Race and Slavery in today’s society expounded at Eurotast session

POND ISLAND–The living legacy of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade in St. Maarten, the wider Caribbean  and Africa, as well as the prevalence of racism or the pretence that such does not exist were the common threads of the Eurotast Symposium themed “Reclaiming African Identity from Africa to the Americas” held at University of St. Martin on Friday.

Resident archaeologist Jay Haviser firmly pushed the door open on how race and self-identity played active roles in St. Maarten society in the past and still play today by profiling the lives, accomplishments and legacy of four St. Maarteners. Two were of a “white” background – Claude Wathey and Charles Vlaun – and two were “black” – Lionel B. Scot and José Lake Sr. Scot and Lake Sr. both had “clear pride” in their identities as St. Maarteners and their African ancestry. However, they provide examples of different  approaches to dealing with the social contexts on the island in their time.

Scot used “a strategy to gain favour among leaders in the ‘white’ community” and “he advanced in both business and political goals, often as the only representative African- descendant, resulting from his successful adaptations,” Haviser pointed out.

Lake Sr.’s strategy was “to fight the established ‘white’ authority, gaining passionate, yet less public, support f the ‘black’ community, resulting in devastation of his business and hindrance of his political goals.”

Both approaches have had long-term positive impacts for African-descendants, yet the Scot strategy produced more successful short-term results, thus becoming the more prevalent role model, Haviser said.

Wathey and Vlaun also showed pride in their identity as St. Maarteners. They saw their societal advantages for economic position and advancement, with their strategies based more on variable ranking within the elite-status hierarchy. “Wathey used his inherited elite position to further his economic and political goals, as a form of continuity of 19th century social structure, and even though he and Vlaun were early political allies, clear competition was always evident between them, as Vlaun posed a threat to his economic advantage,” Haviser said.

“While Vlaun was the underdog from the isolated white Simpson Bay group, seeing his racial context’s advantage, yet having minimal elite status, this hindered development of both his business and political goals, yet till kept him ahead of most competing African-descendants.” These were not so much differing social strategies as much as different starting positions for economic advantage, Wathey clearly being more successful in the long term.

Haviser described the symposium as a starting point to “genuine open discussions” about “the emotional issues” of slavery and race. “We need to shake the tree and discuss issues that are painful.” Expounding on the role of public archaeology, he said the study of the past had evolved from “where the sites are” to the creation of awareness about “the journey to long-forgotten past,” with the aim of inspiring more exploration into cultural heritage.

Prime Minister Sarah Wescot-Williams added her voice to the discussion about identity when she declared the symposium open in the presence of Governor Eugene Holiday. She said the generalisation and use of the term “St. Maartener” would continue to spur controversy and fuel a much-needed discussion in the community. This is a part of the building of the St. Maarten nation beyond its political and physical boundaries, she added.

Like Haviser, Dr. Atwell Cain of the Institute of Cultural Heritage and Knowledge in The Netherlands was very candid about the role race plays, especially in European Dutch society. He plainly said the Dutch society did not regard racism as real and people were content to believe that theirs was “the only country where racism doesn’t exist. The Dutch society also sees slavery as “something that happened outside of The Netherlands,” he said.

The Dutch are “not free to forget slavery,” Cain said as he spoke about “Slavery and Memory in The Netherlands: Who needs to commemorate.”

In Caribbean societies, the “whiteness” of one’s skin still determines “who’s in and who’s out.” Everyone will admit to being “halfeverything but half-black,” Cain said.

Eurotast head Professor Tom Gilbert of University of Copenhagen said St. Maarten was important to the study of the impact of slavery, as was the rest of the Caribbean region. He highlighted the role of Eurotast in forging connections and links with past via science and living history.

Giving the “Archaeological Perspectives on Slavery in Africa” lecture, Professor Kodzo Gavua of University of Ghana pointed out that while many saw the time of enslavement as over, there was the scourge of modernday slavery, a bondage left over from the days when people were ferreted away from Africa and the instilling of the idea that nothing African is good. He said there needed to be more self-pride and until Africans learned to see themselves as producers, not only consumers of outside products and ideas, this “new slavery” could not be abolished.

St. Eustatius Centre for Archaeological Research SECAR archaeologist Ruud Stelten spoke about the work in St. Eustatius on a recently unearthed slave village and plans for observance of the 150th anniversary of the aboliton of slavery in the Dutch Caribbean on July 1. He noted that slaves in St. Eustatius appeared to have had a bit more freedom than those on other islands because of Statia’s small size.

The symposium was hosted by St. Maarten Archaeological Centre Simarc in cooperation with Leiden University. The gathering brought together numerous doctoral candidates and Eurotast fellows in the areas of biology, mathematics and history studies, with professors and “first voices” of community and cultural activists from the St. Maarten/St. Martin community. The two-day symposium, which ends today, Saturday, sought to explore and question the ways archaeology has contributed to academic and public understanding of slavery in the Atlantic world, both as an institution and as a lived experience for people of African descent.