Arrindell’s historical review of slavery “Boil there, you offspring of the devil!”

POSTED: 05/23/12 1:25 PM

St. Maarten – Apart from her rant against this newspaper about our stand on modern day slavery, former Culture Minister Rhoda Arrindell delivered an extensive historical review about slavery in the Antilles. We present her expose to our readers ahead of the parliament meeting tomorrow wherein July 1 – Emancipation Day – will most likely be designated as a national holiday, an initiative the Today newspaper wholeheartedly supports.
“What was slavery like? Suffice it to recall the words of one of the early 16th Century Spanish colonists, historian Bartolommeo de Las Casas, who gave an eye-witness account in his many writings. Speaking of the atrocities perpetrated against the enslaved Amerindian population, whom he referred to as Indians, which led him to recommend the importation of African slaves, De Las Casas wrote: “I saw here cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see.”
He continued: “With my own eyes I saw Spaniards cut off the nose and ears of Indians, male and female, without provocation, merely because it pleased them to do it. …Likewise, I saw how they summoned the caciques and the chief rulers to come, assuring them safety, and when they peacefully came, they were taken captive and burned.”
“They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike.
“They took infants from their mothers’ breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, “Boil there, you offspring of the devil!”
No wonder he prophesied that future generations would find this depraved inhumanity hard to believe. Indeed, who among us today, can imagine what our enslaved ancestors went through for over two and a half centuries?
“The Spaniards have shown not the slightest consideration for these people,” De Las Casas wrote, “treating them (and I speak from first-hand experience, having been there from the outset) not as brute animals – indeed, I would pray to God for what they had done and had shown them the consideration they afford their animals – so much as piles of dung in the middle of the road.”
And if you think Bartolommeo de Las Casas was only describing the enslavement of the Amerindians, think again. In his own words, this is what he said concerning his recommendation to import African slaves: “I soon repented and judged myself guilty of ignorance. I came to realize that black slavery was as unjust as Indian slavery.”
What the Spaniards did, the other slaving nations did as well, some in fact, with more viciousness, to the extent that living was harsher than death for the enslaved. It is no wonder then that for some of them, death was the only “emancipation” they could hope for.
Suicide was a common path to freedom but so was running away, at the risk of one’s life, while the luckier ones could actually choose to purchase their freedom. For this latter group, freedom was not cheap at all. There are records that indicate that some of them in Southern USA had to pay US$1,200 and more to their owners to be set free. Consider that even after Emancipation, the wages that those who found work could look forward to where sometimes no more than US$10 per month! That meant they would have had to work for 10 years or more to be able to purchase their freedom!
Freedom certainly was not free. And what was worse, freedom did not necessarily mean a bed of roses. Although the enslaved yearned for freedom and did everything to obtain it, Emancipation was not an instant cure for all their suffering.
Naturally, the news of Emancipation brought untold joy to the hearts of the enslaved. This is how one of them recalls it in an interview:
“At last my son and myself were free. Free, free! what a glorious ring to the word. Free! the bitter heart-struggle was over. Free! the soul could go out to heaven and to God with no chains to clog its flight or pull it down. Free! the earth wore a brighter look, and the very stars seemed to sing with joy. Yes, free! free by the laws of man and the smile of God.”
But this celebration was quickly tempered by the sobriety of the true meaning of Emancipation for the enslaved.
“They had abundance of dat somethin’ called freedom, what they could not eat, wear, and sleep in. Yes, sir, they soon found out dat freedom ain’t nothin’, ’less you is got somethin’ to live on and a place to call home. Dis livin’ on liberty is lak young folks livin’ on love after they gits married. It just don’t work. No, sir, it las’ so long and not a bit longer,” Ezra Adams, one of the enslaved in South Carolina, who became free upon Emancipation Proclamation said in an interview around 1937.
The stark reality facing the recently emancipated man or woman was that freedom did not mean much after centuries of slavery. Surviving freedom was a task of gargantuan proportions. What to do for a living? Where to go? Where to call home? How do you shed the psychological baggage of dependency created by slavery with one proclamation? These are questions many of our freed ancestors now faced. Freedom did not bring equality, either.
“The Master he says we are all free, but it don’t mean we is white. And it don’t mean we is equal. Just equal for to work and earn our own living and not depend on him for no more meats and clothes,” said George King, who was enslaved in South Carolina during an interview in Oklahoma.
Most of these sentiments would be valid for the rest of the region, including St. Martin, where the institution of slavery thrived for so long. Although President Abraham Lincoln had abolished slavery in all US territories in 1863, the same year the Dutch did so in their territories, it was not until 1865 that Emancipation became a reality in the US. And whereas the slave-owners in the US informed their slaves about Emancipation, in St Martin in particular, they hid the news from them as we can see in the lyrics of the Ponum Dance.
Before Emancipation, our enslaved ancestors were not considered human beings. They were property to be bought and sold at the whim of the owner; with no legal, civil, nor human rights. We had no identity of our own. Emancipation, therefore, represents the birth of our identity. Only then did we become official residents of this New World which our blood, sweat and tears built. We had been stripped of our African identities; our mother tongues had been ripped out and replaced with foreign tongues which we never felt comfortable with, and only learnt to dominate with varying degrees of proficiency through time. Language, as one of the most important elements of culture, remains for us until today, an unfinished agenda we are still grappling with in our education system and in our daily expressions.
