A former dentist, Jacob Gelt Dekker is a Dutch self-made millionaire and philanthropist whose Midas touch is founded on the alchemy of transforming adversity into actualization. His ability to convert negatives into positives goes far beyond accounting; he credits an abusive upbringing and decades-long battle with cancer as the catalysts for his drive, creativity and compassion.
Jacob is a serial entrepreneur whose successes include building a European chain of one hour photo stores, which he later sold to Kodak. In 1981, he and a partner bought 200 old cars from Budget Rent a Car in the Netherlands, which they transformed into a fleet of 25,000 vehicles. They paid $20,000 for the company in 1981 and sold it in 1996 for $600 million.
Jacob has another track record--one of acting on behalf of those who have been overlooked or are in need. In 1998, that affinity extended to a derelict quarter of Curaçao's historic capital of Willemstad, which government officials granted Jacob permission to renovate. In bringing the slum back to life, Jacob created an elegant enclave of restored 17th- and 18th-century Dutch colonial houses. On the same premises, he founded the Kura Hulanda Museum, with 10 collections describing the slave trade.
I visited the museum while on holiday in Curacao and was deeply affected by its documentation of man's inhumanity to man. I had assumed the exhibits would chronicle Curacao's role as a slave port in the 17th and 18th centuries. In fact, the museum examines slavery's history as a practice far more ancient. The emotional impact of the museum stayed with me long after I left Curacao, and its thought-provoking nature eventually made me curious about the man who had founded the collections with an endowment of $6 million. I didn't realize I would learn as much as I did about Jacob--and the human spirit.
Meg: When did you make your first trip to Curacao?
Jacob: I think about 1996. A city architect, who was at that time the leader of the city’s renovation office, was working for the government of the island, and he was part of an initiative to make the city a UNESCO World Heritage site. Supposedly, he was dispatched by the government to contact investors, and following his invitation, I came to visit.
It was quite a shock. The remains of Otrobanda, the suburb across the harbor of old town and the civic center, Punda, were little more than ruins, empty lots and streets claimed by gangs and homeless. Otrobanda, once the lively heart with small, home industries, like gun foundries, furniture makers, drinking water and ice-maker retailers, straw hat weavers, small rum bars, snacks and brothels, had become the territory of drug gangs and squatters.
The old city charm of 1800s and 1900s seemed to be lost forever. It was devastating. Buildings had no roofs, no windows, and very often nothing was left, or just a couple of walls. It was in a very bad state.
Over the years the streets turned into garbage dumps. For decades Public Services did not dare to enter the area out of fear for gangs. The streets had never been cleaned out since World War II. It was inhabited by undocumented workers, prostitutes, drug dealers and whatever. They kind of camped out, sometimes literally between the four walls without a roof, sometimes as squatters in houses.
It was an awful situation and also very dangerous. Even for the police it was a no-go area. They never responded to crime calls any more.
So it was a little bit risky to go there and say “Guys, I just bought a house, and next week I am buying another one, and then buying 20, 30, 40, 50. I'm going to fix it up and turn it into a decent city. You guys can stay or move. And if you stay, you’ve got to help me. I’ll employ you to clean it up, and if you don’t, I’ll move you out.” That was a direct confrontation, and it became a bit of a battle. You know, if you stand your ground, people usually yield.
Meg: Did any people squatting in the area decide to help you?
Jacob: Out of the 200, I recruited about 20, and later it grew to about 30, no volunteers but against pay. I thought the best people to recruit as security guards were the criminals. At least they knew everybody. So why not? And it’s very funny, once you give someone authority and let them grow beyond their status, they assume a totally different attitude. And it worked. Of course it wasn’t flawless, but it worked. I was able to stop the extensive drug dealings.
There was a lot of drug dealing, but drug dealers need to have a quiet environment to sell their product, and if it is not quiet and there are too many bright lights, they move. There was a lot of construction going on. A battle ensued, and, maybe in retrospect, I was insane to do it, but most people are insane when they do something. Humanity wouldn’t exist if we couldn’t be insane from time to time.
