By Margaret King Zacharias
I did hear the bells ringing. I just did not expect to leap across the widening gap in an opening pontoon drawbridge. I did not expect to be surrounded by uniformed police officers wearing riot helmets and carrying rifles, on the other side.
Most people who visit Curacao head straight for the pristine beaches, the floating fresh fish and vegetable markets, the distilleries where the island's famous liquer is produced. I was on my way to the Slavery Museum.
When I first heard the bells, my mind went straight back to Knox College, listening to the cast bronze bell that sits atop Old Main ring out our years from 1968 to 1972.(1)
I wondered if it rang on October 7, 1858, to herald the Fifth Debate between future-President Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. I was thinking about Lincoln's response to Douglas:
"I belong to that class who contemplate slavery as a moral, social and political evil."(2)
I'd already been told about the serious efforts underway in Curacao, to clean up the drug traffic from Venezuela. I certainly didn't expect to find storm troopers lined up all along the Punda Handelskade with their guns pointed -- just in case -- at every Venezuelan vessel passing through the bridge that links the Otrabanda and Punda districts of Willemstadt.
But most of all, I did not anticipate the power of Kura Hulanda Museum.
The brainchild of Dutch entrepreneur Jacob Gelt Dekker, and part of a complex that includes luxury hotels and gourmet restaurants, this anthropological museum is the only one of its kind in the world.
Walkways through shade provided by a grove of fruit-bearing banana palms led to quiet meditation areas around a central courtyard. A sculptural profile that suggested a face with African features presided above the open-air plaza, the contemporary centerpiece of the museum's multiple galleries. Its countenance seemed to gaze with sorrow and compassion at the stories told inside the gallery walls.
The first gallery was filled with examples of the earliest known forms of human writing. An engraved cornerstone, three feet wide and two feet deep, recorded 20 different transactions in barley. Another wide piece, probably prepared for a funeral, gave testimony to how a man lived his life.
In addition to these large stones which served public purposes, another case in the same room displayed smaller mineral slabs; cone-shaped stones, notebook-sized stones, memo pad stones, pebbles that could be held in the palm. Each of approximately fifty stones in this large glass case was covered in the same ancient script; yet each was clearly graven in the writer's own hand.
Although these stones had not been translated, they evoked a picture of people not so different from us today. I could easily imagine them carving out their reminders, grocery lists, sales slips, and observations as they went about their daily activities, just like we carry around our smart phones and ipads today.
In the next room of this gallery, surrounded by vessels -- jugs, pitchers, vases and bowls in the shapes of animals -- stood a magnificent bronze frieze, as tall as I am, and wider.
The frieze depicted a hunter in stance, his arms raised up to shoulder level. In each hand he grasped a living lion by one hind leg.
The lions' heads were turned back in raging snarls towards the hunter. Their second hind legs clawed ineffectually behind the hunter's hip. His face held the serene and satisfied expression of a man in control of his own destiny.
As I walked back into the central plaza, I discovered a second gallery, this one an open-air hut. It contained comfortable looking antique wooden chairs, carved in the shapes of elephants, with their companion table. They invited me to sit down and stay awhile. I accepted the invitation, sat down, and stared in shock.
Arranged on simple metal pedestals, at the secluded side of the hut and not readily visible from the plaza, resided twenty-three skulls. Their bony eye sockets stared down at me with eerie wisdom.
Display tags reported that among these skulls were an ancestor of the monkey, a modern monkey; an ancestor of the baboon, a modern baboon; Australopithecus (a representative of the first hominids scientists recognize as vaguely human, although they were probably hunted by saber tooth tigers rather than hunters themselves; Homo Erectus, who first stood upright; Homo habilus, the first tool maker; and Homo Sapiens himself, the species to which all modern human beings belong.
Most of these skulls were intact, and many still had teeth.
Although anthropologists distinguish the evolutionary species of man by technical characteristics such as prominence of brow ridges; to the casual observer -- me -- all of these cranial remnants looked disconcertingly alike.
