Friday, May 29th

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The more things change, the more they remain the same

~ Police in the Windward Islands ~


By Jessica Vance Roitman


Two recent items in the media caught my attention: the first was Mr. Will Johnson’s latest post on his blog, The Saba Islander. He wrote about the fact that the Dutch colonial governor in Curaçao used to write to the Commander of Saba in English, thereby respecting the fact that he was governing an English-speaking territory. Mr. Johnson laments that things have changed since the 1860s. The understanding – exemplified by this employment of English in official correspondence – which used to exist between those who exercised Dutch colonial authority and those they governed in the Windward Islands, seems to have faded away.


Mr. Johnson was likely looking at some of the same documents I’ve recently seen at the National Archives in Curaçao. While some of these records, as Mr. Johnson’s blog shows, do illustrate that things have changed over the last 150 years or so, other accounts in the archives vividly demonstrate the dictum that “The more things change, the more they remain the same” – which brings me to the second piece of interesting news.


This was the article that appeared on the NTR’s Caribbean Network about how Statians were very critical of the 10/10/10 constitutional reforms. One of the critiques the people of St. Eustatius voiced to the visiting researcher from a Curaçao consultancy working for the Dutch Social and Cultural Planning Bureau had to do with the police – or lack thereof – on the island. They explained that they felt unsafe because there were no full-time agents on the island, and that the police have to be sent from Bonaire – 900 kilometres away.


What struck me about this article, other than the fact that, ironically, it is not available in English because the Caribbean Network only publishes in Dutch and Papiamentu, was how much things have remained the same on the Windward Islands. The archives are full of complaints from the residents about the lack of police. Take, for instance, the letter sent from the residents of St. Maarten to the Dutch colonial Governor on Curaçao on September 24, 1851. They felt they needed police on the island and detailed the constant threats to their lives and property because there was no organized force for their protection (National Archive of Curaçao [AN NAC] 3756 Ingekomen brieven van particulieren uit St. Maarten, 1845-1851).


Not much seems to have changed nearly seven years later when the Lt. Governor on St. Maarten acknowledged an address from the inhabitants of the Dutch side of the island made four days before, in which they represented their grievances about the absence of a police force on the island – an absence dating back to 1848. The Lt. Governor promised to send their petition on to the Governor in Curaçao. The Governor read their address, but no police were sent.


It wasn’t just the residents of St. Maarten who wanted police on their island (a call that seems to have been answered as of late). The Commander of Saba had a long-running, and largely futile, correspondence (in English) with the Governor in Curaçao about police. On May 15, 1861, he asked for three or four police who could speak English (AN NAC 4 Gouverneur 103 RT). The Governor wrote back the following month with the vague reply: “With regard to your letter dated the 15th of May 1861, relative to the necessity of a police force of three or four men who can speak English on your island, I have the honour to inform you that ... I don’t deem it advisable to anticipate when the measures [sending police] are to be taken at this time” (No 40 6/10 – 11 June 1861 – to Gezaghebber of Saba). In short, the Sabans were not getting police, English-speaking or otherwise, any time soon.


Without any law enforcement on the island, the Commander had to act as a policeman himself. In the vain hope that the Dutch colonial government in Curaçao would recognize the enormity of the problem, the Commander wrote this woeful report a year later: “On the 31st of May when in the exercise of my duty against . . . a man and a woman, for overbearing language to me, the former took up a stone and the latter raised a hoe against me. I succeeded to place them in prison. But with much difficulty, being obliged to act as a policeman to effect it.” (AN NAC 4 Gouverneur 103 RT) Perhaps anticipating another hollow reply from Curaçao, the Commander, in long-running Windward Islands’ tradition, took matters into his own hands. He made the decision to hire several local men to act as police, with the hope that he would eventually receive money to pay for them.


In November, the beleaguered Commander might have thought his hopes had been answered. He confirmed that he received the letter with the Governor’s orders that f. 200 would be given so that the island’s prison might be repaired and to pay for the two policemen who had been hired. However, the Lt. Governor of St. Eustatius who was authorized to transfer the money did not have the funds in his coffers to give to Saba. After nearly a decade of back and forth between Saba and Curaçao, in September of 1869, a rather exasperated Governor bluntly told the Commander of Saba that if he wanted to appoint police, then to do so, but that the colonial government would not pay for them! (No. 56 14/24 – 6 September 1869).


In these vignettes from the mid-19th century, we can see the applicability of another quote, so relevant to history: “There is nothing new under the sun.” The issue of policing on the Windward Islands is nothing new. It has been an ongoing one for a century and a half. And if history is any guide, the people of Statia may not want to hold their breath waiting for more police on their island. After all, “history happens twice because people didn’t listen the first time.”


Dr. Jessica Vance Roitman is a historian working at the Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) in Leiden, Netherlands. Her research is part of the Confronting Caribbean Challenges project.