The Dutch have done it, and maybe it’s up to the others to follow suit. I wrote in this column a year ago about the man who was England’s Prince of Wales but is today that country’s King Charles lll and his sad reflections on the institution of slave trade.
I would like to revisit, only in part, what the then prince said, to refresh our memory: “I cannot describe the depth of my personal sorrow at the suffering of so many as I continue to deepen my understanding of slavery’s enduring impact.”
I thought this was a historic moment and said so. Now, recently we have heard the King of the Netherlands coming out on behalf of his country to go a little better than Charles, by actually issuing an official apology for his country’s participation in the evil commerce.
Whereas the British prince had expressed his “personal sorrow”, the Dutch monarch has actually apologised, and there is a difference.
During an occasion to mark Holland’s links to slavery, the Dutch King Willem-Alexander said, “On this day that we remember the Dutch history of slavery, I ask forgiveness for this crime against humanity. As your king and as a member of the government, I make this apology myself. And I feel the weight of the words in my heart and in my soul”.
In 2022, the Dutch King took an important step in preparation for his mea culpa, when he commissioned research into the role played by the House of Orange-Nassau in the slave-trade.
The inquiry revealed that between 1675 and 1770, at least $600 million accrued to the Dutch crown via the activities of the Dutch East India Company in the purchase and sale of human beings and “gifts” to the royal household.
A study done around the time found that the British monarchy took an active part in slave trade, employing slave labour in the production of tobacco in Virginia, where Charles’ ancestor named Edward Porteus is shown to have kept up to 200 slaves obtained through dealings underwritten by the House of Stuart and the City of London in collaboration with the Royal African Company (RAC), a most vile operator in the trade.
The facts regarding the multiple complicities are legion, and I doubt if we will ever get to the bottom of this sordid business but suffice it to say that the fact of coming out and apologising is a good first step to take.
It goes in the order of “owning up,” which my teacher at middle school, William Vyankero Migembe (to whom all my respect!), used to emphasise to us as errant little urchins, again and again: “To save your colleagues from collective punishment, come out and own up.”
It is in the spirit of owning up, I think, that the Dutch king has done this noble deed.
It should be emulated by all those who find out something nefarious in their history, especially when the actions of their ancestors caused such monumental and grievous harm as the slave trade.
It may be that many more nations and people will be called out for something their ancestors did in the past to harm others.
For instance, even the Dutch — as well as many other European tribes — were, at some stage in history, victims of the slave trade practised by the Ottomans on the Barbary Coast, and many other examples.
The story of the African slave trade is replete with heart-rending instances of inhuman treatment meted out to the people who were used as draught animals.
Africans are not the only ones to suffer this fate. All tribes of the world, with few exceptions, have had this experience. Perhaps Africa has the dubious honour of having suffered this ancient indignity most recently.
The “recentness” of our experience is what may explain its topicality: it happened only the other day, so to speak, and that makes it relevant to our current conversations. It is possible that all the other tribes who were sold into slavery have had time to heal and forget; for Africans, the scars are still too raw to make us forget.
When I watched Prince Charles making that remark at the Kigali Convention Centre last July, I was thinking of the word “enduring,” and I was moved to associate it with what we are going through as a continent. “Enduring” means long-term, persistent, permanent, continuing, on-going, permanent, lasting, ongoing, long-term.
Now, the prince who became king is the quintessential Anglophone, born into the lingo and tutored in its proper application. The “enduring” impact he was referring to must be understood to mean something caused by slavery that is refusing to leave or end, an effect so strong and so debilitating that it is embedded within us: we just cannot shake it off or excise it.
The conversation around the slave trade inevitably tends to lead to the issue of reparations — and I am not excluding it in my reflection, because I think it is relevant — but, before we get into that, a little more introspection is in order. The first step in that introspection would be to ask the question, “How enduring was the impact of the slave trade on Africa?”