April 27, 2019
Tula: A Fighter For Freedom
The slave trade
Tula is a historic individual who is revered in Curaçao as a national hero. He was a slave who led a revolt on the island that became the largest slave revolt in the history of the Dutch Caribbean. To tell his story we must first put it into context.
Starting in the 17th century Dutch traders were actively involved in the Transatlantic Slave Trade which brought slaves of African descent to the Americas and the Caribbean. These slaves were treated as objects that could be owned and were often given severe punishments if they behaved or did anything that displeased their white European owners. These punishments included beating them with a stick or locking them up in isolation for several days.
These slaves were often branded and sold at auctions, separating them from their family and friends. They were captured in West-African countries and transported to this region in inhumane conditions, chained with no indication of where they were going. Many died under these conditions and some committed suicide. The Dutch made Curaçao, their colony, a center for this trade of captured African slaves in the region and also sold these slaves to slave owners on the island. Here they either conducted hard manual labor on the plantation fields, helped with services in the house, were handmaidens or looked after the owners’ children.
At the end of the 18th century, however, there occurred two historic events that shook the foundations of this system of slavery. The first took place in France in 1789 when the French proclaimed, at the culmination of the French Revolution, that all people are free on the basis of the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity. The second took place in 1791 in Haiti, where slaves across the island nation united and began a successful revolt against their French masters. The latter served as a large source of inspiration for the slaves in Curaçao and the former had a profound impact on the inner dynamics of the island. The reason for its profound impact was due to the fact that at that time the Netherlands was under French dominion and in 1795 Curaçao’s governor received word from the Dutch government to free the slaves on the island. He did not do this but the slaves received news of these developments and started becoming restless.
The accounts of the revolt
Tula was among the slaves who were aware of the changes in Europe and the region and on August 17th, 1795, he led a group of slaves in Banda Bou (the Westside of the island) who went on strike and marched to the governor’s residence in Willemstad to demand their freedom.
In the work titled “Slavenopstand op Curaçao 1795 (Slave revolt in Curaçao 1795)”, which is a publication of Curaçao’s National Archive under supervision of renowned Curaçaoan historian Alejandro Paula, Tula is initially depicted as a brutal criminal and the leader of a band of bandits, arsonists and murderers. It is stated that he himself declared that all of these crimes took place on his orders. He also allegedly declared that he had the intention of killing every white person who lived on the island and thereafter install a government consisting of only of people of color with himself as governor.
In any event the Dutch government, aware that Tula was the leader of the revolt, reserved the worst punishment for him. On October 3rd, 1795, they tied him to a cross and skinned him alive then burned his face and decapitated him with an axe. They then threw his body into the sea and put his head on a pike at the Rif plantation, fully on display for all of the slaves who remained in captivity. His execution, and those of his 28 comrades, served as a scare tactic to crush any further thoughts of revolts against the Dutch slave owners.
While the accounts of his torture and execution are undisputed there have been revelations about the circumstances under which he gave his statements. It has namely come to light that his interrogation took place under extreme torture while he was strapped to a torture rack. Thus one can conclude that he was not given an impartial trial and was not given a fair opportunity to refute the criminal charges being leveled against him nor the accusations of his alleged intentions for the population of the island.
But thankfully in that same work published by the National Archive we get a more accurate view of Tula’s actions and intentions thanks to an account of a Dutch priest named Jacobus Schinck. He went to go speak with Tula at the rebel camp he and his comrades had set up at the Porto Marie plantation to try and persuade them to put an end to the revolt and return to their plantations.
From his account we learn what Tula’s true intentions were with the revolt and that he and the other rebels were not as combative as his accusers would have had people believe. A prime example of this was how he was respectfully received by all of the rebels and that he felt comfortable enough to spend a night at their camp. They even put a bible in his quarters.
He further confirmed that Tula was the leader of the revolt as he observed that all the other rebels referred to him as ‘captain’. Father Schinck put Tula’s declarations on paper: “Father, they have heavily mistreated us, we do not wish to harm anyone, we just want our freedom. French black people are free and Holland is under French command so consequently we too must be free.” When Father Schinck suggested that they must obey the Dutch government Tula made it clear that he was up to date on all the political developments in Europe. He asked: “If the Dutch government has so much power in its colonies, then where are the Dutch ships with reinforcements?”
After the priest insisted that it is impossible for the rebels to defeat the mighty colonial army, Tula ordered everyone to leave with the exception of their two Dutch captives and the priest. The two captives were to be witnesses to the conversation between Tula and Father Schinck. Tula said the following: “Father, is it not so that we all come from Adam and Eve? Was I in the wrong when I freed my 22 comrades who were unjustly held captive? They have beaten me severely and each time I asked myself ‘Oh God Almighty, is it Your will that we suffer so?’. Oh Father, even animals receive better treatment than us because if an animal breaks its leg it is cared for.”
