Short story

Guides of our march

By Richeline Joe

October 12, 2023



In grateful acknowledgement of our ancestors

I deeply value the stories passed down of my

great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather John.

Whom I shall hereafter call Father John.

He came a long way, over two hundred years ago.

Crossing through numerous inland tribes of West Africa.

Why was he chosen to enter this march?

His tribe elder had nodded in his direction.

He was immediately seized by two white men.

And shoved in the waiting line, to join the group.

Together with others who were also young, strong.

He was chained and forced to walk for days and nights.

To a vessel named The Unity, big and white, waiting at Elmina Castle.

Strong hands pulled him on board, no clue about why, what, where.  

No other choice was left but to forgo and adopt the unknown.

Leaving behind loved ones, friends, priceless belongings.

His wife Nana. His baby son Mawuli. His family.

Nothing else to bring along but treasured memories.

They remained forever securely sealed in his heart.

I am proud of Father John.

Too many did not make it through the ordeal, and my heart goes out to them.

But my Father John did make it! He and the others who also reached the new land, are true heroes.

Sure, they have endured a lot during the almost eight-week journey from Elmina Castle to Curaçao. Father John’s strong mind kept him going. The anger did not weaken him. Homesickness dominated his feelings. And a tiny string of hope that maybe… maybe one day he would reunite with his beloved family, back in Ghana.  He prayed to Nyame whose presence he could feel very near to him, and who encouraged him by whispering in his ears:  keep going, do not give up. I am with you.  I will not leave you…

Occasionally he heard a loud splash in the sea. It sounded like something heavy was dropped into the water.  Only much later did he realize that these were the bodies of the unlucky co-travelers who did not survive the voyage.

He ate little during the eight weeks.  He did not feel hungry.  His head was bulging with increasing fear for the unknown. And strange enough, at the same time there was an incessant urge to get through this. He thought of his late father Samuel who had taught him the basics of manhood and the principles of pride and determination.

Suddenly there was a lot of movement around him.  People rushing along and above him, while shouting in a language he could not understand. White strangers pulled him to stand on his feet.  Wobbly feet, only able to move very, very slowly.  Off the ship.  On the shore. He repeatedly saw the word Curaçao. Curaçao? Most probably the name of where he was now.  Invisible hands continued pushing him forward. They were placed in long black lines of empty-eyed people just like him. When pairs of non-seeing eyes met his, he could feel their shock, despair, tiny bits of hope and yet lots of resilience.

Father John had lost all sense of time. They stood on the shore in the sun for hours, and then sweaty white hands started pulling his hands. The black line moved again.  Now into the back of a large truck.  After a long drive the truck came to a stop. A huge yellow house arose in the middle of many acres of land. Father John sensed that this was his destination for now.  He was taken to a tiny hut with ten single beds. Finally, after weeks, he could fully stretch his 1.90 meters tall body on a bed. He was sound asleep right away.

The days to follow went on in a blur. Hard work for long hours, seven days a week, on the plantation called plantashi where sugar cane, corn, cotton, and indigo were grown and harvested.  Products he knew from Ghana. Sadly, he came to realize there was no chance of going back home. This was his new life. Father John felt dumb. Days passed, weeks and months turned into years. His memories of Ghana were always with him. Loitering was not allowed by the owner of the plantashi whom they addressed as the Shon. Neither were they allowed to openly express their African traditions.  Yet, periodically at night they met in secret in each other’s hut to find solace and to relive their culture through singing and dancing.

Every now and then he saw new faces joining the work.  From their hollow looks and unsteady movements, he deduced that these were newly arriving survivors of the long trip on the vessel.

Father John’s eyes fell on a young lady called Cecile. Her smile, her braids and her hips reminded him of his wife left behind. Soon the two were inseparable during their sparse free time. Luckily, the Shon turned a blind eye to their situation. As we all know, nature and people-in-love find surprising ways to follow their own course, and within a year Cecile was carrying the fruit of their love. A healthy son was born which Cecile named Johnnie. Father John longingly thought of his son Maluwi left behind in Ghana. He would most probably never see him again. Unfortunately, the time he could spend with Johnnie was very scarce.  Men and women lived in separate huts. A newborn logically stayed with the mother and was registered as a child of the mother only.  Fathers were not mentioned in the newborn registers and consequently there were no documented ties between a father and his biological child. 

The Shon made Johnnie work as soon as he was able to join the men in their daily routines which was around his tenth year. Johnnie’s march into life was analogous to that of his father, who he enjoyed seeing when they worked together. Shortly after he turned into adulthood, he met a pretty lady named Martina while walking to his shack one late afternoon. There was an instant attraction.  Their bond was sealed when one year later Martina was expecting a baby.  The following nine months were extremely hard on her. She was constantly sick. Tragically, she did not make it through childbirth and little Jaco entered the world without a mother.  

Nella, an older black woman, nurtured him and took care of him. She did her utmost to compensate for the early loss of his mother.  Other than that, Jaco’s march in life was quite like that of his dad and his grandfather. Hardships, humiliations, suppressed anger, absence of freedom.  But also, strong feelings of pride and resilience. A sense of never succumbing. A solid faith in the Creator. An incessant appreciation for the ancestors. An ongoing focus on, and desire for a better future.

