Most businesspeople opening a luxury hotel do their best to create a fantasy world of the beautiful and pleasant. But when Dutch businessman Jacob Gelt Dekker opened the Kura Hulanda hotel in 1999 alongside Curacao's harbor in the historic capital of Willemstad, he included a chamber of horrors: Rusted shackles hang from the walls. Colonial--and postcolonial-era prints show African men, women, and children being whipped, hung, and tossed into the sea to drown. A visitor imagines he can hear wails from the very walls and earth.
That's because, while digging the swimming pool for the hotel, located in an historic but then run-down neighborhood, workers discovered that the site had been a landing place and depot used by slave traders for their human merchandise. From the early 1600s to the late 1700s, Curacao served as a transshipment port where enslaved Africans were landed, restored to health from the horrific Middle Passage, and then shipped on to the plantation economies of the Caribbean and North and South America.
Dekker, a Dutchman who had made a fortune through chains of one-hour photo shops, car rental agencies, and auto repair shops, had traveled widely in Africa and felt an affinity for African peoples and cultures, says Leo Helms, the museum's director. "It was a simple decision," to create the museum, he says. Dekker, now semi-retired, has homes in Curacao, the United States, and Holland.
The result, is a modest but wideranging museum near the entrance to the hotel complex, above the spot where slave ships once docked and cruise ships do now. While slavery provides the central theme, the museum also includes displays about the evolution of man and the rise of civilization, with emphasis on Africa's fundamental role in both processes. It also contains exhibits on African art, a section about the history of writing, and displays about slavery's long shadow, including racism and poverty. The museum's centerpiece, dominating the courtyard, is a large bronze sculpture of a woman's head formed in the shape of the African continent.
While the hotel museum may be unique in focusing on such a horrific theme, it also stands out in Curacao's mellow, sun-soaked capital of nightclubs, sidewalk cafes, and souvenir shops. A visitor can walk about Willemstad for days without encountering another reminder that the island was once a mart where Europeans grew wealthy from the suffering, exploitation, and death of kidnapped Africans. About 100,000 slaves passed through Curacao between 1634 and 1790, according to Han Jordaan, a Dutch researcher in Holland who has examined historical records for his own project about the colonial Dutch and the Atlantic trade.
"The Curacao slave trade reached its heyday during the last quarter of the seventeenth century, when the Dutch were directly involved in the so-called asiento trade, which regulated the import of slaves in the Spanish colonies," says Jordaan. "The Dutch slave trade was abolished in 1814, but the last slave ship reached Curacao decades career."
The Kura Hulanda Museum shows that slavery was more than a black and white issue. In the Western world, slavery has become almost synonymous with the ownership of black people by whites. But, according to museum texts, this was actually a relatively recent phenomenon. Before the Greeks, Europeans enslaved other Europeans, and the word slave itself comes from the Slavic peoples who were for centuries enslaved in Europe. During the sixteenth and seventeenth century wars between Muslim and Christian kingdoms, according to museum exhibits, some 600,000 Europeans were captured by North Africans and sold in the slave markets of Libya, Tunisia, Algiers, and Morocco. But African slavery, which continued long after constitutions and philosophers had sanctified "The Rights of Man," has come to represent the institution's horrors.
Mercedes del Castillo Van Egtten, a Venezuelan tourist visiting the museum with her Dutch husband, Simon, was contemplating a stark painting of a black man burdened with a heavy iron collar with long hooks extending from it, used to punish slaves and to prevent escape.
"It's as if they thought of ways to make them suffer more," she says. "I can't believe how human beings can be so cruel."
Other paintings show sailors hurling Africans overboard to sharks. There are also period artifacts like branding irons used to mark slaves. And the museum even has a collection of bear traps. Helms says slave hunters set these near African villages. When a person got trapped, his or her cries attracted others, all of whom were kidnapped en masse, he says.
