It came to my attention that a letter to the editor by archaeologist Jay B. Haviser got published in The Daily Herald of November 16. Although my name is not mentioned, Dr. Haviser accuses me of, among other things, racism. He does that in response to my letter to the editor in The Daily Herald of November 12-13, 2021 on slave ship The Leusden. In that letter, I objected strongly to the shift in narrative that the archaeological field and white stream media were making from the murder of 664 Africans to an adventurous hunt for the West India Company vessel that sank in 1738 just off the coast of Suriname.
Calling black people racist is a common response coming from people within the white power structure. It’s a racist act in itself. It proves that Dr. Haviser does not understand what racism is or what our arguments are about. The problem is that Dr. Haviser will not understand what racism is throughout his life because he is intrinsically part of the white power structure. As are so many others.
It becomes worrisome when someone who doesn’t understand racism, is chair of a commission that must investigate accusations of racism at another organization. Dr. Haviser is chairman of the Statia Heritage and Research Commission (SHRC) that is set up by the St. Eustatius government to investigate the malpractice of the archaeological institution SECAR. Earlier this year, SECAR started excavations at an 18th-century African burial ground without any involvement of the descendent community. That is the racist attitude and unethical conduct of the archaeological discipline that UCF spoke about in the earlier published letter to the editor. If the shoe fits … You don’t have to be a scientist to see that the community engagement programs in Dr. Haviser’s book consist largely of organizing archaeological workshops and giving tours on excavations sites to children.
If Dr. Haviser doesn’t understand what racism is, then how is he able to lead the SHRC to ask the right questions and to come with the right solutions? Why has he not been able to bring about more profound changes in Caribbean archaeology in his 40-year career? No tours or workshops for youth, but ownership, policy-making, holding management positions for people of African descent. If he was serious about making a change, then he would have declined the offer to become chairman in favor of someone of African descent.
Why was Ubuntu Connected Front (UCF) not asked to be part of the Statia Heritage and Research Commission even though it was set up in response to the protests against the excavations? You would expect a scientist to be happy with African-centered critical voices aboard. Other questions come to our minds, as the commission operates all but transparent. What is the goal of the commission? What is the assignment of the government? How does the commission report to the Dutch government representatives of St. Eustatius? Are the commission members being paid by the government? What about selection criteria? Most academic members of the commission have ties to Leiden University, as has Dr. Haviser. The head of Leiden University's archaeology department is a member of this commission herself. Leiden University is involved in large-scale archaeological research projects in the Caribbean. Other universities in the Caribbean often depend on Leiden for advanced lab facilities for example. This is at the least an appearance of a conflict of interest and that should have been avoided.
And what about academic freedom? Speaking out against racism does not generally benefit one’s academic career. The danger of self-censorship for black people in academia is real. Will the academics of African descent in the Statia Heritage & Research Commission feel safe enough to express themselves and if they do, will they be heard?
To conclude, UCF states that Dr. Haviser is not the right man for the job and the Statia Heritage and Research Commission is not independent. The outcome of whatever result of this commission is therefore already questionable.
Chairman Ubuntu Connected Front (UCF) Caribbean