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Podcast Helps Dutch Acknowledge Netherlands' History Of Slavery

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People once called it the triangular trade. European ships went to Africa, then carried slaves to the Americas. That formed a triangle on the map. The Netherlands was once a great sea power and played a significant role in this trade. Now two women and a podcast are transforming the Dutch conversation about history and race. Joanna Kakissis has their story.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Peggy Bouva was relaxing at home in the port city of Rotterdam when she got a phone call that surprised her.

PEGGY BOUVA: A white journalist wanted to do some research about the slavery and her family history. There was some kind of connection between her family history and my family history. This was the first time that I spoke with a white person about slavery and their connection with it.

KAKISSIS: Bouva's parents are from Suriname, a country in South America that used to be a Dutch colony. Her ancestors were enslaved on a sugar plantation there. The woman on the phone, Maartje Duin, is a descendant of one of the plantation's owners.

MAARTJE DUIN: I was a little nervous. You know, it took me some time to make that phone call.

KAKISSIS: The call was awkward for Bouva, too. She was used to white people praising the era between the 16th and 19th centuries, when the Dutch thrived as sea traders, funding Amsterdam's canals, and the Golden Age of Rembrandt and Vermeer. Bouva noticed that schoolbooks barely mentioned that Dutch ships also carried more than half a million people to be sold in the Americas.

BOUVA: I think it was a very small paragraph - a kind of, yes, there was something like slavery, but let's skip to the next chapter.

KAKISSIS: Duin told Bouva she wanted to know everything.

DUIN: We know so little about this period of time. And we know so little about the experience of those who were enslaved and their descendants. And we don't see ourselves - we white Dutch people, we don't see ourselves as part of that history.

BOUVA: (Speaking Dutch).

DUIN: (Speaking Dutch).

KAKISSIS: Duin and Bouva dug into their history for two years...

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DE PLANTAGE VAN ONZE VOOROUDERS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Dutch).

KAKISSIS: ...And created a popular eight-part podcast called "The Plantation Of Our Ancestors."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DE PLANTAGE VAN ONZE VOOROUDERS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Dutch).

KAKISSIS: There are some searing moments, like Bouva's despair when she sees her ancestors listed as inventory, their names simply crossed off when they died, or Duin's unease as she tries to find out how much her own ancestor, who never visited Suriname, knew about the plantation she partly owned. The women soon realized they were facing issues most of the country was avoiding. Peggy Bouva speaks first.

BOUVA: People feel uncomfortable when you speak out a certain way. And especially when you know a lot of details about the history and they don't, they usually...

DUIN: Tense up.

BOUVA: Yeah, tense up, I think. Yes.

DUIN: They get all tense. They get all tense.

BOUVA: Yes.

DUIN: We don't have a way of having this uncomfortable conversation. And that, to me, was a challenge - to find a way to be a bit more comfortable about the discomfort.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DE PLANTAGE VAN ONZE VOOROUDERS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Dutch).

KAKISSIS: In the podcast, the women travel to Suriname to visit the old sugar plantation. An oil refinery is there now.

(SOUNDBITE OF ENGINE RUNNING)

KAKISSIS: Duin meets Bouva's extended family, including an uncle named Kenneth, who wants the Dutch government to apologize for slavery.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DE PLANTAGE VAN ONZE VOOROUDERS")

DUIN: (Speaking Dutch).

KENNETH: (Speaking Dutch).

KAKISSIS: Duin asks him if an apology from her would mean anything.

It would, he says, and explains that he grew up hearing how badly his ancestors were beaten.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DE PLANTAGE VAN ONZE VOOROUDERS")

KENNETH: (Speaking Dutch).

KAKISSIS: He tells her, "Sometimes I can even feel the whippings."

Duin recalls how that exchange left her speechless.

DUIN: The past was so close for him. And I felt - I mean, to say sorry fell so short. That was such a small word for such a big tragedy. I felt too small, actually, to do that. It felt more sincere to just sit with it, with that feeling of sadness and not take it too personally.

KAKISSIS: Bouva watched silently as her friend began to cry. She said later that this moment felt bigger than a verbal apology.

BOUVA: If you don't acknowledge that you've damaged someone, it's difficult to heal. And I think as a nation, this is a journey that we have to join together if we want to have a future.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DE PLANTAGE VAN ONZE VOOROUDERS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Dutch).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Oh.

KAKISSIS: "The Plantation Of Our Ancestors" stunned Amsterdam City Councilman Simion Blom.

SIMION BLOM: I said, oh, my God, that's my family.

KAKISSIS: His ancestors were also enslaved on the plantation. Blom's related to Peggy Bouva. He grew up in southeast Amsterdam, where the government began housing families from the former colonies in the 1970s.

BLOM: I was 6, 7, 8, and I saw already, why are all the people in my neighborhood poor? Why do you have a lot of broken families? Does the society believe in us? It was so cynical, and I felt it.

KAKISSIS: He says Bouva and Duin are better at talking about the racist legacy of colonialism than most Dutch politicians.

BLOM: The reason why we don't talk is because of the feelings of shame. I kind cannot use feelings of shame. For me, as a descendant of enslaved people, it's about just telling the stories so we all know what the history is and we all know how it is linked to our current society.

KAKISSIS: Prime Minister Mark Rutte says apologizing for slavery would polarize society. The city of Amsterdam disagrees and will present a formal apology in a ceremony next year. Blom says what's more important is what comes next.

BLOM: After the apology comes a reparation. And I'm not talking in the sense of paying me, but the reparation in real, real, real changes.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DE PLANTAGE VAN ONZE VOOROUDERS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Speaking Dutch).

KAKISSIS: The podcast's last episode covers reparations.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "DE PLANTAGE VAN ONZE VOOROUDERS")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking Dutch).

KAKISSIS: In one scene, a historian explains that reparations should go into mending societies that have been warped by slavery. Duin tells me this cannot happen without white Dutch people understanding colonial history and...

DUIN: Really feeling part of it and not feeling it's the history of, you know, the people from Suriname, but the people from Holland.

KAKISSIS: Bouva wants to hear that from Dutch leaders.

BOUVA: They never acknowledged the damage that they've done. It's very difficult for some people to even talk about it.

KAKISSIS: But she says she wants them to try, and she's got a podcast to recommend.

For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis.

(SOUNDBITE OF AMBINATE'S "THE MEANWHILE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.