Museum visitors' most dramatic moment is likely to be their descent into the hold of a slave ship, complete with manacles on lengths of chain and slave decks too close together for captives to even sit upright. A reproduction the size of a walk-in closet, the slave hold is clean and air-conditioned, but one still can sense the panic, asphyxiation, and helplessness Africans would have felt when crowded into a dirty, sweltering ship on a forced migration to an unknown fate.
In chilling contrast to those horrors is a painting hung in a hall nearby showing the Dutch West Indies Company's handsome headquarters, with dignified-looking gentlemen strolling back and forth, seemingly unconcerned about (or unaware of) the death and suffering that built their fortunes.
Other museum exhibits portray slavery's aftermath, including racial segregation and the civil rights struggle in the United States through inspiring displays of Martin Luther King, dr.'s speeches and African-American newspapers, as well as chilling ones of Ku Klux Klan propaganda. A section about African cultures contains original artworks ranging from crowed wooden face masks and elaborate anthropomorphic drums. A bronze "queen mother" from Cameroon almost seems to dance to the rhythms from the drums down the hall. A warrior's head from Benin looks stoically across the room. A large display documents the fascinating culture of the Dogon people of Mall, legendary because their traditions and cosmology seem to anticipate recent discoveries about outer space. A young white man appears in several of the photographs from Africa--Jacob Gelt Dekker during his youthful travels.
Ethnic persecution is also a personal issue for Dekker, whose father lost his first wife and children in the Holocaust and only survived the war himself thanks to the protection of a Dutch family. To show another dimension of persecution, the Kura Hulanda Museum also includes displays about Anne Frank, the Jewish Dutch girl who hid with her family from the Nazis and perished in a concentration camp just weeks before it was liberated in April 1945.
However, not all Curacaoans, who are overwhelmingly of African descent, with small populations of whites, East Indians, Chinese, and Arabs, give the museum rave reviews. On a recent weekend all of the museum's visitors were tourists, and while schoolchildren receive hall-price admission, the entrance fee of US$6 (ten guilders) is steep for many locals.
Corin, who with her mother, Salome, runs a small grocery store in one of the capital's working-class neighborhoods, wonders why the African experience has not been incorporated into Curacao's schools.
"In school we learn how great Holland is, how great Christopher Columbus was," she says, declining to give her last name. "Now a Dutchman comes to our island and makes a museum about the African experience."
An education ministry official says that today the schools teach much more about slavery than they did ten or twenty years ago, when Corin studied.
If the museum has one weakness it is its lack of material about Curacao itself, despite the island's prominent role in the slave trade. Australian adventurer William Dampier, who visited Curacao near the end of the seventeenth century, wrote that ships from Cartagena, Colombia, and Porto Bello, Panama "did use to buy of the Dutch 1,000 or 1,500 Negroes at once."
Yet, about the only Curacao-related doctin, eats concern the island's emancipation, which took place in 1863. A proclamation Dora the colony's governor to the newly freed slaves praises them for their "orderly behavior and obedience" as slaves and calls on them to "perform your duty ... working regularly for fair wages."
Museum director Helms says the lack of Curacao material is partly because many black Curacaoans feel shame about the fact that some slaves cooperated with the slave owners by overseeing newly arrived Africans. As a result, he says, while he has obtained much slavery-related material from Africa, he has found few original items from Curacao. He has collected enough objects so that he plans to create a room about Curacao.
On the island "most children think they are originally from Curacao," says Helms. "They know where Amsterdam is, but not Africa."
The long-ago Dutch governor who urged the newly freed slaves to continue toiling humbly likely could not have conceived of the day when the government of Curacao would be dominated by people of African descent--although not necessarily descendants of enslaved Curacaoans. In recent years Curacao, with income levels far higher than other Caribbean nations, has attracted immigrants from Colombia, Jamaica, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic.
But if slavery is a distant specter in Curacao today, it is not so in many other parts of the world. In such times, the Kura Hulanda Museum provides a valuable reminder of how far we have come, but should not provide an excuse for thinking we've come far enough.
Mike Ceaser is a previous contributor to Americas. He lives in Bogota, Colombia.…