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Travelling Caribbean heritage under the microscope

What does it mean to be Aruban, Bonairian or Curaçaoan? In the Traveling Caribbean Heritage project historian Gert Oostindie studies this question together with PhD candidate Joeri Arion and heritage specialist Valika Smeulders. Other researchers and the islanders themselves are also collaborating in the research.

Typically Curaçaoan

The familiar quayside with the pastel-coloured facades in Willemstad, or the local dance performances that hotels arrange for guests. For tourists, these may be typically Curaçaoan, but what do the local inhabitants regard as typical? Thanks to an NWO subsidy, the Traveling Caribbean heritage project, headed by Gert Oostindie, can get under way. Oostindie is Professor of Colonial and Postcolonial History in Leiden and Director of the KITLV (Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies). 

Research together with the Antillians

In spite of the close relationship with the Netherlands, relatively little research has been carried out on the Caribbean part of the Kingdom, he explains. 'And the people of the islands were not at all happy with the research that was done: it may well have been research about them, but not with them. That's why we now work closely with Antillians who live there or who come from there.' The team, together with the islanders, is studying how documentation about and reflection on heritage can contribute to developing inclusive societies. It's about research in the broadest sense, including buildings, history, music, dance and literature. 

Joeri Arion

What determines identity?

A lively debate is going on in the Leeward Islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao about what determines their identity, PhD candidate Joeri Arion explains. He grew up on Curaçao. The centuries-long migrations from and to the three islands have had a strong influence on the culture of the inhabitants. Their post-colonial status, nation-forming and tourism also play a role. Arion charts this change process and works closely together with local partners, including the universities of Curaçao and Aruba. The islands' heritage institutions indicate via a questionnaire what they consider to be important. 

Some forms of Antillian heritage, such as the Summer Carnival in Rotterdam, are very popular among other Dutch groups. Photo: Wikimedia

Building expertise

A conference will be held in September of this year at which these institutions will discuss which areas warrant further research. The research team is also educating local trainees to involve young Antillians expressly in their heritage. Oostindie: ‘This project is not only scientific, it also corresponds with social questions and aims to build local expertise.' 

Living heritage

Heritage specialist Valika Smeulders (born on Curaçao) is examining how Antillians in the Netherlands experience their culture. ‘They cherish their immaterial heritage, such as the traditional dishes, the language, the celebrations and the dancing. For them, this is an integral part of who they are. What's interesting is that this culture does not stand still, and here and there it has a twist of its own. Some types  of Antillian heritage, such as the Summer Carnival in Rotterdan, are very popular among other Dutch groups.’ The project does not aim to produce a definitive inventory. 'We study living heritage and don't want it to become ossified by classifying it rigidly.' 

Valika Smeulders

Complex identity issues 

The identity of the island inhabitants is not easy to define. The many changes in the relationship with the Netherlands makes it a complex issue, according to Arion. The intensive migration between the Antilles and the Netherlands also plays a major role: people can feel at home 'here' as well as 'there' - or neither.  Smeulders adds that many Spanish-speaking migrants from the Caribbean regional settle on the islands, and they too influence the language and the culture. 

Recognise diversity

The research is made even more complex by the fact that there are many differences between the islands themselves, and even within a single island or population group there is not always a consensus on how to handle heritage, Oostindie explains. Antillian organisations in the Netherlands proposed applying a standard spelling for Papiamento, because the islands each had their own spelling. But the islanders themselves were not enthusiastic about this proposal by Antillians in the Netherlands. Is there likely to be some tension at the conference in September? Arion comments: 'Recognising the individual differences is an important principle of this project.'

Since 2010, the status of some islands has changed. Curaçao and  Sint Maarten were independent countries within the Kingdom of the Netherlands (Aruba had this status much earlier, in 1986). Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba have become special municipalities of the Netherlands.  

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