Slavery’s shadow is our national shame: Emancipation Day speech by Dimetri Whitfield

Slavery’s shadow is our national shame: Emancipation Day speech by Dimetri Whitfield

When we hear the history of Saba, we hear about pirates and, after them, the stories of salt-faced seafarers, and navigators, and shipbuilders, and captains. You would hear that we, as Sabans, were an ocean-going people, braving the waves and high winds and gales to earn a living for our loved ones back home on this five-square-mile island.

You would hear how Saba was raided in 1665 by Edward Morgan, then-Governor of Jamaica and the uncle of famous English privateer Henry Morgan.

You would hear about Hiram Beaks, son of a Saban Island Council, who in the mid-1700s created the most famous pirate saying of all, “Dead Men Tell No Tales.”

You would also hear about Thomas Dinzey, Saba’s Governor from 1778 until around 1809, the richest and most powerful man on the island in his lifetime. Right behind the field here is the cemetery that still bears his name.

But something is missing in all these stories. I’ll tell you what it is.

You would not hear that Edward Morgan and his merry band of government-endorsed pirates forcibly removed 85 enslaved men and women from Saba to work on sugar plantations in Jamaica.

You would not hear that Saban families were prominent enslavers.

You would also not hear that Thomas Dinzey owned a 40,000-square-meter sugar plantation in The Bottom, likely right on the very ground we are standing today, worked on, against their will and without wages, by at least 52 enslaved Sabans of African descent.

You would not hear that on Emancipation Day, the Dutch government paid 135,600 guilders to Saban slave owners, worth almost 1.9 million US dollars in today’s money, an extraordinary amount in the cash-strapped Saba of the time. The 734 Sabans of African descent received nothing, except a subtle warning from Curaçao Governor J.D. Crol that they must “make themselves worthy of the benefit of freedom”.

In the stories we have heard and digested and thoughtlessly re-told, the dark, vague shadow of slavery looms silently in the background – a shadow that systemically erased the lives of some Sabans in exchange for the uncontextualized and often heroic imaginings of others. In the stories of our seafaring tradition, we have largely forgotten the Sabans of African descent, whose ancestors, ironically, only came here by the sea, in the belly of ships, enduring disease, malnourishment, and torture, ripped away from their families, friends, and communities in the Atlantic Slave Trade, one of the largest forced displacements of people in the history of mankind.

This shadow is our national shame. And because of this, we have invented other stories. I think we’ve all heard it said 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 did not mean that it wasn’t brutal or traumatic.

Our historical record bears witness to this fact. What have been washed out of our shameful slavery past are stories of resistance, determination, resilience, struggle.

I’ll give you two examples:

On April 1, 1654, more than a decade before Morgan’s raid, 14 enslaved Africans gathered at night, in the light of the full moon, and swam to a Dutch vessel anchored offshore. They captured the ship, killing one of the four men on-board and holding another hostage. The remaining two jumped overboard, swimming for their lives.

From there, they sailed for two days to Puerto Rico, and surrendered in the hope that the Spanish-held island would believe their carefully crafted story – a story of being free, Christian men and women who were imprisoned by the Dutch. They hoped that they would be allowed to live the rest of their lives in liberty. Tragically, this hope did not come to pass, and they were forced back into slavery in Puerto Rico.

Let’s jump forward to the late 1850s, in the twilight of slavery on Saba. Although Saban slave owners were aware of the compensation coming to them, they jumped at the opportunity to sell their slaves at lucrative prices to plantation owners of the Southern, soon-to-be Confederate United States. In the four years from 1859 to Emancipation in 1863, no fewer than 30 enslaved persons fled Saba to avoid this fate.

In an echo that reverberated from two centuries before, nine enslaved Sabans in 1860 stole a boat belonging to one Captain Simmons with a plan of sailing to St. Kitts, a place where slavery had been abolished almost 30 years before, where they could be free. I ask you to consider this question. Why would they go to such an extreme measure, leaving behind everything and everyone they had ever known, if slavery wasn’t so bad?

