Does the Netherlands have a debt of honour to Suriname?

Dr. Hans Ramsoedh

Dr. Hans Ramsoedh (historian en publicist)

Former Dutch minister Jan Pronk (development cooperation 1973-1977) has had special ties with Suriname since the 1960s. On the Dutch side, he was one of the architects of Suriname’s independence in 1975. About his role in the independence of Suri­na­me, he wrote a bulky book Suriname. Van wingewest tot natiestaat 2020 that has been discussed on this site before. In the many interviews (in newspapers and on the radio) that followed his book, he states that the Netherlands plundered, exploited and put Suriname at a disadvantage on a gigantic scale. According to him, in the past the Netherlands caused almost irreparable damage to the population of Suriname. In his opinion, many of Suriname’s present problems are still rooted in its colonial history. In this connection, Pronk speaks of a Dutch (colonial) debt of honour to Suriname.

He is also in favour of an apology and reparation payments by the Dutch state to Suriname in connection with its past of slavery. In the context of this contribution, the term debt of honour refers to the dark Dutch colonial past in Suriname and the fact that the Netherlands has earned much from Suriname. During the 1960s and 1970s, the colonial debt of honour was generalised into a kind of collective Western debt towards the entire Third World with development aid as a form of reparation.

Jan Pronk (courtesy wikipedia.og)

The above-mentioned views of Pronk are unsubtle­, generalising and not based on facts. By doing so, he implicitly creates the impression that Suriname is entitled to Wiedergutmachung from the Netherlands. Insofar as we can speak of a Dutch (colonial) debt of honour, this applies in particular to the Dutch East Indies (present Indonesia), where there was large-scale plundering, exploitation and war crimes during the struggle for independence between 1945 and 1949. The Dutch (colonial) debt of honour to Suriname only applies to the history of slavery ­(1667-1863) and not to the entire colonial period (1667-1975). After the abolishment of slavery, Suriname became a cost item for the Netherlands and there was no question of exploitation and plundering. In addition, the Netherlands has another debt to pay to Suriname, namely the disclosure of the archives of the Dutch Military Mission in order to determine the exact role of the head of this mission (Colonel Valk) in the 1980 military coup in Suriname.
In order to put the Dutch debt of honour to Suriname into perspective, I will discuss the following aspects: the Dutch share in the slave trade, the economic importance to the Netherlands of the plantation economy in Suriname which was based on slavery, the Surinamese plantation economy after the abolition of slavery in 1863, the financial aid given by the Netherlands to Suriname after 1866, the question which debt of honour the Netherlands owes to Suriname and the actual Dutch colonial debt of honour. I conclude with what, in my opinion, underlies Pronk’s views on the Dutch debt of honour to Suriname.

The Dutch and slavery
For a long time, the Dutch history of slavery was absent from the collective Dutch memory. Since a few decades, more attention has been paid to this topic, for instance in the Dutch history books. In the Dutch history canon introduced for education in 2005, slavery is also one of the fifty themes.
The Dutch share in the transatlantic slave trade between 1600 and 1814 (when a Dutch ban on the slave trade was introduced) was not insignificant. Of the twelve to sixteen million enslaved Africans, the Dutch share was about five per cent (500,000 – 600,000). Of this number, the Dutch West Indian Company (WIC) transported about 300,000 to Suriname.

Transport of enslaved Africans

Dutch historians have long assumed that the importance of the transatlantic slave trade to the Dutch economy in the eighteenth century was marginal. Recent research shows that around 1770, activities based on transatlantic slavery accounted for as much as five per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP is the total added value of all final goods and services produced in a country) of the Dutch Republic. For the Netherlands’ wealthiest and most powerful province, the province of Holland, this percentage was even ten. These are not marginal percentages. By comparison, in 2017, the share of the port of Rotterdam in the Dutch economy, including all its dependent logistics, industry and business ­services, was ­6.2 per cent of Dutch GDP. Although the majority of the Dutch population never had any direct contact with plantation slavery, many branches of the Dutch economy revolved entirely or partly around products produced by slaves in the Atlantic world, or around the production of goods for the overseas plantations or the slave trade. The Dutch Golden Age coincided with the seventeenth century, when the Republic of the Seven United Provinces flourished in the fields of trade, science and the arts. The slave trade was not the foundation of the Golden Age. It was the flipside. It is important to note that the (Dutch) slave trade was not limited to Africans. Slave trade was also an important part of the activities of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) ­in Asia. In other words, the profitable ­slave trade covered both the West and the East.

