Saba participates in event to reflect on role of Dutch State in slavery history

Members of the Saba community gathered at the Queen Wilhelmina Library on Monday morning,
December 19 to witness the historic speech of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte via livestream in which
he offered apologies on behalf of the Dutch State for its role in slavery.
After Rutte’s speech, Dutch State Secretary of Public Health, Wellbeing and Sport Maarten van Ooijen
and Saba Island Governor Jonathan Johnson addressed the audience at the library and those watching
the event online.
Van Ooijen spoke of the atrocities that enslaved people endured. “They had everything taken from
them; their freedom, their possessions, their dignity. They were stripped of everything that made them
human, even their names. Without a name you don’t exist in historiography, and you won’t formally be
remembered. This symbolises the way the suffering of enslaved people has been neglected for so long.
And it symbolises the pain felt by the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of enslaved
people, who have been denied their family history.”
Today’s descendants of enslaved people are physically free, but they may still find themselves chained
by questions, said Van Ooijen. “Questions about inequality. Questions about why some people are
allowed more opportunities than others. These are questions for all of us. This is about how we live with
each other. It’s about biases, about acknowledging that racism and discrimination still exist in our
societies, and about the way that people are still confronted with those biases.”
Education, not only in schools, plays an essential role in the process, said the State Secretary. Every
Dutch person should know more about the slavery history, through commemorative centres,
exhibitions, research. “I hope that together we can work towards a future marked by acknowledgement
and understanding of each other’s backgrounds. Towards a Netherlands where no one suffers
discrimination because of the colour of their skin or their descendance. And where we come together
every year at a monument on Saba that bears the names of all 734 enslaved people freed in 1863.”
Island Governor Johnson referred to the narrative that slavery “wasn’t too bad” on Saba. “We are not
sure where this belief originated, but we know that it is the most pervasive myth regarding slavery on
the island and one that still remains. How diminishing it must be as descendants of enslaved people to
hear that your ancestors, after enduring one of humanities greatest crimes, to have their traumatic
experience as not that bad.”
The tarnished past has left many in the Saba community with questions, and in order to move forward
as a people, it is important to “reckon and wrestle” with the challenging issues, said Johnson. One of

December 19, 2022

Note for the Editor: for more information contact Communication Officer Suzanne Koelega
these challenges is the struggle of racial inequality. “It is with pain that we must acknowledge that the
descendants of enslaved persons have not always felt they were treated justly. While we have made
steps to address this as a community, there is still more work to be done to make the healing complete.”
Emancipation Day
Johnson acknowledged that government also has a role in creating opportunities and that people feel
they have equal access to these opportunities. He said the recommendations in Saba’s position paper
for the “Chains of the Past” report, namely education, academic research, genealogical research,
diversity training, an apology and reparative justice, were reasonable demands which he believed
needed to be fulfilled. He announced the commitment of the Saba government to implement the
recommendation to make July 1, Emancipation Day a public holiday.
Prior to the townhall meeting, members of the Saba Leo Club read the names of 159 of the in total 734
persons who were emancipated on Saba on July 1, 1863, in commemoration of 159 years since slavery
was abolished. Several members of the community posed questions and made observations during the
townhall meeting that followed the official part. They asked, among other things, whether Emancipation
Day would become a public holiday throughout the Kingdom, whether there was a timeline and further
follow-up to the words spoken by the Prime Minister, whether there would be apologies on behalf of
the Saba government and how the funds for the commemorative year in 2023 would be spent and
divided among the islands, the Netherlands and Suriname.