Meg: When you came to this neighborhood and saw the state of disrepair and crime, what made you think you could bring it alive?
Jacob: You see these totally lackadaisical people, not taking care of themselves or their families. Once you cart out the garbage and clean up the neighborhood, it was very interesting to see how that reflected on the people. They took a bath, and the kids started to look clean and nice. They take pride in themselves, they took pride in their life. So people came aboard with what I was doing and vice-versa. Of course, some people didn’t see it. Some people don’t like change. Because once it was going, there was no way back and stop it.
Meg: You are the force behind Kura Hulanda, the anthropological museum located in the neighborhood, which focuses on the cultures of Curacao and is a world-class chronicle of the slave trade. Can you describe what inspired your vision to found and build this collection? I was blown away by how extensive it is.
Jacob: First of all, the local people that I met in that neighborhood were not very educated. Quickly I found out that most of the people on the island had little or no idea where they came from. When I said, “You're all Africans,” many of them looked at me and said I was crazy, because they believed they lived on the island for thousands of years. Of course, nobody lived on the island for thousands of years. There were 16 people in 1632 when the Dutch took it over. They had no idea what their historic background was.
So my first collection is therefore called West African Kingdoms. There was a very extensive history, a very powerful history, very rich history, with gold mining and all that stuff. The success of empires in West Africa reflected very much on everything that happened in Europe.
Don’t forget Europeans got their gold out of West Africa, at the Gold Coast. The successive Ghana, Mali and Songhai empires were based on gold mining, an exclusive privilege of the rulers. In 1324, Mansa ( king) Musa I made a pilgrimage to Mecca and spent so much gold that he created massive inflation in all of North Africa. That was enough to establish the gold reputation for hundreds of years to come. The Portuguese were amongst the first to establish relations as of about 1428.
The Ghana, Mali and Songhai empires were built along the Niger river and its tributaries. The Niger River delta basin near Timbuktu is connecting huge east-west streams. The water collects and then the river flows, depending on the rainy season, from east to west or west to east. With my Fulani river Bedouin friends, I took ten pirogues---river canoes---with helpers and sailed up the river all the way to Timbuktu and beyond, and collected the artifacts you see now on display in the museum, each representing particular cultures along the river.
That’s how the whole collection came together. Long overland trips by foot, crisscrossing the escarpment of Bangiagarawith the Dogon tribes, and visits to the mud city of Djenne, Timbuktu and Mopti completed my search. The first trip may have taken about three months hindered by local wars between tribes, or river terrorists, but eventually I made friends and travel became easier.
As a child I was fascinated when I read about the Tellem expeditions, a extinct tribe that was replaced by the Dogon near Djenne, with its famed giant mud mosque. So I contacted the University of Leiden, which had a very large anthropological, archeological department, and with the French have been busy there for almost 40 years excavating. They worked out of Djenne, Mopti and later in Mauritania , out of the 9th century capital of the Ghana empire, Kumbi Saleh and El Gaba. So, putting the anthropological collection of the West African empire together was hands on in areas where travel today has become extremely dangerous and nearly impossible.
The Kura Hulanda Museum, which takes its name, meaning Holland Court, from a historic ship wharf on the very same location also features many other collections. The Trans Atlantic Slave Trade, Surinam plantations, Human Rights in the USA since 1864 , The Lands of Abraham, an archeological Mesopotamia collection on script, Shona sculpture in the gardens, Japanese and Chinese art, an astrolabe collection of the Silk Route, etc. Curacao is a multicultural society and that is reflected in the collection of the museum.
Meg: What in your own background inspired such an interest in and compassion for the horrors of slavery?