Father Schinck delivered the following message to the Dutch army: “The only thing they want is their freedom. They do not wish to harm anyone.”
What do we know about Tula?
We know that his owner was a Dutch man named Casper Lodewijk van Uytrecht and that he sometimes went by the name Rigaud, in reference to Benoit Joseph Rigaud, one of the heroes of the slave revolt in Haiti. And from the documents from the National Archive it has been gathered that he was a person of color from Africa who was a slave who worked and lived at the Kenepa plantation.
Although not much is known about Tula aside from Father Schinck’s account of their conversation that night at the rebel camp, some bits of information have gradually come to light in recent years. It has been gathered from the documents at the National Archive that he also sent a letter to the governor of Curaçao telling him that all the rebels wanted was their freedom and that they did not want to harm anyone. Thus from this bit of information one could surmise that he could read and write but the letter itself was never found.
There is not much on record about the personal life of Tula. However, the documents in the National Archives do reveal that one of his brothers was also executed along with him on that fateful day. And from the conversation with Father Schinck one could gather that Tula was a christian. The rest of the information we know about Tula comes from oral history. One source of such oral history comes from the Dutch pastor G.B. Bosch, who had travelled to Curaçao in 1816, in his book “Reizen in West Indie (Travelling in the West Indies).”
In it he wrote that he had spoken to people who had known Tula when he was alive. They remembered him as someone who had a strong posture and was very eloquent. Thus from this account and that of Father Schinck we can conclude that Tula was intelligent, eloquent and up to date on the doctrines of the Catholic church as well as world events.
A different account of Tula’s origins
All publications concerning the slave uprising of 1795 and Tula are based on the documentation of the National Archive. However, there is one exception: the publication titled “E lantamentu di 1795, Datos Oral (The uprising of 1795, Oral Accounts)” by L. de Palm, published in 1995.
In this book, which is based on oral accounts from different individuals, including descendants of ex-slaves from Banda Bou, we get a completely different depiction of Tula’s life. In this book we get different information about his place and date of birth, his name, his studies and how he arrived in Curaçao.
According to L. de Palm’s work, Tula was registered under the name Toulous Riquolet and was born on January 17th, 1754 on a plantation in France where he was a slave. He became good friends with the son of his owner, who was named Gerard, with whom he interacted in close quarters for 13 years. They travelled all through Europe and settled in England for a time, where Gerard continued his studies. Everything Gerard learned he passed on to Toulous. Their travels also took them to Portugal, where Toulous followed and completed his studies at a sailing academy. He also went to an art school for approximately 3 years and after 13 years of studies alongside Gerard he also became a medicine man who could cure both sick people and sick animals. According to L. de Palm he was a good chef, a ship captain, a poet, a writer and a painter. He was also well read with regard to the bible.
He and Gerard also spent 10 years in a French colony on the west coast of Africa. There Toulous was introduced to the reality of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. It pained him to see how the captured Africans were being treated and the conditions under which they were being transported. According to L. de Palm he was also a connoisseur of many languages and worked as an interpreter in French, English, Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch. At some point he was also transported and arrived in Curaçao.
The aftermath of the revolt
Although Tula and his comrades did not achieve their goal of attaining freedom for all slaves on the island, their revolt did bring about change on the island. The government ordered new decrees that forced slave owners to treat their slaves better. The slaves obtained certain rights when it came to works hours, time off, food distribution and clothing. The new decree also specified the amount of punishment for specific infractions and slaves could file complaints of mistreatment with authorities. In the course of the 19th century these decrees continued to be amended and improved until the abolition of slavery in the Dutch Kingdom on July 1st, 1863.
The revolt continues to be remembered as one of the first steps in the Curaçaoan people’s struggle for emancipation. The day August 17th has been proclaimed as a day of the “Fight for Freedom.” At a park in Rif, there is a monument honoring those who sacrificed their lives in the uprising of 1795 and the people of Curaçao have been commemorating the date of the inception of this uprising for decades now.
Tula a national hero
Tula was the leader of the slave revolt of 1795. He was also a freedom fighter. He wished to peacefully achieve freedom and equality for all. He serves as an example for all Curaçaoans.
He serves as the primary source of inspiration for many Curaçaons to carry on in their struggle for social justice and inspires all to give their contribution to a brighter future for the island. On August 17th, 2010 the government of Curaçao officially declared Tula as a national hero of the people of Curaçao.