Revisiting Chains of Slavery: A Museum in Curacao Opens a Window on the Horrors of the African Slavery Trade and Reflects on Current Human Rights Abuses

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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. …