At the end of last month, I was lucky to attend the 51st annual conference of the Association of Caribbean Historians (ACH) in Curacao. The ACH was formally established in 1974, but the annual meetings—out of which the ACH emerged—began in Guadeloupe in 1969. They’ve been held every year without a break since then.
ACH members are people who research and write about the history of the Caribbean, ranging from graduate students to senior, established historians; they include archivists, librarians, heritage experts and secondary school teachers. They live and work in the Caribbean, North America, Europe and further afield, and they write (and teach) in English, French, Spanish and Dutch. It’s one of the many regional non-governmental organisations which continue to thrive whatever the situation with Caricom might be.
The annual conferences are held all over the Caribbean, organised locally by a university in the host country. This one marked the third time the ACH has met in Curacao. The sessions were held on the impressive campus of the University of Curacao, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. Curacao is one of the countries previously colonised by the Dutch, so there was a strong attendance by historians from Suriname and Aruba (also former Dutch colonies), as well as from Curacao itself and The Netherlands.
At every conference, the programme includes sessions devoted to the history of the host country. This year, Curacao was marking the 50th anniversary of what they call “Trinta di Mei”—May 30th, in Papiamento, the Creole language spoken there. On May 30, 1969, there was a major uprising, rather similar to the 1970 Black Power disturbances here. It expressed the many grievances of working-class islanders, most of whom were/are black; it combined issues related to labour and to race discrimination. Trinta di Mei, much like 1970 here, was a catalyst for the development of Curacao as a more just society.
This major uprising, which resulted in the destruction by fire of many buildings on the waterfront of Willemstad, the island’s capital, and some loss of life, was examined at the conference through different approaches. First, a young theatre director and dramatist discussed her theatre production, “Trinta di Mei: Riot or Revolution?”, giving the perspective of a creative writer and performer.
Second, a roundtable of five persons who had participated in, or witnessed, the uprising told their stories, speaking in Papiamento (there was simultaneous translation into English). This was oral history, using the spoken memories of living participants in a historical event. They told their stories vividly and honestly, reflecting the anger, passion and fear they had felt, as young men and women (one still at school) caught up in a dramatic and violent event.
Third, a formal panel session was devoted to research by historians and other scholars on Trinta di Mei. These presentations dealt with the political impact of the uprising on Aruba—it helped to bring about Aruba’s separation from the Netherlands Antilles which had grouped together the six Dutch islands—with women’s role in the revolt (two of the roundtable were women), and with the actions and reactions of students from the Caribbean in Holland at the time.
It was fascinating to examine a formative event in the history of a neighbouring island from these three perspectives. At every ACH conference, participants learn about the history of the host country, as well as hearing presentations of new research on the region’s past more generally.
The 2020 conference will be in Guadeloupe, and is sure to be attended by many French-speaking historians. And the in-coming ACH president is a Trinidadian historian, my UWI colleague Dr Heather Cateau.
— Bridget Brereton is Professor Emerita of History at The UWI,