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Introduction: Breaking the Silence, the Case of Aruba

Slavery is not a very popular topic on Aruba, and slavery on Aruba does not quite fit in the general picture of slavery as imagined in the rest of the Caribbean region. African slavery on Aruba lasted not more than three or four generations, roughly from 1800 to 1863. Slavery on the island differed from slavery elsewhere in the region, not only in the time span, but also in magnitude and harshness. Race relations on 19th century Aruba were not determined by a plantation economy and subsequently by slavery. As will be explained in this report, Aruban slavery was and is not associated with large plantations and an economically, culturally and racially suppressed African-Caribbean population segment. Slavery is inhuman and can never be justified, but degrees of inhumanity can be discerned. Aruba’s slavery and emancipation compares favorably against slavery elsewhere in the Caribbean. That is, when it is studied profoundly and understood in proper proportions.

Even today, Arubans do not identify very strongly with slaves or with slavery. Aruba’s national identity centers on the free peasant population that evolved during the 19th century out of the encounter between poor white colonists (newcomers at the time) and Amerindians, living on the island since the 17th century. Many Arubans are unaware of the fact that slavery – however different from the region – also is part and parcel of Aruba’s cultural heritage, both tangible and intangible. In 1849, 20 per cent of the population was enslaved. In 1863 slavery was abolished, and 506 African Arubans obtained freedom. Of the 100 family names given to the emancipated, 40 still exist. In sharp contrast to for instance Curaçao and Bonaire, on Aruba it is hard to distinguish descendants form slaves from descendants from former owners.

Several factors explain the neglect of slavery in the history and self image of Aruba. As stated, a lack of general historical knowledge is the first and foremost reason. Aruba’s educational system (and contents) traditionally encompasses little local history. Also, little research has been done on slavery. Until the late 1980s, Aruba’s educational system was based on the Dutch systems, both in structure and in content. Educational reforms have finally resulted in the introduction of the topic in some textbooks. The recently re-opened Historical Museum Aruba dedicates attention to slavery and the African heritage in Aruba’s cultural heritage and make up. Various earlier studies mentioned slavery on Aruba, but the first in depth historical study on the topic was only published in 1997, by the author of this report (Alofs, 1997, 2nd edition in 2003).

Also, in the field of the conservation and preservation of monuments a shift towards attention for Afro-Caribbean architecture is taking place. Both in the field of education and tourism, cultural-historic awareness (and also concern) is growing.

International UNESCO projects such as the “Slave Trade Route” and “Breaking the Silence” have not yet resulted in substantial research projects, national inventories or related educational activities on Aruba. The project “Places of Memory of the Slave Route” seems to come at the proper moment. In the first chapter, I will briefly sketch the history and nature of slavery and forced labor as it occurred in the history of Aruba and its present population.

Slavery and Emancipation on Aruba

Aruba’s most dominant feature as a colonial society was the absence of commercial export oriented plantations. Poor white colonists and descendants of Amerindians from the mainland of South America – western Venezuela to be more precise – were the dominant social (racial) groups on the island. Nevertheless, two slave trade routes occurred on the island after the European conquest of the Caribbean: the Amerindian Slave Trade Route and the African Slave Trade Route. Even before the arrival of African slaves, in 1515, Spanish slave raiders enslaved and deported Aruba’s Caquetio Amerindians to work as slaves in the mines of Hispaniola. In the 17th and 18th century, newly arrived Amerindians were forced to work for the Dutch West India Company.

African slavery was introduced on Aruba as late as 1715, but lasted only four years. In the late 18th century, African slavery was re-introduced almost once again and was abolished in 1863. On Aruba, the emancipation process proved successful. Former enslaved rapidly integrated into the free colonial society. During the 20th century, Afro-Caribbean migrants, descendants from emancipated slaves, from most islands in the Caribbean and the Guyanas, brought along their cultural heritage and memories of the slavery and emancipation. To them, Aruba was the endpoint of the Slave Trade Route.

