The Kura Hulanda Museum in Curacao – looking back on a dark history of slave trade

If you were going to study slavery, you might not think to look in Curacao, but the Kura Hulanda Museum has the most extensive collection of slave-related artifacts and replicas I’ve ever seen, anywhere. The museum, located at Hotel Kura Hulanda, also houses the largest collection of African artifacts and anthropological exhibits in the Caribbean. It seems impossible, considering that about half of the Americans I’ve spoken to don’t even know where Curacao is.

(It’s in the Dutch Antilles by Aruba, and very close to Venezuela. Venezuela is on the north coast of South America. Curacao is below the hurricane belt, which makes it an ideal beach destination for the June through September months.)

So. Inside Hotel Kura Hulanda, a charming historical neighborhood-turned-hotel with unique rooms and gorgeous antique furniture from all over the globe, is the Kura Hulanda Museum, which is owned and curated by hotel owner and entrepreneur Jacob Gelt Dekker. He hand-picked each item for the collection while traveling the world, and continues to add to it whenever he comes across something special. He’s not without skill — the result is an incredible, gut-wrenching teaching institution for all of the Caribbean and beyond.

Those who know a little about the history of slave trade have probably come across Curacao in their studies. The Dutch West India Company made Curacao a major hub for human trafficking in 1662 and it remained as such for the next 200 years. By the time the Dutch abolished slavery (1863), the economy had become entirely reliant on slave trade. Abolition crushed the prosperity of the island for many years, that is, until oil was discovered there in 1914.
It’s a strange history for what many would call a strange island. The green landscape is filled with bright, colorful buildings made in traditional Dutch styles, and the major landmarks include a fort full of bars and a floating pontoon bridge which opens and closes to allow cruise ships to dock, as well as the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the entire Western hemisphere. You might expect such an unusual island to brush its history as a slave trade hub under the rug. In fact, that’s just what many feared was happening until the Kura Hulanda Museum opened in April of 1999.
Now, visitors can explore a labyrinthine exhibit through modern buildings, courtyards and shacks with a vast slavery collection including KKK uniforms, brands and unfathomable torture devices — some replicas, some real. There’s a basement converted into a replica of a slave ship slave’s quarters.

The first gallery is about the origins of man, with priceless ancient treasures collected by Dekker. My guide, Yflen, explained to me that the point of this gallery is “to remind you that we all come from the same place.” The impressive exhibit features ornate clay tablets and tax collector slabs, zoomorphic vessels, terracotta deities and fascinating relics from Iran, Ethiopia, Syria and other know habitats of early man.

Then, you enter the first courtyard and are presented with this beautiful face:

Walk around a bit and visit a shack full of skull replicas and the astonishing spider dolls (see: Kura Hulanda’s spiders – an unforgettable hotel exhibit), and take another look at this stunning sculpture by Nel Simon.

It is from here you can begin your journey into a horrifying history of torture and abuse — things we don’t like to, but must, remember. Along with the sinking feeling of seeing what awful things human beings have done and do to each other comes a strong sense of the importance of learning about those things. Being there is a way of honoring the people who suffered; recognizing the significance of that suffering.

The museum ends in an expansive gallery of African artifacts, celebrating the unique and fascinating cultures from which the slaves were torn. My heart still breaks when I recall the story that Yflen told me: slave catchers would figure out where the children from a village went to play, then fill that area with concealed metal traps. A child would inevitably get caught and the adults would come to rescue him or her, only to be caught themselves. Perhaps you already knew that story; perhaps you know one of the thousands of others.

The Kura Hulanda Museum takes you on an emotional and richly educational ride. It’s one thing to have a dark history of slave trade, and another thing entirely to put it out in the light for all to see.

[Photos by Annie Scott.]

My visit to the Kura Hulanda Museum was sponsored by Kura Hulanda, but the ideas and opinions expressed in this article are 100 percent my own.