Slavery has been described as a crime against humanity, however, this is one crime for which the criminals have not only been allowed to go scot free, but in fact, were compensated for their crime! And since their children and grandchildren are still in control of the world's resources, they are in a position to water down the heinous crime their forebears committed to the point where today, in St. Martin, as we are poised to pass this unprecedented legislation, there are some of the descendants of the slavers who try to equate Slavery with prostitution or human trafficking, and strive hard to erase or even re-write history by telling us that the "plantations are dead" and so are the slaves. In other words, what are we making so much noise about?
The same persons who have editorial control of certain newspapers on our island, have insinuated that Slavery did not exist. Could they dare make similar insinuations in their own country about the Holocaust and not end up in jail? Could they write in newspapers that the Holocaust belongs to the past, and that its victims are dead? Certainly not, because it is a crime punishable by imprisonment to make such statements publicly where they come from. What audacity then for them to deride our collective experience in such a manner, right in our face, and in our own newspapers? Prostitution and human trafficking are no doubt awful, and those found breaking the law related to these must be made to face the music squarely.
But to compare that to Slavery is to compare a pussy cat with a lion because they both belong to the cat family! Such comparisons are simply odious and are intended to pull the veil over our eyes again, dismissing that part of our history as insignificant. It is a revisionist tendency, prompted perhaps by a feeling of inherited guilt, but it is no less racist than those who see Africa as the "heart of darkness".
What was Slavery like? Suffice it to recall the words of one of the early 16th Century Spanish colonists, historian Bartolome de las Casas, who gave an eye-witness account in his many writings. Speaking of the atrocities perpetrated against the enslaved Amerindian population, whom he referred to as Indians, which led him to recommend the importation of African slaves, De las Casas wrote: "I saw here cruelty on a scale no living being has ever seen or expects to see."
He continued: "With my own eyes I saw Spaniards cut off the nose and ears of Indians, male and female, without provocation, merely because it pleased them to do it. ...Likewise, I saw how they summoned the caciques and the chief rulers to come, assuring them safety, and when they peacefully came, they were taken captive and burned."
"They laid bets as to who, with one stroke of the sword, could split a man in two or could cut off his head or spill out his entrails with a single stroke of the pike.
"They took infants from their mothers' breasts, snatching them by the legs and pitching them headfirst against the crags or snatched them by the arms and threw them into the rivers, roaring with laughter and saying as the babies fell into the water, "Boil there, you offspring of the devil!"
No wonder he prophesied that future generations would find this depraved inhumanity hard to believe. Indeed, who among us today, can imagine what our enslaved ancestors went through for over two and a half centuries?
"The Spaniards have shown not the slightest consideration for these people," De las Casas wrote, "treating them (and I speak from first-hand experience, having been there from the outset) not as brute animals - indeed, I would to God they had done and had shown them the consideration they afford their animals - so much as piles of dung in the middle of the road."
And if you think Bartolome de las Casas was only describing the enslavement of the Amerindians, think again. In his own words, this is what he said concerning his recommendation to import African slaves: "I soon repented and judged myself guilty of ignorance. I came to realize that black slavery was as unjust as Indian slavery."
What the Spaniards did, the other slaving nations did as well, some in fact, with more viciousness, to the extent that living was harsher than death for the enslaved. It is no wonder then that for some of them, death was the only "emancipation" they could hope for.
Suicide was a common path to freedom but so was running away, at the risk of one's life, while the luckier ones could actually choose to purchase their freedom. For this latter group, freedom was not cheap at all. There are records that indicate that some of them in Southern USA had to pay US$1,200 and more to their owners to be set free. Consider that even after Emancipation, the wages that those who found work could look forward to were sometimes no more than US$10 per month! That meant they would have had to work for 10 years or more to be able to purchase their freedom!
Freedom certainly was not free. And what was worse, freedom did not necessarily mean a bed of roses. Although the enslaved yearned for freedom and did everything to obtain it, Emancipation was not an instant cure for all their suffering.
Naturally, the news of Emancipation brought untold joy to the hearts of the enslaved. This is how one of them recalls it in an interview:
"At last my son and myself were free. Free, free! what a glorious ring to the word. Free! the bitter heart-struggle was over. Free! the soul could go out to heaven and to God with no chains to clog its flight or pull it down. Free! the earth wore a brighter look, and the very stars seemed to sing with joy. Yes, free! free by the laws of man and the smile of God."
