Parliament Committee in favour of capital being renamed Great Bay

June 13, 2023  -The Daily Herald News  -PHILIPSBURG–On St. Maarten Flag Day, June 13, Independence for St. Martin Foundation requested Parliament’s approval and support for its proposal to have Philipsburg removed as the official name of the capital of St. Maarten and the town to be named Great Bay. The Parliament Committee of Constitutional Affairs and Decolonization (CCAD) acknowledged the need for the name change and announced it would work on this.

“The present name of our capital, Philipsburg, is insulting,” said Nzinga Lake on behalf of the foundation. “We should not honour persons such as Mr. John Philips, who has an abusive past. Great Bay belongs to its people, past and present. We should ensure that all St. Maarteners and visitors fully embrace the renaming of our capital. Members of Parliament, with your support and stamp of approval, let’s take back what is rightfully ours, our capital’s name given by our ancestors and people: Great Bay.”

CCAD welcomed the proposal. “This is extremely necessary,” said Independent Member of Parliament (MP) Solange Duncan. “I don’t see how this can be argued against. Of course, you will have people that will say, ‘Why should we change the capital?’ But I believe this is something that everyone should get behind, because it is about honouring not only our ancestors, but those who fought against a system that was all about atrocities against our own people.”

Philipsburg, founded in 1763, was named after John Philips, a Scot from Arbroath, a small port city on the east coast of Scotland. He bought a vessel and sailed to the Caribbean. In 1729, then commander of the regiment on St. Martin, he was requested by the West India Company (WIC) to collect the debt owed by French islands Martinique and Guadeloupe. The WIC directors on St. Eustatius had depleted the assets of the company. Although Philips did not get the funds owed by the French, on his return he was promised the position of commander of St. Maarten.

It would take until 1735 for him to become commander of the south side of the island. Meanwhile, he resided on the island as a merchant and was the owner of the Industry plantation. As commander, he revived the neglected salt-making industry and saw to it that more mills were installed.

The island was sparsely populated back then and the plantations were only cultivating sweet potatoes, yams and cassava, whereas sugar, cotton, and coffee were promising products that could be exported. Philips succeeded in persuading the estate owners to plant these crops and encouraged export of these products.

“Philips made it his business to get many more people, including slaves, to St. Maarten,” said Committee Chairman MP Rolando Brison, noting that the relative prosperity on the island in those days stemmed from brutality and inhumanity. “Many persons died under Philips’ reign.” Only focusing on the export of products, Philips exploited the people on the island, Brison said.

MP Grisha Heyliger-Marten said she is of the opinion that not only should Philipsburg be renamed Great Bay; in addition to that all colonial elements around the country should be removed. She mentioned that St. Maarten has a street-naming committee that is currently dormant. The committee falls under the Ministry of Public Housing, Spatial Planning, Environment and Infrastructure VROMI. In the past, this committee collaborated with the Census Department, Kadaster and the Post Office, as well as the Ministry of Tourism, Economic Affairs, Transport and Telecommunication (TEATT).

“Maybe we can bring back that committee, have a meeting with them, and see where we go from there,” Heyliger-Marten suggested, referring to Party for Progress MP Raeyhon Peterson for information on the legal process.

In turn, Peterson said it is “obvious” that the name of the capital should change. “Thorough legal research is necessary to see how we go about this,” he said, noting that Philipsburg is not mentioned in the Constitution of St. Maarten. “I haven’t found any article of law that mentions Philipsburg as the capital of the country. Do we, as Parliament, create a new national ordinance? And if so, how will that jibe with the Statuut, and with our Constitution?”

Peterson wondered aloud how the name change would be received internationally and whether it would affect tourism on the island. He stressed the need for an information and awareness campaign, including education material for the local schools. “We have to educate our children about this,” he said.

Committee Chair MP Brison proposed reaching out to Government and asking the various ministries whether they can provide Parliament with information on what steps to take next. “I suggest we dig deeper into this and report back to Parliament and the public,” Brison said.

He sees parallels between the current name of the capital and the street named Van Romondt Steeg, which Brison said is named after Johannes Willem van Romondt, lieutenant governor from 1840 to 1849. Before him, Diederik Johannes van Romondt was lieutenant governor from 1820 to 1840.

Brison mentioned the second Lieutenant governor Van Romondt, saying: “Johannes Willem was governor of St. Maarten during the slave period on the island. On April8, 1848, the French commander informed the governor in writing that the Republic of France would declare the freeing of slaves in the French colonies as of the 17th of April, 1848. The French freed their slaves as promised. However, enslavement remained a fact on the Dutch side of St. Maarten until July 1, 1863.”

On May 29, 1848, a day after the abolition of slavery on the French territories, 26 persons, the entire enslaved population of Diamond Estate on St. Maarten, fled to the northern side where they were recognised as free men and women. Dutch Commander Van Romondt then insisted that the French return any runaway slaves, and he made various efforts to get these persons. “Thankfully, he was unsuccessful,” said Brison, noting that this governor does not deserve to have a street named after him.

Brison proposed to the MPs having Van Romondt Steeg named after the first Governor of Country St. Maarten, Eugene Holiday. “We can decorate that street in a way that we can honour our local heroes, create a nice wall of fame. Make it a nice educational and historical street for St. Maarten.”

Independent MP Christopher Emmanuel, who had been silent for the past hour, said; “I cannot wait to call Philipsburg ‘Great Bay’, just like the old folks do. But this talk about legislation, it is confusing me. I would think that with the stroke of a pen this can simply be done.”

The town was named after a criminal, Emmanuel said. “But here we are talking and talking. Also, to rename a street named after a governor to honour another governor: it was and still is a governor. At the end of the day, slavery brought us here and colonialism kept us here. So what are we trying to get rid of? Both of them! Either we want to get it done, or we don’t want to get it done.”

Emmanuel insisted on reviving the street-naming committee and removing all the symbols of slavery around the country, as well as all the symbols of colonialism. “Then it leads to a road of independence, and then we are good,” he concluded.

The plea for independence came as a blessing to the four representatives of Independence for St. Martin Foundation, who proposed the name change of the capital and advocated that St. Maarten rise from what its ancestors built and free itself from the colonial influence of the Netherlands and the Kingdom.

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