by Jeroen Leinders
courtesy of a special order from Auntie’s Bookstore
(Curacao = CURE A SOW)
Like its neighboring island of Aruba, Curacao officially “belongs” to the Dutch. Like Aruba, it has Papiamento speakers, because it used to have slaves.
Papiamento. Is it an authentic language? Objections have been made. I suspect objections by white linguists…er? But surely the people who speak it feel differently. Objections are commonly made to “pidgeons” because they are “made up” between people with no common language. But I feel Papiamento IS absolutely a proper language. Look at Esperanto. Look at Carthage: Historically, sailors and traders around the world spoke some form of pigeon. Hell, even Klingon has become a real language. Just saying. Some linguists object to pigeon because they “pervert” the grammar of the languages they are based on, or corrupt the pronunciation. (Although the Hawaiian language has existed for thousands of years, you can see this pronunciation difference in the way they say “missionary”–mikinele.
Grammar corruption: As Winston Churchill said, “that is a situation up with which I will not put.” Churchill was objecting to the people who object to the dangling participle, people who would faint if he had said “put up with…”, but that’s based on Latin grammar. English is not Latin, and Papiamento is not Spanish, Dutch, French, Portuguese, or English.
Slaves. Could there be any more egregious insult to the human spirit than to take another human being against their will, remove their free will, and force them to obey the whims of some random person? I think I’d be hard-pressed to find anybody in the modern world to disagree (except narco-traffickers and other baddies)…but my argument isn’t with them. It’s with the arrogant, entitled, and tough-to-stomach Dutch planters and politicians in this novel. UGH, UGH, UGH. People who lack the imagination to feel empathy for others of different skin color, or class. Or gender. Priests who try to convince the slaves that God wants things this way. That they’ll get a reward in heaven if they just co-operate in their own victimization. “Men of God” who never tell the plantation owners that they’re going to hell; that Satan is making them do what they’re doing. Priests who make slavery a victimless crime. OK, rant over. I know I’m preaching to the choir.
Where in the World is Curacao?
Two stars to the right of Aruba, and straight on until morning. In other words, just off the coast of Venezuela. Islands like these were once the main ports of entry for slaves being sold on to South America to work the coffee, sugar, and cotton plantations.
My first experience with Curacao, and the reason I can pronounce the word, came at a high school birthday party when I was an exchange student in Germany. There was this big table of drinks, and I had never had alcohol before. The cute boy behind the bar, the big brother of the birthday boy, asked what he could make me to drink. Well, I didn’t know. Nothing looked familiar, but there was some blue liquor in a pretty bottle that looked like my Mom’s drain cleaner, so I asked for that. “Oh, you must want a Green Widow,” he said in English, nodding wisely, assuming I was unfamiliar with German rather than intimidated by alcohol and also by boys. Blue Curacao is sweet and pretty, and when you mix it with orange juice it turns green. That’s all I can tell you, besides the fact that while the boys in my Idaho high school were racing their four-wheelers in the back country and having keggers out at North Beach, the boys in Ludwigsberg were learning the Fox Trot, the Tango, and the Cha Cha Cha.
The Leader of the Pack
Tula was a real man who lived on Curacao, on Kenepa Plantation in the late 1700s. His knowledge of the Bible (despite its white proponents) gave him the understanding that slavery was wrong and that blacks and whites were equal in the sight of God. When the slaves successfully revolted on a Caribbean island north of Curacao (Haiti), Tula began to get dangerous ideas in his head. The French, who were in possession of Haiti, declared that the slaves had won their independence and were thus free. Since in Europe, France had recently defeated Curacao’s Dutch masters in a war, Tula decided that meant the French were in charge of Curacao, and the Dutch should have to do what the French told them to do: ie, to free their slaves.
His line of reasoning really reminded me of a child. And why not? Tula wasn’t allowed an education, or exposure to cynical or more sophisticated thought. How could he have known the evil that lurks in the hearts of men? Well, he had experienced it, in the person of his slaveowner Willem van Uytretch, a man his own age that he grew up with. This man, when still a boy, had abused Tula’s brother Quako for being mentally disabled, and also because he, the Dutch kid, was a bully. The fact that Tula still held out hope for the goodness of white men speaks to his character. Go, Tula.
Heart of Darkeness
In any story of gross injustice and man’s inhumanity to man, there are always collaborators. I’m thinking of the Jewish kapos in the ghettos (some trying to protect the people, others exploiting the situation); the Hawaiian high chiefs who made decisions that impoverished their people as they enriched themselves; the Africans who sold other Africans into the white man’s slavery. I’m thinking of women in occupied Europe who slept with Nazi soldiers and Jews, gypsies, and homosexuals who were recruited to “out” others for capture. On Curacao, there were mini-overseers called “bombas” who helped the white overseer run the plantations. There were mulatto soldiers who fought against Tula and his men, who shot women and children for nothing more than trying to assert their God-given right to freedom.
But as Fred Roger’s (of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood) once told him, in any disaster, in any time of great human suffering, look for the helpers. They will always be there, and it will give you hope.
In Tula’s story, hundreds of years before Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., the man convinces 50 or 60 of his fellows slaves to practice passive resistance. They just refuse to work. Then, they march on the capital to see the Governor. They want to peacefully convince him that they have a legal right to freedom under the French. Not surprisingly (to modern readers) the Governor sees his profits going down the tubes, as well as unhappy voters. You know this is not going to end well.
As the slaves march to the capitol, they stop for a rest on plantation Porto Marie, where a Frenchwoman is ahead of her time (or at least ahead of her fellow islanders). She speaks to Tula as an equal, invites him and the other leaders to rest and eat at her table, wishes them well, and retires. Later, she tries to convince the priest to get the army to stand down, as the slaves are peaceable. He however sees his duty as being to convince the slaves to submit, for their own good of course.
This book was utterly heart-breaking.
Foreword and After: SPOILER ALERT
I much appreciated having these two historical, non-fiction additions to the novel. They placed Tula’s world in context for me, in terms of world history (the upheaval and sense of hope cause by both the American Revolution of 1776 and the subsequent French Revolution), The Dutch West India Company, responsible for so much suffering in the name of commerce. The Great Slave Revolt on Curacao, influenced by the success of the Haitians.
Even though you knew Tula’s story probably ended in tragedy, it is inspirational that it took place at all. I just wish he could have seen the world today, and could have rejoiced in a Hawaiian-born President Obama in one of the world’s remaining superpowers.
Even though he lost, it is important that he fought. After the gruesome execution of himself and his followers, the plantation owners restored the slaves’ Sunday day of rest, and stopped requiring them to purchase food and clothes from the company store instead of having them given to them (meaning they could save their meager wages to purchase their freedom). Tula was proclaimed a National Hero of Curacao in 2010.
Justice, at long, long last.
Rating: Five barracudas!