Being a child in slavery

Series Cultural Heritage

katibu

Someone, who wants to study the historical development of the enslaved child on Curaçao, will not easily find direct historical material regarding this particular group. The traditional sources hardly mention the social life of these children. In general, historiography has neglected children. Furthermore, the social life of the enslaved has not been properly documented. Presently, oral documents are used for this purpose in addition to the written documents. They can give some insight into the social life of enslaved children. For Curaçao, this means the use of stories, songs, proverbs and customs which have been collected by Paul Brenneker, Elis Juliana, and others.

One aspect of the social life of these children, which needs further study regards the social relationship  they as enslaved were able to build with their mothers and in particular their fathers. Just as adult slaves, enslaved children were also juristic objects. So, they had no rights and were deployed at a very young age to do certain types of work. Children born of enslaved mothers belonged to the master of the mother. This was also the case if the father was a free man. For practical reasons, the female enslaved was allowed to take care of her child. Later on, these children could be sold without the permission of the mother or the father. Ceding these children must have been hard for the mothers and fathers to endure. The Zikinzá collection of Paul Brenneker and Elis Juliana comprises several songs of mothers who sang this separation in a kind of desperate powerlessness. Hulia Jechi Isberto, born in 1881, heard this song when she was a little girl on one of the plantations on the island. It was about a mother who implored the Shon not to punish her by having her stay in a hole, because she was afraid she would never see her children again. She would rather be sold with her children.

O Beilo, ma mi ta mama di ocho yu Oh Beilo, but I am the mother of eight children
Oh Beilo Shonnan, bendemi, bende mi yu Oh Beilo, Master, sell me, sell my children
Oh Beilo, ma mi ta mama di ocho yu1 Oh Beilo, but I am the mother of eight children

No until 1839 was a law introduced which prohibited the separation of a mother and a child younger than twelve years of age (Renkema 1981:133). The mother-child separations continued in spite of the prohibition, as can be concluded from the fragment below from an interview that I had with Ma Tuda from Westpoint, born in 1881. Her father worked as a slave boy for a doctor in town.

R.A.: How old was your father when he died in 1921?
G.A.: I don’t know. In those days people did not know how old they were. He did tell me, though, that he was born in the time of slavery. When he was still a little boy, a doctor came to the plantation and asked the owner for a slave child. He needed someone to clean his office. The owner then asked the mother of my father. Oh no, she said, if he leaves, I will lose him. No, said the owner, the doctor will take good care of him, after all, he is a doctor. My father was a little child at the time and did not yet go to school, nor to catechism class.2

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1 Zikinzá, T560
2 Interview Allen in August 1983. Informant was born in 1881 at the western countryside of Westpoint.

 

Enslaved men were encouraged to beget children as much as possible by various women, while they did not have to worry about taking care of these children. This does not mean that there was not an affectionate relationship between slave children and their fathers. There are cases known in which free fathers purchased the freedom of their children. Slave masters also begot children by slave women, who were not always taken care of by their fathers. Children that were born of such a relationship had, however, greater social opportunities due to their lighter complexion. They also had more chances of being declared free. In a society in which people were valued according to physical characteristics and complexion, a child with “kolo” (light complexion) and “bon kabei” (straight hair) had a head start. It complied after all more with the somatic sense of values than a child that was “pretu maho” (dark and ugly).

Developments that took place in society of course have their effects on the social circumstances of children and determine in that manner also being a child in society. Therefore, there should be more investigations studying the social developments of children during the time of slavery. In doing so, the socialization processes that took place in that period deserve attention.

Sources

Brenneker/Juliana, Zikinzá collection, stored at the National Archives(NatAr).
Renkema, W. E., Het Curaçaose Plantagebedrijf in de negentiende eeuw. De Walburg Pers, 1981.
Römer-Kenepa, Nolda ‘Vrouwenleven op Curaçao; Laat achttiende eeuw en vroeg negentiende eeuw.’ Hoofdvakskriptie “nieuwe tijd”. Amsterdam, 1980.

Text: Rose Mary Allen. Illustration: Public Library Curacao.