Toespraak staatssecretaris Van Huffelen bij slavernijherdenking Sint Eustatius

Toespraak van staatssecretaris Van Huffelen (Koninkrijksrelaties en Digitalisering) tijdens de herdenking van het slavernijverleden bij het Earl Merkman Sports Auditorium op Sint Eustatius. De toespraak is alleen in het Engels beschikbaar.

Good Day,

Thank you for the warm welcome today, and allowing me to speak a few words.

It is a special, historical day which we are commemorating. Or perhaps, it is more fitting to say: a day which we are marking.

July first, 1863. On this day, a 160 years ago, slavery was abolished.160 years.

I have given this number a lot of thought recently. When you’re young, 160 years sounds like an eternity. Ancient history.A period that can’t possibly have anything to do with the things that are important to you now, with what you’re going through at school, or with the future you envision for yourself.

But when you get older, you realize it’s different. That it only takes an instant to grow up, change from a child, to a parent to a grandparent.

So previous generations are close to us. They have something to tell us, they make us who we are.

So maybe I should say: it is only a 160 years ago that slavery was abolished. And the period during which adults and children alike were taken from Africa, often by Dutch slave traders, was twice as long.

So commemorating or marking, a 160 years or only a 160 years. These considerations illustrate that, in all honesty, finding the right words for this occasion is not so easy.

On the day that prime minister Rutte apologized for slavery on behalf of the Dutch state, I spoke on Curacao, next to the statue of resistance hero Tula. It was a very emotional day, where rehabilitation of Tula was a central element.

Rehabilitation also for the resistance heroes on other islands, who had to pay for their heroic resistance to a criminal system with their lives. Also here, on Statia.

The history of slavery is a history of pain, of suffering and injustice, but also a story of courage, resistance, fighting for what’s right. Here on Statia, as late as 1848, there has been a courageous fight for freedom, when a request for a declaration of freedom was answered with gunfire by the Colonial Council. Resistance such as this is what has ultimately contributed to abolishing this inhumane system.

When prime minister Rutte spoke on December 19, 2022, he spoke of his personal change in thinking. About how through talking to descendants, his ideas and opinions about slavery changed dramatically.

Over the past 1.5 years, I have talked to dozens of people, here on Statia, on other islands and in the European part of the Kingdom. Elderly people, young people, descendants, people who relate to this history in their own unique ways.

But what they have in common, is that this past is still so tangible. That the past still has an effect, is still felt. Felt in sadness about what previous generations had to endure. About the horrible atrocities and dehumanizing crimes that were committed.

Felt in a sense of being different, being less or being perceived as such. In feeling disadvantaged, a second-rate citizen in the Kingdom.

It is our responsibility to fix all of this, and do so within this generation. Descendants have shown me this, concrete and tangible.

I saw it in theaters, in plays that depict how deep the distrust and insecurity really run, still. I heard it in a discussion with high school students in Rotterdam, who wondered if white people could ever understand their pain. And I felt it at the Gwendolyn Van Putten school here on the island, where young students told me how they are still held back by the remnants of the past.

Of course, these conversations and experiences were uncomfortable, sometimes. They made me feel a sense of shame. But most of all it gave me a sense of the importance of paying lasting attention to this past. These stories, the stories of these atrocities that were committed by the Dutch state and their lasting effects today, have to be told and heard – heard by everyone.

I’d like everyone in the Kingdom to hear these stories and I’d like everyone on Statia to be able to share the stories about this island. Because history is all around you here.

From the moment you land on Statia you can feel the painful past where Statia served as a massive trading center and freeport in the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This history is in the stone walls, build by enslaved people. It’s in the remnants of warehouses, that once contained spices and tobacco. You might even be lucky enough to be found by a blue bead, when hiking around the island.

It’s the reason why I want to stress the importance of oral history, and preserving it for future generations. So that every child knows the names of the Statian heroes, and the history of Statia will be told from a Statian perspective.

So the coming year, and also the period after, we are taking efforts to accomplish this. We are going to shine a light on these underexposed parts of our history. And we are doing this together.

This means we are going to discuss the best way to spend the 200 million euros in the slavery history fund together. Interest groups representing descendants will have a lot of influence on that process.

We are going to organize gatherings which bring people together, give them a chance to meet each other and engage in conversation and discussion.

And it won’t all be about words alone.Because we are also going to create these places that make the past tangible, that bring us eye to eye with it.

That’s why we are going to create places fit to commemorate and reflect, and places that invite you to come together and engage in dialogue. Here, on Statia, we are very willing to support you in creating a memorial for the ancestors, whose remains were found at various burial grounds on the island.

We are also going to support the efforts of the Sint Eustatius Cultural Heritage Implementation Committee. We are doing this both technically and financially.Because we want to take responsibility in finding the answers.And we want to contribute to awareness through education.

And even after July first, 2024, this process is far from over.Because there is so much work to be done still.

In the European part of the Kingdom, we want to make strides in increasing knowledge about our shared past, increasing knowledge about the Caribbean parts of the Kingdom. And here, on Statia and other islands, there is a need to commemorate and to process the past.

We are also committed to intensifying the fight against racism and discrimination. To this end, we have extended the equal treatment act to include Statia, Saba and Bonaire. This was the explicit wish of the executive councils and the result of in-depth discussions on the islands.

I hope the Slavery Memorial Year will bring everyone in the Kingdom closer together. That it brings more attention to your island, your stories and your way of life. That it helps in closing the psychological distance between the different countries and municipalities in the Kingdom.

Together, we will bring about more knowledge, more attention and more respect.

Thank you.