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Apologies or Not - Bonaire Speaks for Itself

Xp Bonaire Island Life Feature Story

We don't have enough opportunities to speak to members of government in The Hague. Certainly not on a random Monday morning, as on this past December 19th, also a random day for us. But the national government in The Hague decided that on that day, they would offer apologies for the history of slavery to the (former) colonies. Here on Bonaire, I was excited to meet the Minister, Mrs van Gennip, who came to speak on behalf of the Dutch State.

Now I checked the history books again, but there is almost nothing remarkable to be found about this day. At least, nothing to which a significant part of the Kingdom, then and now, would want to pay widespread attention.

Yes, the last Rolls Royce Silver Ghost was sold on December 19, 1924; on December 19, 1974, Nelson Rockefeller was sworn in as Vice President of the United States; and on December 19, 1983, the original World Cup was stolen somewhere in Brazil. I’m sure THAT would have been a nice trivia tweet for the football fans in government!

But as I said, nothing overly remarkable. And maybe, that was the intention.

This time I was invited to speak on behalf of the cultural sector. And, yes, of course everyone was a bit excited. Slavery, colonial rule, hundreds of years of Dutch conquest and occupation, hundreds of thousands of people who, by order of gentlemen in Middelburg, in Amsterdam, in Hoorn were captured, shipped, and tortured to death or endured other unspeakable suffering. And there we were, just like any Monday morning. Reflect on that horrendous past a bit. And then on to lunch.

There was quite a bit of debate up there in Tera Friu, as we sometimes call the European Netherlands. Apologies or no apologies. Shall we send the King or not. Who is going where, and what exactly are they going to do there on those islands.

And I don't know how it went, whether the issue was raised in the ministerial gym, or if straws were drawn in a meeting, or whether volunteers were appointed, but we ended up with the Prime Minister on TV, and Mrs van Gennip in Rincón, in the village where I was born and raised.

I was excited and I practiced my diplomatic skills in the days before to ensure that I wouldn’t speak, ask or assume too much, and to make sure that my more cautious colleagues would also be having a professional conversation. I prepared myself for the eventuality that no one would know what else to say, and if we would forget to ask or add subjects to this random, yet important day, I would be the one who would make sure that everything was said and requested.

Up front, “guidelines for the conversation” were issued. Maybe you’ll ask, “Well, did you stick to them?”

And frankly, yes and no. Yes, because luckily the discussion paper was called a “guideline” and not an “executive order”, so I could creatively interpret my small contribution. Creativity, we love that in the cultural sector of Bonaire.

But also no. And do you know why not? For three reasons.

In the first place, for years we have been drawing attention to the exact impact of colonialism and the slavery past. We do this both at our local government and in The Hague. In short, our arts, our past and heritage, our language, our education, in short, our culture, to this day bears the traces of alienation and larceny. Our own culture is foreign to us. The reason for this is simple. We were, and are, governed by people who do not want to invest materially and permanently in our arts and culture. How this could be done; how it should be done concretely and precisely has been recorded by many of us in countless letters, proposals, interviews and conversation reports in the recent past alone.

Secondly, in almost four hundred years of Dutch rule, we have learned very well how to deal with orders and instructions. This conversation, on the 19th of December, and, in this way, did not come about in consultation. We, again, have not been asked anything. But as we've done for centuries, we show up, we nod graciously, and then we “watch and see” to see if the words somehow materialize.

And last but not least, it was a Monday morning. And it was a beautiful day.

After the ceremonies were done, Mrs van Gennip and the whole delegation and myself, had lunch at Posada Paramira. She sat quietly and I observed her. Our island worked its magic upon her in silence. The “bon- aire” of the island moved her, like art should always move.

Finally, I didn’t have to say that much, I just reminded her to check her mailbox and go through the work and proposals that the cultural sector of Bonaire has already delivered so that she would prepare the resources and come back to get started. That’s all.

I am totally convinced that once at home, the inner conviction she may have drawn from Bonaire, from its origin, from its story, will be converted into action!

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