Utrecht looks at paying for descendants of enslaved people to change names

By Jennifer Rankin in Brussels
Tronco, or multiple foot stocks, used to to constrain enslaved people, on display at the slavery exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.
Tronco, or multiple foot stocks, used to to constrain enslaved people, on display at the slavery exhibition at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. Photograph: Peter de Jong/AP

The city of Utrecht could pay for descendants of enslaved people to change their names, a sign of the growing debate in the Netherlands about its colonial past.

Many enslaved people were given the names of their owners, plantations or muddled Dutch names, such as Vriesde (based on De Vries) or Kenswil (Wilkens).

People in the Netherlands who want to change their second name usually have to pay €835 (£712) and take a psychological test to prove they are bothered by a “derogatory” surname. Now the country’s fourth-largest city is exploring whether it could pay the fee and ease bureaucracy, after councillors voted to make it easier for descendants of enslaved people to change names that evoked their past.

“It is inhumane that Surinamese and Antillean Dutch, who are descended from enslaved people, have to suffer daily from their last name,” states a resolution, which was supported by most parties on the city council, including the centre-right Christian Union, Labour and the Greens. The councillors urged the municipality to “explore the possibilities” to pay for people to change their names.

Like other European countries, including the UK and Belgium, the Netherlands is still coming to terms with its colonial past, a reckoning pushed up the agenda by the Black Lives Matter movement.

From 1612 the Dutch ran 10 fortresses along the Gold Coast (now Ghana), where enslaved people were held in brutal conditions before being shipped across the Atlantic. It is estimated that from the 16th to the 19th century Dutch traders sent up to 600,000 Africans to the Americas, about 6% of all the people sent across that ocean. Slavery was not abolished in the Dutch empire until 1863, later than Britain and France.

Historians say too few people know that slavery is the root of the fabulous wealth of the Dutch golden age, although an exhibition at the Rijksmuseum that opened this year brought that brutal, bloody history to a wider audience.

Earlier this year an independent panel convened by the government urged the Netherlands to make an official apology for the crimes against humanity perpetrated during the slave trade. The prime minister, Mark Rutte, said, however, he would not apologise because it was not his place to pass judgment on Dutch history.

Councillors in Rutte’s liberal VVD party voted against the Utrecht resolution.

Utrecht officials emphasised that plans to pay the name change fee had not been finalised. “We are currently exploring the options and implications regarding this subject,” said a spokesperson. “There is no ‘plan’ yet.”

Similar discussions are under way in Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague.

Three women, two black and one white, talking in a park
Amsterdam’s mayor, Femke Halsema, centre, takes part in the national commemoration of the slavery past in the Oosterpark in Amsterdam, on 1 July Photograph: Koen van Weel/ANP/AFP/Getty Images

Utrecht expects to say more about its intentions in December, when it may have an idea of how many people would like to change their name. Experts believe fees deter many people who would like to lose a name redolent of the colonial past.

Campaigners believe most Dutch people are not aware of the slave origins of some names. “Those persons that have a name that was created by the plantation owner or the civil servant in the 19th century, for example, are not readily identifiable,” said Xavier Donker a member of Stichting Ocan, which campaigns for the rights of Caribbean Dutch people. He said that the Utrecht resolution was “a very good and positive development” but could spark a backlash.

“In this country people are very conscious of government spending and we do expect people will want to create a debate about the spending.” He expected the proposal would be linked to the contentious issue of reparations for slavery. “It’s directly related to reparations – the general population, they are afraid of that, we also see that government itself is afraid of the financial consequences.”

The resolution “is definitely a step forward towards recognition”, he said. “This country as well as other European countries are very much plagued with denial [about colonial legacy] and that denial is expressed in many different forms.”


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