From all historical records, July 1st, 1863 was an official holiday on St. Martin. There was no need to maintain a sustained campaign to make it so. The celebrations continued for a week. But there was no attempt to make it a national holiday until more contemporary times. This requires legislation.
We have reached this point today, thanks to the initiative and efforts of the people of our beloved St. Martin, particularly cultural workers who have been sensitizing the population to the need to make July 1st a public holiday – not just another holiday – but a day set aside for reflection, celebration and rededication to the cause of freedom; a day to commemorate the resounding victory of our ancestors over an institution that exploited, oppressed, dehumanized, degraded, and even demonized them for centuries.
The call for July 1, Emancipation Day, to become a national public holiday on St. Martin did not begin with Rhoda; it did not start in the 90s as some members of parliament suggested during the recent Central Committee hearing of this proposed legislation. We can trace the genesis of this call, in contemporary times, to what I would rather describe as the Newsday group – activists associated with the influential newspaper published by Jose Lake Jr. through the 80s and part of the 90s.
A precursor of this group would be our beloved Mr. Camile Baly, whose efforts brought the celebration of “Zwarte Piet” to a grinding stop on St. Martin in the second half of the 70s. He is among the men and women who I admired while growing up because of their unrelenting campaign to promote the St. Martin people and our culture.
Residents of our beloved island, it should go without saying that celebrating “Zwarte Piet” goes against the spirit of Emancipation. Precisely, this is where the lyrics of legendary Bob Marley, in his immortal “Redemption Song” become axiomatic: “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds…” Freeing ourselves from mental slavery requires that we discontinue so-called traditional practices that continue to demean and portray us as inferior beings; it involves recognizing July 1st as a national public holiday. It is in this context that I consider Mr. Camile Baly as a precursor of the cries of our people for true emancipation. I would therefore want to honor his legacy here today by naming him one of the grandfathers of this bill before you that would make Emancipation Day, July 1st, a national public holiday.
I mentioned the “Newsday Group” of the early 80s. People of our beloved St. Martin, let the records show that it was on the pages of Newsday of Friday, July 1, 1983, in commemoration of the 120th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, that the most modern call to make July 1st a public holiday crystallized. Jose Lake Jr., Daniela Jeffry, Oswald Francis, Leo Friday, Richard Gibson sr, Fabian Badejo and Lasana Sekou were at the forefront of the cultural manifestation held at the WIFOL Building to draw attention to this important date on our calendar.
The editorial of that edition of Newsday made a clear case for July 1 to become a national public holiday. The following year, the newspaper repeated this call in its editorial of Friday, June 29, 1984, titled, “Make July 1st a holiday”. It is worth recalling here today some of the sentiments that editorial expressed. It said, “Certain dates are of such historic importance that they should be set aside for celebration. July 1st is one of such dates.” It later continued: “We already celebrate all kinds of days as holidays, most of them of little significance or relevance to us. If we continue to pass up July 1st, we shall be engaging in a self-deluding, self-destructive exercise. Nothing can be more sadistic.”
The editorial then added: “We, therefore, strongly appeal to our representative in Parliament to present a bill proposing July 1st as a national holiday. Should such a draft bill be defeated, the people would at least know who is representing their interests. However, the failure of such a bill in Parliament should not make our elected representatives shrug their shoulders and fold their arms. The issue is of too great a significance to be treated nonchalantly.”
“Newsday believes that the Island Council of St. Maarten should then use its power and make July 1st a local holiday on the island. Anything short of this will be gross insensitivity to the lessons of history,” the editorial concluded.
That editorial still rings very true today, almost 20 years later! It is clear from the foregoing who was behind the movement to make July 1st a national public holiday on St. Martin. Newsday’s suggestion that our representatives in the then Antillean Parliament present a draft ordinance to legislate this was not taken up neither by St. Martin’s sole representative in that parliament at the time, nor by our subsequent representatives. No draft national ordinance was ever presented before the Antillean Parliament, which had the authority to establish national holidays. There may, indeed, have been discussions among the coalition partners in that Antillean Parliament then, however, these never translated into any draft bill.
The alternative suggested by Newsday in the editorial from which I have just quoted copiously – for the Island Council to make July 1st a local holiday – was not taken up either, neither then, or thereafter. Newsday’s idea, I am sure, is similar to what we had when the Executive Council could have granted the day after an election a holiday; or today when the Prime Minister or Council of Ministers could declare any day a holiday for government workers. It never happened with July 1st.
It is, therefore, interesting to note that some Members of Parliament and others today see it fit to want to take some credit for this legislation. Success, indeed, has many fathers. I cannot deny them that honor. But theirs was an effort that came about because of the work of the Newsday Group, and other cultural and labor organizations that lent their support to the call, more than a decade before some of the new “fathers” of this movement ever thought of Emancipation Day.
I must make particular mention of the support of labor unions for this legislation. From the 1980s, the WIFOL, under the leadership of former Commissioner Rene Richardson, had been an active supporter of the call to make Emancipation Day a public holiday. I already mentioned that the first cultural manifestation in support of this call was held at the WIFOL building, I understand at no cost to the organizers. Subsequently, the labor union has maintained that stand in a very consistent and proactive manner. The teachers union, WITU, under Mrs. Claire Elshot, has also been in favor of the call, even going as far as to suggest that the school calendar be modified so that school could still be in session when Emancipation Day is celebrated to allow students to actively participate in the celebrations.”

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