Speech by Marnix van Rij (State Secretary for Tax Affairs and the Tax Administration) on St Eustatius
Good morning dear Statian residents,
A walk across St Eustatius is a walk through history.
Your walk takes you past the slave walls, the remains of the walls built by enslaved people, one stone at a time, in the scorching sun.
If you’re lucky, on your walk or while scuba diving in the sea, you’ll find a Blue Bead – the beads given to enslaved people with which to barter amongst themselves.
The same beads they threw into the sea after the abolition of slavery, as a symbol of their freedom as legend says.
It’s said that if you find a Blue Bead it means Statia has found a place in your heart, and you will return some day.
My wife, Courtney, has found several of them – and the saying has proven to be true for us.
Anyone with an eye for history can see its traces everywhere.
Until recently though, the history books didn’t tell the story of the enslaved people.
They focused on the island’s other story.
A story of the 18th century, when St Eustatius was an important trade hub.
With ships coming and going, and shops and warehouses filled with spices, silverware, tobacco, silk and many other goods.
A story of a small island that played a major role in world history, when it fired the First Salute on the 16th of November 1776, becoming the first foreign country to recognise a naval ship of the United States of America.
In recent years, many people – including myself – have turned their attention to the island’s other story.
An extremely shameful story.
The trading vessels that came and went were often loaded with human cargo.
Branded, shackled and sold’, as if they were objects – not people with needs, feelings, emotions and pride.
Some were set to work here on the island’s plantations, but many more were sold on.
They had been wrenched from their birthplace and their families, and upon arrival here, husbands, wives and children were often cruelly separated.
It made St Eustatius one of the world’s main slave trade hubs.
St Eustatius exudes history – including its darkest pages.
We must not close our eyes to that fact, even though confronting the past can be very painful. Especially for the descendants of enslaved people.
It made a huge impression on my wife and I, during the period when I was Government Commissioner here.
In the Netherlands we read about the history, we learn about it and we talk about it.
But it’s an intellectual experience.
Here on the island we can feel the history, and it touches the heart.
Because of the silent witnesses all around the island.
But even more because of the conversations with you, its residents.
The past has not disappeared from your stories and your personal histories – for those who are able and willing to talk about it.
Many of you have forebears who were enslaved.
Some of you still bear the name of a plantation owner.
Some of you were confronted with this history when you saw excavations taking place – perhaps it was your forebears who were buried there.
I often think back to a conversation I had with Ishmael Berkel.
He told me about something his grandmother experienced as a mother, around the turn of the 20th century, when she was out on the land with her son, who was only ten years old.
Picking seagrapes and putting them in a basket which she carried on her head.
Something she’d never forget.
A white Dutchman looked down on them – literally – from his horse, and spoke to her and her son with contempt.
She couldn’t remember the exact words, but she remembered how they made her feel.
And she also remembered her son’s precise words afterwards.
He said: ‘When I grow up, we’ll buy this land’.
And that’s what happened.
The family still owns it and Ishmael lives there today.
That story made an impression on me.
It made an impression because it shows the resilience of people who didn’t give up, but instead took control of their fate.
And also because it showed that the abolition of slavery didn’t bring an end to the patterns, behaviour and divisions of racism.
That people still faced prejudice, racism and stereotyping, to this day.
You, the people of this beautiful island, are aware of the history.
That’s why you mark Emancipation Day on the 1st of July, a day of celebration and a day of liberation.
Happy July Day – as the older generations would sing.
I’m delighted that last year, under the leadership of Alida Francis, and with the support of employers, trade unions and the island council, the 1st of July became an official holiday on St. Eustatius.
The day on which, 160 years ago next year, enslaved people threw their blue beads into the sea as a symbol of their regained freedom.
The past has not gone away.
The Dutch State has denied its role in the history of slavery, and for too long it has not been willing to see the effects that this history continues to have.
That is why Prime Minister Mark Rutte apologised on behalf of the Dutch government, to enslaved people in the past, everywhere in the world, who suffered as a consequence of the Dutch State’s past actions, as well as to their daughters and sons, and to all their descendants, right up to the present day.
That includes many of you here today.
The prime minister also said that with this apology we are not writing a full stop, but a comma.
This apology is a beginning.
It is a starting point for us to enter into a dialogue with you about what this apology means and how, together, we can give it substance, depth, and weight.
An apology must go beyond mere words; it’s what comes next that gives the words true meaning.
Not just in the year of commemoration that starts on the 1st of July 2023, or in the run-up to that date, but afterwards too.
A process of healing and reconciliation takes time.
The Dutch State will make funds available to enhance our shared knowledge of the past and to strengthen our collective awareness.
To create space for commemoration and acknowledgement.
For St Eustatius it means that we want to fulfil the wish to create a memorial for the forebears whose remains were found at various burial grounds. We want to do so respectfully, in a way that their descendants consider appropriate.
The most important thing is that you – the people of Statia – will decide where this memorial is created and what form it should take.
In addition, we will make funds available to support the Statia Cultural Heritage Implementation Committee in protecting the island’s heritage, in consultation with you, the people of Statia.
Again, it will be up to you to shape this support, in a way that does justice to the past and gives meaning to the future.
A shared future within the Kingdom.
And I’d very much like to start that future today, here in the Lions Den, by giving you all the opportunity to respond, share your feelings, talk and debate.
I feel honoured to be having this first discussion with you here on this island that has a place in my heart.
An island where, in the difficult times at the start of the pandemic, I experienced such an incredible sense of solidarity. The solidarity of people who know that some forces are stronger than individuals.
I hope to find that same solidarity as we deal with the past, and as we join together for next year’s commemorative events.
The same solidarity that can be heard every day in the wonderful musicality of this island.
I’d like to close with a passage from the poem Freedom Song by islander Rosabel Blake.
‘They were human beings yes human beings but slaves without a choice.
They were denied of their basic right to live and make a choice.
They were told that to be slaves is what God made them for, to be
slaves and to live in huts and be somebody’s property.’
Blake ends her poem as follows:
‘And sing with might and dignity the song, our freedom song.
Lift every Voice and Sing.
Yes then and only then we will be free, yes truly free.’