The Amerindian Slave Route: La Esclavitud del Indio

“La Española y la Esclavitud del Indio, is the title of Carlos Esteban Deives’ (1995) study on Amerindian slavery in the 16th century Spanish Caribbean. For the indigenous people of Aruba, the Amerindian Slave Trade Route started on Aruba. As a part of the Spanish expansion in the Americas, a historical enterprise that is known as “The Devastation of the West Indies” (De las Casas). Apparently, Caribbean slavery is not limited to African-Caribbean plantation slavery.

Around 850 B.C., Caquetio Arowaks from western Venezuela migrated to Aruba, introducing pottery and agriculture. Aruba became part of the coastal Falcon Caquetio nation. The Caquetio language belonged to the Arowak language group. Their archaeology belongs to the best studied in the Caribbean region. Major settlements were situated at Santa Cruz, Tanki Flip, and Savaneta. An estimated 600 to 900 Caquetios were living on the island by the time of the European discovery. At that time, the Santa Cruz village was the political, religious and cultural center of the Caquetio culture in pre-historic Aruba.

The Spanish “discovered” the Dutch ABC-islands in or around 1499. In 1513, the islands were declared “isles inutiles” and were opened for slave raiding. Two years later, in 1515, some 2,000 Caquetio Indians from Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao were enslaved and deported to Hispaniola by Diego de Salazar to work in the gold mines. This is believed to be the complete population of the three islands. Although some Caquetios may have fled or escaped, the deportation made an end to the pre-Columbian Amerindian civilization on Aruba. Pre-history became history. To the Caquetio population, the Amerindian Slave Trade Route had its starting point in the villages and houses of the Aruban Caquetio population.

The original Caquetio villages of Santa Cruz, Tanki Flip and Savaneta bear witness of an indigenous culture enslaved and destroyed by Spanish slave raiders in 1515. In this report an important and centrally located archaeological site will be suggested as a Place of Memory of the (Amerindian) Slave Trade Route.

After an unsuccessful colonization effort by Juan de Ampíes (1526-1533), the Curaçao and Aruba were used for cattle breeding and wood cutting. Small numbers of Indians from the mainland were brought to Aruba to work as semi-slaves for the Spanish. Little archaeological or (ethno-) historical evidence exists on this historical period.

Amerindian Slavery and the Dutch West India Company, 1636-1829

The Dutch West India Company (WIC) took possession of Aruba in 1636. Caquetio Amerindians from western Venezuela continued to migrate to the island. The earliest reports of their re-establishment on the island date from 1642. In contrast to other Dutch colonies and possessions, these Indians were not recognized as a free and independent nation by the West India Company. Whereas in the Guyanas, New Amsterdam (New York) and Brazil, Amerindian or indigenous land claims were respected and the Amerindians were accepted as trading partners and allies in the struggle against the Spanish or the English, Aruban Caquetios were denied the rights to claim or own land for cultivation or cattle breeding. Colonization of the island by Europeans was forbidden until 1754. The number of Amerindians increased from 52 in 1655 to 386 in 1715. In 1767, the island was inhabited by 120 households, 12 of which were in the employ of the WIC. Another 100 were Amerindian households.

Amerindians were allowed to work small plots of provision grounds and own small herds of cattle in exchange for two or three days of labor a week. The Amerindians’ obligations consisted mainly of maintenance of the water reservoirs (“tankis”) for the benefit of cattle breeding by the Company and chopping fire wood for Curaçao. Statute labor (Dutch: Herendiensten) is the oldest form of involuntary labor on Aruba under Dutch rule. Various authors compared the juridical position of the Aruban Amerindian as a combination of feudal serfdom and early capitalist slavery. Abuse of Statute Labor by servants of the Company for proper benefit resulted in repeated protests and revolts by the Amerindian population. One such event occurred in 1786, when Amerindians refused to assist in the construction of a defense fort in the Horse bay. Twelve years later, Amerindian statute labor was used when the defense fort, the present Fort Zoutman, was finally constructed. Amerindians provided building materials; African slaves from Curaçao assisted in the construction of the fort.

After 1816, Statute Labor was renamed ‘arbeidsplicht’ [obligatory labor]. In 1859, the ‘arbeidsplicht’ was discontinued. Instead of obligatory labor, the colonial government was forced to introduce relief works as a way of poor relief on the impoverished island.

