Massive sugar cane rollers at The Old House.

At the former Old House museum and future site of Amuseum Naturalis, there is a collection of sugar cane processing equipment in the front yard. There are massive coppers for boiling down cane juice, and a number of enormous rollers for crushing cane. They are items of clear historic value, but I was unsure how they worked. 

An illustration in a 17th century book by Charles de Rochefort shows similar rollers in use. I thought they would have lain flat, using their tremendous weight to crush the cane stalks. To my surprise, in the illustration it shows them positioned vertically in the center of a cane mill. 

An illustration of a sugar mill from the 17th century.

Figuring out how these pieces fit into the machinery was the easy part. The much harder part is fitting them into the story of St. Martin. In the illustration, and in life, the machine was operated by enslaved people. Telling the full, real story of the rollers, the mill, the sugar industry or St. Martin means telling the story of slavery.

Slavery may be the most significant part of the island’s history, but it is easy to visit St. Martin without thinking of it. The enslavement of African people during the colonial era is one of the cruelest chapters in human history. It’s deeply shameful, and it is challenging to find the right way to discuss it.

It is even harder to tell the story of the lives of enslaved people. Often, the story of slavery is told like a story about commerce—the rise of the sugar industry, the number of slaves owned, the value for which these people were sold and the dates of emancipation. The human element is frequently missing.

We often learn about the lives of enslaved people from archaeological work on objects, rather than writings. But they did not live thousands of years ago in a culture with no written language like Amerindian people. They lived during a time when Europeans were writing about their own lives but ignored and suppressed the stories of enslaved people. It is one of the dehumanizing aspects of slavery that remains with us to this day.

To tell the story of the cane rollers, the Amuseum must also tell the story of enslaved people. It is a story that residents and visitors deserve to hear at a museum about St. Martin: an honest account of slavery, and an exploration of the lives and works of enslaved people. 

Some stories are already being told, like that of the Diamond Estate slave escape and the legend of One Tété Lohkay. Surely there are others that deserve more exposure. I am not a historian or an expert on this topic, and I believe telling this story properly is deeply important. It will take input from the entire community of St. Martin to know what stories to tell and how to tell them. Do you have a story about the lives of enslaved people on St. Martin or suggestions about how to tell their story? Write in to The Daily Herald or to [email protected] to share them.

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