Jacob: I grew up right after World War II and of course everything was broken. Families were apart or members died. I grew up in the bare left overs from WW II; there was a shortage of everything, shortage of food, clothing, you name it, there was nothing, hardly any education. I did not grow up in a traditional family. Moving from one spot to the next, sometimes a friendly host to the next foster family. I did not have any infrastructure as a child, and consequently, I would sympathize with what I saw as a nomadic existence of these people. These people don’t have any roots, that was very clear to me and I understand what it is having no roots.
Today, in Mali, there is a tribe called the Touareg who have about 20,000 slaves called the Bella. The United Nations and the country of Mali set the Bella tribe free about 10 years ago, and none of them took freedom. These people sat down. “Now we are called free. We are no longer slaves, but we don’t have any identity, we don’t have any roots. Forget about it. We are staying as we have always done. We remain the slaves of the Touaregs.” And that I understand very well.
Meg: I think your point could be misunderstood but I am well aware that it is part of the human condition to find change and the unknown frightening, even when one's current circumstances are deplorable. The museum is massive. It has 15 buildings and spans more than 16,000 square feet, and has 22 major exhibits. Was it driven by your travels and the objects you found?
Jacob: Yes, it was literally dictated by my personal experience, where I'd gone, what I had researched, the stuff I had obtained. It was not the other way around. It was not first a script and then a travel. It was first a travel and experience, and then a script.
Meg: How did you map all this out? Did you have a grand master plan?
Jacob: No. Life is not a preconceived plan very often. It is the way it happens, and let it happen, why not?
When the museum was being built, I was under cancer treatment in the hospital at Mount Sinai in Florida. The two years that it took to build it and to realize it and to put it together, I did it out of my hospital bed. In those days they didn’t have email like they have it today, but I did it by fax and I had it in my mind, and they would make videos and send them to me. I had collected all the stuff, which was in warehouses and boxes and containers so it was easy just to give clear instructions and make a storyline. For me it was a piece of cake because it was all in my head.
Meg: So you were undergoing cancer treatment while creating this?
Jacob: Right. It has been very successful, but of course it’s been an ordeal. I had my last surgery in December just four months ago. It’s not been solved. But I developed my first carcinoma when I was 28, so the least you can say, all the treatments I had were extremely successful, because I'm still here.
Meg: You live a full, active life beyond what the average person does. Would you say that having confronted cancer has made you embrace life more?
Jacob: Definitely, because you don’t want to waste any time. Also, it’s freed up a lot of time and changed the course of my life because very early on it was very clear I was not able to do a family and all that stuff.
Meg: In your travels, are there experiences that stand out as being really powerful and pivotal for you?
Jacob: The other collection we haven’t mentioned yet is the Mesopotamia collection, the lands of Abraham, which is about 5,000 years old. I put that together from experiences in Syria, Jordan, Iran, Iraq, Turkey, all the Mesopotamia area. I did a lot of travel in that area, and that wasn’t always safe. People didn’t trust you and I had quite a few adventures. You can imagine there were a couple of wild scenes in Iran.
Meg: Could you describe one?
Jacob: The last time I was in Tehran I had to flee the hotel. It became crazy. Conflicts with the Revolutionary Guard, which is mostly made up of students, fanatic students who are very aggressive, who claimed that I was a spy. The hotel manager actually knocked on my door at three o’clock in the morning and he said, “You are leaving now and I’ll take you to the airport, you have a seat on a flight.” Of course, there was no seat on the flight. It was a cargo plane, and I was part of the cargo.
The other situation was in Yemen. It was kind of funny. I was going all over the south of Yemen out of Adan, and then at a certain point I was held hostage for about two weeks or something. On my way to the mud sky scrapers of Shibam, my driver stopped at a truck stop and got drunk. A bunch of kids, no older than 14-16, with kalishnikovs and hand grenades demanded toll and took me hostage.
Being held for two weeks wasn’t so bad because they treated me fairly well, but not knowing when you would be released, that was the bad thing. I was kind of disappointed because I was released against a ransom of $450, and I thought I was worth more.
