The Lifeways of Enslaved People in Curaçao, St Eustatius, and St Martin

In recent years, archaeologists have demonstrated that they can help to deconstruct dominant heritage narratives and develop new ones which are more nuanced and sensitive to both past and present stakeholder and subaltern communities. In this study, material culture from excavated enslaved villages, human remains from excavated enslaved cemeteries, and oral histories from participant interviews, were used to construct alternative narratives of the lifeways of enslaved people on the Dutch Caribbean islands of Curaçao, St Eustatius, and St Maarten/St Martin. The use of qualitative data in a thematic analysis facilitated nuanced understandings of many aspects of enslaved lifeways and allowed comparisons to be made between the islands and between the various datasets as well as between the study area and other regions of the Caribbean and the wider Americas. On each island, the research provided a perspective lacking in the existing literature: in St Maarten/St Martin the evidence indicated that enslaved people here had highly complex spiritual, cultural, and communal lifeways which were intricately linked with the island landscape; in St Eustatius the evidence indicated that enslaved people experienced high levels of stress despite periods of economic and material wealth; and in Curaçao the evidence indicated that the social structures of Atlantic slavery persisted well into the 20th century. Overall, the study demonstrates that narratives describing slavery in the Dutch Caribbean as ‘mild’ have neglected many of the physical and psychological aspects of enslavement for which there is ample evidence. The new narrative presented here is therefore important for our understanding of Dutch Caribbean heritage and structures of modern slavery, the development of island identities, and positive social and political change.