Curaçao's dark past shapes a bright future

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

The tiny Dutch island of Curaçao (pronounced cure-a-SOW) is a curious blend of architectural styles and cultures. The people range from European sophisticates to traditional medicine women. The market stalls in the streets of Willemstad, the island's picturesque capital, are filled with the catch of fishermen who cross the 35-mile stretch of open water from Venezuela.

While the Spanish were the first to lay claim to Curaçao in 1499, by the mid-1600s, it had become a strategic Dutch colony. Apart from a couple of brief British occupations in 1803 and 1807-1816, it has remained an autonomous part of the Netherlands ever since, with a busy harbor that was once one of the largest slave-trading depots in the Caribbean.

Hundreds of thousands of slaves, bound for Europe and North America, were processed here. Of those who survived the harrowing journey from Africa, many died within days of arrival. It is a heritage most in Curaçao have chosen to ignore.

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Yet the "black holocaust" is an essential part of Curaçao's history, insists Jacob Gelt Dekker, who has determined to do something about it.

On the island, Mr. Dekker and his long-time business partner, John Padget, are legends. First for their lucrative business enterprises (one was a large chain of one-hour photo shops that was sold to Kodak); then for their wanderlust (Dekker has circumnavigated the world 50 times); and finally for their philanthropic endeavors, the largest of which is Kura Hulanda, in the back streets of Willemstad.

Here, Dekker has invested $50 million and turned a crumbling neighborhood into a heritage complex. Dutch colonial houses and slave cottages have been restored and transformed into guest accommodations, restaurants, and a museum with the largest collection of African artifacts in the Caribbean.

The museum even has a re-created full-size ship's hold that demonstrates the appalling conditions under which slaves were shipped. Kura Hulanda also houses the Institute for Advanced Cultural Studies, which, by partnering with several universities and organizations around the world, serves as a prominent research center for African studies and the African Diaspora.

"I'm very aware the African population [in Curaçao] doesn't like to be confronted with a museum exhibiting parts of this holocaust," says Dekker. "After all, it is less than 50 years ago that racial segregation was abolished in the southern United States, and it wasn't until apartheid was brought to an end in South Africa that we all started coming to terms with the past."

For Dekker, Kura Hulanda is more than a legacy; it is a reflection of both his life's passion and philosophy. "It's the proverbial 'teach the man to fish and he eats for life,' " he explains. "We employ individual craftsman from developing countries, such as Indonesia, Africa, Columbia, and India, to manufacture unique furniture, cobblestones, iron gates, and furnishings throughout the Kura Hulanda. And although we don't expect the project to turn a profit for perhaps another 10 years, it will become self-sustaining."

With 160,000 residents from nearly 60 cultures, Curaçao's multicultural dynamics are highly prized, and places such as Kura Hulanda are fuelling island pride.

Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is postcard-pretty. Its seashore is lined with brightly painted 17th- and 18th-century homes, topped with curlicued gables and arched galleries, and set off by Dutch-perfect courtyards. The city is divided by the Santa Anna Bay. On one side is Punda, with shops, galleries, restaurants, and monuments. On the other side lies Otrabanda, one of the most historic areas of the Caribbean.

Otrabanda has a strong Jewish community, dating from settlers who sailed here to escape the Spanish and Portuguese inquisitions. The Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, built in 1732, is the oldest synagogue in continuous operation in the Western Hemisphere.

There's plenty to do farther afield on the island, too: visiting plantation houses; exploring underground caves; and taking a trip to Christoffel, a national park where orchids grow on cacti and tiny white-tailed deer may be spotted.

A hidden gem is Den Paradera, a 100-acre botanic garden where herbalist Dinah Veeris will invite you to crush leaves, taste petals, and learn more of a plant's properties. Because the garden is geared to teaching "the old ways" to a younger generation, her conversation is peppered with both science and traditional folklore.

Originally, the plan for the ABC islands was clear-cut, says Dekker. Aruba was for tourism, Bonair was a national park, and Curaçao, the largest, was the government seat and for industry, shipping, and education.

With the addition of Kura Hulanda and the emerging exploration of Curacao's rich and textured heritage, those boundaries are changing.

"It is my wish for a cultural change to take place among the population of Curacao in the coming years," says Dekker, whose philosophy in life is "Make peace with yourself and everything else will follow."

Many people now feel that partly because of Kura Hulanda, his wish for Curaçaons could very well become reality.

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