Speech by Island Governor Jonathan Johnson on Saba

Almost 160 years ago, a proclamation was read to the ancestors of many here today. That proclamation returned to them what is acknowledged in modern times as a fundamental human right, the right to freedom. Regrettably, with that freedom did not come with all the rights and privileges that we recognize are important part of our experience as citizens in a free and democratic society, a life free of discrimination and the chance to participate in all opportunities equally.

Many of us over the years have heard the narrative that slavery wasn’t too bad on Saba. While we are not sure where this belief originated, we know that it has become the most pervasive myth regarding slavery on the island and one that remains with us until today. How diminishing it must be as descendants of enslaved persons to hear that your ancestors, after enduring one of humanities greatest crimes, to have their traumatic experience termed as not that bad. We know that after hearing the reports of emancipation on other islands, many of them did not sit and wait to have their freedom given to them and instead actively sought for means to find their way to shores where freedom for all men and women regardless of color was already a reality. Their desire to escape their restrictive circumstances contradicts what should now be labeled a false narrative of the so-called good fortune of enslaved people on Saba.

We must also speak to sentiments of those within our community who feel that much of our history has only been told from one perspective and that the other perspective, especially that of slavery, remains hidden or unexplored. Considering that slavery is an indelible stain in the history of the Dutch Kingdom, it no doubt left a scar on our shared past on this island. This tarnished past has left many in our community with questions, many that have gone unasked and almost all unanswered. In order to move forward as a people, we must begin to reckon and wrestle with these challenging issues.

One of these issues that comes to the forefront is our struggle with racial inequality, which is no doubt an undesirable remnant of our colonial legacy. It is with pain that we must acknowledge that those who are the descendants of enslaved persons have not always felt that they were treated justly. And while more recently we have made steps to address this as a community, there is still more work to be done to make the healing complete.

As a government we also have a role in creating opportunities and to make certain that everyone who wishes to participate feels that they have equal access to these opportunities. This is in line with the recommendations outlined in the position paper submitted by Saba as input to the report “Chains of the past”. This report calls for education, academic research, genealogical research, diversity training, an apology and reparative justice. All of these reasonable demands, which I believe must be fulfilled. This will take commitment, funding and follow up from not only us here but also from the national government and the community must hold us accountable.

Another recommendation outlined in this report, that we as government commit to making a reality, is to ensure that as of July 1st, 2023, Emancipation Day, will be made a public holiday. This public holiday will be commemorated and celebrated with the honor that is fitting the memory of those who suffered through this experience but survived, and their legacy of defiance and determination remain with us today.

While the Cabinet acknowledges the Dutch government’s role in slavery it is also imperative to acknowledge that there are issues within our community that have been impacted by the legacy of slavery. We need to improve the the development of strong family structures, if we want to contribute to the social progress in our society, we need to ensure that all families are equipped to do so. Therefore, the report from Saba also calls for reparative justice. Because we cannot move forward if we first do not fix what is broken.

We must do more to limit the prevalence of poverty on our island, which is significantly higher than that of the European Netherlands and it cannot be denied that this is a relic of our colonial past.

Of course, the health of our population which can also be linked to our past, must also embrace the discussion of better access to healthcare. Families and the vulnerable among us should not have to worry about the bureaucracy of a system that is supposed to contribute to our wellbeing but often struggles to do so.

The Cabinet’s response today is not the end of a dark chapter in our Kingdom’s history. It should be a considered a beginning. The beginning of a long and what many would consider a difficult road to create meaningful change. In any relationship it is important to speak about the changes that we want to see but it is more important to see the changes we speak about put into action. Many persons are concerned about what will happen after today and rightfully so. This report cannot only put on the shelf along with the vast library of documents in those historical buildings in The Hague. It has created expectations and those expectations must be met.

Fellow Sabans we cannot change the past but can no longer ignore it. Just as every sunrise provides us with a new day, today provides us with the opportunity to move forward.  I close with the words of James Baldwin which were part of the invitation to be here today “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”