Jaco turned 24 years in February 1863. He had felt the increasing signs of upcoming changes in the air, and the manumission announcement on July 1st that year came not as a real surprise.  They were all free at last!  He could now build a family, provide for them, and protect them.  That night the now-free-men-and-women all came together in the open air. They loudly praised their Creator and ancestors, openly followed for the first time in Curaçao by the formerly forbidden singing, drumming and dancing till late in the night.

With his letter of freedom in his hands, Jaco had now officially become a rightful citizen of Curaçao. He received a loan from the former Shon and was able to rent a piece of the former plantashi for his own use. Slowly but surely, he turned his land into a steady source of income by keeping chicken, goats, vegetables, and local fruits.  His grandfather John, father Johnnie and their family lived next to him. Finally, they were able to enjoy the warmth of family togetherness. Father John, while still physically doing remarkably well, had turned 80 years, and the traces of time and hardship were visible on him. 

In November 1863 Jaco met the woman of his life, Irma. They were the first in their family line in Curaçao, to have an official marriage ceremony. The wedding celebration was filled with emotions, and was followed by a cozy party with music, dancing, and lots of food.  Irma gave him a beautiful daughter, Nina, and three precious sons, Roland, Aloysius and Sebastien. They spent time every day with their great-grandfather Father John, who enjoyed telling them stories of his childhood in Ghana: about the gold mines, eating fufu and red red, Anansesem, the wildlife, children’s games like mamba and ampe. The kids hung on his lips when he was telling stories. Sebastien especially showed an exceptionally high level of interest. He was also the one who proudly kept the original letters of freedom of his family safely tucked under his pillow.

Father John died peacefully in his rocking chair one late afternoon in August 1875. I am consoled by the thought that he has finally returned to his ancestors in his beloved and never-forgotten Ghana.

Father John and his fellow survivors have brought along with them some spirits from Africa which have steadfastly guided their behavior while in Curaçao:

The Survival Spirit of never quitting.

The Sacrifice Spirit of making ends meet.

The Spiritual Spirit of maintaining trust and belief in the Almighty.

The Solidarity Spirit of remaining united.

The Sameness Spirit of equality despite differences in status and power.

These spirits will continue to serve as nourishment and beacons for all descendants of Father John.

Medaase Papa!

Fast forward to 1996, the year yours truly was born.  I, Samuel John Sebastien, am the great-great-grandson of Sebastien, and the oh so proud great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Father John. My parents Loysi and Maria have done quite well in their life after both their parents moved to a more central part of the island. I finished high school in Curaçao and went to Amsterdam to study Intercultural Relations. In the third year of the program, I choose to study six months abroad at the University of Ghana. During my stay I traveled across a part of this rich country. Accra as a cultural and cosmopolitan city made me feel very comfortable. Kumasi showed me the grandness of the Ashanti Kingdom. Cape Coast and Elmina Castle, where Father John’s journey once started, moved me into thoughtful remembrance. The Door of No Return….  Amazing Grace… I was honored to visit a village near Adeiso with farmers and wood carvers, where I was heartly welcomed by the villagers as their “family from the other side of the sea”.

In 2020 I finished my study. What was next for me in life? I see so many opportunities to develop solid connections between Curaçao and Ghana. Through enhancement of cultural similarities (music, art, literature, storytelling), business networking and trade (cocoa, kente cloths, fruits), tourism getaways, educational exchange programs, friendship cultivation, family ties explorations (DNA comparisons). I liked the idea of becoming sister towns!

My high school sweetheart Ruth and I were married in 2021. Our first child, a daughter, was born one year later.  We named her Joelle, meaning “given by God”. I am thankful for each day that I am blessed to have my family close to me all the time.

I am now ready to complete Father John’s circle. Ruth, Joelle, and I will soon move to Ghana, back to our roots. Ruth is expecting our first son, Raddy Mawuli. He will be born in Ghana and raised honoring both his Curaçao and Ghanaian ties.  I will make Father John proud of me, and I know he will be with me while, once in Ghana, I will establish everlasting bonds between Curaçao and Ghana.

Father John has endured many adversities and dealt with much difficulty. We as his descendants will continue to face hard times as an inevitable part of life but shall always overcome them. What better way to reflect this than by the Aya Adinkra symbol of endurance and resourcefulness?

Ghana has interested me since I was young. I visited Ghana in 2016 where I participated among others in a village outreach program. I also visited several parts of Ghana (a few of them I mentioned in my story) and focused on contacts with the locals. In my story I provide a historical picture of the slave trade as experienced by a particular person narrated by descendants of this person. I see great opportunities for both countries once the relationship between Ghana and Curacao is tightened. These opportunities are based on my own experiences while in Ghana. In my story I elaborate on such opportunities.

-Richeline Joe

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About the author

Richeline Joe

Richeline Christine Joe, born and raised in Curaçao, has lived in the Netherlands for over 15 years where she completed her Masters study in Psychology and PhD in Social Sciences. She currently lives in Curaçao and is amongst others a writer of short stories and poems. She is one of the two winners of the 2023 writers contest of the Transatlantic Relatives digital platform, aimed at connecting Ghana and Curaçao through their common history. She gets her main inspiration for writing during nature walks, hikes, reading and just by observing and listening to people. In 2022 she was awarded a royal decoration as Knight in the Order of Orange Nassau. Richeline Joe is one of the two Curaçaoan artists selected to travel to Ghana and perform at the Pa Gya! Literary Festival.