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Abolition of Slavery on Bonaire

Xp Bonaire IslandLife Feature Story

An RCN press release from the 22nd of June 2021 states that on the first of July we commemorate the abolition of slavery on Bonaire.

The commemoration of Dutch slavery in the past is a national event that took place on the 1st of July.

On July 1st 1863, the Dutch State started with the phased abolition of slavery in the West-Indian colonies. At that time there were about 12,000 enslaved persons on the Antillean islands. The abolition of slavery and the emancipation of the slaves is also of relevance for the history and community of Bonaire, St. Eustatius and Saba. This year the Public Entity Bonaire organized an island wide commemoration in cooperation with the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science (OCW). The activities included a historical hike on June 26th with Boi Antoin to Landhuis Yato Baco and a film evening with the film, Sombra di koló, from film maker Angela Roe with live music by Grupo Ashé. Access to the activities were free.


A piece of history

Dutch History

The Dutch West India Company was founded in 1621. Starting in 1623, ships of the West India Company called at Bonaire to obtain meat, water and wood. The Dutch also abandoned some Spanish and Portuguese prisoners here who founded the town of Antriol.

The Dutch and the Spanish fought from 1568 to 1648 in what is now known as the Eighty Years War. In 1633, the Dutch – having lost the island of St. Maarten to the Spanish – retaliated by attacking Curaçao, Bonaire and Aruba. Bonaire was conquered in March, 1636.

While Curaçao emerged as a center of the slave trade, Bonaire became a plantation of the Dutch West India Company. African slaves were put to work alongside Indians and convicts, cultivating dyewood and maize and harvesting solar salt around Blue Pan. Slave quarters, built entirely of stone and too short for a man to stand upright in, still stand in the area around Rincon and along the salt pans.

The ABC islands were returned to the Netherlands under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814. During the period of British rule, a large number of white traders settled on Bonaire and they built the settlement of Playa (Kralendijk) in 1810.

Fort Orange is a military fortification in Kralendijk, Bonaire. Originally built in 1639, as a nameless fort by the Dutch West India Company, it is the oldest structure on the island of Bonaire. The fort has never been used for its intended purpose. In 1816, it was rebuilt and named Fort Oranje (orange).

Fort Oranje was rebuilt to protect the island's main resource, salt. Salt was one commodity that Bonaire had in endless supply, although it took slave labor to produce it. In the early days of the industry, the most important use for salt was in the preservation of food, since refrigeration was still centuries away. By 1837, Bonaire was a thriving center of salt production.

When the Dutch West India Company dissolved in 1791, its properties were confiscated by the Dutch government which continued operations on Bonaire. The slaves, now owned by the Kingdom of the Netherlands, came to be known as “government slaves” or, in Papiamentu, “Katibu di Rei”, meaning “slaves of the king”. Although the slaves were allowed to grow and sell their own produce, and sometimes even to buy their own freedom, living conditions on Bonaire worsened. By 1835, rumors of an uprising began to circulate. Fearing a rebellion, the Dutch transferred the slaves from Rincon to a stronghold near the saltpans called “Tera Cora”, which means red soil.


Bonaire remained a government plantation until 1868. In 1825, there were approximately 300 government-owned slaves on the island. Gradually many of the slaves were freed and became freemen with an obligation to render some services to the government. The remaining slaves were freed on 30 September 1862 under the Emancipation Regulation. A total of 607 government slaves and 151 private slaves were freed at that time.

The abolition of slavery in 1863 signaled an end to the era of exploitation of the first Bonaireans.

Regrets – Formal Apologies

After its long silence, the Netherlands finally, at the UN’s 2001 anti-racism summit, expressed its profound regrets about the slave trade. In 2002, in Amsterdam’s Oosterpark, Queen Beatrix unveiled the National Monument to Dutch Slavery and its Legacy. This expression of regret is an important gesture.

In 2020, at a debate on institutional racism that took place on Keti Koti, the national day to commemorate the abolition of slavery, Prime Minister Mark Rutte announced that the Dutch government won’t be apologizing for the Netherlands’ history with slavery.

Prime Minister Rutte stated that his previous government had already expressed deep regret for slavery and an official statement of regret would only serve to further polarize the country.

It has been proposed and in 2023 we will most likely see a special commemoration of slavery, as it marks 150 years since slavery was officially abolished by the Netherlands.

To date no Western government has presented formal apologies for slavery.

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