Meg: Ha! Sounds like your kidnappers sold themselves short! Another exhibit I found fascinating was the one that focused on voodoo.
Jacob: I made a couple of trips to Cuba and Haiti. Those two places really triggered my interest.
The assumption is that there is life that sprouts from human awareness in the form of ghosts or spirits. Those ghosts and spirits have a certain influence on people in normal life. In Santeria, you see a mixture of African and Christian theological ideas. It becomes very much I would say a dualism almost of the dead and the living together in a mysterious world. It goes far beyond what the rest of the world does in Christianity. Voodoo lives with the ghosts of the dead, and that’s why you have to feed them every day and make them offerings and send them flowers and the whole kit and caboodle. That’s why it has such an enormous influence on the life of today’s people.
Meg: Is there a piece in the voodoo exhibit that signifies a personal story for you?
Jacob: There was one, a little offering bowl for daily food I got in Cuba. The guy who functioned as some kind of a priest mumbled, “You are almost dead, because your cancer, you'll be dead soon. Are you sure you're not dead already? Are you not a living ghost? You better buy this bowl so we are ready for you.”
Meg: Can you share some background on the Surinam exhibit?
Jacob: In Surinam, the slaves were only used mostly for one or two seasons. They worked them to death, because it was cheaper than holding them throughout the year. Most of the slaves came from Angola. They didn’t come from West Africa. Voltaire and a few more writers labeled the Surinam slavery as the most cruel known at that time. Stedman made the exhibited pictures on display, late 1795.
Meg: Is there a piece from that exhibit you can single out?
Jacob: The famous piece you see there is the neck collar with the spikes. That’s a very powerful piece, and that stood out. The young man who was given that collar, he basically wore it for two years, starving, and then he was beat to death. The slave owner was convicted. That was a turning point, because the slave owner was arrested, and banned from the city of Paramaribo. The trial took about two years.
Most of the artifacts came from local Surinam families. We either bought them or received them as a gift.
Meg: Are there a couple exhibits that are particularly meaningful for you personally?
Jacob: Particularly interesting for me is the Mesopotamia collection. The Middle East area is culturally tremendously interesting. It’s a source of modern religions as cultures. The collection I put together more or less shows the evolution of writing, so there are clay tablets about 4,000 years old, and they are accounting inventory records in areas in the Mesopotamia River delta. When you live in a flood plain, you better do a little forward planning. Otherwise you find yourself out of food.
Flood planning is of course the very first incentive to set up a society with forward planning. When you know that there will be a flood, you collect food, impose taxes, set up storage facilities and distribution schemes. The need for a collection system, a tax system, and redistribution system creates an administrative structure. You need to keep records, so you need to develop a certain form of accounting and writing, and that’s what I show in those tablets. They show how writing first on little clay tablets and then into cylinders and then into stamps.
The next big thing is instead of bulk storage, reduction. One of the greatest inventions in the old times was reduction. Reduce bulk food to processed food and even further to concentrates. Reduction is very much volume reduction, like milk to butter and cheese, or grapes to wine to cognacs.
Meg: I never thought of that. That’s fascinating.
Jacob: Initially storehouses were huge and got smaller and smaller and smaller, and the content became more and more precious. You have beautiful little containers like we have in the museum that contained very precious oils or whatever. Then you were also able to paddle with it and to start trading, so literally from food storage and reduction and accounting, you have a surplus and you start trading with the next town. Then you go back and forth, of course, and there are robbers who steal from you so you need weapons to defend yourself, and automatically from inventory, from reduction, from trading, you move into weapons, and that’s the next collection. We have a lot of bronze weapons in the next room.
Meg: Can you describe an experience of going on a dig?
Jacob: There was a military man called Moshe Dayan, remember him? He had an eye patch, and he was a farmer, and his farm was just down from Jerusalem, not too far away. He and his daughter were both archaeologists in their spare time. He was a farmer archaeologist and his daughter was a university-trained archaeologist. I worked for her.
