by my government, I would like to express my regret and apologize for excessive violence on the part of the Dutch in those years,” he said. “I do so in the full realization that the pain and sorrow of the families affected continue to be felt today.”

Indonesia declared independence in 1945 after Japan, which occupied the then-Dutch East Indies for 3½ years, surrendered unconditionally after the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But the Dutch, who had colonized the region to control the spice trade, officially recognized Indonesia’s sovereignty only in December 1949.

The Royal Netherlands East Indies Army waged violent anti-insurgency operations that led to the killings and summary executions in South Sulawesi and West Java between 1946 and 1947.

Estimates of the deaths in the South Sulawesi massacre vary from 1,500 to 40,000, while authorities said almost 500 people were killed in the West Java village of Rawagede.

In 2013, the Dutch government for the first time made a general apology for the mass killings carried out by its troops in Indonesia.

‘Price of nutmeg was higher than gold’ 

Bonnie Triyawan, an Indonesian historian, said Rutte’s apology could be partly motivated by domestic politics in the Netherlands, where there has been growing public awareness about their country’s colonial past.

“So he may be trying to appeal to the Dutch public and win votes,” Bonnie told BenarNews.

Chandra Halim, a lecturer in history at Sanata Dharma University, said there was no estimate of how much the Dutch had plundered from Indonesia.

“At that time the price of nutmeg was higher than gold, so you can imagine how valuable it was,” he said.

Gerry Eka, who works a gaming studio, said he believed an apology was no longer needed as Indonesia and the Netherlands had enjoyed good relations.

“Past sins should not be passed on to the present generation. It’s true that we were colonized, but everything from education to legal systems in Indonesia are inherited from the Dutch. There are lessons to be learned,” the 34-year-old said.

Harry Mahardika, 30, said the Dutch government should pay reparations to Indonesia.

“Past mistakes may be forgiven, but damage has been done,” he said.   

“Compensation for the families of victims of slavery is really necessary because they have been harmed.”


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