Presently, Aruba has over 100 tankis (water reservoirs). The existing tankis were dug during the 19th and 20th century. Therefore, none of the existing tankis can be connected to Amerindian Statute Labor. Other possible tangible witnesses to Statute Labor were discussed with experts from the Archaeological Museum Aruba and the Department of Agriculture, Husbandry and Fishery but were judged inadequate for selection as a Place of Memory.
“Red Slaves”

In the 19th century, several reports on the existence of a third kind of Amerindian slavery were recorded. In 1827, commander Simon Plats reported that 51 “Red Slaves”, as they became known, were mostly children or teenagers from the peninsula of Goajira, Venezuela. They were captured, traded or taken hostage by Aruban merchants while trading on “the Indian Coast”. Although Amerindian slavery was formally prohibited in the colony, these slaves lived in circumstances similar to those of the African slaves on the islands. They made a living as (unpaid) household personnel, shop assistants or day laborers. Due to interference of the Aruban colonial authorities, Red Slaves received some legal protection, while their masters were denied property rights. Red Slaves were reported on the island in 1836, 1867 and as late as 1904. Red slaves were completely dependent on their master/owners and did not form a separate cultural community. Therefore, no specific examples of tangible heritage of Red Slaves are to be found on the island.

Aruba and the African Slave Trade Route

Slaves without Plantations, 1800-1863

Slavery played a minor role in the exploitation of the island by the West India Company (1636-1791). Between 1715 and 1719, an effort to develop a maize plantation proved unsuccessful. Twenty African slaves were brought in from Curaçao and returned when the plantation project failed.

After the dissolution of the WIC (1792) and two English interregnums (1801-1803 & 1806-1816), serious colonization started on Aruba. Finally the island was opened up for colonization. Between 1816 and 1924 there was a population increase from 1,723 in the year 1816 to 9,023 inhabitants in 1923. This growth was the result of migration of European colonists and their African slaves, and more importantly an excess of births over deaths. The extremely arid climate did not permit the development of a plantation economy. The elite families were mainly active in small scale commercial agriculture and (illegal) trade with South America. Poor white colonists and (descendants of) Amerindians were making a living as free peasants. In the absence of a rigid plantation economy, slavery remained small and – as compared to elsewhere in the Caribbean region – relatively lenient. Enslaved never exceeded 21 percent of the total population.

In 1849, 596 slaves were living on Aruba. Male slaves were mostly active as field slaves on the provision grounds of their owners or as craftsmen. Female slaves were either house slaves or working in their owners’ shops.

Since plantation slave labor was relatively unimportant and most slaves worked as house slave, shop assistant or craftsman, most slaves lived in Oranjestad. In 1862, 297 out of 509 Aruba slaves lived in Oranjestad. In 1862, most slave owners possessed less then six slaves, including children (Alofs 2003b).

Aruba does not have a history of violent slave revolts. Due to late date of abolition of slavery, in the 1850s, the number of runaway slaves grew. In 1856, a record number of ten slaves flew to Venezuela. Aruba’s slavery was relatively mild in character. This can be explained by the small scale of the island population, the lack of large scale agricultural plantations and the fact that most owners had few slaves. Often, ties between masters and enslaved were personal instead of commercial. Also, the strict compliance with the slave laws contributed to the lenient race relations in colonial Aruba. In the decade before the abolition of slavery, owners frequently complained that they had little control over their slaves.

Slavery and Emancipation

Slavery was abolished in 1863, when 496 enslaved obtained freedom. Emancipated slaves obtained provision grounds and became free peasants. Others continued their work as craftsmen or household personnel. A number of emancipated slaves joined the police force. Some former enslaved and their descendants slaves became successful merchants. Older and disabled former slaves received government aid from the special poor relief fund initiated in 1863. In 1769-1871, efforts by commander Ferguson to organize a working house for the poor were as much directed to the poor white as the recently liberated enslaved.

Former slaves integrated rapidly in the free population. Due to mixed marriages – frequently with former owners – and upward social mobility, the former slave population ceased to exist as a separate population group. Colonists, Indians, and blacks intermixed forming Aruba’s traditional Mestizo-Creole population.