Why the Dutch Caribbean remained Dutch


Why did the Dutch Caribbean not gain independence in the  late 18th or early 19th century like the new nations of Latin America or the U.S.? This seems at first glance a strange question, but viewed in the broader context of the American continent (i.e. North and South considered as one area) this question is not as exotic.

The late 18th and early 19th century, roughly from 1770 to 1830, was marked by great revolutions and counter-revolutions. Both in Europe and in the Americas. The United States had gained independence in 1781. Only a few years afterwards a great social upheaval in the form of the French Revolution broke out in Europe (1789). Inspired by these events Haitian slaves saw the chance to liberate their island and in 1791, after the first abolition of slavery in France in 1790, started their own revolution on the island of Hispaniola led by Toussaint Louverture. Obviously the Haitian revolution mirrored the events in Europa. These revolutionaries, sometimes referred to as the ”Black Jacobins” had great ideals, even global aspirations. On other Caribbean islands so soon riots broke out, inspired by the Haitian example. Slave revolts became an ever increasing problem for the planters in the 18th-century Caribbean. Jamaica had its slave wars already in the mid 18th century. The Dutch-Antillian island of Curacao witnessed its own slave revolt as early as in 1795 in the midst of the Haitian revolution (there had been troubles before already on the island). The 1795 rebellion was bloodily suppressed by the Dutch colonial government. The leaders of the insurgents Tula, Karpata, Wacao and Mercier and others were executed after a summary trial. Despite the numerous slave revolts in the Caribbean, a real independence movement never gained ground.

 Many scholars have tried to explain this paradox. The failure of the independence movement in the Caribbean, in contrast to those of the United States and the Bolivarian revolution, has – as most things-  multiple causes. The first cause was the fact that in most Caribbean islands, the slave population and the freed slaves formed the majority of the population. That was the case of Haiti, as well as Curacao. And the slaves and freedmen had interests completely opposed to those of the white elite. Another quite obvious reason would be that the Dutch suppressed the revolt swiftly as to never let it happen again; the momentum had been lost after 1795. 

Another reason that the independence movement on the island came to nothing, was paradoxically caused by the terrible aftermath of the mentioned Haitian revolution. The Haitian revolution did not, to say the least, live up to its promises. It had led to disastrous consequences – due to internal failures such as the devastating land tenure system and the fact that the Haitian government defaulted in its paying off of the huge debt burden towards the French state for the expropriation of the former French plantation owners. Not surprisingly the Haitian economy collapsed, exacerbated by continuous wars and riots as well as the departure of the wealthy elite of French planters. Thus Haiti offered no attractive prospect for the elites in other Caribbean islands. Almost all economic ties between Haiti and Curacao were severed within a decade, causing the trading elites of the island to focus even more on the South American mainland (modern day Venezuela and Colombia) than before.

The slave revolt of Tula in Curacao however, started already as early as in 1795, several years before the Haitian independence. Although today the slave rebellions are often depicted by slaves holding broken chains in air cast, Curacao reality was far more complicated than these images suggest. Slavery was endemic to Curacao’s colonial society yet never as important to become the single pillar of its economy such as for example in Suriname – and accordingly, slavery on Curacao was little less cruel. Nor is the image of Tula  correct. Far from the image of a poor slave breaking his chains he was a smart, educated man, in a way comparable to Toussaint Louverture. Like Louverture, Tula was well acquainted with the ideals of freedom and equality of the French Revolution. The fact that Tula’s revolt was finally suppressed by the Dutch government is ofter portrayed as evidence of supposed cruelty by Dutch Colonial goverment. In any event it is a sign that the political and administrative elite had little interest in the abolition of slavery.

The Dutch colonial government in the Hague left the local administration in the Caribbean to the local trading and administative elite, which consisted to a large extent of Sephardic Jews and white settlers native to the island. Although of course colonial administrators were appointed from overseas. Many of which has liberal views, yet they did not always settle on the islands, and if they did, over time they too tended to identify with the local elites with a true ’Caribbean’ identity. Also, the somewhat lax attitude of the Netherlands as a colonial power – at least in the Caribbean – is, again paradoxically another reason why Curacao did not become independent: local elites simply didn’t see the benefits of independence. How different is the picture if we turn to the South-American continent. While Napoleon waged war in Spain, the criollo-elite (in this context referring to the people of European descent who were born on the South American continent) saw their chance to declare independence. Most South American countries had become independent around 1830 after bloody conflicts with Spain. The elite in Curacao however had no interest in revolution.

This also explains why a great freedom fighter of South American independence, Pedro Luis Brion, fought for the ideals of Bolivar, but did not undertake any action to liberate his own island Curacao from Dutch rule (on Brion, see my earlier article, unfortunately only in Dutch:  http://peterbruns.unblog.fr/2010/04/07/twee-revolutionaire-antillianen/ ). It also explains why Bolivar – temporarily escaping problems in Venezuela- even remained on the island of Curacao for several months without any opposition by the colonial government of the island. In brief, the Dutch-colonial elites and the South American elites were excellent neighbours.This also may give an explanation as to why the another great warrior from Curacao, Manuel Carlos Piar, was to be sacrificed in Angostura (Venezuela) in 1817. Piar ideals stretched beyond that of Brion and Bolivar: he wanted equal rights for the colored people of the South American continent. After his execution Bolivar wrote that he had wasted his own blood (”he demarrado mi sangre”); apparently Bolivar saw no other choice but to sacrifice Piar: Piar was a threat to the social-economic status quo the criollo elite wanted to maintain after independence.

Of course the reasons why Curacao stayed in Dutch hands for so long are manifold. The fact that it is a relatively small island also played a major role, as well as the fact that the island’s economy relied on trade rather than agriculture. Pedro Luis Brion for example was such a successful trader, not a large plantation owner. There were no latifundia in the Dutch Antilles because of their small scale.

Fast forward to today, it is not sure what future lies ahead for the islands of the Dutch Caribbean. In any event, it may be helpful if Dutch policy makers ocasionally use the world map to see that the Dutch Caribbean is located in the Caribbean, which in its turn is located without a doubt in the Americas, and not in Europe. Standards and practices from the Netherlands may not be as effective in the Caribbean as on the other side of the ocean. That has nothing to do with the islands’ supposed backwardness, and everthing with a difference in history. And history shows the motherland never really interfered in these islands until very recently. Perhaps that awareness in itself provides a very simple insight, and a part of the solution for times ahead.

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