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11 september 2019

Whose space offers freedom?

In the multimedia project ‘Geographies of Freedom’ urbanist Egbert Alejandro Martina and artist Miguel Peres dos Santos explore ways in which geography, regulation and architecture shape the concept of freedom. “Freedom can be seen as a form of architecture, not as an architectural object, but as the production and reproduction of space. The architecture of laws and legislation literally constitutes social spaces in which ‘freedom’ might be experienced as spatial.”
During a meeting on the 5thof September at het Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam, Martina and Peros dos Santos analysed how structures of colonialism, slavery and capitalism have shaped the legal and spatial concept of freedom. On the basis of various historical texts, film footage and developments in Curacao and the Netherlands, they show how 18thcentury legislation continues to influence how spatial planning is organised today. ‘Geographies of Freedom’ consists of a number of public meetings, a video essay, a blog and a publication.

The persistent myth of the Netherlands as the epitome of freedom
The Netherlands prides itself on being a beacon and a leading supporter of freedom in the world. This is shown for example in the video ‘Geef Vrijheid Door’. One hears the voice of Sophie Hilbrand, saying that “in the Netherlands, freedom is something that we all maintain and pass on, from generation to generation”. Martina explains that the purpose of ‘Geographies of Space’ is to question these conventional concepts of freedom, for example by highlighting the fact that the subject that is free is determined by the relationships between race, architecture, law and geography. Does the Netherlands have the pioneering role it claims?

The court case of Claes
Martina presents a fascinating trial from 1736 of Claes, an enslaved man who fled from Curacao to the Netherlands and claimed his freedom. Law scholar Simon van Leeuwen had written in 1665 that a slave from elsewhere would be automatically free in the ‘Rebubliek der Zeven Verenigde Nederlanden’, even if this was against the will of the master. Claes, however, was arrested and taken into custody. Through his lawyer, Claes requested the legal basis for his detention. Paulina Heijer, the owner of Claes, appeared to have submitted a request to the court to send him back to Curacao. The court of Amsterdam rejected Heijer’s request, declaring that “even animals that escape the custody of their masters are given back freedom”. Heijer then appealed to the decision and the Supreme Court of Holland and Zeeland agreed with her, because Claes could be reclaimed on various grounds.

The Supreme Court seemed to agree with Simon van Leeuwen that slavery was not permitted on the territory of the Republic, but the court indicated that it was not forbidden for a rightful owner to prosecute his/her slave. The reasoning was that Claes had not come to the Republic from elsewhere, since Curacao law fell under the jurisdiction of the Republic. A shocking dilemma arose: although Curacao fell under the jurisdiction of the Netherlands, it still formed a distinct legal area for the Republic. Claes did not come from elsewhere, but still the Dutch law did not apply to him – the law of the colonies applied. The Court ultimately ruled that Claes was both the thief and the stolen object. The slave was property that behaved like a person.
The Supreme Court also used an economic reason to deny Claes his freedom; Curacao and other colonies necessarily needed slaved. Without them, the colonies would not be profitable. The Court therefore decided that slaves should not be encouraged to flee to the free Republic.

The Dutch oil industry on Curacao
The astonishing lawsuit of Claes was subsequently linked to the impressive video essay that Peros dos Santos made on the basis of archival footage from 1940-1970 and current recordings in Curacao and the Netherlands. The film accompanies the viewer through the colonial story of imperialism of the Dutch oil industry. The first shot shows the Isla refinery built by Shell in 1916 on the middle of the island. Black clouds of smoke appear from the chimneys of the factory. The fumes descend on the surrounding residential areas of Wishi and Marcena. Black and white images show inhabitants complaining about headaches, abdominal pain and rashes as a result of the polluted air coming out of the refinery every day. While locals and migrant workers of the oil factory live in these neighbourhoods, Shell built two new villages, Julianadorp and Emmadorp, further away – on the outskirts of Schottengat – to house the management and senior staff of the refinery. The architecture of these houses was inspired by the buildings from Dutch colonies. A Curacao school teacher who was interviewed by a Dutch news channel in the 1970s said that little has changed since the 18thcentury. “A game is being played by the white world. A game of divide and rule. A game in which we are always the losers. Because it is true that thanks to our labour force Shell Curacao yields a certain profit. … The money for this is raised by a bunch of black workers. In essence, slavery has not changed.”

Today, next to the oil factory a gigantic, poisonous grey area can be seen, which is a remnant of the Second World War, when the refinery mainly produced aviation gasoline for the Allies. The asphalt that remained as waste during the production was pumped by Shell to the adjacent marshland area. During the film, the voice of a Dutch reporter can be heard who says that “the Second World War is being fought from Curacao and that the area with its enormous production of kerosene plays an important role in the fight for freedom and world peace.” It wasn’t until 1968 that the waste disposal came to an end, in what had now become the ‘asphalt lake’. In recent decades, illegal waste has still been dumped into the lake by companies. Around the lake there is a dilapidated and partly opened fence, the ground is black with oil.

Geographies of Freedom
Connecting the historical case of Claes to shocking archival images and more current recordings of Curacao and the Netherlands caused sharp reactions from the audience during the evening at het Nieuwe Instituut. Someone in the audience said that the material shown, made him angry, arguing that the project shows that the origin of modern whiteness in the Netherlands can be traced back to the myth of Dutch freedom. Someone else wondered how ‘free spaces’ could be created when we ourselves are part of a system that stems from this myth.

The multimedia project shows the long-term interest of the Netherlands in freedom as part of the political economy of imperialism. It leads to a critical perspective on the narrative of Dutch Freedom and to a better understanding of colonial geography and the role that architecture plays in society. Freedom does not apply equally to all people in Dutch space.

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Architecture, Freedom