About a decade ago, I was earning a master’s degree in counseling and getting training to work with people who had survived sexual violence. Among the many lessons I learned was this: when someone has undergone a trauma, that trauma continues to exist in the present until it is truly processed, dealt with and come to terms with. Only once a person has gone through the often gruelling task of understanding, truly feeling and trying to repair the damage of that event can they begin to even think of putting it in their past.
The more I live and the more I observe people, the more I understand that this is true not only of individuals, but of groups of people, too. It is true of demographics. It is true of nations. It is true beyond the generations who were directly affected by the event. The children and the grandchildren of the people who survived the Holocaust know this is true. So do the Black people of America, who still bear the wounds of their ancestors.
The thing is, white Americans also carry the scars of slavery, yet most of them don’t know it. Our whole nation was degraded and shamed by that institution, but for the most part, only Black people are conscious that what happened then still harms them today. And that lack of awareness is holding all of us back, and it’s something we must urgently address if our country is going to truly move forward.
America might be the country most visibly westling (or more accurately, not wrestling) with this problem, but we are far from alone. Several of countries participated in the North Atlantic slave trade, including Portugal, the United Kingdom, Spain, the Netherlands, Denmark and France, also have a history to reckon with. Some are; some aren’t. The Netherlands continues to grapple with how to come to terms with is colonial history, and how much of an “I’m sorry” is too much.
More bitter than sweet
The Dutch Golden Age — a term that has become controversial lately — is associated with the paintings of the Old Masters and tulips, but those aren’t the things that generated the great wealth of Amsterdam in the 1600s. The wealth began with the trade in spices from the Far East and it grew with the establishment of sugar plantations in South America and the Caribbean later in the century.
But that wealth came at a steep price for many. It takes people to plant, tend to, harvest and process sugar cane. A lot of people. And those people typically want to be paid. But what if you didn’t have to pay them? Such was the seductive temptation of slavery.
The Dutch successfully booted the Portuguese out of the Brazilian region of Recife, which they named Mauritsstad, in 1630 (note: Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonesca, who I previously wrote about, led a congregation there, making him the first rabbi in the New World). It established many sugar plantations there, which it had to abandon when the Portuguese retook the colony in 1654.
With that colony gone, the Dutch refocused their South American colonial efforts on Suriname, setting up several sugar plantations there in a colony that would endure until 1975.
Suriname quickly drew a reputation as a place of brutality. Many of the enslaved people escaped the plantations and set up their own settlements in the jungles, becoming known as the Maroons of Suriname — considered a distinct ethnic group to this day. Many of the enslaved people who remained on the plantations, either in conjunction with the Maroons or not, engaged in a series of uprisings and rebellions that struck fear into the heart of the Dutch nation, which sought and often found allies among the native Arawak tribes nearby, who were wary of the Maroons encroaching on their territory.
John Gabriel Stedman was a Dutch-born Scottish soldier dispatched to Suriname to help quell those uprisings in the late 1700s. He was also a meticulous diarist, and his volumes of writings still exist. He wrote about the flora and fauna of the area, of the uprisings he helped put down, and about the acts of slavery he witnessed:
Another danger is, that should a poor slave dare to taste that sugar which he produces by the sweat of his brow, he runs the risk of receiving some hundred lashes, or having all his teeth knocked out by the overseer. …
I have for some time been happily silent upon the subject of cruelty; and sorry I am, at a time when all appeared harmonious and peaceable, to be under the necessity of relating some instances, which I am confident must inspire the most unfeeling reader with horror and resentment. The first object which attracted my compassion during a visit to a neighboring estate, was a beautiful Samboe girl of about eighteen, tied up by both arms to a tree, as naked as she came into the world, and lacerated in such a shocking manner by the whips of two negro-drivers, that she was from her neck to her ankles literally dyed over with blood. It was after she had received two hundred lashes that I perceived her, with her head hanging downwards, a most affecting spectacle. When, turning to the overseer, I implored that she might be immediately unbound, since she had undergone the whole of so severe a punishment; but the short answer which I obtained was, that to prevent all strangers from interfering with his government, he had made an unalterable rule, in that case, always to double the punishment, which he instantaneously began to put in execution. I endeavored him to stop, but in vain, he declaring the delay would not alter his determination, but make him take vengeance with double interest. Thus I had no other remedy but to run to my boat and leave this detestable monster, like a beast of prey, to enjoy his bloody feast, until he was glutted. … Upon investigating the cause of this matchless barbarity, I was credibly informed, that her only crime consisted in firmly refusing to submit to the loathsome embraces of her detestable executioner.
