It seems almost unthinkable these days that the most elementary of rights—human rights—were once denied vast portions of the population worldwide. Nevertheless, this was precisely the most regrettable offshoot of the discovery of the New World by European powers, which established so profitable and widespread a system of human trafficking that ultimately it proved near impossible to reverse. In St. Martin the road to manumission was further complicated by the fact that it was a peripheral possession ruled by the dual interests of the French and Dutch governments. Consequently slavery was officially abolished not only once but twice on the island, first in 1848 (by France) and then 1863 (by the Netherlands).
Prior to those definitive moments, however, France flirted with the idea of ending slavery during the most radical days of the French Revolution, which officially decreed against the practice in 1794. The envoy charged with the mandate of enforcing the Revolution in the Caribbean was Victor Hugues, who set sail for Guadeloupe, at the time in British hands. Hugues proclaimed all slaves free and used this as a strategy to gather support for the revolutionary cause, wrestling control of Guadeloupe, Marie Galante, La Desirade, St. Lucia and Grenada from Britain. At this stage St. Martin was fully in Dutch hands but things would change in 1795, when the Republic of the United Netherlands was turned into the Batavian Republic, essentially a satellite state of France. A few months later, Victor Hugues’ troops invaded St. Martin but the French decided to respect all Dutch institutions, and while the Batavian Republic had ostensibly embraced the motto of equality, liberty and fraternity, its enthusiasm had fallen well short of echoing the revolutionary initiative for the freedom of all mankind. Thus, emancipation never quite reached St. Martin at the end of the XVIII century. Thus, too, the island’s approximately 4,000 slaves were spared the affront of having their rights revoked by Napoleon, who reinstituted slavery in the French colonies in 1802.
By this time, however, the controversy surrounding the subject was tremendous: Portugal had abolished slavery in mainland Portugal, Madeira, the Azores and its possession in the East Indies (but not Brazil) between 1761 and 1777; the British Society for the Abolition of the Slave Trade had been founded in 1787 and immediately created the Province of Freetown (modern day Sierra Leone) to resettle free black people from the rebellious United States; Denmark would make slave trade illegal in 1803, Britain in 1808, the Netherlands in 1814. Meanwhile, in Saint-Domingue (modern-day Haiti), the news of Napoleon’s edict to bring back slavery was greeted with a mighty rebellion. A similar situation unfolded in Guadeloupe, where an army of a few hundred freed slaves under the command of Louis Delgres held out against the French troops until they were cornered and for all purposes defeated, at which point they opted for immolation ahead of a return to servitude.
Slaves in St. Martin were never presented with this option but the progression even in the early days of the XIX century was towards a more humane rapport between slaves and masters. A number of factors contributed to this circumstance, not least the fact that slaves often toiled at the salt pans, a less excruciating and more sociable activity that cutting cane. Added to this, the official end of the slave trade by France in 1818 made it nearly impossible to replenish the workforce on the island by means other than smuggling—which admittedly was common practice. Nevertheless, during the first quarter of the XIX century there were around 100 plantations on St. Martin, one fourth of which had cane fields, and a population of roughly 350 white people, the majority of which were British. Thus, when Britain finally resolved to outlaw slavery in 1833 slaves suddenly found they were just a narrow strait away from relative freedom. Similarly, though the landscape in St. Martin might not be as intimidating as elsewhere in the region, marooning was still a regular practice among the most determined individuals on the island, as can be gathered from the legend of One-Tété Lohkay, a runaway slave who repeatedly escaped her owner’s estate on the Dutch side and defiantly set her camp, visible to all, on the hills above the plantations.