I choose these examples purposefully to show that from the beginning of slavery until the very end, a time period that spanned more than 200 years, the enslaved on Saba were not content with their condition. By their very acts of bravery, I have serious doubts they would agree with the idea that slavery wasn’t so bad on Saba if they could speak at this ceremony today. If I were to guess, they would tell countless examples of resistance, only a fraction of which has been documented. They would probably also tell us stories of disruption, of being exiled for minor offenses, being publicly whipped, being restricted from moving about freely at night, being degraded and insulted, being torn away from their families and their community.

We have also heard it said in this community, on our sister islands, and in the Netherlands, that slavery was so long ago, that none of us was around then and so none of us is responsible for the wrongdoings of those who came before us.

But I wish 1863 had wiped away slavery’s shadow once and for all. But that’s the thing about shadows – they follow you around, even if you try as hard as you can to forget they are there.

Like elsewhere in the Dutch Caribbean, the legacy of slavery followed the lives of the formerly enslaved Sabans and walked hand-in-hand with their descendants. When the chains were finally broken on Saba, the formerly enslaved did not get a red cent for their lifetime of exploitation. Add to that 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, some of which exist to the present day.

The descendants of the enslaved did not inherit wealth. What they did inherit was a system of widespread and pervasive racism; one that has shifted, changed shape, and moulded with the passage of time, into something that is so ingrained in our society, in our Dutch Kingdom, that we turn a blind eye to it today and refuse to recognize it as racism.

If you think racism is dead on our island or elsewhere, I only encourage you to listen – to seriously listen to the stories in Saba’s black community and the communities of colour throughout the Dutch Caribbean.

Like how my late great grandfather, Hilton Whitfield, who himself was a grandson of the enslaved, told his daughter, my grandmother, how white families from Windwardside would order their daughters inside and shut the door tight behind them whenever he and the other young men from The Bottom would pass by.

Or how my late grandmother, who once supported herself by washing clothes for well-to-do white families, told me that she had to stop eating the soup that one of her clients offered her every Saturday because one day she caught her spitting in the bowl.

Or how my late mother, a nurse, had to grit her teeth and smile when an elderly lady from Hell’s Gate refused to be bathed by a quote-unquote “savage from The Bottom”.

Or how my peers, people who I went to school with, are told by their families that their ancestors would be “rolling in their graves” if they saw them in a relationship with a black person.

These stories are by no means the only ones; they are by no means uncommon. The same attitudes that justified slavery live on in these experiences, generation after generation, affecting not only how we see ourselves, but also who is given opportunities in our schools and in our workplaces.

And it is true that none of us alive today is responsible for the crime against humanity that was slavery. But it is our responsibility to heal from the wounds that slavery opened, the wounds that still continue to bleed. It is our responsibility to create a more equal Saba, a more equal Dutch Kingdom. It is our responsibility to create spaces in the centre 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 only those of a select 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.

As a member of the organizing committee for today’s event, I look forward to this Commemorative Year of Slavery as a step forward on the path toward healing, a path that we have mostly ignored on Saba.

It is my fervent hope that every single one of us, instead of turning away from the shadow of slavery, we must challenge our own misconceptions, to grow and heal collectively and individually, to be brave enough to engage with our past and to talk about it openly, empathetically, and honestly.

I’ll end by saying something else about shadows: They don’t hold up so well when a light shines on them.

To one and all, Happy Emancipation Day.

Caption: Organising committee members Vito Charles, Vanessa Wilson, Elsa Peterson, and Dimetri Whitfield (1st, 3rd, 5th, and 6th from left) with State Secretary Alexandra van Huffelen and Director-General of Kingdom Relations Roald Lapperre (4th and 2nd from left). Lincoln Charles/public entity Saba photo.

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