But this celebration was quickly tempered by the sobriety of the true meaning of Emancipation for the enslaved.
"They had abundance of dat somethin' called freedom, what they could not eat, wear, and sleep in. Yes, sir, they soon found out dat freedom ain't nothin', 'less you is got somethin' to live on and a place to call home. Dis livin' on liberty is lak young folks livin' on love after they gits married. It just don't work. No, sir, it las' so long and not a bit longer," Ezra Adams, one of the enslaved in South Carolina, who became free upon Emancipation Proclamation said in an interview around 1937.
The stark reality facing the recently emancipated man or woman was that freedom did not mean much after centuries of Slavery. Surviving freedom was a task of gargantuan proportions. What to do for a living? Where to go? Where to call home? How do you shed the psychological baggage of dependency created by Slavery with one proclamation? These are questions many of our freed ancestors now faced. Freedom did not bring equality, either.
"The Master he says we are all free, but it don't mean we is white. And it don't mean we is equal. Just equal for to work and earn our own living and not depend on him for no more meats and clothes," said George King, who was enslaved in South Carolina during an interview in Oklahoma.
Most of these sentiments would be valid for the rest of the region, including St. Martin, where the institution of Slavery thrived for so long. Although President Abraham Lincoln had abolished Slavery in all US territory in 1863, the same year the Dutch did so in their territories, it was not until 1865 that Emancipation became a reality in the US. And whereas the slave-owners in the US informed their slaves about Emancipation, in St Martin in particular, they hid the news from them as we can see in the lyrics of the Ponum Dance.
Before Emancipation, our enslaved ancestors were not considered human beings. They were property to be bought and sold at the whim of the owner; with no legal, civil, nor human rights. We had no identity of our own. Emancipation, therefore, represents the birth of our identity. Only then did we become official residents of this New World which our blood, sweat and tears built. We had been stripped of our African identities; our mother tongues had been ripped out and replaced with foreign tongues which we never felt comfortable with, and only learnt to dominate with varying degrees of proficiency through time. Language, as one of the most important elements of culture, remains for us until today, an unfinished agenda we are still grappling with in our education system and in our daily expressions.
From all historical records, July 1st, 1863 was an official holiday on St. Martin. There was no need to maintain a sustained campaign to make it so. The celebrations continued for a week. But there was no attempt to make it a national holiday until more contemporary times. This requires legislation.
We have reached this point today, thanks to the initiative and efforts of the people of our beloved St. Martin, particularly cultural workers who have been sensitizing the population to the need to make July 1st a public holiday – not just another holiday – but a day set aside for reflection, celebration and rededication to the cause of freedom; a day to commemorate the resounding victory of our ancestors over an institution that exploited, oppressed, dehumanized, degraded, and even demonized them for centuries.
The call for July 1, Emancipation Day, to become a national public holiday on St. Martin did not begin with Rhoda; it did not start in the 90s as some members of parliament suggested during the recent Central Committee hearing of this proposed legislation. We can trace the genesis of this call, in contemporary times, to what I would rather describe as the Newsday group – activists associated with the influential newspaper published by Jose Lake Jr. through the 80s and part of the 90s.
A precursor of this group would be our beloved Mr. Camile Baly, whose efforts brought the celebration of "Zwarte Piet" to a grinding stop on St. Martin in the second half of the 70s. He is among the men and women who I admired while growing up because of their unrelenting campaign to promote the St. Martin people and our culture.
Residents of our beloved island, it should go without saying that celebrating "Zwarte Piet" goes against the spirit of Emancipation. Precisely, this is where the lyrics of legendary Bob Marley, in his immortal "Redemption Song" become axiomatic: "Emancipate yourself from mental slavery/None but ourselves can free our minds..." Freeing ourselves from mental slavery requires that we discontinue so-called traditional practices that continue to demean and portray us as inferior beings; it involves recognizing July 1st as a national public holiday. It is in this context that I consider Mr. Camile Baly as a precursor of the cries of our people for true emancipation. I would therefore want to honor his legacy here today by naming him one of the grandfathers of this bill before you that would make Emancipation Day, July 1st, a national public holiday.
I mentioned the "Newsday Group" of the early 80s. People of our beloved St. Martin, let the records show that it was on the pages of Newsday of Friday, July 1, 1983, in commemoration of the 120th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, that the most modern call to make July 1st a public holiday crystallized. Jose Lake Jr., Daniela Jeffry, Oswald Francis, Leo Friday, Richard Gibson, Fabian Badejo and Lasana Sekou were at the forefront of the cultural manifestation held at the WIFOL Building to draw attention to this important date on our calendar.
