Saba marked the start of the Commemoration Year of the Slavery Past on Saturday, July 1, with a well-attended Emancipation Day event with a number of speakers and a number of powerful performances.
The event’s theme, ‘liberation through healing,’ was most fitting, said Commissioner of Culture Eviton Heyliger. “Although healing hundreds of years of trauma will not happen overnight, we need to start the dialogue. By engaging in healing practices, as a community we can reclaim our agency, reconnect with our inner strength, and restore our sense of wholeness,” he said in his speech.
“Collectively, we can contribute to social transformation and liberation by dismantling oppressive systems, challenging inequities, and promoting justice. Together, we can address and challenge the root causes of oppression, fostering resilience, empathy, and compassion. We can also create spaces for dialogue, reconciliation, and the cultivation of healthier relationships within communities and between different social groups,” said Heyliger.
Heyliger pointed out that the history of Black people on Saba was not recorded in a real way until 160 years ago, when slavery was abolished in 1863. “Before that they were not even considered people; they were considered property. They were only seen as things that could be used to work. They had no rights, no freedoms, no protection under the law, no justice.”
The legacy of Dutch slavery in the Caribbean is still felt today, said Heyliger. “This isn’t only the story of those enslaved, but also the story of us all here today, descendants of those who have inherited the pain and disadvantages of this most horrendous act against humanity,” he said.
Shadows of slavery
Overcoming the shadows of slavery was the title of a moving, honest address by journalist Dimetri Whitfield for which he received a standing ovation. Whitfield told the missing story of slavery on Saba. “In the stories of our seafaring tradition, we have largely forgotten the Sabans of African descent. This shadow is our national shame. Because of this, we have invented other stories. We have all heard it say that slavery wasn’t so bad on Saba, and that the enslaved were treated like brothers and sisters by those that owned them, those that bought and sold them as if they were cattle. And while it is true that slavery on Saba was characteristically different than on our sister islands, its difference didn’t mean that it wasn’t brutal or traumatic,” said Whitfield.
“What has been washed out of our shameful slavery past are the stories of resistance, determination, resilience, struggle. When the chains were finally broken on Saba, the formerly enslaved did not receive a red cent for their lifetime of exploitation. Add to that the decades upon decades of colonial neglect by the Netherlands and you have the perfect recipe for locking generations of Sabans of African descent in cycles of poverty,” said Whitfield.
“It is our responsibility to heal from the wounds that slavery opened, the wounds that continue to bleed. It is our responsibility to create a more equal Saba, a more equal Kingdom. It is our responsibility to create spaces in the center of our national history for those who were pushed to the margins. It is our responsibility to create a national identity that respects the lives and experiences of all our ancestors and not of a selected few. It is our responsibility to challenge ourselves to dismantle the final pillars that upheld slavery, instead of burying our heads in the sand with the comforting lie that slavery wasn’t so bad or that it happened too long ago to matter,” said Whitfield.
Stories of atrocities
State Secretary for Kingdom Relations and Digitization Alexandra van Huffelen said that the stories of the atrocities that were committed by the Dutch state and their lasting effects today had to be told and heard. “Everyone in the Kingdom needs to hear these stories and I’d like everyone on Saba to be able to share the stories, the true stories, about this island.”
Oral history, and preserving it for future generations is important, said Van Huffelen. “So that every child knows the names of the Saban heroes, and history will be told from a Saban perspective. The coming year, and also the period after, we are taking efforts to accomplish this. We are going to shine a light on these underexposed parts of our history. And we are doing this together.”
On Saba, a name monument will be created with the names of the 734 Sabans who were emancipated on July 1, 1863. Genealogical research in the archives will be done, as well as DNA-research. “Because we know far too little about the Sabans from before 1863. I know a lot of people on Saba have questions about their forefathers, who they are and where they came from. We want to take responsibility in finding the answers,” said Van Huffelen.
The state secretary hoped that the Slavery Commemoration Year would bring everyone in the Kingdom closer together. “That it brings more attention to your island, your stories and your way of life. That it helps in closing the psychological distance within the Kingdom. Together, we will bring about more knowledge, attention and more respect.”
Keynote speaker of the 2023 Emancipation Day event was Vice-chairman of the CARICOM Reparations Commission Dorbrene O’Marde from Antigua. Although he agreed with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte that his apology on December 19 last year be interpreted as a comma - not a full stop - and that ‘the healing process must start now,’ he was critical of some aspects of Rutte’s apology for the role that the Dutch State played in slavery.
“Dutch government, please understand that the victim communities in the Caribbean must be part of the reparations discussion and settlement,” he said. According to O’Marde, decisions about the analysis of the impact of the crime against humanity and approaches to repair it are led by, are processed by victims, not victimizers. He raised the question whether honest repair could take place in colonial conditions. “I suggest therefore that the apology from the Kingdom does not only put reparations on the table but also the central and perhaps precursor issue of decolonization.”
“We must always affirm that the period of enslavement of African people – 1501 to 1834/1838 in the British territories and between 1596 and 1863 in the Dutch territories – marks without doubt the most ruthless period of the domination of African people by Europeans and established the basis for the racial, economic and political relationships between both peoples which continue to chastise Africans the world over today. It is to this fact that we must point our liberation, for which we must seek healing,” O’Marde said.
“Colonies in this region must react to the concept of a ‘shared future.’ Is this shared future a continuation of the colonial present? Do we think that a museum and other measures that relate to ‘knowledge and awareness’ and ‘recognition and remembrance’ will ameliorate the existing tensions and debilitation of colonial rule?”
Several impressive presentations took place during the Emancipation Day event. The Saban community watched the pre-recorded speech in Dutch of King Willem-Alexander on a large screen, after which Island Governor Jonathan Johnson read the translated text for all to hear and understand the King’s message.
Members of the Leos Club read the names of 160 names, age and work of the in total 734 Sabans who were emancipated in 1863, the number 160 referring to the 160 years that slavery was abolished. Members of the Surinamese community gave a performance with as main part the history of slavery in Suriname read by Alida Heilbron. During the almost 400 years of slavery more than 550,000 people were brought from Africa to Suriname.
Other performances included poem reading by Jenee Matthew and Marylies Torres Garcia, dance by students of the Sacred Heart School, the singing of the National Anthem by the Saba Children’s Choir and music by Karel Sorton, Budu Banton and DJ Cane. Reverend Vernon Liburd did the opening prayer and Angus Martin was the MC for the event.