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Wednesday 16 October 2019
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Inside the Cave

In the Hato Caves, a 300,000-year-old cave in Curacao, once a hideout for runaway slaves, there is a fantasy chamber. The darkness in here is what our guide called "‘blind darkness". Essentially, this is the type of darkness that the eyes cannot adjust to. Runaway slaves never reached this far, remaining instead, closer to the entrance of the cave.

The fantasy chamber is a playful addition to this tourist attraction. The guide points out a pirate’s head in one stalactite, a giant mushroom in another and the main attraction, a stalagmite, in the shape of the Virgin Mary. I am struck by how we see these images that we are told to see. It is not new, this concept of seeing but it is unexpected as a tourist attraction in the cave. In this historical space, the fantasy chamber thus comes to hold important significance.

A Google search for the origins of the word "fantasy" yields its origins from the Greek word phantazein "to make visible", also phantasia "imagination". As the guide pointed out figures from Eurocentric narratives, it was impossible to ignore the irony of this. Later on, this irony became even more pronounced with a visit to the Kura Hulanda Museum, a museum containing artifacts brought back to the island by the Dutch multi-millionaire, Jacob Gelt Dekker, to showcase to the inhabitants of Curacao, their rich history and culture. The exhibits that move from the Abrahamic Lands, West African Empires and Kingdoms of Benin lay in sharp contrast to those of the Slave Trade/Middle Passage.

In one, the development of writing and culture lay encased in glass, protected from the elements. It is not in any way an ideal museum space but it is indeed a worthwhile attempt at one. In the SlaveTrade/Middle Passage by contrast, the mood was dark. Entering what felt like a torture chamber is hardly an exaggeration. My companion felt the darkness too. The box of rusty chains, neck clamps, handcuffs, a tramp chair in a corner, all felt like tools for animal torture. The general absence of glass cases forced the viewer to engage with these objects in a visceral way. The uniforms of Dutch West Indian officers, though aged, nevertheless, stood authoritative amidst these rusty mechanisms of enslavement. Descending into a model cargo hold where slaves would have been kept was a short-lived stay. Memory creates for us fictional worlds and the deep sense of "having been there before" is one that I am as yet unravelling.

Suffice it to say, the feeling of being trapped is a common human experience but in this case magnified inside this airless cabin where chains hung thick in a corner, shadowy eyes, looking at us. A recreated space though this may be, one felt the necessity to return to deck, to escape these ghosts. I wondered aloud how long it took for energy to dissipate from objects, whether after centuries, the pain energy remained in what we now call artifacts, hanging on the walls.

It was in this frame of mind that I considered the irony of the Hato Caves' fantasy chamber, a chamber that made not only those natural formations into Eurocentric images, fantasies of a European mind – pirates, giants, Virgin Marys – but also made the storyteller’s voice a Eurocentric one. It made, visible and audible, a story that even those descendants of slaves haven’t noticed they are telling. It made visible how the very religion that had been a part of the cause of such cruelty – the civilising missions and conversions of the heathen, devil worshippers – was now so natural, so deeply embedded into the psyche.

The Virgin Mary, our guide said with a note of reverence, is the main attraction in this cave but in decades to come, the stalactite descending on it, and the "‘statue" rising to meet it, will move towards a natural formation that will erase the image of mother and son, and replace it with something entirely different. His voice has a tinge of sadness and I feel guilty for my inability to participate in this feeling. This is a cave after all where slaves hid to escape the cruelty of the Dutch masters. Their hiding place was soon discovered and more than likely the punishment was inhumane. Try as I might, I cannot rid myself of the heaviness of the chains and I wonder to myself with a mixture of anger and trepidation whether I too tell stories of whose origins I am unaware, stories told in a voice that betrays my conditioning, stories that are actually not as objective as I thought they were. I wonder whether to some extent there is a part of the subconscious that is shrouded in blind darkness?

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