The editorial of that edition of Newsday made a clear case for July 1 to become a national public holiday. The following year, the newspaper repeated this call in its editorial of Friday, June 29, 1984, titled, "Make July 1st a holiday". It is worth recalling here today some of the sentiments that editorial expressed. It said, "Certain dates are of such historic importance that they should be set aside for celebration. July 1st is one of such dates." It later continued: "We already celebrate all kinds of days as holidays, most of them of little significance or relevance to us. If we continue to pass up July 1st, we shall be engaging in a self-deluding, self-destructive exercise. Nothing can be more sadistic."
The editorial then added: "We, therefore, strongly appeal to our representative in Parliament to present a bill proposing July 1st as a national holiday. Should such a draft bill be defeated, the people would at least know who is representing their interests. However, the failure of such a bill in Parliament should not make our elected representatives shrug their shoulders and fold their arms. The issue is of too great a significance to be treated nonchalantly."
"Newsday believes that the Island Council of St. Maarten should then use its power and make July 1st a local holiday on the island. Anything short of this will be gross insensitivity to the lessons of history," the editorial concluded.
That editorial still rings very true today, almost 20 years later! It is clear from the foregoing who was behind the movement to make July 1st a national public holiday on St. Martin. Newsday's suggestion that our representatives in the then Antillean Parliament present a draft ordinance to legislate this was not taken up neither by St. Martin's sole representative in that parliament at the time, nor by our subsequent representatives. No draft national ordinance was ever presented before the Antillean Parliament, which had the authority to establish national holidays. There may, indeed, have been discussions among the coalition partners in that Antillean parliament then, however, these never translated into any draft bill.
The alternative suggested by Newsday in the editorial from which I have just quoted copiously – for the Island Council to make July 1st a local holiday – was not taken up either, neither then, or thereafter. Newsday's idea, I am sure, is similar to what we had when the Executive Council could have granted the day after an election a holiday; or today when the Prime Minister or Council of Ministers could declare any day a holiday for government workers. It never happened with July 1st.
It is, therefore, interesting to note that some members of parliament and others today see it fit to want to take some credit for this legislation. Success, indeed, has many fathers. I cannot deny them that honor. But theirs was an effort that came about because of the work of the Newsday Group, and other cultural and labor organizations that lent their support to the call, more than a decade before some of the new "fathers" of this movement ever thought of Emancipation Day.
I must make particular mention of the support of labor unions for this legislation. From the 1980s, the WIFOL, under the leadership of former Commissioner Rene Richardson, had been an active supporter of the call to make Emancipation Day a public holiday. I already mentioned that the first cultural manifestation in support of this call was held at the WIFOL building, I understand at no cost to the organizers. Subsequently, the labor union has maintained that stand in a very consistent and proactive manner. The teachers union, WITU, under Mrs. Claire Elschot, has also been in favor of the call, even going as far as to suggest that the school calendar be modified so that school could still be in session when Emancipation Day is celebrated to allow students to actively participate in the celebrations.
People of our beloved island, you will recall that in my very first appearance before Parliament, during the budget debate in December 2010, I signaled my intention to work on this legislation. It has taken this long for it to reach the floor of Parliament due in part to the fact that certain institutions such as the Socio-economic Council (SER) had not yet been established when the process began. I need to thank everybody who has worked on this legislation, from the staff of my ministry, including Head of Culture Department, Neville York, to the legal consultant who drafted the legislation, attorney Bert Hoffman, and to all the rest of the civil servants through whose hands the legislation had to pass before it could get here.
I also want to thank my colleagues in the outgoing Council of Ministers, whose unreserved support helped push this law through the legislative process. Of course, I want to express special gratitude to our Governor, His Excellency, drs. Eugene Holiday, who has been quietly but consistently showing interest in the progress of this draft bill and who has also done all within his powers to ensure that there would be no delay to its passage.
Similarly, I want to thank organizations such as Culture Time, Conscious Lyrics, House of Nehesi Publishers, Newsday and its successor, The St. Martin Republic, the now dormant SMECO, WIFOL, WICLU, Clara Reyes, the late Ian Valz, artist Ruby Bute, Roland Richardson who, through his paintings, popularized and brought cultural focus on the flamboyant tree, or July Tree, and o many other cultural workers and NGOs on both halves of the island, for keeping this proposition alive in the consciousness of the people.
