Curacao's Dark Past Shapes a Bright Future

Article excerpt

The tiny Dutch island of Curacao (pronounced cure-a-SOW) is a curious blend of architectural styles and cultures. The people range from European sophisticates to traditional medicine women. The market stalls in the streets of Willemstad, the island's picturesque capital, are filled with the catch of fishermen who cross the 35- mile stretch of open water from Venezuela.

While the Spanish were the first to lay claim to Curacao in 1499, by the mid-1600s, it had become a strategic Dutch colony. Apart from a couple of brief British occupations in 1803 and 1807-1816, it has remained an autonomous part of the Netherlands ever since, with a busy harbor that was once one of the largest slave-trading depots in the Caribbean.

Hundreds of thousands of slaves, bound for Europe and North America, were processed here. Of those who survived the harrowing journey from Africa, many died within days of arrival. It is a heritage most in Curacao have chosen to ignore.

Yet the "black holocaust" is an essential part of Curacao's history, insists Jacob Gelt Dekker, who has determined to do something about it.

On the island, Mr. Dekker and his long-time business partner, John Padget, are legends. First for their lucrative business enterprises (one was a large chain of one-hour photo shops that was sold to Kodak); then for their wanderlust (Dekker has circumnavigated the world 50 times); and finally for their philanthropic endeavors, the largest of which is Kura Hulanda, in the back streets of Willemstad.

Here, Dekker has invested $50 million and turned a crumbling neighborhood into a heritage complex. Dutch colonial houses and slave cottages have been restored and transformed into guest accommodations, restaurants, and a museum with the largest collection of African artifacts in the Caribbean.

The museum even has a re-created full-size ship's hold that demonstrates the appalling conditions under which slaves were shipped. Kura Hulanda also houses the Institute for Advanced Cultural Studies, which, by partnering with several universities and organizations around the world, serves as a prominent research center for African studies and the African Diaspora.

"I'm very aware the African population [in Curacao] doesn't like to be confronted with a museum exhibiting parts of this holocaust," says Dekker. "After all, it is less than 50 years ago that racial segregation was abolished in the southern United States, and it wasn't until apartheid was brought to an end in South Africa that we all started coming to terms with the past."

For Dekker, Kura Hulanda is more than a legacy; it is a reflection of both his life's passion and philosophy. …