Development & Aid, Headlines, Human Rights, Indigenous Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

CARIBBEAN: Recognising the Legacy of Slavery

Orlando Matos

HAVANA, May 30 2006 (IPS) - Slavery is inextricably intertwined with the history of the countries of the Caribbean, and a new Sites of Memory on the Slave Route project is focusing on the African influence in Aruba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Cuba.

The project, sponsored by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation), will put a special emphasis on cultural diversity, development and the cultural legacy of the African diaspora.

Frederic Vacheron, a cultural expert in UNESCO’s Havana office, told IPS that the originality of the initiative lies in the fact that “besides the physical locations, we have decided to incorporate the immaterial patrimony of these sites.”

The dances, songs and traditions inherited from African slaves, as well as the oral and intangible patrimony, will be prioritised in the first stage of the project, in 2006-2007.

The project, launched this month in the Cuban capital, proposes a limit of five sites per country to be developed and eventually turned into cultural tourism destinations. These will be added to the sites already registered on the world heritage list, besides the masterpieces related to the memory of slavery already recognised by UNESCO.

Between 2001 and 2005, the organisation recognised 90 masterpieces, including 17 in Latin America and the Caribbean, representing oral expressions and traditions, music and dance, rituals and mythology, knowledge and practices related to nature and the universe, and traditional crafts.

Vacheron said the project will keep alive the memory of “the tragedy of slavery” while studying the sites as “cultural spaces” and important monuments and reference points of Caribbean culture.

The initiative is a continuation of the Slave Route Project which got underway in September 1994 in Ouidah, a city in the West African nation of Benin, “to study closely the profound causes and modalities of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade andàto underline the interactions generated by it, in the Americas and the West Indies.”

The new project will specifically shed light on the history and effects of slavery in the Caribbean.

Olga Diez, an archaeologist at the University of Barcelona, said “there is still much to be done to recognise this part of African culture, the heritage that slavery brought.”

Diez acknowledged that “there is more awareness than there was 10 years ago,” and said she was confident that “another 10 years will not be needed to further raise consciousness” on the influence of the slave trade and slaves in the region.

It is estimated that by the mid-19th century, at least 20 million Africans had become the direct victims of the slave trade, a phenomenon that the United Nations recognised in 2001 as a crime against humanity.

“In Aruba, people don’t want to remember the problem of slavery,” Luc Alofs, curator of the National Museum of History in that country, told IPS. “The current composition of the population, where the European and Amerindian heritage is predominant, fuels that,” he added.

Nevertheless, Alofs said that “in recent years there have been changes, and we are working on identifying sites” to keep alive the memory of the African legacy on the island.

In the Dominican Republic, an inventory of sites and places of memory related to the slave trade and slavery is being drawn up, including indigenous settlements along the slave route, because the two groups “coexisted,” said Clenis Tavarez, an official at the Museum of Dominican Man in the Dominican Republic.

As Vacheron explained, the project is not limited to the identification of sites, but will also focus on themes that reflect, for example, the link between African and indigenous cultures.

In Curaçao, which forms part of the slave route but is not included in the Caribbean Regional Slave Route Project, the importance of the influence of slaves has long been recognised. According to Lionel Janga, an expert from that country, “for 30 to 40 years, Curaçao has commemorated everything that has to do with slavery, and we have different heritage sites that we have focused on.”

Despite the political and social unrest it has suffered over the past few years, Haiti is also supporting the project. In that nation, “there are no places or towns where the imprints of slavery cannot be found,” said Laennec Hurbon, coordinator of the National Haitian Committee for the Slave Route Project.

Cuba has published more than 270 studies and articles on the subject and has identified 735 locations that mark the African heritage on the island, reported Jesús Guanche, a researcher at the Fernando Ortiz Foundation, a non-governmental Cuban cultural institution.

Guanche called for a deeper study of the “trans-American” slave trade “that inevitably links all of us, in a number of different ways,” and enables us “to outline the cultural diversity generated in the shape of inter-American and Caribbean ties.”

“The Slave Route is aimed at fomenting intercultural dialogue and pluralism in the broadest sense of the word,” and at leaving behind the taboo of talking about slavery, said Vacheron.

“This is an issue that everyone approaches as a cultural question, recognising that it was a tragedy, but that it also left a legacy that we must preserve and revive in future years,” the UNESCO official added.

The first results of the project include the publication of inventories of heritage sites in the participating countries, which in the longer term will also be used for other purposes, such as the development of cultural tourism based on the Slave Route and the creation of itineraries that would grant the project a socioeconomic dimension and make it self-sustainable, said Vacheron.

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