King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands formally apologized on Saturday for his country’s role in the slave trade, a rare direct apology for a historical injustice by a sitting European monarch.
Willem-Alexander, who ascended to the throne in 2013, made the apology in a speech in Amsterdam at an annual commemoration of the abolition of slavery in Suriname and the Netherlands’ Caribbean colonies, which was also the start of a memorial year that celebrates the 150th anniversary of the end of the practice there.
“We carry the horrors of the slavery past with us,” the king said, adding that the consequences of the slave trade could still be felt in the form of racism in today’s society.
“They are intensely experienced by me with heart and soul,” he said about his words of apology, which were met with applause.
The king also asked for forgiveness for the “obvious lack of action against this crime against humanity” on behalf of his ancestors, who like him were members of the House of Orange, the Dutch royal family.
Slavery was officially abolished in 1863 in the Dutch colonies, which included Suriname and Dutch Caribbean islands like Curaçao and Aruba among others, but many enslaved people were forced to work on plantations for a decade longer to limit financial losses for the owners. That meant that for most enslaved people, slavery did not end until 1873.
The Netherlands’ role in the global trade of enslaved people has long been a neglected topic of conversation, but in recent years, the Dutch government has been trying to actively acknowledge it.
In December, Prime Minister Mark Rutte formally apologized on behalf of the government, saying that “for hundreds of years, people were made merchandise, exploited and abused in the name of the Dutch state.” He added that a succession of Dutch governments had not done enough to recognize that slavery has had lasting negative effects.
Also late last year, the government announced that it would create a fund of 200 million euros, or about $218 million, to increase “awareness and involvement and follow-up.” And in 2021, the national museum of the Netherlands, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, hosted the exhibition “Slavery,” which explored more than two centuries of Dutch participation in slavery.
The Dutch monarchy has also recently shown more interest in the country’s colonial past. Last year, the king ordered a team to research his family’s involvement in the slave trade.
“His family was involved since the beginning of the 17th century,” said Gert Oostindie, a historian who is part of the research team. “It’s much more personal for him and more difficult to express apologies.”
Results of the study are expected to be released in 2026, Mr. Oostindie said.
It is unusual for an active European monarchy to formally apologize for its role in perpetuating slavery. The royal families of Britain and Belgium — both countries that have a significant history of colonialism and slavery — have not spoken up so clearly.
During a trip to Africa last year, King Charles III mentioned “the depths of his personal sorrow” over the suffering caused by Britain’s role in the slave trade, adding that the wrongdoings of the past should be acknowledged. The British government has not officially apologized for its country’s role in the slave trade. And this spring, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak dismissed a call for such a statement, the BBC reported.
In Belgium, neither King Philippe nor the government has issued outright apologies for their country’s role in the slave trade. But last year, Philippe did express his “deepest regret” over the country’s abuses in Congo, its former colony in Central Africa, in a rare public statement about colonization.
Willem-Alexander’s statement on Saturday was not the Dutch king’s first personal apology for historical wrongdoing.
On an official visit to Indonesia in 2020, as the country celebrated its 75th year of independence from the Netherlands, the king apologized for “excessive violence” used by Dutch soldiers from 1945 to 1949 during Indonesia’s national revolution. The apology stopped short of including the Dutch role in colonizing the country.
A personal apology by Willem-Alexander is “a great recognition,” said Linda Nooitmeer, the chairwoman of the National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery.
But while an apology is largely symbolic, she said, it means a lot to hear those words from a head of state, and in turn brings more awareness to the Netherlands’ colonial history. In fact, the prime minister’s apologies have already spurred more discussions in Dutch society, Ms. Nooitmeer said.
Apologies by heads of state also recognize that the effects of slavery go beyond racism and discrimination, and that they are ingrained patterns of exclusion for those who are descendants of enslaved people, Ms. Nooitmeer said.
But, she added, apologies for the Dutch role in the slave trade are still about “160 years too late.”