22 November 2012

Commemoration of slavery is a must in former Dutch colonies


Nelly Rosa

WILLEMSTAD — Commemorating the abolition of the slavery 150 years ago in the former Dutch colonies is the only right step, said Professor Stephen Small during a lecture at the UNA (University of the Netherlands Antilles).  

Photo by C.G. Corbin for OTR

“Commemorations are important. They remind us of the human misery. Slavery was a crime 
and immoral. The human dignity was taken away from those who were made a slave. This had its effect on the next generations. Commemorations are a part of the healing process and a step close to nation-building.”

On July 1st 2013 it will be 150 years ago that the slavery on Curaçao was abolished. According to the British-Jamaican sociologist, commemorations instigate the healing of wounds caused by the slavery. “Many people need healing. Some experience shame or anger because their ancestors were salves. They refuse to discuss slavery. Then there are people who feel ashamed or guilty because their ancestors were slave owners. We often hear them say ‘why don’t we let bygones be bygones”, said Small. Frustration and anger are expressions of pain, according to the professor. 

Furthermore, commemoration is an instrument for nation-building. It also leads to drawing up an action plan. According to Small, academics should join forces to work on a history that also includes the ‘black votes and viewpoints’. To achieve this one must set priorities, formulate targets and draw up an action plan. 

According to Small, the slavery past and the consequences of the slavery have several facets. The inheritance of the slavery can be seen all over the island: people being proud of the Papiamentu language, the synagogue in Punda and the relation with the Netherlands. The island has economic and political ties with the ‘mother country’. The education is grafted onto the Dutch system and the migration between both countries is centuries-old. Furthermore, certain principles are deeply rooted in this society, such as the use of race as an important organizational principle on the island. 

“Curaçao did not exist before the slavery”, said Small. “There were no depots where slave had to stay before being transported from the island. Without slavery there would be no Christianity on Curaçao. Without slavery there would be no dark community or no Dutch or Papiamentu would be spoken. There would be no ‘Parke Lucha pa Libertat’. These are all inheritances of the slavery. Questions like ‘What happened”, ‘Which historic events are we to commemorate? need to be answered first. 

Photo by C.G. Corbin for OTR 


As foreigner, Small can only recommend suggestions on arranging the commemoration on Curaçao in 2013. One could for example hold exhibitions in which local artists give their vision on past, present and future, or develop educative material for the commemoration year or for following years. Prayer services could also be organized. During these services those present could think about the affliction brought about, but this moment could also open the way to deliverance. However, above all music and theater must play a role during the commemoration. “I learn the most about the slavery by listening to Afro-American music”, said Small. 

The Dutch historiography on the slavery contains whole and half falsehoods, according to him, for example that the Dutch hadn’t made that much profit with the slave trade. According to Small, the historiographers depart from a wrong viewpoint: profit. The slave trade should actually be viewed as an economic activity. “Whether it yielded a profit or not, is not the issue”, said Small. The number of slaves who had worked on the Dutch plantations is also speculative. The Netherlands supposedly only deployed 5 percent of the total number of people made slaves. He queries the version that the Netherlands hadn’t had that many slaves. “It’s all a game and a trick.” A quick calculation shows that 550,000 slaves had been in Dutch hands. However, on top of that, approximately 15 to 20 percent of the slaves had never survived the journey, which makes the number of slaves under Dutch ownership almost 800,000. When you include the Africans who were killed in the forts you come up with 1 million salves. These million people also had families that consisted of five to fifteen members. One can then cautiously conclude that 15 million people (Africans) were effected by the Dutch.” 

Mild slavery

The English books which he studied categorized the slavery on Curaçao as mild. “They don’t attach any analytical value to mild slavery. A definition is not given, just like the proof. I therefore reject this proposition completely. We should take positions against issues that we don’t feel comfortable with”, said Small. The professor began writing his provisional findings this week. He has worked out the two-day presentation, which he gave at NAAM. He encourages others to do the same. “We need research. Much discussion is based on rumors, myths and incorrect information. We must produce knowledge. Which new information on the slave period is important for Curaçao? The island must start somewhere, but it needn’t re-invent the wheel.”