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The Netherlands issued an official apology this week about its colonial past and its involvement in the slave trade from the 17th to the 19th centuries, a move that has divided the Dutch public and descendants of slaves, the BBC reported.

In a speech on Monday, Prime Minister Mark Rutte said slavery must be recognized in “the clearest terms” as “a crime against humanity.”

“Today I apologize for the past actions of the Dutch State to enslaved people in the past,” he added.

Following the apology, the Dutch government plans to allocate more than $210 million to awareness projects and has vowed to spend more than $28 million on a slavery museum.

Rutte’s announcement came ahead of ministerial visits in the Caribbean and Suriname – with the latter expecting to celebrate next year the 160th anniversary of the 1863 Emancipation Act that abolished slavery in the former Dutch colonies.

During the 17th century, the Netherlands became one of the world’s most prosperous trading nations, entering a period known as the “Golden Age” that saw great leaps in science and culture. But historians noted that a lot of the wealth generated during this period was made through state-mandated slavery and exploitation.

Enslaved people – including women and children – were forced to work in plantations, mines and households, while being subjected to physical, mental and sexual violence.

Scholars explained that in recent years there has been a change in the perception of the Netherlands’ colonial legacy. They added that the issue has raised more questions about the distribution of Dutch wealth and the prevalence of colonial-era prejudices today.

While many members of the African-Caribbean community in the Netherlands believe an apology is important, nearly half of the Dutch do not support it.

Others, meanwhile, worry that an apology would potentially instigate reparations claims – which could impact other nations that also profited from slavery centuries ago.

Even so, Linda Nooitmeer, director of the National Institute for the Study of Dutch Slavery and its legacy, said the apology allows people to look ahead to the future and consider the next steps.

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