Amsterdam Considers Apology for Slavery in Former Colony

AMSTERDAM — The most enduring legacy of slavery in the Netherlands may be found in neighborhoods like Bijlmermeer, a working-class corner of Amsterdam where many — including those who trace their heritage to the former colony of Suriname — have long felt sidelined.

Slave labor in the South American nation of Suriname generated vast wealth for Amsterdam, and that wealth built many of its palaces and canal-side mansions. But it is in Bijlmermeer — a neighborhood long associated with poverty, crime and aggressive policing — that a movement has grown in recent months to press the city to reckon with this chapter of its history.

Politicians from the area, elected during a vote last year that delivered one of the most diverse city councils in recent memory, have championed a push for Amsterdam to apologize formally for slavery. A majority of the 45-member council, which now has several members descended from slaves, has signed on to the apology initiative that is scheduled to be taken up on February 12. Local politicians say it is likely to pass.

“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.”

The debate over an apology comes as the Netherlands continues to grapple with an influx of migrants and a backlash against them that has complicated the country’s image as a bastion of liberal tolerance.

As part of that backlash, a right-wing, anti-immigrant party — the Forum for Democracy — has surged to become the largest party in the provinces that contain Amsterdam, The Hague and Rotterdam. A contentious law was passed in August banning from some public places burqas, niqabs and other face coverings that are worn by some Muslim women.

The proposal for Amsterdam — where immigrants have fed a population boom — to apologize for its role in slavery has generated soul-searching and debate, as well as strong opposition by a newly empowered right wing.

Anton van Schijndel, a council member from the Forum for Democracy, said the initiative was “a drive to instill a sense of guilt and shame about a nation’s history.”

Debates over the legacy of slavery are common in the United States, where slave labor powered the economy and shaped the legal system even before the nation’s inception. But such discussions happen more fitfully in Europe, where those who profited lived thousands of miles from colonies like Suriname.

Amsterdam took an unusually direct role as a co-owner of Suriname in the 17th century. It acquired a one-third stake in the colony in 1683 and became an important conduit in the slave trade, especially between West Africa and South America.

Scholars say wealth continued to pour into Amsterdam — home to banks, insurance companies and most plantation investors — after the Dutch government took control of Suriname in 1795. The colony became independent in 1975, after which many Surinamese migrated to the Netherlands and settled in neighborhoods like Bijlmermeer.

Simion Blom, 31, a City Council member who immigrated from Suriname at the age of 5, grew up in Bijlmermeer.

The area began as a planned community of Modernist high-rises and wide, elevated highways built in the 1960s as a Dutch suburb of the future. But it ultimately failed to attract many Dutch people, and became increasingly gritty and urban.

The isolated exclave surrounded by other cities then became a destination for migrants, who faced housing discrimination in central Amsterdam but could find affordable apartments here.

Sitting at a cafe on a bustling pedestrian shopping street in Bijlmermeer, Mr. Blom said that the country would be strengthened by frankly discussing such a dark period of history, even if it made some people uncomfortable.

“I think that makes us adult as a country and as a society when we are able to talk about this, especially about racism and discrimination, to bring people together,” he said.

The proposed apology would call for the city to make a “reconciliation with the past.”

“It is time to redefine the identity of our city free from the weight of the past, but armed with its knowledge to work toward a reconciliation in the future,” the text of the resolution says. “From a shared history, to a shared future.”

The conservative-leaning party of Prime Minister Mark Rutte has met the proposal with ambivalence, and its city council members have declined to endorse it. And the Forum for Democracy, which swept nationwide provincial elections in March but holds just three of the city council seats, has opposed it.

“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.”

He added that it is difficult to apologize for what ancestors did centuries ago.

Proponents of an apology say reparations are not on the agenda, and they agree that Dutch people are not to blame for what their ancestors thought or did.

“It’s not about the individual,” said Eduard Mangal, a city council aide of Surinamese descent who helped write the draft proposal. “This is something the country has done as a whole. It’s not only white people who should apologize. I’m also apologizing because I’m also Dutch. I’m also from Amsterdam.”

The idea of an apology has been promoted for years by scholars and activists who argue that an increasingly diverse Amsterdam must have the fortitude to face its past. The current initiative was begun on the city level after a similar push at the national level produced what Mr. Ceder described as a frustrating response that emphasized Dutch sorrow instead of responsibility.

Mr. Mangal, the city council aide, and others say the focus should be on the city’s entanglement with slavery, which was not limited to Suriname.

Slaves worked in other Dutch colonies, including in Asia, said Pepijn Brandon, a historian at the Free University of Amsterdam.

Dutch financiers also invested in American slavery. When Thomas Jefferson mortgaged his plantation, Monticello, to Dutch bankers, they accepted his slaves as collateral for the loan, Dr. Brandon said.

“You should see it as a wide-ranging system, not simply the activities of a number of traders within the slave trade but instead a whole complex of economic activities that happen across national borders,” Dr. Brandon said.

Its impact was even greater on Holland, historically the country’s most powerful province, where slavery accounted for 10 percent of gross domestic product and 40 percent of all economic growth between 1739 and 1779, Dr. Brandon said. Roughly 19 percent of all goods that came through Dutch harbors were produced on slave plantations in the Americas, he said.

“This was actually one of the motors of the Dutch commercial economy of the second half of the 18th century,” he said.

The physical legacy of slavery can be plainly seen in Amsterdam. The city center is crowded with mansions, palaces and stately buildings whose original occupants were linked to the slave trade or industries based on it, historians say.

It is also seen in the official mayoral residence, which was once home to the slave trader and Dutch West India Company director Paulus Godin. The West India House, the former headquarters of the Dutch West India Company, today houses a wine bar.

Amsterdam was also home to the world’s first stock exchange, which was founded in part to trade shares in industries based on slavery. In a sign of the city’s modern dependence on tourism, the site is now home to a tourist information office and a branch of Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

“The Dutch still profit from it,” Mr. Blom said. “The tourism, the heritage in itself is wealth.”