So slow to evolve
Before you think that Stedman was some kind of hero, though, you should know he wasn’t some kind of early abolitionist. Not only didn’t he think slavery should not be abolished, he thought it would be irresponsible to get rid of it. He only though it should be made kinder. And that, presumably, is what he thought he was doing when he hooked up with a young enslaved woman named Joanna, having a presumptive common-law marriage and son with her, then leaving them behind to return to Europe. The son would be freed, but Joanna never was.
However, Stedman’s unflinching descriptions of brutality and cruelty found their way into the hands of people who actually understood the abject evil of slavery, and they put them to use. In particular, artist William Blake illustrated several scenes, including the one described above, to drive home just how barbarous chattel slavery truly was. Wiping away the veneer of gentility around the plantation system helped bring an end to slavery in England first.
The Netherlands finally followed suit in 1863. Unlike the way it came about in America, it was a gradual process in Suriname that required enslaved people to continue working on plantations for 10 years for very little pay. But once that was done, the newly freed people largely abandoned the plantations and flocked to the colony’s capital city, Paramaribo.
Suriname would continue to be a part of the Netherlands until 1975 and still retains close ties to its former colonial ruler. A number of people from Suriname have immigrated to the Netherlands, either before it gained its independence or after. A good number of them congregated in the Bijlmermeer neighborhood of Amsterdam.
Now, the elected officials from that neighborhood are pressing the city of Amsterdam to issue an apology to the people of Suriname for the actions and legacy of slavery. And that’s not an outlandish thing to ask for when you consider that the Dutch West India Co., the corporation that oversaw and ran the Suriname colony, wasn’t just based in Amsterdam, but funneled much of the wealth that powered that city’s Golden Age.
So hard to say I’m sorry
It’s not like they’re asking for money. Not even a single euro. Just a heartfelt recognition that the reality of slavery was a trauma that tore apart families, resulted in untold numbers of murders and rapes, and countless acts of beatings, whippings, degradations and all manner of cruelty. And a recognition that these acts were done in order to fund the wealth of the Amsterdam and the Dutch nation.
It’s not an indictment, supporters say. It’s not intended to make white Amsterdamers feel guilt or shame. It doesn’t imply that people today are responsible for what people 400 years ago did. Or even what people 200 years ago did. It’s simply a recognition of an inarguable historical fact.
“Amsterdam is a beautiful city, but when you look at some of its most beautiful parts, it is hard to deny that they were financed with income that came from the trans-Atlantic slave trade,” said Don Ceder, a council member whose parents are from Ghana and Suriname. “What we want is for the city to own up to its history, to accept it and to apologize.”
But that’s too much to ask for some. Politicians on the right just can’t find the way to say those three small words: Het spijt me.
“A public apology feeds the identity politics which we abhor,” said Mr. van Schijndel, the Forum for Democracy council member. “It pits different ethnic groups against each other. It raises false expectations that someday reparations will be made.”
(Note: the New York Times story says the matter was to be taken up by the council on Feb. 12, but I have not been able to find out what happened at that meeting. If anyone knows and can tell me, I’d be interested to find out.)
Good for the soul
Lest anyone think that I’m pointing fingers at Amsterdam or the Netherlands here for its history in Suriname, I’m not. I’m actually quite impressed that the city has even come this close to issuing an apology for its history with slavery in Suriname. I say that because I can’t imagine my own country doing the same with its own history of people owning people.
The way the United States continues to coddle its history of slavery blows my mind. We romanticize plantation life with movies like “Gone With the Wind” and rally around the confederate flag. While Germany passed laws to forbid any public representation of Hitler or nazi imagery, people here caterwaul if there is talk about taking down statues glorifying confederate leaders. Reparations? Please!
There are few evils I can think of worse than slavery. In fact, there’s only one: genocide. These are the worst twin evils of humanity. Until we come to terms with it — until we make amends — that trauma continues. And in fact, as long as we romanticize and glorify that era, we are making it worse, just adding insult to injury.
It’s a trauma that involves all of us, not just those of us descended from the ones who were enslaved — though we’re not all affected the same way. There’s no question at all that the legacy of slavery falls heaviest on Black people in the form of racism, and that they continue to bear the brunt of it in the most brutally unfair ways, from underfunding of the schools that serve their children to discrimination in employment to a criminal justice system that is skewed against them.
But the rest of us feel it, too. Our lives are poorer for cutting ourselves off from our Black fellow citizens, our Black neighbors, our Black brothers and sisters. Our country is less for giving Black children less educational opportunities and fewer good jobs and thereby cutting ourselves off from the full extent that they have to offer. Our nation has an undercurrent of anger, distrust and pain that quite understandably refuses to go away because we have stubbornly deny the evil at the root of our history.
Call it a confession. Call it an apology. Call it being real. Whatever name you want to give it, it’s time. We need to face up to our history so it can finally become or past instead of our present.