Opinion: Underlying message (slavery in the past and current slavery)

POSTED: 06/16/14 11:17 PM

Slavery remains a sensitive topic in the Caribbean. It is again on the agenda now that fourteen Caribbean countries (St. Maarten not included) are going to sue the Netherlands, France and Great Britain for damages. Caricom has set up a ten-point plan that includes demands like an official apology, cancellation of debts and assistance for cultural and educational institutions. To show that they’re not kidding, Caricom hired the British human rights firm Leigh Day, a company that previously won $21.5 million in damages for Kenyans who were tortured under Britain’s colonial era government.

Reports about the Caricom-initiative do not say how much damages the countries will claim. The late Pueblo Soberano-leader Helmin Wiels mentioned shortly before his death a claim of 200 million guilders (almost $112 million) for Curacao alone.

Discussions about reparation for the slavery-era have been around for decades but so far, they have led to nothing. It is rather curious that Caricom wants to sue just three countries, while it leaves the country that benefited the most from the slave trade – the United States – out of the picture. African tribes that played an active part in providing slaves to the European traders are also not mentioned in this initiative.

Chances that the lawsuit will ever result in actual payments are slim to non-existent. The Netherlands apologizes every year for this ugly period from its history and the Slavery Monument in Amsterdam is a silent witness to the fact that the current crop of Dutch has nothing but disdain for what their forefathers were up to. This does not mean that everyone in the Netherlands is up to date about the slavery history.

A fine example is the commemoration in Middelburg in the province of Zeeland this past weekend of the abolishment of slavery on June 15, 1814 – 200 years ago. That is news for the descendants of African slaves in the Caribbean, where the abolishment of slavery is marked as July 1, 1863 – 49 years later.

Pepijn Brandon and Tamira Combrink of the Institute for Social History write in an op-ed in the Volkskrant that the slave trade in the Caribbean continued after 1814 – and that this was also the purpose.

Why then commemorate that date of June 15, 1814? On that date, King Willem I issued a decree that prohibited ships to sail from Dutch ports to the African coast “to pick up Negroes and transport them to the mainland or the islands of America.”

It was one of the steps the Netherlands needed before it really abolished the slave trade. Unfortunately, Brandon and Combrink write, this was not the decisive step, because after June 15, 1814, the slave trade in the Caribbean continued as usual. “That this is routinely forgotten shows that the knowledge about this past is still pathetic.”

For context, Brandon and Combrink point out that the Dutch West Indian colonies were under British control at the time. They had taken the islands from the French in the war against Napoleon. The British abolished the slave trade already in 1807 and they wanted to impose this on their competitors. When they returned the colonies to the Netherlands, this was one of the conditions.

The abolishment of the slave trade was explicitly not meant as a run up for the abolition of slavery itself. The idea was that the procreation of the enslaved Caribbean population could keep the slave population in place. But that was only possible if the plantation communities were allowed to trade in slaves and their children.

Legalized slave trade in the Caribbean would make it much easier to benefit from the larger-scale illegal slave trade between Africa and North and South America. When the king’s decree of 1814 finally became law in 1818, it provided this crucial loophole. Article 5 of the law states that the punishments did not apply to the trade in “slaves that are currently present in the colonies, or their children.” The result was that between 1816 and 1827 in Suriname alone about 12,000 people were imported as slaves, among them thousands from Africa.

Until far into the 1820s colonial authorities were not at all sympathetic towards attempts to stop the illegal slave trade. Even worse, – especially for those who would want to celebrate 1814 as a breakthrough for humanity – is that the same authorities simply continued to regulate the legal slave trade in the colonies.

In 1819 for instance, the Governor-General of Curacao proclaimed that for all slaves that were deported from Curacao, Bonaire or Aruba, a tax of 10 pesos had to be paid to the colonial treasury. Only infants were exempt from this rule.

How then is it possible, Brandon and Combrink wonder, to overlook this legal continuation of the slave trade at the commemoration of 200 years of abolition?

This has everything to do with the limited definition of the Dutch involvement that many slavery-historians are still using. That definition focuses only on the triangle-trade between Europe, West Africa and the West Indies.

The official abolition of slavery in 1863 (many slaves still were subjected to forced labor for ten years after that year) is in that vision the shamefully slow impact of the end of the triangle-trade at the end of the 18th century. The underlying message is: the Dutch involvement in slavery was painful, but she was relatively of minor significance and after the 18th century it was far past its peak. In this vision, 1814 marks the beginning of the “long farewell” to slavery.

However, this misconception ignores a number of simple observations. The Dutch were not only involved in the slave trade as transatlantic slave sellers, but also as buyers and sellers of slaves within the Caribbean plantation economy. When they were forced to abandon the trade between Africa and America in 1814, they kept hoping that procreation and trade within the Caribbean would be sufficient to keep the slave economy in the colonies alive.

American historians speak in this respect correctly of a second slavery. With 1814, one should therefore not commemorate the end of the slave trade, but the sad restart of this inhuman form of the pursuit of profit. It was not an unfortunate coincidence that slavery survived the limited and partial abolition of 1814 for half a century. It was the explicit intention of the abolitionists.

Not long from now, on July 1, St. Maarten will once again commemorate the abolition of slavery in 1863. This is an official holiday and politicians have said in the past that this should not be a simple day off, but a meaningful moment to commemorate this awful past.

The question is – how do you make something that stopped one-and-a-half century ago meaningful today? Just pointing out how horrible it all was is in our opinion not enough. We know all that. The question is, how do we deal with slavery today? Do we remain silent? Do we close our eyes for realities that take place on our island today? Do we use Emancipation Day as a moment to condemn all slavery? And – more important – are we ready to do something about it?

You see, that is the crucial difference between history and the present. We are not able to change history, but we could very well do something about the situation of those who live in enslaved-like conditions today. If we are not ready to take action, we lose our right to point fingers at those long-gone slave-traders of the past and the colonial powers that let them go about their business.

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