While all these variables conspired to create a special individual relationship between slaves and slave-owners in St. Martin that made it possible for the majority of the population to enjoy better conditions than in other islands, the reality was that institutionally these conditions had no legal bearing or support whatsoever. Indeed France would have to go through another revolution, the one of 1848, to finally breathe the necessary impetus into abolitionism. The key figure in this struggle was Victor Schoelcher, an avid activist who spent the best part of two decades fighting for the enfranchisement of slaves in France, and who was appointed in February by the new government to draft a decree proclaiming the abolition of slavery. The decree, which stipulated abolition to come into effect on August 3, was ready on April 27. By then, word of Schoelcher’s general designs had spread in the Caribbean and riots broke out in both Martinique and Guadeloupe. The news didn’t reach peripheral little St. Martin until weeks later, but when it did it sent the system of dual administration on the island into crisis, for it became immediately evident that keeping slaves on the Dutch side from crossing over to the French side would be entirely unfeasible.
Famous among the runaways are the Diamond Estate twenty-six, a group of slaves from Cole Bay who took to the bush and cut their way across Marigot Hill to claim their freedom. But the situation was, of course, not as simple as that: Schoelcher’s decree effectively bought the freedom of close to a quarter of a million people across the colonies and ultimately cost the French state 120 million francs, but not a single one of them would be invested in purchasing the liberty of slaves from other territories. Consequently, the Dutch authorities in St. Martin tried to cull the exodus to the French side through collaboration with the French authorities to return runaway slaves to their Dutch owners, while they requested their own government to emulate their French counterparts and devise a coherent strategy to do away with slavery. Unsurprisingly, faraway St. Martin did not hold enough sway in the affairs of the Netherlands to affect its colonial policy. Neither did Curacao, where major riots erupted through 1848. But the only true territory of consequence for the Dutch on the western hemisphere at this stage was Surinam, and things there remained quiet until the Netherlands also joined the abolitionist wagon in 1863.
Thus, for the fifteen years between 1848 and 1863 St. Martin, an island of roughly ninety square kilometers, was left in the unique and doubtless awkward situation of having to marry contradictory and incompatible practices. Not only was St, Martin too small to make this pairing viable, but the long-established agreements of free transit between the two sides of the island as well as the common ownership to its most important resources, the salt pans, meant that the relationship between French former slaves and Dutch not-yet-freed slaves was perfectly fluid. The practical ramifications of this were predictable: slaves on the Dutch side demanded conditions that were comparable to those of employed workers on the other side of the island. In other words, the system of forced labor had expired in St. Martin, or at least it was doomed to live out its last days.
This has led to the generalized claim that, to all extent and purposes, slavery was abolished in St. Martin in 1848. While an argument can be made that this indeed was the case in terms of the mercantile relationship between slave-owner and slave, master and vassal, the fact remains that individuals catalogued as slaves in the Dutch side of St. Martin through the 1850s essentially had no rights, no claims, no legitimate existence under the law outside of what was granted to them with the consent of their master. Evidently, this aspect of slavery is far removed from the lacerating image of blood-drawing whips and shackles normally associated to the system, but an aspect that must still be regarded as immensely significant, insofar as it concerns human dignity.
Both the fact that slaves in St. Martin were practically free and that the institution of slavery was still current on the island by the time the Dutch finally resolved to terminate it in 1863 were tacitly acknowledged by the government when it paid slave-owners on Dutch St. Martin for 1,878 slaves at the rate of 100 guilders per slave. Though a substantial improvement on the first offer of 30 guilders per slave, the resources allocated to St. Martin by the Dutch bursary were almost nominal compared to the 200 guilders it paid for each of the roughly 6,000 slaves in Curacao and the 300 guilders per slave it put aside for the close to 35,000 slaves freed in Surinam.
And yet, nominal or not, the gesture was laden with great symbolic meaning. Obviously it was a means of protecting private property, and as such it clearly played into the interests of the planters. But at the same time it also constituted recognition—deliberate or not—for a group of people that for too long had remained oppressed. Belated, partial, insufficient as this recognition might have been, it signaled the successful end of a mighty struggle of close to seventy years and marked the beginning of a new chapter in the history of this island—a chapter, by the by, that is still in the making.
Published in the first issue of Patina magazine in January 2016.