Emancipation Day Address

PHILIPSBURG - Emancipation Day Address of Minister of Education, Culture, Sports and Youth Affairs, Dr. Rhoda Arrindell at Extraordinary Plenary Session of Parliament, July 1, 2011.

 

Madam President,

His Excellency drs. Eugene Holiday,

Governor of St. Martin,

Acting Prime Minister, Honorable Theodore Heyliger

Honorable Members of Parliament,

Colleagues in the Council of Ministers,

Honorable Counselor representing the government in the North, Dr. Louis Jeffry

Distinguished Guests,

Residents of our beloved St. Martin,

Ladies and Gentlemen:

On a day like this, 28 years ago, the Newsday of Jose Lake Jr., ran a front page editorial with the title, "Never Again!" The edition was commemorating the 120th anniversary of the official declaration of Emancipation on St. Martin, the southern half or what many refer to as the "Dutch side". Since that date, at least, there has been a clamor for July 1st, Emancipation Day, to be declared a national public holiday. Little did I know then that Providence would grant me the honor and privilege of being in a position to make it happen.

From the moment I entered into government, priority number one for me was to make July 1st an official National Public Holiday. The process began in December 2010, less than two months after I took office. At the time, I signaled my intention to bring before Parliament a draft law that would make Emancipation Day, a national public holiday. The Council of Ministers approved the draft law more than two months ago. This draft law is making its way through the constitutionally mandated channels and I hope Parliament would be able to handle it when it returns from recess.

In the meantime, however, recognizing the importance of this day for all St. Martiners, the Council of Ministers decided to grant all government workers the day off. I must also thank you, Madam President, for honoring my request to convene this Extraordinary Plenary Session of Parliament to mark this historic date.

We have come a long way as a people, as a nation, in our eternal march towards freedom. But freedom is not free, as the saying goes, Madam President. Our enslaved ancestors knew that and never gave up the struggle to be free. At every opportunity, they took their freedom. Some of them escaped and formed thriving maroon societies far from the reach of those who had enslaved them. If we study the history of the maroons–and there were maroons in St. Martin also–we would better understand where our resilience and fighting spirit as a people came from.

Emancipation, Madam President, did not come about as a result of a change of heart by those who enslaved our ancestors: it is the victory of the indomitable human spirit over the inhumanities and injustices of Slavery. What we are celebrating today is therefore the hard fought freedom of our ancestors whose struggle gave testament to the saying that "men are enslaved by force but remain slaves by choice."

This is a powerful statement that should make all of us reflect on the constitutional path we have chosen. In two referenda six years apart, the people of St. Martin chose to remain within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It is a choice we need to revisit; it is a choice our leaders led us into. What will history say about our choice? What will our own children say about it? Would they be able to celebrate that choice as a victory? Victory over what? Victory over who?

Slavery was an evil system of mad exploitation and dehumanizing oppression. It stigmatized both the oppressed and the oppressor. The effects of Slavery are still very much with us today. Its psychological impact still lingers on. It is like a deeply infected wound which we think is cured by bandaging it. The smell it oozes out alone is toxic. The only way for it to heal would be to cleanse the wound, sanitize it, disinfect it, and apply an ointment that may burn us, before drying it up. What we have been doing thus far, is seeking short-cuts to real and enduring freedom. There is no short cut to freedom, Madam President. There is no measure for it either. You cannot be half-free, somewhat free, or almost free: you are either free or not. And freedom, in my humble view, is the condition sine qua non for progress.

No one understood this better than Frederick Douglas, who said: "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle." Or as Peter Tosh would have said, "Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die."

Madam President, may I emphasize here that for us on St. Martin, that struggle is not yet over. Our freedom is still a work in progress. We need a Redemption Song: Bob Marley's Redemption Song, so that, as he so beautifully sings, we can "emancipate ourselves from mental slavery" because "none but ourselves can free our minds."

That emancipation from mental slavery must start in our schools. May I announce here before Parliament, Madam President, that one of my goals as Minister of Education, Culture, Sports and Youth Affairs, is to embark on a comprehensive revision of our school curricula so that our children would no longer be taught that Columbus "discovered" St. Martin when in fact he didn't even put foot on the island.

We must not continue to tell our children we are from "the Dutch side" or "French side," but from St. Martin. Period! And if we want to be more specific, why not from Reward, Colebay, or Marigot, Grand Case? If we look carefully, we would see that St. Martin is lost when we say "Dutch side" or "French side."

Our media must join in this struggle to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery by, for example, telling the truth about July 1st, 1863: our ancestors had actually won their freedom since 1848 at the very least, when the French abolished Slavery on all their territories, including the North of our island.

I note with disappointment, and wish I could say surprise, at the fact that when I picked up the two daily papers this morning, there were no supplements on Emancipation Day, like I've seen on events such as the Heineken Regatta and Halloween.

As we celebrate Emancipation Day today, we must remember the sacrifice of our ancestors by virtue of which we can walk around today without shackles. Let us, therefore, also resolve NEVER to lower our guards. Freedom that we fail to claim, freedom that we fail to defend and protect, is freedom lost. Let us pledge to work towards that freedom which is the destiny of all peoples and all nations: political freedom.

If, as Lasana Sekou says, the Great Salt Pond is the cradle of our nation, that nation remains in gestation, and it can only be born when our own flag can fly high in the St. Martin blue sky, without being subordinate to any other flag, as the late Dr. Claude Wathey said at the hoisting of the St. Martin flag.

And speaking of flags, Madam President, it is my intention to propose that Flag Day be merged with Emancipation Day since both are symbols of who we are.

And who are we really, Madam President? All it takes for us to find the answer to that question is to flip through the pages of our history and culture.

We are the salt of the earth, not just because we have numerous salt ponds that made the first owners of this land to call it Soualiga, land of salt, but also because in many ways, we are unique. We are so unique that we often ignore to name Francis August Perrinon among our heroes in spite of the fact that this famous abolitionist, son of a freed enslaved African woman, and a major shareholder in salt ponds on both halves of the island, was the first to introduce equal pay for equal work for all his workers regardless of their color, creed, status, class, or place of origin.

We are so unique that the Ponum, our national dance, the dance of freedom, speaks of how "massa" had tried to hide the news of the Proclamation of Emancipation from our enslaved ancestors, who, like the Diamond 26, had, however, been fleeing into freedom in the North, 15 years before Governor Crol issued his proclamation, all the way in Curacao.

Madam President, the seeds of who we are today can be found buried in our salt ponds and in our plantations; in our folk songs and wise sayings; in our cuisine and in our poems and paintings; in our labor and in our fete. We need to water those seeds so they could germinate into strong trees, like the flamboyant–the July or Emancipation tree.

And when I say "we," I mean all St. Martiners: in the North and in the South; in the East and the West; at home and abroad; born here or born elsewhere. Emancipation Day is not for any one particular group of people: it is for all freedom lovers because none of us can truly be free until all of us are free.

Happy Emancipation Day!

God bless St. Martin!

I thank you.

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