Readers will welcome Curaçao in the Age of Revolutions, 1795–1800, which analyzes a period of much importance to Curaçao. Each chapter approaches the island’s major slave revolt of 1795 and related events (1795–1800) from a different perspective. The slave revolt began on the Kenepa plantation, one of the largest plantations located on the western part of the island at that time.
Editors Wim Klooster and Gert Oostindie preface the collection with an introduction that wastes no time in letting us know why they call the 1795–1800 period “the five years that rocked Curaçao.” During this tumultuous period a series of uprisings took place, produced by a combination of internal and external factors, in which both free and enslaved people participated with differing objectives.
As Oostindie acknowledges in the first chapter, the slave revolt of 1795 connects past and present and is central in the modern-day Curaçaoan discourse on nation-building. After describing earlier slave uprisings in Curaçao, he situates the 1795 revolt within the context of political developments in Europe and argues that too much emphasis has been placed on its liberating effect through what he calls “after-the-fact glorification.” To him, it is not entirely clear whether the revolt, despite its forcefulness and disruptiveness, changed Dutch perceptions of the enslaved as human beings. Contrary to Oostindie, Curaçaoan sociologist and historian A.F. (Jandie) Paula has argued that although the revolt did not lead to freedom for the slaves, the colonial government could no longer ignore their complaints and immediately enacted legal measures aimed at improving their living conditions (Paula 1974, 1976, 2012). So the slaves’ struggle certainly was not in vain. The revolt also had symbolic significance in dispelling the myths that slaves were passive and submissive creatures and that slavery was a system accepted by all in society.
David Geggus’s chapter extends the inquiry to slave rebellions in the Americas more generally. He argues that the Curaçaoan revolt stands out among the others because more than 1,000 slaves participated in the revolt and he points to the fact that this small island accounts for two of the eight or nine major slave rebellions in the Americas. (Geggus presumably includes the slave rebellion that took place on Curaçao’s Hato plantation in 1750–1751.) He concludes that the Curaçaoan revolt of 1795 did not hasten the end of slavery, considering that slavery was not abolished in the Dutch Caribbean until 1863.
Wim Klooster posits that the French revolutionary ideas of the late eighteenth century had more impact on free people of color in the Caribbean than on the enslaved. The latter were more influenced by persistent rumors of slave liberation elsewhere in the region and the belief that the local authorities and slave-owners were withholding freedom from them. The Curaçaoan enslaved heard about the Revolution in Saint-Domingue through free colored Curaçaoans who worked in French-Caribbean colonial ports at that time. Klooster also notes that members of Curaçao’s black population were involved in slave conspiracies in places as far away as Louisiana and Cuba, as commerce and seamanship connected Curaçao to other European colonies in the Americas.
Linda Rupert’s article shows that some people of African descent in Curaçao maintained a strong regional, intercolonial network through illicit trade with the South American mainland, in particular the area of Coro in present-day Venezuela. These connections also enabled enslaved persons from Curaçao to flee to this area where they were granted freedom. However, by the 1790s these fugitives came to be seen as a threat to Spanish colonial interests rather than as useful geographical pawns. Rupert’s case study of José Caridad González, one of the leaders of the 1795 slave rebellion in Coro, sheds light on the way the Curaçaoan revolt of 1795 fits within this wider, regional context.
Ramón Aizpura’s essay analyzes the complex, dense relationship between Venezuela and Curaçao in the period under study—a relationship that was characterized by social and political conflict within the context of the threat that Great Britain and France posed to these countries. This analysis too provides a fruitful background for understanding the 1795 revolts in both Coro and Curaçao.
Karwan Fatah-Black turns to the confrontation between the military and the urban free whites of Willemstad that occurred just before the 1795 slave revolt as well as in the year after the revolt. He elaborates on the different forms in which the Orangist (pro-Dutch), the pro-English, and the pro-French elites on the island gave expression to their respective European loyalties.
The last chapter, by Han Jordaan, takes us to the conspiracy of 1799 through which two French agents from Saint-Domingue and one French merchant resident in Curaçao attempted to overthrow the island’s government and liberate the enslaved. In that period Curaçao was caught between conflicting international political and commercial interests, based on the complicated situation that emerged when French privateers seized American ships in the port of Curaçao and provoked an American naval response.
This fine collection is a valuable addition to the literature on the Revolutionary Age of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to the literature on slave uprisings in the Americas in general, and to the specific literature on the Curaçaoan slave revolt of 1795. The essays introduce new source material and analyze existing sources from new perspectives. Although the international approach of the volume should be applauded, it is unfortunate that the book does not include any article by an author from Curaçao. Also missing is more information and analysis from the vantage point of the enslaved, which would further deepen our understanding of this and other slave revolts and related social developments and historical processes.
Paula, A.F. (ed.), 1974. De slavenopstand op Curaçao: Een bronnenuitgave van de originele overheidsdocumenten. Curaçao: Centraal Historisch Archief.
Paula, A.F. 1976. Comparative Perspectives on Slavery in New World Plantation Societies: From Slave Revolution to Slave Laws. Curaçao: Centraal Historisch Archief.
Paula, A.F, 2012. Pensamentunan djayera resonando den aktualidat: Kolekshon di charla—diskurso—ponensia—remetido—entrevista—i artikulo for di korant. Curaçao: Stichting Publicaties Jandie Paula.