It would be remiss of me not to thank institutions such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Socio-Economic Council and the Advisory Council, which had to peruse the draft legislation and offer their valuable comments and advice. Above all, I want to thank the entire population of St. Martin that has relentlessly stood firm in its demand to make July 1st, Emancipation Day, a public holiday. This day is for you!
People of St. Martin, Emancipation Day is the foundation upon which to build our national identity. And need I remind us all that we cannot speak of nation building if we ignore establishing a true national identity. That identity must be grounded in our history and culture. Speaking of what we are celebrating with Emancipation Day, Fabian Badejo, who I've had the honor to have work on my team as my Senior Policy Advisor, in an extensive front-page article in the Newsday of June 29, 1984, on the occasion of the 121st anniversary of Emancipation, wrote: "It is the valor, the patriotism, the exemplary sacrifice which those who paid the ultimate price so that we could be free; it is their courage we salute; it is the positive message of their love of freedom which we stop to ponder. We shall be guilty of ingratitude, nay, of demeaning the courage of our forefathers, of deprecating their contribution to creating a freer world, should we turn our backs on a day like Emancipation Day."
Indeed, we would be turning our back on our history should we fail to make July 1st, Emancipation Day, a national public holiday. In fact, each and every member of parliament is called to make history by approving this legislation, which would make St. Martin the first territory in the entire Kingdom of the Netherlands to officially recognize Emancipation Day as a national public holiday. It is not only the right thing to do, it is the best way we can honor the victory of our ancestors over the most inhuman system man ever created, especially on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.
And may I stress here that July 1st, Emancipation Day, is for every resident of our beloved island, no matter where you came from, no matter what your religious, or political affiliations may be, and regardless of your ethnic background. Freedom has no color nor creed. It knows no gender nor nationality. It has no age nor race; it respects no boundaries nor ideologies.
Mahatma Gandhi did not fight for the Indians alone when he took on the British; his struggle inspired the whole world and brought change not only to India, but to the entire globe. One of the people he inspired was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. whose struggle was not solely for African-Americans, but also for whites and all other races, for Jews and Gentiles! Nelson Mandela did not only fight for Black South Africans, he waged a lifelong struggle against apartheid to free South Africans of all races of that terrible blight on civilization.
Throughout history, mankind has had to face only one choice: freedom. The cry for freedom ricochets on every tree-top, on every hill, in every corner of the world where people are subjugated for whatever reason. And no matter where it has been suppressed, or how or by whom, freedom always triumphs over bondage, because, like the human spirit, freedom cannot be caged.
This is the reason why Emancipation Day is for everybody on St. Martin. I would expect all the different groups on the island – the Indian community; the Chinese community; the Haitian and Dominicano communities, all the immigrant and non-immigrant groups - to find meaningful ways to celebrate this unique holiday with the rest of us.
Residents of our beloved island, before I conclude, permit me to address some of the concerns expressed by some members of parliament during the recent Central Committee meeting on the draft legislation.
I can answer affirmatively to the question whether funds have been allocated to the celebration of Emancipation Day that indeed, NaFls. 75,000 have been reserved in the 2012 budget for this purpose. Not only that, in anticipation of the approval of this bill, we had already begun preparations for the celebration. The budgeted amount might sound paltry but given the financial constraints of government, and considering that next year would be the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, we thought to at least begin with a modest amount which in no way would have lessened the magnitude of the day we are celebrating.
With regards to including this in the school curriculum, may I inform the entire population that this is already the case and that part of our history is included in the history curriculum, especially at the secondary school level as part of the CXC examinations. Nevertheless, I concur that we need to learn more about Francois Auguste Perrinon, for example, the son of a freed slave mother. He became a major investor in the salt industry on the island, an abolitionist who hired Black slaves, freed people, and white workers and paid them the same wages. He was, therefore, able to demonstrate that the slaves, once freed, would not be a burden on society as those who opposed abolition argued. He was perhaps St. Martin's most famous abolitionist. Francois Auguste Perrinon is buried in the Marigot cemetery. Certainly, we need to learn more about him.
