- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2004

WILLEMSTAD, Curacoa, Netherlands Antilles. — There is no doubt as to the horrible scars left by the evils of slavery in the world and more particularly on the Western Hemisphere.

Some countries have chosen to try and bury their past under decades of history, hoping to somehow eclipse a dark chapter in mankind’s book. However, the tiny island of Curacao (population 120,000), which is part of the Netherlands Antilles, is confronting the topic with what is possibly the world’s largest museum dedicated to chronicling the history of slavery.

At the time of the lucrative slave trade, the island’s tiny capital, Willemstad, used to be a busy center where European ships, each carrying about 300 slaves, arrived daily to deliver their human cargo.

It was here, in Willemstad, that African slaves were first brought, given Christian names before being shipped on and sold to plantation owners in Cuba and North America, says Leo Helms, the museum’s architect. Slavery in the Netherlands Antilles was abolished in 1890, but until recently, both blacks and whites on the island were reluctant to discuss the Dutch territory’s shameful past, believing it would be best forgotten.

That was until a Dutch philanthropist and businessman by the name of Jacob Gent Dekker found old documents pertaining to the slave trade in a part of Willemstad called Otrabanda, which he had set out to develop.

From there sprung a concept that then took a couple of years to materialize and turn into what, he says, is the world’s largest museum dedicated to the memory of those millions of Africans who were uprooted from their homes and shamefully sold as merchandise.

In two years, the museum and its adjoining hotel — part of a once-decaying, drug-infested section of Willemstad — are to be designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Mr. Dekker’s ambitious and unique project is highly commendable. It comes at a time when man’s inhumanity to his fellow man continues unabated in Haiti, the Middle East, not to mention, or forget, the fact that to this day, that slavery continues to flourish in parts of Africa; in Sudan and Mauritania, more specifically.

According to several reports, slavery is still widespread in those two African countries. In Mauritania, more than 100,000 Africans are still enslaved. A simple Google search of “modern-day slavery,” will reveal several hundreds of thousands of Internet Web sites dedicated to this plague.

Trafficking in human beings, particularly women for prostitution, has become a $9-billion-a-year global business, according to one U.N. report.

According to iabolish.com, an anti-slavery Web site, “Slavery occurs in every continent in the world except Antarctica.” The Web site reports that in Albania teen-age girls are tricked into sex slavery and trafficked by organized crime rings; in Brazil, families are lured into the rain forest and forced at gunpoint to burn trees into charcoal; in Myanmar, the ruling military junta enslaves its own people to build infrastructure projects, some benefiting U.S. corporations; in the Dominican Republic, Haitians are rounded up at random, taken across the border and forced to cut cane in sugar plantations; in Ghana, families repent for sins by giving daughters as slaves to fetish priests; in India, children trapped in debt bondage roll beedi cigarettes 14 hours a day; in Mauritania, Arab Berbers buy and sell blacks as inheritable property; in Pakistan and Iran, children with nimble fingers are forced to weave carpets.

Alas, the list goes on.

Any action that brings this terrible human tragedy to light should be applauded and encouraged. In fact, L. Douglas Wilder, the former governor of Virginia — and the first black American governor in U.S. history and a recent visitor to the Curacao museum — was so impressed he asked the architect of the Netherlands Antilles slavery museum to contribute to a similar project being built in Fredericksburg. The U.S. National Slavery Museum is projected to begin construction in November of this year and scheduled to open in March 2007.

As Black History Month comes to a close, one can only give support to such a venture. There are some stories that should just not be forgotten.

Claude Salhani is UPI’s international editor.

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