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‘Social deprivation on Curaçao deliberately maintained’

From the 19th century, Dutch colonisers on Curaçao relied heavily on the Catholic church. Missionaries provided not only teaching and spiritual care for the Catholic Afro-Caribbeans, they also ensured social order and peace. However, these benefits came at a price. The gap to good education and participation in socio-politics continued to be unbridgeable for many Curaçaoans, according to historian Margo Groenewoud. PhD defence 15 June.

‘The colonial objectives of the Catholic mission kept the biggest population group of Afro-Curaçaoans in deprivation until well into the 20th century,' says PhD candidate Margo Groenewoud whose research included oral history and archive studies. Groenewoud works at the University of Curaçao and is also an external PhD candidate at Leiden University. 'Until 1953, there was a double distinction in education that was prescribed in law: between schools in the cities and in the outer districts, and between 'poor' and 'paying' schools. Only the paying schools in the cities, where monks and nuns taught, has a proper teaching curriculum. And it was the missionaries who determined who was eligible to attend these schools. This had a detrimental effect on the many Catholic Afro-Curaçaoans, who made up around 85 per cent of the population in 1915. They were victims of a system of structural exclusion and selection based on Western and Catholic norms of what was good and what was tolerable.' 

Spill-over into society

Groenewoud studied how in the 20th century, after the opening of the oil refinery in 1915, the interests of the colonial government and business life on the small island increasingly determined the role of the Catholic church in society.  She also studied the influence this had on social development locally between 1915 and 1973. 

In the decades before the war, church, government and businesses shared the conviction that the Afro-Curaçaoans, the majority of whom lived in the more outlying areas, were not capable of - or had no need for - self-improvement. The general feeling was that even a minimum amount of education was undesirable. In the 1920s and 30s the colonial governors and industrialists were very concerned about the indigenous people possibly refusing to work. They did all in their power to stop them banding together and improving their knowledge. The church was instrumental in this.

Groenewoud's research shows that government and businesses ploughed a lot of money into the Catholic missions. At the same time, the refinery preferred bringing workers from the Netherlands or from neighbouring countries such as Suriname. It was not until the Second World War that local workers were employed, and the opportunities for their education were expanded. In the mid-1950s the island entered a long period of crisis which prolonged the socio-economic deprivation. 

Not focused on development

The attitude of the church throughout the period studied by Groenewoud was not focused structurally on social development, even when this started to have an effect elsewhere in the region. As a result, in large areas of society there was no real civil society. When, in the 1930s, a number of Catholic associations were formed for a relatively small urban middle class, this was fully under the auspices of the Church.

‘It's clear from publications, interviews and archive material,' Groenwoud explains, 'that until well into the 1950s church leaders believed that the Catholic Curaçaoans were not capable of social and political participation. They were not regarded as democratic citizens, and they needed someone to take care of them and think for them. The missionaries actually compared them to children who needed the absolute authority of a father.'

When the Catholic members of the population were given the right to vote in 1948, the Catholic church was taken completely by surprise: contrary to all expectations, the local people voted for nationalist representation. Even though the church subsequently lost ground, the influential position of the clergy was largely maintained until the end of the 1960s.