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FEATURE ARTICLES: TRAVEL: Curacao Museum Charts History of Slavery

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Curacao museum charts history of slavery: [STATE Edition]

by STAN SINBERG. St. Petersburg Times.
St. Petersburg, Fla. pg. 3.E Full Text (875 words)

Jacob Gelt Dekker was contemplating where to put the swimming pool in his new hotel when his world turned upside down.

"While building, I discovered a wharf that used to be used for slave-trading," he recalls. "I couldn't ignore this."

Curacao was involved in the slave trade for more than 400 years. So Dekker abandoned his plan for the swimming pool and built the Museum Kura Hulanda (it translates as Dutch Courtyard). This anthropological museum, opened in April 1999, deals with the origins of civilization. Its most unusual feature, however, is a wing dedicated to the history of slavery.

Here are hundreds of artifacts: a newspaper published by American abolitionist Frederick Douglass; another newspaper with the equivalent of today's classified ads that lists slaves for sale; a bloodied Ku Klux Klan robe and hood; many photos; letters written by slaves, and drawings dealing with the Western Hemisphere's slave trade

A timeline tells the story: Curacao became a Dutch colony in 1634, and Peter Stuyvesant (of Nieuw Amsterdam fame) was appointed its first governor. The Dutch West India Co. purchased enslaved Africans and transported them across the Atlantic, where they were kept in Curacao an average of two months before being sold to wealthy plantation owners in the American colonies, as well as to slave traders in South America.

There was a slave rebellion in 1797 that began with about 50 slaves and involved more than 1,000 before it ended weeks later. In 1863, slavery was abolished in Curacao. In 1954, Curacao became self- governing.

The most dramatic exhibit in the museum is the full-size slave galley that sits in the basement. A dark, dank, airless hold with low ceilings and no bathroom, it is where about 100 Africans at a time would be kept in shackles and chains for four to six weeks during the voyage to the New World.

Another wing of the museum details the origin of man, exhibiting African fossils and skulls. Another hall is titled "The Lands of Abraham," and its signage claims it shows some of the first writing ever recorded.

Dekker, a thin, blond, intense-looking man, whisks visitors through 5,000 years of civilization in an hour, uttering sweeping statements in an off-the-cuff manner:

"The first writing was in order to collect taxes, to keep records," he says."After that, writing was used to record wishes and desires."

He adds that this formed the basis for religious doctrine. In a room chronicling the rise of Islam, Dekker says the religion spread partly because Muslim conquerors came with "superior hygiene," such as glazed cups that didn't require a thorough washing after each use. Thus, Muslims did not fall ill so often, and they lived longer.

Formerly a dentist, Dekker said that he made his fortune opening 120 "one-hour photo" shops in Europe. Then, he said, he sold them to Kodak.

After that, he said, he circumnavigated the globe numerous times pursuing business interests and artifacts for his museum.

Along with the museum, Dekker built a multiblock complex in Otrobanda, which is part of the main city of Willemstad. Dekker transformed a dilapidated scene into a vibrant area that includes a hotel, deluxe Indian restaurant and bar. He has published a book of African children's stories.

Curacao's main town, Willemstad, was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. At least some of the credit goes to the preservation of its pastel-colored buildings, which have a history:

Gov. Peter Stuyvesant suffered from migraine headaches, which he attributed to the sun reflecting off the town's white-painted buildings. He ordered the residents to paint them any other color, and the brilliant pastels are the result.

Willemstad is divided into two sections, Punda and Otrobanda, which are linked by the Queen Emma Bridge. This 19th century pontoon bridge opens about 30 times daily to let ships through, but it doesn't rise like most bridges. The bridge swings out to about a 45- degree angle.

Watching the attendants loosen the bridge's moorings so it can jut into St. Anna Bay - with pedestrians still on the bridge - is quite a sight.

Another historical highlight is the Mikve Israel-Emanuel Temple, built in 1651. This is said to be the oldest, continuously used synagogue in the Western hemisphere. An adjacent museum contains centuries-old circumcision instruments, yellow Stars of David that Jews had to wear in Nazi-occupied Holland (Curacao belonged to the Netherlands into the 1950s) and other artifacts from the Old World.

Curacao also has several good restaurants perched on hilltops, on the sites of former military defenses such as Fort Waakzaamheid and Fort Nassau. These were built to protect the island from pirates in the 19th century and were used by the United States during World War II.

Stan Sinberg is a freelance writer living in Mill Valley, Calif.

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