After recovering from skull shock, I slipped through a glass door, into a third gallery not identified by a sign. I found myself staring at the life-size statue of an exquisitely garbed woman, probably once the figurehead of a sailing ship, holding a torch aloft.
Above the wood statue, words were painted on the wall:
"Venice center of North African Slave Trade -- Black-a-Moor."
The quality of the woman's painted garments reflected the wealth and taste of Venice. Representations of sleek satin, gold fringe, and embroidered flowers adorned her costume. This ebony woman held her head high, and she had a charming smile on her face.
Moving further into the gallery, I found old pictures and Bills of Carriage describing the historical Dutch slave trade. Each was meticulously matted and framed.
Along the full length of this large rectancular room, these documents alternated with well-preserved examples of forged-iron handcuffs, leg shackles, gang chains; and collars with protruding styluses inserted into them to hamper the wearer's movement through a forest, as well as to prevent sleep.
A tiny pair of handcuffs, precisely created to restrain very small bones, hung by itself on one wall.
A beautiful example of the traditional plantation owner's costume was displayed in this same gallery, with equal care. At the end of the room, an exquisitely-rendered, five-foot long model of the ships that transported slaves to these Caribbean islands rested quietly in a glass case.
In another gallery across the courtyard, antique Ku Klux Klan robes and hoods hung on department store dummies, surrounded by framed newspaper stories about the Abolition movement in the United States. Old bloodstains, still visible on the robes, told their own story.
I did not have enough time to visit the many other galleries devoted to Africa in Maps, African Kingdoms, Religions, Dogon Cultures, and Benin Bronze.
But before I departed, I stepped into the small room, three feet by five, marked with this sign:
"Medical Hut - a place where slaves were taken when they were ill, and when they had been beaten."
The mirror across the back wall, thoughtfully provided by the owner to reduce claustrophobia for visitors, was not an original feature.
As I wandered away, back into the hospitality and vitality of Curaco today, I meditated about why the museum's touring route began with the sign: "Children of Abraham."
The ancient Sumerians, whose writing tablets I had so much admired in the first gallery, took as their slaves many other early tribes of the Middle East.
Hebrews, who were taken as slaves by the Egyptians and Babylonians, kept slaves themselves under their great King David.
Kura Hulanda's creator Jacob Gelt Dekker's ancestors, and those of many contemporary Europeans, were taken as slaves to the Roman Empire.
The drugs modern Curacao is so determined to keep from its shores are enslaving Homo sapiens around the world right now.
Salvery is a human problem, shifting only its geography through history.
Human trafficking (for sex and forced labor) is the second largest criminal industry (after drug trafficking) in the world today. And it's the fastest growing. Lest anyone believe that only the Third World is at risk, it's a fact that several American cities are among the top three targets in the world, for human traffickers these days. (3)
According to UNICEF, there are nearly two million children held hostage in the commercial sex trade. An estimated 600,000 children, women, and men are trafficked across international borders annually.(4)
The International Justice Mission works to raise consciousness in today's world, and acts to rescue these captives, whenever and wherever they can be located.(5)
I keep in my heart a vision of the Black-a-Moor woman, her clear eyes looking past her particular place in history. Her right arm was curved wide to embrace humanity, her indomitable courage held up her head, and her left hand lifted high her torch, to enlighten the 21st Century.
Abraham Lincoln's work, begun on the lawn of Old Main at Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois on a rainy autumn day in 1858, is still not finished.
Toll the Bell.(6)
1. See http://www.knox.edu/about-knox/we-are-knox/our-traditions.html
2. See http://lbrary.knox.edu/archives/localhistory/ld_debate.htm
3. See http://ijm.org/sites/default/files/resources/Factsheet-Sex-Trafficking.pdf
6. This essay is originally based on a visit to Kura Hulanda Curacao in March 2004. The author's knowledge about the extent of contemporary human trafficking is indebted to a program organized by Loralee Scott-Conforti at the Assisi Institute in Brattleboro, VT, in May, 2012.
Copyright Margaret King Zacharias, 2012
Originally published in 40 Years After Catch
Special Edition, Catch Literary Journal
By Knox College, Galesburg, Illinois