Asking forgiveness for cruel, inhumane slave trade



Gerard ten Voorde, RD

The memorial of slavery in Amsterdam, earlier this year. photo ANP, Koen van Weel

Amsterdam apologised for slavery. The Dutch government may follow. Rightfully so? “Yes”, says Nathalie Debora Linger-Sumter from Zaandam. The Surinamese can forgive the inhumane suffering inflicted on their ancestors. “By the work of Christ.”

Between the fifteenth and nineteenth century, European slave traders transported some 12 million slaves across the Atlantic. The Dutch deported roughly 600,000 slaves, 200,000 of whom to Suriname.

Those deportations were under appalling conditions. “Slaves were pressed together in the bottom of the boats. They were chained to each other for six weeks during the journey”, says Nathalie Debora Linger-Sumter (40). “Women spent the sea voyage in their excrement.”

For example, two sisters sat next to each other. One died. The sailors left her for days because they were too busy with other matters. After some time, all the dead bodies were thrown overboard.

On arrival, people were rinsed, branded and sold with a collar in the market. If a master wanted a slave, he was immediately sexually abused. Year in, year out. If a woman had a child, the child was taken from her.”

The atrocities keep the Zaandam lady busy. Not daily, but regularly. “It’s heavy stuff.” Linger, married and mother of two sons (five and two years old), is of Surinamese Creole descent. Born in Rotterdam, raised in Amsterdam, living in Zaandam. Her parents emigrated from Suriname to the Netherlands almost fifty years ago.

photo ANP

Linger’s ancestors were shipped and traded from Africa to Suriname. “That didn’t happen in the distant past, but recently,” she says. “If you go back four generations in history, people from that time were still born into slavery.”


Slavery has disrupted lives, says Linger, policy officer of Care and Welfare at the municipality of Amsterdam. “The personal past of many Surinamese has been cut through slavery. They often have to draw from the general stories about Suriname for their historical background.

The bloodline of people from Suriname ends somewhere. For example, I do not know my ancestors because they are not registered anywhere. Whether slaves married was immaterial. They weren’t worth it. They were not allowed to be human.”

The lack of the puzzle pieces is distressing. “My rear-view mirror doesn’t go that far. I know the history up to my great-grandmother. However, I don’t dare to ask about the period before that,” explains Linger. “I’d like to know, it’s part of my identity, but it’s hard for me to explore. It’s uncomfortable.”


Linger often hears criticism from Christian circles about why the slavery past concerns her. “Paul says, ‘Let go of what lies behind you and reach out for what lies in front of you,’ they say.”

Backwards is just as important to her as forwards, the Surinamese responds. “We stand on the shoulders of our ancestors. They have survived, while they could have opted for suicide en masse. But that is precisely why we live. I can imagine that people who don’t believe become depressed from this past.” Without her Christian faith, she might become depressed as well, says Linger, a member of gospel church ‘The Rock’ in Amsterdam.

Part of history

Slavery is an important part of Dutch history, she says. “The slave trade took place when Suriname was part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Slavery, therefore, is not a part of Surinamese history only, but also a part of Dutch history.”

Governors in Suriname, who were fully active in the slave trade, were Dutch. With the abolition of slavery in 1863, they were given another ten years to get used to the new situation on the cotton plantations.

Nathalie Deobra Linger-Sumter. photo RD

On Thursday, Mayor Femke Halsema of Amsterdam apologised on behalf of the city council for the city’s role in slavery. The apologies trigger a stir among black church members, says Linger, who is active in the aftercare team of the Bible-believing evangelical congregation.

“A great recognition”, the Surinamese calls the apologies. “Now, it always seemed like it never happened. Many Dutch people do not know that slavery took place, do not hear about it at school and therefore have no affinity. Or they think it happened in countries far away, while in reality, it happened in the Kingdom of the Netherlands.” Linger hopes for an apology from the state. “Amsterdam is just a small town.”

Never again

Apologies are important; education is even more important, says Linger. “At school in Suriname, I learned about the history of slavery. We have to do the same in the Netherlands, lest we forget. Just like May 4th and 5th (Remembrance days for World War Two, CNE), just like September 11th (Attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, CNE). We all say about that: Never again. In the same way, we have to say the same thing about slavery.