Similarly, we need to focus more on ancestors such as the Diamond Estate 26, whose "Run for Freedom," has been re-enacted under the auspices of House of Nehesi, Conscious Lyrics Foundation and the Imbali dancers of choreographer Clara Reyes. We need to critically review the lessons we are taught by one of the island's best known maroons, One Tete Lokhay, who had one of her breasts cut off as punishment for her constant escapes and recapture by her owner, and decide whether as Claudette Forsythe-Labega once argued, we must continue to identify her with that degrading epithet of "One Tete" – an affront on her femininity and hence on all women of this island, some of our Amerindian ancestors called Qualichi or "Land of Women" - or simply refer to her as Lokhay.
In short, people of our beloved St. Martin, what I am proposing is a critical review of our history for the real truth about us to emerge. If, indeed, history belongs to the victors, we must claim the victory of Emancipation on behalf of our ancestors, and ensure that that history is not bastardized, nor doctored to fit anyone's particular agenda, especially the agenda of those who were responsible for the ignominious acts of Slavery in the first place.
Furthermore, the awareness campaign which members of parliament mentioned as necessary in sensitizing our population has been ongoing at least for more than a generation. Does it need to continue? Of course, yes. Can it be intensified? Most certainly so. How? This is, in my humble view, not a task for government alone. Every sector of our community must chip in: the educational sector, the media in particular, the cultural organizations, labor unions, churches, and yes, even the business sector, must be part and parcel of this sensitization process.
Government, of course, still has an important role to play and in this respect, People of St. Martin, I would like to call on Parliament to put its money where its mouth is by allocating adequate funds not only to the official celebration of the day, but also to the public awareness campaign that would make every resident of our beloved island realize the significance of Emancipation Day, and thus make July 1st, not just another holiday, commercialized to the point of losing sight of the reason we celebrate it, but a day we can all be proud of.
Residents of our beloved island, may I seize this opportunity to express my personal gratitude to you for your unflinching support from the very beginning. It has been a long and winding road to get here, but the journey was more than worth it. I will end by stating that I could not agree with MP Louie Laveist more when he said during the Central Committee reading of this draft bill that true emancipation would be impossible without independence, although, he immediately clarified that he was not calling for independence. He need not to!
There has been, whether we like it or not, a growing segment of our society that has been calling for political independence. The independence for St. Martin movement campaigned actively in the two constitutional referenda we had in 1994 and in 2000. Support for the movement went from a mere 4% in 1994 to almost 15% in 2000. All independent surveys since then indicate that this support has been on the increase, with the most recent survey showing that the movement has gained up to 30% support of the electorate.
The signing of the Slotverklaring in 2006, which paved the way for the current constitutional status of St. Martin, saw the issue of political independence taken off the table for the time being, at least, in terms of public debates. But, it is a debate we must have. It was Dr. Kwame Nkrumah who famously said: "seek ye first the political kingdom and all the others would be added unto thee." He was referring to political independence for his country, Ghana, at the time a British colony. There is no way Emancipation would be complete without political independence. How we get to that point is a matter for the entire population to discuss. Our political leaders and members of parliament have a significant role to play in that process.
There are several other issues related to Emancipation, which we cannot shy away from. They include the voices clamoring for a state apology and for reparations. These voices, as I said before, will not be silenced until the scars of Slavery eventually heal. Slavery, with a capital "S", has no comparison in the annals of human history. We should not trivialize it by comparing it to so-called "modern day slavery." Nobody in their right minds would compare the atrocities that many authoritarian and even so-called democratic states have committed and still commit today in the name of "national security" to the Holocaust. I must admit, however, that Slavery with a capital "S", is a festering wound that will not heal until we really clean it up, sanitize it, and apply a healing balsam that would make the ugly scars it has left less frightening. I would like to believe that we would be embarking on that healing process with the passage of the Emancipation Day legislation.
July 1st is only a few weeks away. You, the people of our beloved St. Martin have waited for this day to become a national holiday for decades. It would be unfair, unjust, and unwarranted to make you wait another year for your desire to be fulfilled. It is, therefore, my fervent hope that Parliament will pass this legislation with acclamation so that this July 1st, St. Martiners and all the residents of our beloved island, would be able to celebrate Emancipation Day as a national public holiday. I am convinced that Parliament can make it happen.
Thank you, St. Martin, for allowing me to be one of the catalysts at the vanguard of this process. Emancipation Day is for all of us. May we find strength in the courage of our ancestors and in the foundation they laid to continue to build this nation, block by block, day by day, together.
I thank you.