150 years after emancipation Lake Jr.: The drive for independence and emancipation are one and the samePOSTED: 06/26/13 12:40 PM
St. Maarten / By Jason Lista – “We cannot really celebrate the abolition of slavery without political independence,” said author and veteran journalist Jose Lake Jr. in a discussion on the upcoming 150th anniversary of emancipation on St. Maarten. For him, the two go together. “We should remember abolition, we should use that memory to champion independence,” he continued. “Colonialism is the denying of the humanity of another group.” To truly develop, “we have to move toward St. Maarten becoming an independent country. All traditional people have taken that position. Everything should be geared toward independence. Abolition we should remember, we should use that memory to champion independence.”
Lake had been advocating for a national holiday commemorating the abolition of slavery for over three decades. “In order for the significance of this day to remain with us forever, Windward Islands Newsday is calling on the relevant local authorities to declare July 1st of every year a holiday,” he wrote back in 1983 in a special edition of the WI Newsday. It was finally decreed a holiday in 2012 by then Minister of Education and Culture, Rhoda Arrindell. “Credit to her and her team,” Lake said, which also included Fabian Badejo.
But he expressed disappointment that a day set aside to remember the abolition of slavery has not been treated with the same seriousness that other holidays receive. For example, during Christmas and Good Friday “every place must close down.” July 1st should be “on the same level as Christmas.” He believes that because of business interests, however, it’s not taken as seriously. “It’s still economically motivated,” he said. In other words, profit comes first. This, he finds, is “insulting” to the memory of slavery and those who suffered under it.
He also talked about the current conditions on St. Maarten 150 years on. Tourism as a path toward development has not always benefitted the St. Maarten people, he believes. “Not one major hotel is owned by a St. Maartener,” he pointed out. “Yet for over 70 years now” we have been a tourism destination. “Today, no St. Maarteners manage hotels and casinos. In the past we ran hotels and casinos,” he lamented, especially during the days of Mullet Bay. “We always welcomed people as guests, tourism has destroyed that concept.” He said that we need to “truly educate the people as seeing themselves as hosts, not servants.” Most people “don’t see themselves as hosts; they see themselves as servants serving new masters.”
Lake then touched on the phenomenon of the brain drain affecting St. Maarten. Every year, “the overwhelming majority of our best and brightest are sent to Holland, not even 20 come back.” He described it as passing through “the gate of no return” – a reference to the gates African slaves passed through as they were packed onto ships bound for the Americas – because “they don’t come back. We are contributing to Dutch development by sending our best.” And “our political leadership doesn’t see it,” he said. “We have to build our own university, because education is the most important ingredient in our development.” But Lake insisted, however, that “as long as we are a colony, there will be no true development.”
Lake said he would like to see a joint effort from both sides of the island in remembering the end of slavery. “It should be an entire island celebration,” he said. Because it was abolished under French law in 1848, it was practically over on the Dutch side well before 1863 since “slaves on the Dutch side fled to the north when freedom came. It was a oneness.”
He decried the language situation on St. Maarten too, where Dutch gets preference in almost all legal and government matters, alienating many people. “We are judged in a foreign language by foreign people,” Lake said of the judicial process here. “Only the Dutch version of the constitution is officially used,” even though English is recognized as equal under the law. “Dutch is more equal,” he concluded.
The big challenge for St. Maarten is halting the brain drain, Lake repeated. “It’s taking our children every year, especially the bright ones. The politics of St. Maarten must be about tomorrow, geared toward independence. Without political independence, our emancipation is incomplete.” With that he smiled and said confidently, “It’s going to happen.”