The Dutch colonial government of St. Eustatius in the Windward Islands was the first to acknowledge the independence of the American colonies, for which it paid with the destruction of its teeming wharves by an angry Admiral Rodney. Statia is now an obscure destination for all but its few residents and the giant oil tankers that refuel and unload cargo into the crater of an extinct volcano. Some of these ships are larger than any allowed into U.S. waters, municipalities unto themselves, behemoths trudging across the seas carrying one of the world’s most vital commodities to and from the former free port that sold people alongside bolts of cloth, sugar, weapons, and silver plate in the protected curve of its harbor.
The American Revolution was underwritten by sugar produced not so much in Statia, small as it was, but on plantations in other parts of the Caribbean. As molasses, sugar made its way to New England; Rhode Island was famous for its rum, which ships transported to West Africa, where they emptied their holds and filled them again with slaves. Meanwhile, Dutch merchants in Statia supplied arms to the rebels. For trading abroad, the Dutch used blue glass beads. Beads could be transformed into slaves, and if slaves themselves could somehow earn enough beads, they could buy their own bodies (set up like a board game played for the highest of stakes). It is said that when Emancipation came, they hurled thousands of beads from the cliffs. The currency that had defined them sank in the indigo swells. How could something as simple and intrinsically worthless as glass beads have come to determine human worth? Yet the beads did not go far; they wash back to these shores with the storms. Today, they circulate as a defining motif of the island—given as gifts, coveted as souvenirs. Few things ever really vanish into the economies that have followed slavery.