Suriname's significant holiday of Keti Koti is finally gaining Dutch importance

Keti Koti, Oosterpark, Amsterdam 2013. Image via Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0 Universal (CC0 1.0) Public Domain Dedication.

Keti Koti (literally translated from Sranantongo as “Breaking of the Chains” in Suriname), or Dia di Abolishon (the Day of Abolition, as it is called in the Netherlands Antilles) is celebrated in both these places as part of the annual observance of the abolition of slavery. The July 1 commemoration this year was special, however, as it marked the beginning of the Dutch Slavery Memorial Year.

Even though the enslavement of African people was officially abolished in Suriname and the Dutch Caribbean islands in 1863, the “emancipated” slaves were still forced to continue working on the plantations for an additional decade to mitigate the “labour losses” suffered by plantation owners. Plantation holders in Suriname also received 300 guilders per freed slave; in the Dutch Antilles, the compensation was 200, with the exception of St. Maarten. A full table can be found here.

While July 1, 2023 marked the end of slavery by the Dutch in the western hemisphere, they also had other colonies around the world, in which they adopted a staggered approach to ending slavery.

For most people in the Netherlands, the marking of Keti Koti was cause for celebration. It was, after all, the first time that the Netherlands has ascribed a public holiday to the occasion, and most citizens showed their support for this important day both on and offline. Some though, as this screenshot of a tweet from a Dutch netizen shows, suggested that Keti Kofi still struggles to attract the requisite level of respect in the mother country:

Should we celebrate #KetiKoti?

Keti Koti is a Surinamese holiday. Celebrate it there and not every year with a national day off in our country

Don't be seduced by so-called stakeholders who are only out for attention, days off or money.

Reaction in the #nd 👇

The tweet also remarked on the possibility of the Dutch government replacing the religious holiday of Pentecost with Keti Koti, which has been greeted with mixed feelings. Prior to 2023, most Dutch citizens knew very little about Keti Koti and celebrations were small, with just a few people from immigrant and Indigenous communities taking to the streets in colourful processions. This year, however, with global awareness of systemic racism forever changed by the Black Lives Matter movement, and the tone on reparations taking on a new hue, the Dutch government is investing millions to mark the 150-year commemoration of the abolition of slavery.

On July 1 in Oosterpark, Amsterdam, women from Suriname and the Netherlands Antilles were seen in processions wearing the traditional dress (kotomisi) and headscarf (angisa) of their ancestors. During slavery, women would use their headwear as a means of communicating their emotions — even when looking for a lover — but this year, most of the women chose Dutch-inspired prints for their traditional wear, perhaps in a gesture of inclusion. The event marked the start of an ongoing itinerary of readings, workshops, etc. aimed at raising awareness of the Netherlands’ role in the slave trade and how its actions impacted the people in the countries which it colonised. One enduring aspect of the observance is the yearly Memre Waka, or Memory Walk, which draws attention to the violence suffered by these communities and the ongoing consequences of slavery.

Some companies showed their support online. One high point of the celebrations came when King Willem-Alexander of The Netherlands apologised for the Dutch government's part in the atrocities of slavery. He went even further, including in his apology a request for “forgiveness for the obvious lack of action” around the country's role in forced labour, enslavement, and the murder of its former colonies’ Indigenous peoples. In a strikingly personal account, the king promised reparation and change.

Responses to his speech ranged from calling it “an inspiring example”…

to stirring up feelings of gratitude:

Shortly after the king apologised ❤️ #ketikoti

Others celebrated:

Cheers in Oosterpark after the king's heartfelt apologies for the slavery past #ketikoti 🙌

Some, however, saw it as a shameless attempt to deflect from the past, and the generational pain of the descendants of enslaved people:

With an apology comes a chance for healing. It is a process that can begin with more research into the history of slavery, Suriname and the Antilles, ideally steered by the descendants of these regions who lived this history. As lawyer and reparation advisor, Esther Stanford-Xosei said: “True reparation, after all, is not solely about money, but also about respect, recognition, and a place in society.”

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