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Lecture Vito Charles - From Emancipation to Awareness

From Emancipation to Awareness was the title of a most interesting lecture about Saba’s slavery past and the emancipation process, presented by representative of the Saba Archeological Center (SABARC) Vito Charles on Wednesday evening, December 7th.

Charles spoke about the slavery times on Saba and its impact, the resistance to slavery, the emancipation and the post-emancipation. On July 1st, 1863, 735 enslaved persons on Saba were emancipated by proclamation, with the owners paid 200 florins per person, regardless of gender or age.

Former enslaved persons were not allowed to adopt the last name of their former owners. As a result, some adjusted the names slightly: Leverock became Levenstone, Horton became Sorton, while others took on regionally popular/prominent names such as Blijden, Selig and Lake.

Strict laws

Charles challenged the commonly held misconception that slavery was somehow better on Saba, pointing out that there were strict laws created specifically for enslaved persons. He noted that many enslaved persons fled to other islands in the region when they learned about the abolition of slavery on these islands, instances which would not have occurred if the conditions were better on Saba.

After the abolition of slavery, there was a noticeable shift of the racial dynamic within villages on Saba due to emigration of White Sabans and subsequent purchases of their properties by Sabans of African descent. During the post-Emancipation times, The Bottom became mostly inhabited by Black people, Windwardside and Zion’s Hill mostly white and St. John’s mixed.

Position paper

In his presentation, Charles addressed the recommendations in the Saba position paper that were submitted last June for the advisory report of the Advisory Council Dialogue Group Slavery Past titled “Chains of the Past.” The position paper, written by historian Angus Martin, was drafted with the input of stakeholders taking part in the focus group.

Saba’s position paper included recommendations in seven areas: invest in education and research, contrition for slavery – apology, making July 1st Emancipation Day a national holiday on Saba, facilitate access to genealogical information so people know where they come from, arrange diversity training for government and other institutions to make people more aware of the legacy of slavery, and arrange reparative justice in social, economic and health areas.

Apology, awareness

During a round table consultation in the Second Chamber of the Dutch Parliament in July this year to which Charles had been invited to speak, he posed the question “Do we need awareness for an apology or will an apology create awareness?” It was a question that is still valid today in the discussions surrounding the issuing of a formal apology by the Dutch government.

“An apology, how do you give content to that, and how will it be addressed? The Dutch government should not think that it is off the hook with an apology. An apology is just the start, not the end,” said Charles during Wednesday’s lecture.

On December 19th, Dutch State Secretary of Public Health, Wellbeing and Sport Maarten van Ooijen is scheduled to visit Saba. He is expected to give an apology, as do other members of the Dutch government in the other Dutch Caribbean islands, in Suriname and the Netherlands. “I expect people to come out and witness this historic event of great significance,” said Charles.

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