Why an apology for slavery should not be made

On 30 June the mayor of Rotterdam, Ahmed Aboutaleb, called on the Dutch government to make a formal apology for the Dutch slave trade. De Dutch state had expressed its regret for the slave trade before, but it never came to an apology out of fear for possible legal responsibility. There are several reason why I think a formal apology is not a good idea.

At the very least I think it is ironic that just Aboutaleb with his Berber origin calls for an apology. The Barbary pirates from North Africa undertook slave raids to Europe from the 16th to 19th century to enslave Europeans. Where is his call to Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia to formally apologize to the European countries for their slave trade? Of course Europeans have traded far more slaves than the Berbers, but that is not the point. It’s just an interesting question, not an appeal to hypocrisy towards Aboutaleb.

Europeans nowadays don’t demand an apology from North African countries for their slave trade from the past. Indigenous Dutch people nowadays don’t demand an apology from Spain because their distant ancestors were killed during the Eighty Years’ War due to the actions of the Spanish Empire. The Spanish Empire never compensated the United Provinces for the damage. Apparently these people do realise that you shouldn’t keep pulling on the distant past.

There are of course other situations possible were an apology is appropriate. The most important criterium should be if the people who demand the apology actually suffered from the acts for which an apology is asked. The killings perpetrated by Dutch soldiers in the Indonesian village Rawagede and in South Sulawesi in 1946 and 1947 are a good example. The widows of the men who were killed at that time were compensated for the damage and received an official apology.

It should be noted that the Dutch politicians who were responsible for the violent suppression of the Indonesian War of Independence are no longer alive. An apology loses value if it is not made by those who were responsible for the misdeeds. In this case the responsibility is more abstract because the apology is made on behalf of the Dutch state as a legal entity. This does not affect the necessity of the apology however.

Compare this with the situation of the slave trade by the Dutch. Among the people who demand an apology from the Dutch state, there is no one who has suffered from slavery and they did not have parents who have been slaves. In which way were they damaged by the slavery? How will an apology make them sleep easier at night? I can’t help but think that these people want an apology so that they can hold the Dutch government responsible in the court of law and then demand financial compensation through lawsuits.

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