Speech by Ernst Kuipers (Minister of Health, Welfare and Sport) on Sint Maarten


We’ve just heard the words of the Dutch prime minister, apologising for the Netherlands’ role in the history of slavery and on how this affects the present.
You’ve expressed the need for more time to formulate your position on this topic and its impact. 
Please rest assured that we are fully open to continue our dialogue on this history, for as long as you need.
And please know that we acknowledge that the Dutch role in slavery, on this island, was a significant one.

In the salt pond, and on the plantations, enslaved people laboured for generations.
An inventory of the Golden Rock plantation contains a list of enslaved people and their so-called ‘value’.
According to that elusive document, a woman who had lost a leg was considered worthless.
How had she – her name was Mary-Ann – become disabled?
Was she injured during slave labour?
Had she been shot in the leg for trying to escape?  – a permissible punishment at that time.
Or was it the result of an untreated medical condition?
To the Golden Rock Plantation’s inventory, her story was irrelevant.

It feels uncomfortable, as a European Dutchman, to be speaking about slavery.
Because of what the Dutch State did to your ancestors.
They did not see your ancestors – and the indigenous people of St Maarten - as human beings. 
Not as someone’s daughter. 
Not as someone’s son.
But as a means of production.
Slavery is an extremely painful and shameful chapter in our shared history. 
Impossible to be undone by mere words.
But acknowledging what happened, taking responsibility, and preserving the testimonies and stories we have, can be a start.

That is why members of the Dutch government are currently visiting.
To reflect on the prime minister's words.
To acknowledge that the impact of slavery still resounds to this date.
To try to do justice to that terrible history.
The story of One-Tété Lokhay made a huge impression on me. 
On my way here I paid a visit to her monument.
Her story – like many others – symbolises strength, courage and fearlessness.
You tell your children this story, but it should also be told to children in the Netherlands.
Because it shows people’s resilience in the face of oppression.

According to the story - as is very well known to you -  Lokhay worked on a sugar plantation.
She ran away, but unfortunately was caught. 
As a punishment, the plantation owner cut off one of Lokhay’s breasts. 
A horrific violation, which would be enough to break most people.
But Lokhay fled once more.
This time she succeeded. She fled for good.
She paid a high price for her freedom. 
On an island this size, those who escaped could not live in groups.
So Lokhay had to spend the rest of her life in isolation.
Her story is a symbol of resistance to the unimaginable injustice done to so many of your ancestors.

That resistance took many forms. Petit marronage, for example.
Working as slowly as one safely could. 
Pretending an instruction was incomprehensible. 
Or fleeing one’s captors. First alone, and then with others from different plantations. 
Until finally, in 1848, large groups of enslaved people managed to reach freedom on the French side of the island. 
Those who remained behind started negotiations on their own freedom, and they succeeded in acquiring new rights from their oppressors. 
As a result, former slaveholders and formerly enslaved people lived on more equitable terms.
Even though, according to law slavery was still in place. 
That did not happen anywhere else in the world. 
Your ancestors were unique in this respect. 
Evidently, this does not alter all that happened before and ever since.  

The past cannot be undone and stays with us, now and forever.
It is in the former plantations and in the slave walls you see all over this island.
It is in our demography.
And it is in the interaction between our countries.
We only have to look at the conversations we’ve had the past weeks in the run-up to this moment.
They underline how much pain the past, and our countries’ relations, have caused some of our people.
A pain that I can never fully comprehend, let alone experience, however much I would try to.
Hopefully the Dutch apology will mark the beginning of further dialogue. 
You have rightly asked for acknowledgement of your suffering. 
Today, we are taking a step in that direction. 
A first step. 
And many more steps will have to follow.

As you have pointed out, your history is also the history of the Netherlands. 
And that history should receive the attention it deserves. 
It is frustrating that so much historical material has been lost, or still needs to be brought to light.
Enslaved people were denied surnames.
Making family ties almost impossible to trace.
That is a painful reality.
Because everyone wants to know where they come from.
To know which heroic figures from their past they can honor.
People like Mary-Ann and One-Tété Lokhay. 
Their stories are tales of resistance. Of resilience. 
The kind of resilience that is typical for the people of St Maarten. 
The resilience that the world saw after the destruction caused by Hurricane Irma. 

We have a duty to keep these stories of your resilience alive.
Thankfully, that does happen.
The archivist and historian Alfonso Blijden made it his life’s work to find those stories, scouring the archives for information about St Maarten.
In his classroom he brought those documents to life, so that St Maarten could learn the stories he discovered.
This led him to be asked to join UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program Committee for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Veronica Arrindell tells people – young and old – about all of St Maarten’s cultural heritage, including its history of slavery. 
In doing so, she helps preserve the ongoing connection with the history of this island and its inhabitants, native and non-native. 

The string band Tanny and the Boys kept St Maarten’s musical heritage alive, mixing traditional sounds with new musical influences.
These are prime examples of the rediscovery, preservation and proudful expression of your cultural heritage. 
It is crucial that we all take over the baton from them. 
Together. In solidarity.
And we can.
By exploring and sharing our common past, both here and in the Netherlands. 

I myself will tell the stories of Lokhay. Of Veronica Arrindell, Alfonso Blijden and Tanny and the Boys. 
Above all, I’ll tell people about you. 
The people I meet here, and the stories you share with me.
But that alone is not enough. 
For some years now, there has rightly been more focus on the role of the Netherlands in the history of slavery. 
Through newspapers, TV programmes and podcasts. 
Next year all kinds of activities will take place, commemorating the end of slavery and the role of Dutch government in slavery. 
To show that we in the Netherlands want to look more closely in the mirror of the past.

But it won’t stop there, either.  

We shall preserve the link to the past by making sure our education systems – both here and in the Netherlands – incorporate the subject of slavery and resistance in the curriculum.
We will also examine how we deal with the records that concern both Dutch and St Maarten’s history. 
We promise the public archives concerning St Maarten will be made accessible from here.
It is my hope that together we can uncover more and more stories, give them meaning, and keep retelling them. 
Both here in the fascinating melting pot of cultures that is St Maarten as well as in the Netherlands. 
So that the impact of these stories - of this history - remains palpable today. 

By sharing these stories we stand face to face with the horrendous acts of the past. 
By sharing these stories we can better understand each other.
By sharing these stories we continue to build our relationship. 

Ladies and gentlemen,
We share a painful past. Let us move together towards a brighter future. 

Thank you.