Let not woes of old enslave you anew.Nydia Ecury, Aruban-Dutch writer
The quotation stands in stark contrast to its surroundings, inscribed on a wall in front of what was once a post meant to chain slaves for public whipping. Smiling docents are likewise a contradiction, escorting tourists through Willemstad’s Kura Hulanda Museum, a series of buildings and art installations dedicated to one of the world’s greatest evils: the slave trade. For centuries, this beautiful island of Curacao was at the center of this barbaric practice, from the time of the Dutch arrival in 1634 until 1863.
The Kura Hulanda Museum is much larger on the inside than it would seem from the street. Your visit will take you from building to building, exhibits discussing the slave trade here on the island, Dutch slave trading at large, the initial complicity (and later forced cooperation) of African rulers, American slavery and Jim Crow, and even African art. It is a powerful glimpse into something most visitors to a tropical island, especially one still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands as Curacao is, don’t want to pause their beach going and drinking to learn of. And yet, learn of it we must.
Dutch slave trading truly began in 1528, when an asiento, or slave providing agreement, was signed between Spain and Dutch traders. (Spain was the only major European power not to have African colonies, so in order to acquire slaves for their growing Caribbean colonies, they signed a series of asientos with various other colonial powers who had a presence on the continent.) The Dutch would go on to provide a majority of slaves to the Spanish over the next 200 years. When, in 1634, the Dutch conquered Curacao from Spain to use as their Caribbean base – the bay here in Willemstad is unrivaled in this part of the world – slavery made the island prosperous. From here, slaves were sold to all parts of the Spanish Caribbean. Overall, it is estimated that around 600,000 slaves were transported by the Dutch, most coming through Curacao.
(Put in historical perspective, that number is relatively low. Portugal, for instance, trafficked more than 3.8 million slaves, many to its colony in Brazil, with the English second at about 3.1 million, and France follows. However, given the lack of large Dutch colonies and the Spanish refusal to use large-scale slave labor in its mainland colonies, the number is still quite significant, and even a fourth place finish in such a terrible category is abhorrent.)
Walking through the Kura Hulanda Museum is a disturbing experience. Chains and shackles hang everywhere, a reminder of just how many people lost their freedom, their families, and ultimately their lives in this barbaric practice. Especially powerful is a short flight of stairs down to the replica of the hold of a slave ship. In places like this, slaves were starved near to death, forced to sit in their own fecal matter – and worse – and to watch their children, who were seen as not being worth much at market, perish due to lack of food and water and their bodies thrown overboard. Conditions were so bad that it was said one could smell a slave trader well before it arrived.
Most of the slaves who arrived in Curacao were destined for other places in the Caribbean. However, some stayed here to work at the Dutch landhuisen. While we might think of them as similar to plantations, the lack of either good soil or good growing conditions for agriculture limited the ability of large American-style plantations to exist here in Curacao. So a landhuis can be thought of as more a country mansion, designed to maintain Dutch ownership of the entirety of the island. Today, dozens (or more) of these still exist, many as small hotels or art galleries, pleasant places that bely their overall purpose: ensuring the white Dutch lived in luxury all over the island while blacks served them as slaves. (The native Taino population was almost entirely enslaved by the Spanish and sent to work other islands before the Dutch arrived, with only about thirty families remaining out of a population of thousands during the Dutch colonial period.)
In 1795, slaves on Curacao revolted against the Dutch. Led by a slave named Tula, the month-long rebellion saw more than 1,000 slaves freed to fight. As one can imagine, despite initial success, the rebellion was ultimately put down, and in brutal fashion. Tula himself was publicly tortured to death, and slavery would continue here for another nearly 70 years. There is a powerful monument to Tula on the spot of his execution near the modern Corendon resort, a reminder of both the brutality of slavery and the bravery of those who opposed it.
When slavery was finally abolished in Curacao in 1863, there were around 5,500 slaves on the island, down from about 7,500 in 1789. (That 1789 census, the only one my research has turned up, shows a total population of 9,500, meaning only 2,000 Dutch colonials and slaves outnumbering them almost 4-1.) Today, the majority of the Curacaoan population of roughly 150,000 can trace their roots at least in part to former slaves.
Curacao’s position is still very much one of a colony. While a 2011 referendum resulted in a fair amount of autonomy for the island, it is still a dependent portion of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, subject to Dutch laws coming from overseas. Citizens here are Dutch citizens, but as with Puerto Ricans and the United States, they are unable to vote for those who govern them, and have many policies dictated to them. Some of these are downright disastrous for the local economy, like the US-EU led embargo of Venezuelan oil, causing the huge refinery here to close in 2019. This resulted in the loss of nearly 20,000 jobs out of a total workforce of approximately 65,000, a figure that boggles the mind. (Curacao, remember, is only about 100 miles off the coast of Venezuela, its (formerly) largest trading partner.) Furthermore, lack of independence has limited the island’s ability to receive grant money from the World Bank, forcing Curacao to borrow from its parent country, thus furthering Dutch rule.
One is forced to wonder what the Dutch would think and do in regard to Curacao if the population here was white, rather than the descendants of people who, until only 150 years ago, were held in bondage. Or is the lack of true independence a remnant of the slavery that built the island to begin with? Either way, the Netherlands seems in no hurry to allow a vote for separation, one which very well might pass. As a piece of street art in the Scharloo district of Willemstad reads, “Glorious is when you bury all the colonial ghosts forever. You yourself got to grab the power. Nobody is going to give it to you for free on a silver platter.”
Thinking back on the writings of Nydia Ecury, I find myself shaking my head. The people of Curacao are wonderful, undeserving of what has been done to them and is still being done to them. And yet that positivity Ms. Ecury shows is one that is pervasive here on the island. A population of the descendants of freed slaves, still subjected to colonial rule, has built a society that seeks to look forward with optimism. I think back to the chains of the Kura Hulanda Museum and wonder if I’d be able to do the same. A voice inside whispers that I don’t want to know the answer.
Thank you to the Curacao Tourist Board for sponsoring my tour of the Kura Hulanda Museum!
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