Between 1667 and 1863, Surinam was a Dutch colony, an exploitation colony where enslaved Africans and their descendants were employed on the plantations. At the peak of the plantation economy (eighteenth century), there were more than 600 plantations. Profits rose to record heights. Due to the scarce source material, it is ­not ­easy to calculate the exact profitability ­of the Surinamese plantations­. Amsterdam merchants in sugar and coffee earned money from them, but whether they became rich thanks to slavery alone is difficult to determine. We can say that these profits in the plantation sector contributed to ­capital accumulation ­and ­thus to an increase in prosperity in the Netherlands, albeit for a small group. In the last decades of the eighteenth and in the nineteenth century, however, the profitability of the plantations in Suriname went downhill.

Plantations in Surinam in the 18th century

Decline of the Surinamese plantation economy
After the abolition of slavery in 1863, many plantations were closed down due to a lack of certainty about obtaining sufficient labour. ­Immigration was seen as a solution. However, the immigration of indentured laborers (from China, the British India and Java) could not prevent the plantation sector from a decline. At the beginning of the twentieth century, plantation agriculture had therefore had its day. After 1910, Suriname was no longer a pure plantation economy, but had a mixed economy (large and small-scale agriculture) in terms of land use. The revenues from sugar, gold and balata after 1900, however, were not able to bring about a major change in the state of the Surinamese economy. The result was that after 1900, the Surinamese economy fell into a structural malaise. Since the late 19th century, therefore, austerity has been the key word, which meant doing nothing and keeping things going as cheaply as possible. In the Netherlands, Suriname was considered a colony in permanent malaise. Successive Ministers of Colonies did not know what to do about Suriname’s problems. Consequently, there was disinterest in The Netherlands.
The world economic crisis of 1929 was the final blow to Suriname’s plantation economy. Only about ten plantations could be kept running in the thirties with government support. The central position of sugar and coffee was taken over by bauxite in the 1930s.

It meant that after 1863, Suriname increasingly became economically peripheral to Dutch colonial policy. The interest of the Netherlands and private capital was now mainly focused on the Dutch East Indies. Surinam could not compete with the benefits in the Dutch East Indies.
With the introduction of the Government Regulation in 1866, which can be considered as the first constitution, Suriname became an autonomous part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands with its own elected parliament with very limited ­powers, but under Dutch colonial supervision with the governor as the highest authority. It also meant that Suriname had to manage its own financial affairs independently. The economic decline in Suriname meant that, since 1866, the Netherlands had to help out every year to balance the colonial household budget. Between 1866 and 1900, 1901-1920 and 1921-1940, the annual Dutch contribution was half a million, one million and three million respectively. In total, the Dutch contribution to the Surinamese budget between 1866 and 1940 amounted to approximately one hundred million. In contrast to the period before 1863, we cannot speak of exploitation and plundering of Suriname by the Netherlands in the period 1863-1940.

Dutch financial aid to Suriname
After 1945, the Dutch position with regard to Suriname changed. With the establishment of the Statuut in 1954, Suriname became an equal part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands and was given the authority to ­look after its own internal affairs ­independently. On the Dutch side, disinterest gave way to a systematic development of Suriname with the use of Dutch development aid. A Welvaartsfonds (Nf eight million), a Ten-Year Plan (Nf 299 million) and two Five-Year Plans (total Nf 640 million) for the social and economic development of Suriname ­were introduced. At independence in 1975, Suriname received a farewell gift of Nf 3.5 billion.

