Historical redress through dialogue: grassroots can change the national conversation about Dutch slavery

In the absence of a coordinated national political response, grassroots and civic initiatives can play a key role in pushing for recognition and justice for the colonial past. Nicole Immler and Niké Wentholt, from the University of Humanistic Studies Utrecht, draw on the example of the Keti Koti Dialogue Tables in the Netherlands to show how such initiatives can contribute to breaking down cycles of denial, acknowledgment of the systemic nature of historical injustices and transforming citizens’ engagement with the colonial past.

For decades Dutch politicians were not eager to address the slavery past. Instead, grassroots initiatives were pushing through. One of them are The Keti Koti (’broken chains’) Dialogue Tables, a ‘new tradition’ developed by Mercedes Zandbergen and Machiel Keestra, performed around 1 July, to commemorate the abolition of slavery and celebrate emancipation. In June 2022, our University of Humanistic Studies co-hosted the Keti Koti Dialogue Tables.  Guided by a choir of Dutch-Surinamese women singing slavery songs,  and through carefully formulated questions, students, lecturers, partners and guests shared their past and personal challenges and experiences, sitting opposite each other at a long dining table. These dialogue tables are being held throughout the Netherlands.

The Keti Koti dialogue table is a ritual to honour history. The ritual creates an awareness that the history of slavery is a shared one; on the one side a history of discrimination, exploitation and stigmatisation, on the other side one of privileges and enrichment. But it also functions as a ritual of active citizenship. As the philosopher Judith Butler taught us: mourning is a political and ethical act; the person being mourned is part of society. Shared grief about a shared past contributes to the creation of an inclusive society.

Therefore, the Keti Koti dialogue table might be a good example of what various transitional justice scholars (amongst them Paul Gready and Simon Robins) have called ‘transformative justice’ –  a systemic approach to deal with injustices, centered around agency, participation, and relation building to create change. Rituals can restore social bonds and perhaps grassroot dialogue initiatives can contribute to historical redress for the slavery past?

These ritualistic dialogues started with an engagement by Dutch Caribbean communities in the 1990s, resulting in  ‘deep remorse’ expressed by the Dutch minister at the Durban Conference for Racism in 2001. This  resulted in the  establishment of the National Institute for Slavery History and Heritage (NiNsee) and a slavery monument in Amsterdam (2002), unveiled by Queen Beatrix expressing the same ‘deep remorse’.  Over the past few years the annual commemoration of the abolition of slavery on the 1st July has been streamed on national television. At the 150th anniversary in 2013, King Willem-Alexander’s presence was purely symbolical. However, in 2020, the national commemoration on institutional racism was debated in the Dutch parliament, resulting in the government establishing an ‘Advisory Group Dialogue’ tasked with organising a dialogue on the Dutch slavery past in different segments of society and the commissioning of  a report  called ‘chains of the past,’ a kind of catalogue of repair instruments defining what the recognition of slavery should look like, and acknowledging  the history of slavery as ‘a crime against humanity.’ Efforts were made to offer apologies at a national level, to establish a national museum, to make the 1st July a National Day of Remembrance, to stimulate more research and education about the history and legacy of slavery, and to start a Kingdom fund for structural and sustainable financing of rehabilitation measures, including on the Caribbean islands.

Some municipalities and mayors have expressed apologies (Amsterdam 2021, Rotterdam 2021, Utrecht 2022, Den Haag 2022), as have the Dutch National Bank and ABN AMRO.  All these institutions promised to provide structural support to repair systemic harms. There have been no national-level apologies yet but these  are expected to materialise by 1 July 2023, together with a 200 million Euros fund for awareness raising projects.

When the cabinet announced that it would apologise by the 19th December 2022 (premier Rutte in the Netherlands and members of the cabinet in Suriname and the Caribbean part of the Kingdom), this led to an outcry in the media and affected groups felt bypassed. This hurried-up process discloses a key misunderstanding on the government’s part. For those affected it is not just about wanting an apology, it is also about wanting to be part of the decision-making-process; for example in the discussion on whether King Willem-Alexander should be the one who apologises ‘as an institution’ being the symbol of the country’s unity. The larger repair process is what matters if the ongoing inequality that persists in state-led processes is not to be perpetuated.

In Amsterdam, Utrecht and Groningen new city histories were written and Slavery Heritage Guides were developed as part of ‘mapping slavery’. Attacks on monuments of ‘fallen heroes’ (such as Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the brutal enforcer of the VOC trade monopoly) became signifiers of a long-forgotten past. While museums critically investigate their collections, universities decolonise their curricula. The Black Archives establish an archive and library on Black history to offer new knowledge but which also function as social platforms to engage around a more equal and just society. Finally, the debates over Black Pete – a racially charged blackface character in the annual Saint Nicolas tradition on 5 December (see Kickout Zwarte Piet )- and the Black Lives Matter movement, have moved the history of slavery and its legacy into public and institutional spaces.

But a coordinated national political response is still lacking. The nature of piecemeal corporate accountability and individual mayors expressing apologies cannot do justice to the systemic nature of the injustice. These initiatives take place within the very same system that has created the injustice to begin with, where  the political and judicial structures of the present day show far too much continuity with those from the days of slavery.

These structural continuities need to be criticised and dismantled. In our research Dialogics of Justice, we look at several cases of historical injustice, recognising the very systemic nature of the violence and the denial by the state and other powerful institutions who again and again frame the injustice as an excessive ‘incident’ in an otherwise just system.

A paradigmatic example is the debate on reparations. The list produced by the Advisory Group Dialogue appears to be comprehensive. However, our work with civil society actors shows that their ideas of repair are much broader whilst the discussion on slavery reparations in the public realm remains narrow, reduced to mainly symbolic instruments (such as apologies or a museum). Broader notions of repair, combatting discrimination and racism at an institutional level are blatantly absent.  

Grassroots initiatives are gradually breaking down these cycles of denial. While the lack of political accountability seems almost insurmountable in theory, the practice of civil society in the Netherlands paints a more hopeful picture with seemingly small-scale initiatives showing how we were all affected by the systemic nature of the violence. The Keti Koti tables illustrate how a grassroots initiative can change the way Dutch citizens relate to highly political questions of responsibility and discrimination.

The impact of these civic initiatives go beyond their grassroots level: they connect the most personal to the most political. After all, recognition and justice are about restoring social relations. Repair thus asks for strategic and structured interventions that show the interwovenness of past and present; the self and the other; the individual, family, community, society and its institutions. Grassroots initiatives call upon citizens’ accountability and responsibility of a shared past and its consequences in the present day. Dutch society needs new rituals to celebrate this interwovenness. The Keti Koti dialogue tables respond to this need for new rituals to create spaces of encounter and to transform the national conversation. It would be a brave and much desired step for the Dutch government to take up this challenge.


Niké Wentholt is a political historian and postdoc researcher at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht. As part of the Dialogics of Justice-team, she conducts a socio-legal analysis to explore new ways of thinking about recognition and repair and to further develop into a toolkit. Expertise in East European Studies, transitional justice, politics of the past, and narrative research.

Nicole Immler is a Professor of Historical Memory and Transformative Justice at the University of Humanistic Studies in Utrecht. In her current team project Dialogics of Justice she explores the power of civil court cases to address historical injustice (colonial violence, failed peace missions, abuse by the church and ecological violence). Analyzing the conditions under which people do (not) feel recognized and experience justice, and the role of dialogue proccesses therein.

Transitional Justice & Historical Redress

This article is part of the special series Transitional Justice & Historical Series, a project born of a joint collaboration between the Leuven Institute of Criminology and Avocats Sans Frontières.