Opinion: Heritage

POSTED: 07/16/12 4:05 PM

Okay, enough for now about cock fighting. How this could have been a cultural tradition in St. Maarten while the practice was outlawed on the very day in 1863 when slavery was abolished –and is illegal up to this very day – is beyond us, but we’ll let it go for the moment.

Instead we’ll focus on the remarkable fact that all those who are now screaming blue murder about cultural imperialism and nosy foreigners have been awfully quiet when it came to defending St. Maarten’s natural treasures and the island’s historical monuments. Given the choice between asphalt and concrete on the one hand, and well maintained nature on the other, the government has consistently supported the asphalt and concrete mafia. Development has always had the upper hand over conservation.

Once upon a time there were something like nineteen ponds on Dutch St. Maarten alone. How many of them are left? Literally a handful: five.

And how are we treating, to mention just one example, the Great Salt Pond? We treat it as a dump for the sand our former Infrastructure Minister Theo Heyliger had to remove from the port to accommodate the arrival of mega cruise ships. Never mind that the Great Salt Pond is one of the historical symbols of the period when slaves were picking salt. But the value of a few salt pans seems to escape too many people, including those who are always quick to climb on the barricades to defend local culture on other occasions. The word hypocrite easily comes to mind.

The defenders of St. Maarten’s cultural heritage who are now up in arms about their perceived right to organize cock fights never uttered a word, they never sent letters to the newspapers to express their anger about the gradual destruction of the Great salt Pond, one of the country’s great monuments.

A similar fate has befallen the Emilio Wilson Estate. In 2007, the Island Council decided to put the estate on the monument list. Later it turned out that such a decision was not the Island Council’s to make but that this had to be done by the Executive Council. To the delight of those who support the preservation of the estate for future generations, the executive council indeed placed the estate on the monument list in August 2008.

But how protected is a protected monument? The Emilio Wilson estate is standing on shaky grounds in this respect, as subsequent events have shown. A foreign investor will be allowed to develop some kind of adventure park on the estate.

Rhoda Arrindell, the former Culture Minister, who has been very vocal about the importance of Emancipation Day as a national holiday to commemorate the abolishment of slavery in 1863, apparently had no problem signing off on a monument permit to facilitate the construction of said amusement park. Never mind that this permit is missing an advice from the Monument Council and that it therefore does not meet all legal requirements.

Why is this? Because there is no Monument Council and because subsequent governments have been dragging their feet to such an extent that it comes down to intentionally frustrating the establishment of this advisory body. Why is this? A Monument Council could hamper the development of certain projects and politicians do not like it when cultural or historical considerations get in the way of their lofty schemes. That’s why.

Arrindell did not stay in office long enough to witness the first emancipation day celebration as a minister, but her successor Silveria Jacobs did. To the astonishment of people who are more sensitive to the historical importance of slavery, part of the celebration took place at the roundabout on Walter Nisbeth Road where a makeshift cabin with a thatched roof was erected right next to the statues of the salt pickers. Nothing took place at the one place that has historical significance for our island’s slavery-history: the Emilio Wilson Estate.

One would expect that those who claim cock fighting to be a cultural tradition to object adamantly to such an oversight. But no, the cock fighting supporters remained silent. Apparently slavery is not on their agenda as a cultural or historical issue.

So what does all this tell us? That there are people who get angry and annoyed – not to use any stronger expressions – as soon as others express an opinion they disagree with.

Never – mind you: never – will they fight such opposing opinions with valid arguments. Others have no right to have an opinion about cock fighting because they are not from here. They are foreigners and they ought to shut up or ship out. Never mind that there are plenty of locals who share the same opinion.

The only argument in favor of cock fighting we have ever read about is this one: it’s a tradition. Even when confronted with evidence that this cannot be so – the practice has been outlawed from the day slaves became free – the so-called defenders of our cultural heritage keep hanging on to their cultural tradition-mantra.

But when monuments of truly historical and cultural significance are destroyed, these same people become awfully quiet.

So what we are dealing with here is a form of home-grown hysteria combined with an ill-conceived idée-fixe about right and wrong.

Because if we understand the proponents of cock fighting correctly it is okay to torture animals for the purpose of human entertainment. It is also okay to destroy national monuments like the Great Salt Pond and the Emilio Wilson Estate.

So what is the common denominator here? That’s an easy one: money. The organizers of cock fights are making money from illegal gambling activities. The developers that are going to destroy the Emilio Wilson Estate are going to make money, and the government is going to make money from this venture as well. Even better, we suspect that large cruise lines are going to make money from this entertainment park because they’ll be able to sell their passengers trips to the park.

Years from now, tour guides might tell future tourists that the grounds on which they are now standing was once part of the great slavery heritage of St. Maarten. Some tourists might even shake their heads over so much barbarism, but most of them will head for the hamburger joint and leave a nice tip with the tour guide for cooking up such a nice story, without realizing how sad it all really is.

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