However, there was no sustainable economic development of Suriname. This was related to the neo-colonial policy imposed by the Netherlands, which was aimed at the interests of foreign entrepreneurs. It was the government’s task to create a ‘favourable’ climate and infrastructural facilities for foreign or local private capital. Implicitly, it was assumed that the economic activities of these enterprises would have an effect on the stimulation of an indigenous development dynamic. In Suriname, it led to a so-called leasing economy; an economy with a dominant position of foreign capital and with a balance of payments surplus that subsequently flowed abroad again largely in the form of profit. Despite the neo-colonial development policy between 1945 and 1975, a basis had nevertheless been laid for further strengthening the economy with the Nf 3.5 billion that Suriname received as a farewell gift at independence in 1975, based on its own development vision.

What is the Netherlands’ debt of honour to Suriname?
As indicated at the beginning, the Dutch debt of honour to Suriname concerns two aspects: The first concerns the Dutch apology for the slavery past ­and, by extension, the issue of a possible reparation payment. The second concerns the publication of the archives of the Dutch Military Mission,

Dutch excuses for the history of slavery and ­reparations
It is important to note here that Dutch apologies for the history of slavery (with the exception of a few activists) are not, or hardly, an issue among broad sections of the population in Suriname and the Dutch Antilles. The issue is especially alive in the Netherlands among black activists who have been inspired by developments in the United States among activist African-Americans. As a result, Dutch excuses for the history of slavery have become part of black identity politics in the Netherlands. These black activists make a direct connection between the history of slavery ­and ‘systemic racism’ in the Netherlands. However, making a direct link between the two is incorrect since other groups in Dutch society with a migration background (such as Turks and Moroccans and Jews in the past) who do not have a history of slavery also ­experience ‘systemic racism’, backwardness and disadvantage. In other words, the history of slavery ­should not serve as an explanation or excuse for the current ­social backwardness.
An important impulse for the discussion on the Dutch past of slavery came from the UN World Conference against Racism in Durban, South Africa 2001, at which the transatlantic slave trade, slavery and colonialism were declared crimes against humanity. The Netherlands was one of the ­signatories of this declaration. In the Netherlands, black activists called for the implementation of the Durban Declaration, and not without success. In 2002, the Slavery Monument was erected in Amsterdam and in 2003, the National Institute Dutch Slavery History and Heritage (NiNsee) was established with the aim of researching and raising awareness about the Dutch slavery past. The government subsidy to this institute was, however, largely terminated in 2012. Previously, during the commemoration of slavery on 1 July Dutch ministers expressed ‘deep regret’ on behalf of the Dutch government about the Dutch past of slavery, but they did not apologise.

Slavery monument in the Oosterpark in Amsterdam

Under the influence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, apologies for the Dutch past of slavery became ­high on the political agenda. A number of political parties called on the government to apologise on behalf of the Netherlands for its slavery past. The municipalities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam are considering apologising for their role in the slave trade. However, there is no majority in the Dutch parliament in favour of apologising. The government, too, sees little point in Dutch apologies. Prime Minister Rutte believes that apologies will have a polarising effect. Rutte did promise that 2023 will be declared a year of commemoration. (Black activist groups do not regard 1863 as the year in which slavery was abolished in Surinam and the Antilles, but 1873. The latter, however, is incorrect. After the abolition of slavery, ex-slaves were ­still obliged to work on the plantations for ten years with pay. This period (1863-1873) is known as the period of State Supervision). It should not be excluded that the reservations on the Dutch side with regard to making excuses about the history of slavery are related to liability in a legal sense: surviving relatives of victims could possibly claim damages.
Pronk, too, is in favour of reparations being made by the Dutch State to Suriname in connection with its history of slavery. I have reservations about this issue. Hasn’t Suriname already received a lot of money from the Netherlands in the past, so that we can still speak of reparations for the history of slavery? In addition, there are many practical problems with this issue: how many generations back can a claim for compensation for crimes in the past be made, who is eligible and who is not, how much compensation should be paid, who determines the amount of compensation, etc.? These are difficult questions with no easy answers. What is important is that the Netherlands, as a gesture of reconciliation, apologises for the history of slavery. Such apologies imply recognition of the wrongs committed against ancestors in the past and the pain their descendants still feel today. Instead of ­paying reparations­, the Dutch state and companies involved in the slave trade and slavery could show their responsibility by, for example, making funds available for a full-fledged slavery museum for the Dutch history of slavery ­in the West and the East (and therefore not as an annex to one of the existing museums!) as a gesture of reconciliation. In addition, one may think of making study grants available to ­students from Suriname. This may ­prevent that as a result of the discussion about the restitution payment, individuals will get the hope that they will receive financial compensation from the Dutch state for the suffering that was inflicted on their ancestors.

