Speech by State Secretary Maarten van Ooijen (Health, Welfare and Sport) on Saba

Good morning,
Thank you for the warm welcome on your island. And thank you for having me here today.
Usually we only meet when it comes to matters of healthcare.
Aside from that, we don’t know each other well.
And yet, today we have to get right down to discussing a very serious matter: the role of the Dutch state in the history of slavery.
It’s a sensitive matter. One that for far too long has remained undiscussed.
Today I am here to listen to you.
Because when it comes to our shared past, we can also say that we don’t know each other well.
For a long time, as a European Dutchman, I knew far too little about the Caribbean islands that are part of the Netherlands.
And I’m not the only one.
In the European Netherlands, schools don’t pay enough attention to your islands. In geography and social studies, for example.
Let alone in history lessons.
And yet, our shared history still affects the way we interact today.
As you know, it’s an emotionally charged history.
And that may be one of the reasons we’re having this discussion now - at this point of time.

For a long time, there was silence. In the European Netherlands.
But also on Saba. This became evident from the conversations on this topic that were previously organized on your island.
This is not so surprising.
Because when something bad happens – to us, or our family – we often prefer not to dwell on it for too long.
‘Things are better now,’ we might say. Or: ‘Let’s focus on the future.’
But what we fail to realise is that we don’t just carry the pain of the past in our memories.
It affects how we look at the world.
It determines how we relate to each other.
How we raise our children.
And so, the pain of the past gets passed down from generation to generation.
Even though we may not know the exact cause anymore.

Anyone who offers a potted history of Saba will mention its ‘pirate heritage’.
Sabans are the descendants of sailors, they will tell you.
But in fact, many people of this island don’t fit that description.
However, completing the historical picture is almost impossible.
That is the painful truth.
Because for Sabans of African descent, your family histories don’t begin until the first of July, 1863.
Far too little is known about the more than 200 years of slavery before that date.
What we do know is that enslaved people had everything taken from them.
Their freedom, their possessions, their dignity.
What they went through is almost indescribable.
Wrenched from the land of their birth.
Shackled and packed together in a slave ship for almost two months.
Loved ones forced to say their last goodbyes. Children – babies even – who would never see their mother again.
These people, young and old alike, were sold apiece.
Their dignity reduced to monetary value. To a price.
They had to endure humiliation, whipping and rape.
They were stripped of everything that made them human.
Even their names.

Given all the other atrocities they faced, that last indignity might seem a small thing.
To live without a name.
It doesn’t cause physical pain. Or leave visible scars.
But 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.
It means there are barely any stories from the past.
And as a result, none of us knows enough about the history of slavery.

Today’s descendants of enslaved people are physically free.
But they may still find themselves chained by their questions to the past.
Questions about their place of origin. About the lack of a sense of groundedness.
Questions about poverty. About inequality.
Questions about why some people are allowed more opportunities than others. Even today.

These questions don’t only concern people of African descent.
These are questions for all of us.
This is about how we live with each other.
It’s about biases, which sometimes aren’t even conscious.
It’s about acknowledging that racism and discrimination still exist in our societies.
About the way that people are still confronted with those biases.
It might be a casual remark. A surprised reaction to the name in your passport: ‘Are you really Dutch?’
But racism and discrimination are also factors in education and healthcare.
People don’t realise what it’s like to get asked the same questions over and over again: ‘Do you really have the right qualifications?’ or ‘Are you studying at university?’
This makes racism and discrimination an ongoing issue in our European-Caribbean society.

We have to acknowledge this in order to change this.
And that isn’t easy.
Not even for people of African descent.
Because when things are hard enough already, it’s not easy to take a stand.
As I’ve said, most people just tend to get on with their lives.
They keep going in the hope that things will improve.
It requires courage to confront this issue.
Courage from us all.
Including those who will be confronted with feelings of discomfort or guilt.

It’s taken centuries.
But I have the feeling that change is possible.
That a new wind is blowing, even if it’s still just a light breeze.
I think we might be ready to get to know each other better.

Today’s words of our Prime Minister may not change our worlds immediately.
But I hope they could be a first step. An acknowledgement of the suffering inflicted.
I hope they will spark a conversation.
Not only here today, on your island, but also – and especially – throughout the entire Kingdom.

I’m sure you will agree, the future must be more than words alone.
As far as I’m concerned, the key word here is education.
And not simply education at school. Every Dutch person should know more about our slavery history.
We need commemorative centres, exhibitions and not at the least research in all its possible forms.
We need to do all we can to shed light on your family histories.
We need to do all we can to ensure that we, and the generations after us, will never forget these histories.

I hope that together we can work towards a future marked by acknowledgement and understanding of each other’s backgrounds.
Towards a Kingdom where no one – and I mean 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.
So that they too will be remembered.
Thank you.