The Dutch bank ABN Amro has apologised for its predecessors’ role in the slave trade, after it commissioned an investigation into the “untold suffering” it caused.
The investigation, by academics at the International Institute of Social History (IISH), an Amsterdam archive, found that two of ABN Amro’s predecessor companies were involved in either financing the operation of slave plantations directly, or underwriting the trade in products produced by slaves.
The global Black Lives Matter protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in the US in 2020 prompted many historical institutions to re-examine their own links to slavery and the slave trade.
The Netherlands and other global imperial powers including the UK were deeply involved in the enslavement of millions of people over centuries, and the profits derived from their labour helped to finance the construction of some of Europe’s grandest cities.
In the UK the Bank of England, Barclays, HSBC and Lloyd’s of London were among the still extant companies with direct or indirect links to the trade. ABN Amro was itself formerly owned by Royal Bank of Scotland (now NatWest Group), which has also found separate links to slavery.
The slave trade was abolished in the Netherlands in 1863. Slavery in Britain became illegal in 1772 and the slave trade in the British empire was abolished in 1807.
The two predecessor companies to ABN Amro with links to slavery were Hope & Co, which was “actively involved in the day-to-day business of plantations”, and Mees en Zoonen, which brokered insurance for slave ships and shipments of goods harvested by enslaved people. Both became part of ABN Amro in 2010 after a series of mergers and acquisitions.
The bank said Hope & Co “played a pivotal role in the international slave economy of the 18th century”, in a statement published on Wednesday. A previous study had already found that ABN Amro predecessors were involved in slavery in the US.
Robert Swaak, ABN Amro’s chief executive, said: “ABN Amro has a proud history going back more than 300 years. However, we must also recognise that it has a darker side as well. ABN Amro as it exists now cannot undo that period of its history. We are aware that, even though slavery has been abolished, the past injustices have persisted.
“ABN Amro apologises for the past actions and activities of these predecessors and for the pain and suffering that they caused.”
Dr Pepijn Brandon, a senior researcher at the IISH, said: “Hope & Co was the largest financial and commercial company in the Netherlands at the end of the 18th century, and slavery-related operations formed a core part of its business. While Mees & Zoonen was smaller, slavery was an intrinsic part of that firm’s operations as well.
“Decisions made in offices in Amsterdam and Rotterdam directly impacted the lives of thousands of enslaved persons.”