Publication of archives of the Netherlands Military Mission
The second point concerning the Dutch debt of honour to Suriname concerns the publication of the archives of the Netherlands Military Mission in Surinam, as advocated by Pronk and some others. It concerns the role of colonel Valk, head of this Mission, in the military coup in 1980 in Suriname. Pronk writes about this in his Suriname book (p. 504): without Colonel Valk, there would have been no military coup, no Bouterse (leader of the military coup) and no December-murders in 1982 in Suriname.

Colonel Hans Valk (courtesy Ellen de Vries)

Colonel Valk was head of the Dutch Military Mission in Surinam to assist in building up the Suriname Armed Forces after independence. According to a report by the Dutch Ministry of Defence, Valk was not only the spiritual father of the Bouterse coup, but also the one who, as early as 1979, had tried to incite a number of Surinamese ­officers to carry out a coup. When these officers did not respond to his proposals, Colonel ­Valk ­tried ­again with the non-commissioned officers­. The report concluded that Colonel Valk was guilty ­of martial ­and criminal ­offences­. ­However, ­this ­report disappeared in a deep official drawer at the Dutch Ministry of Defence. In June 1980, Valk was recalled by the Dutch government. As a result of the publications in the Dutch weekly Vrij Nederland, the Dutch Parliament ordered an investigation into the ­activities of the Dutch Military Mission in 1983 and 1985­. In 1985 the then Dutch Minister of Defence decided to keep the annexes and conclusions of the 1983 and 1985 reports secret. Subsequently, the Dutch Parliament repeatedly asked questions about the ‘Valk Affair’. In February 2011, the Dutch government classified the annexes to the first investigation report as a state secret until 2060, “in the interest of the state”. However, the exact interest of the state was never disclosed by the Dutch government. In doing so, the Netherlands is casting suspicion on itself for wanting to sweep things under the carpet. As long as the Valk file is not made public, speculation and conspiracy theories about the precise role of the Dutch Military Mission will continue to surface.

The real Dutch colonial debt of honour
I make here a short excursion to the Dutch East Indies for the real Dutch story of exploitation and plundering. With this, I want to make clear that the Dutch colonial debt of honour applies especially to this colony in the East and to a lesser extent to Suriname. An important instrument in the plundering of the indigenous population in the Dutch East Indies was the introduction of the cultuurstelsel (agricultural system) in the nineteenth century. This system meant that instead of paying rent, the agrarian population was obliged to plant one fifth of the land with predetermined products such as coffee, indigo, tea and sugar in return for a low planting wage, products for which they themselves had little or no use and which had to be delivered to the Colonial Government. All these products were sold and auctioned in Europe. Those who did not own land to grow the desired products were obliged to work for the government for a maximum of 66 days per year, free of charge. The profit then went into the Dutch treasury. This agricultural system led to plundering, mass famine and impoverishment of the population, particularly on Java. The Dutch civil servant in Java, Multatuli, wrote about these harrowing conditions in his Max Havelaar in 1860.

Javanese coffee pickers in the Dutch East Indies

The agricultural system yielded so much money, often more than half of the total Dutch tax revenue on an annual basis, that the Netherlands was one of the few European countries not to have any income tax in the nineteenth century. Not Suriname, but the Dutch East Indies had been a gold mine for the Netherlands since the second half of the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century. It meant that the Netherlands made great profits from the Dutch East Indies. Since the nineteenth century, thirty to forty per cent of Dutch government expenditure was covered by income from the Dutch East Indies. Economists have calculated that up to the end of the 1930s, around fifteen per cent (more than five billion a year) of the Dutch national income came from the Dutch East Indies. In the 1930s, about 22 per cent (four billion) of the Dutch national wealth was invested in the Dutch East Indies. In other words, the Dutch East Indies were the mainstay of the Dutch economy since the mid-nineteenth century.
There is also a link between the Indian benefits and the abolition of slavery in Surinam. The fact that the Netherlands, unlike the English (1834) and the French (1848), did not do so until several decades later was related to the debate about the costs of the declaration of freedom: the discussion was not about financial compensation for the enslaved, but about the plantation owners who would suffer ‘capital loss’ as a result of the declaration. Thanks to the benefits in the Dutch East Indies, plantation owners in Suriname received financial compensation from the Dutch state of three hundred guilders per enslaved person (approximately Nf 10.2 million for the 34,000 enslaved in 1863).