The Dutch live in an unprecedented ‘sorry culture’. Politicians, historians and policymakers want to make excuses for all sorts of things. “Fifty years ago, parents used a heavy hand in raising children, sometimes also based on Biblical sources.” To apologise for such a thing? “Oh, stop it”, says Linger.

However, apologies for slavery are of a completely different order, according to her. “Suffering is not a phenomenon in the zeitgeist of that time. Slavery is fundamentally different. It’s criminal. Humans were made into animals. A person was not a human being if he was black. Governments decided they were not human.”


Recognition of the inhumane suffering caused by slavery is of great importance. Forgiveness, even so, says the Surinamese. Despite all the atrocities that occurred to her ancestors, forgiveness is not a task for her.

Someone can forgive after an apology, explains Linger. But they can also be forgiving on their own, without having to receive an apology. “Through the personal forgiveness I have received, through the work of Christ, I can forgive others. Only through the love of Christ that dwells in me; otherwise, I would poison my future.”

Many black people have already forgiven slavery, Linger says. “Its source comes from God. Not because we are close to God. No, we keep running away from Him. The devil only incites us to revenge, to violence. But God is near. He gives us special power through which we can forgive. We want no revenge, no violence. Protest is therefore always peaceful.”

Forgiveness, however, is different from forgetting, emphasises the Surinamese. “Forgiveness is behind me, recognition not yet.”

Patient refuses the help of a black doctor

"Great that it is finally happening," reacts I. Ogbuli (51) from Amsterdam to the apology offered by Mayor Femke Halsema on Thursday about the capital's role in slavery. "I think it is good that Amsterdam is taking the lead. Apologies are an acknowledgement of what happened to the enslaved in Suriname and the Antilles for hundreds of years. As long as there is no recognition, there can be no reconciliation."

---I. Ogbuli, physician in Amsterdam. photo RD ---Physician Ogbuli still sees a direct line from slavery to today's society. "More than 150 years after the abolition of slavery, we might have hoped that all citizens would be treated equally. However, racism still occurs."

Ogbuli, whose parents are from Suriname, explains: "As a doctor in the hospital, I have experienced that a patient said to me, 'I would rather not be helped by a black person.'" Such a reaction makes one "sad," says Ogbuli, a member of the Maranatha Community Transformation Center, a local Pentecostal church.

She finds it difficult. "From my faith I try to love everyone, just as Jesus Christ taught us to love even our enemies. But it is not made easy when another person rejects you because of the colour of your skin."

After the "first good step" of Amsterdam, Ogbuli expects new outreach. "I think an apology from the government is really necessary. The Netherlands were built on the backs of slaves in the colonies. From the Dutch East Indies to the colonies in the west." Ogbuli is not in favour of reparations to individuals. "But reparations to Surinam and the Antilles would be nice."

Wrestling with questions of faith over suffering

"Apologies are fine, but let's make Keti Koti, the abolition of slavery, a national holiday."

Jerrel Yzer (35) from Amsterdam has thought for a long time whether apologising for slavery is necessary. "The current generation of Dutch people is not responsible for it."

Yet Yzer -Surinamese father, Dutch mother- is now convinced of the importance of an apology. "The Dutch government has made big mistakes. Why wouldn't you want to apologise for that? I don't understand the problem."

Yzer, a member of the Evangelical Brotherhood, points out that if the government does not offer an apology, it also does not acknowledge the mistakes of the past. "When you ask God for forgiveness, you acknowledge that you have committed a sin, and you can move on with a clear conscience. Without an apology from the government, it chafes. I think such a step is therefore important." Yzer finds the question of whether the government should also give reparations difficult. "Who should get how much? How should you determine the damage?"

The family of Yzer suffered from slavery. The family name is in the online slave register. Yzer also came across his name three years ago at an exhibition on slavery in the Tropenmuseum. "That did something to me. I found it very difficult to see a photo of a slave trader. It was so cruel, seeing him with the Bible in his hand. For myself, it also triggered a personal quest. "How could this happen, God? Hundreds of years? I don't have an answer to that yet.

The apologies made by the mayor of Amsterdam give Yzer mixed emotions. "Keti Koti, the abolition of slavery, is celebrated but not acknowledged. That makes me nervous."

*This article was previously published in Dutch daily Reformatorisch Dagblad, on July 6th, 2021.



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