Indonesia independent

It was therefore not surprising that after Japan’s capitulation on 15 August 1945 followed by the proclamation of the Republic of Indonesia on 17 August 1945, the Netherlands did not resign itself to the loss of this gold mine in the East. In the Netherlands, the predominant feeling was ­that without the Dutch East Indies, the ­country would be economically non-existent ­and condemned to insignificance. ‘Loss of the Dutch East Indies, calamity born’ was the general feeling in the Netherlands about a possible independence of the Dutch East Indies. In the years 1947-1949 the Netherlands waged a colonial war (euphemistically called police actions) to bring the colony back under its control. There were an estimated 100,000 casualties (military and ­civilian) on the Indonesian side during this colonial war. The Dutch military even committed war crimes.

The formal parting between the Netherlands and Indonesia took place on 27 December 1949. Politically the Netherlands let go of the colony in the East, but not economically. The empty treasury in The Netherlands had to be filled after the German occupation (1940-1945) during World War II and in fact it meant that Indonesia had to redeem itself by taking over all the debts of the Dutch East Indies at independence. The amount was eventually capped at 4.3 billion Nf. With this imposed ransom, Indonesia contributed to the economic recovery of the Netherlands in the fifties. This Indonesian ransom was much larger than the much ­more visible Marshall Aid (about Nf 1 billion) which the Netherlands received from the US after World War II for economic reconstruction.

An apology from the Netherlands did not come until March 2020 when, during his state visit to Indonesia, the Dutch king apologised on behalf of the Netherlands for Dutch violence during the Indonesian ­War of Independence.

Dutch military during the war of independence in the Dutch East Indies

Pronk’s anti-colonial framing
During the period of slavery, a rich elite in the Netherlands undeniably earned money from ­Suriname. At the end of the eighteenth century, however, the source of money for this elite slowly dried up. After the abolition of slavery, Suriname became a cost item for the Netherlands. In the nineteenth century, the Dutch East Indies became the gold mine where the Netherlands earned huge amounts of money. After 1866, the Netherlands invested more money in Surinam (more than 4 billion) than it earned. So there has been no Dutch plundering or exploitation of Suriname. In other words, we should not look for it in the colonial past after the abolition of slavery, but after the ­independence of Suriname by a corrupt Surinamese political elite. An important characteristic of this elite is that it behaves like the new colonisers of the state and, in the worst tradition of Third World countries, regards the country as a personal conquest. Bouterse’s presidency (2010-2020) is illustrative of the plundering of Suriname.
Pronk’s view on the Dutch debt of honour to Suriname is anti-colonial framing from the 1960s and 1970s, with the keywords oppression, exploitation and ‘we have misbehaved’. Thus, his view is inspired by a sense of guilt about the Dutch colonial and slavery past.
I also place his remarks on the Dutch debt of honour to Suriname, the gigantic plundering and exploitation by the Netherlands against the background of the sad outcome (military coup, military repression, bankrupt economy in 2020) of Surinamese independence, which should have been a model decolonisation. As mentioned earlier, Pronk, from the Dutch side, was one of the architects of Surinamese independence. The success of the Surinamese model decolonisation, as an example to the world and unique in the history of decolonisation, should have liberated him from his guilt about the Dutch colonial and slavery past. The sad outcome of Suriname’s model decolonisation, however, is still close to Pronk’s heart and hangs over his thoughts like a grey veil. Unlike Pronk, we should not look for the difficult development of Suriname solely in the colonial past, but especially in the shameless plundering by a corrupt Surinamese political elite after 1975.