That was a very inspiring relationship, and it was in the wild days of the Six-Day War in 1967. The thing is, in a time of war, people are very destructive. No matter where you are in the world, they are out to destroy whatever is owned by the next party. They do not ask the next party is this your ancestry, is this valuable, is this gold, has it importance to the rest of the world population? No. They just destroy it.
That was an enormous concern of Moshe Dayan and his daughter. They were so scared the antiquities would get lost in the war. So they really took enormous care of whatever they were excavating, and they rescued innumerable pieces of art and archaeological artifacts. The Israel museum in Jerusalem is a celebration of these collections.
The Dayans had an enormous collection of what I call Roman glass. Blowing glass as we know it today was invented about 100 B.C. Dayan had collected a lot of Roman glass in the area of Jericho and some of the collection in my museum is from that time, 2,000 years ago.
Meg: I recall that the exhibit made the point that some people that were enslaved were actually members of European nobility.
Jacob: The trade of people in Africa existed and was very active 1,000 years before the Western world got involved. There was no penitentiary system, so in case someone was taken as a prisoner of war, it could be sure he was going to be sold off into slavery. The biggest trade of course was in East Africa out of Congo, what is now called Tanzania and Kenya. The big traders were the sheiks of Oman. The idea that trans-Atlantic slavery started with the Westerners is a fallacy, it’s a historically ridiculous notion. It existed a long time ago.
In North Africa of course you had millions of what are now called the Christian slaves. The Corsairs had been raiding the coasts of Italy, Genoa, Spain, France and England, from Barbary Coast, or what is now called Morocco and Tunisia in North Africa. The British House established that in 1672 there were over a million European white slaves in North Africa.
A lot of the Europeans who had crossed the Atlantic were sold as a result of bankruptcy. You could imprison a person or sell him into indentured labor, so most of the Europeans imprisoned in the Caribbean were sold for a lifetime of indentured labor.
Meg: Is it just part of human nature to want to enslave each other regardless of race or religion?
Jacob: There are two aspects. One aspect is the aspect of ownership. I own that person, and because I own that person I can do with that person whatever the law allows me to do, whatever I feel fit. That many people find objectionable.
But at the same time, in our Western system, you own your children until they're 18 years old. In the Islamic system, and not so long ago in the Western world, a man says “my wife,” and the wife had to follow whatever her husband would tell her. Owning the next person may be foreign and strange to us now, but it was very much a part of our society.
The whole idea of exploitation was very much again made into a caricature by the ideas of Karl Marx, that there’s a class struggle and the exploitation of one class through the use or misuse of the next class. That may be true or not be true.
Meg: Have you personally had an experience of feeling oppressed?
Jacob: Oh, tremendously. Don’t forget I grew up very much shipped around from one to the next, and those times were not nice. There was poverty. There was lack of food, lack of everything. Believe me, they were not very nice to me. You have tremendous limitations. You had to survive in the little box they put you in.
Meg: Can you describe the circumstances of your childhood?
Jacob: As an unprotected child, I think I was in fourth grade, I was abused a lot by one of the teachers. This went on for a long time and whatever he did, he always felt very guilty after the fact, and then he would beat the shit out of me. As a child you did not realize what the man was doing, and then he would beat you.
On one of those occasions he beat me so hard that he knocked me unconscious, and then I went to the hospital, and he ended up in jail. I never understood why he went to jail until I was much older. I was convinced that I also had to go to jail. And the reaction of the people at the time was not very pleasant. Literally after that incident I was allowed back in school but I was never allowed back into the classroom, and never allowed back into the playground. I was not allowed to contact other children ever again. So I sat in a little room for the rest of my school years, literally in a little room on the side. I came 50 minutes after school started and I left 50 minutes before the school closed, so I was in total isolation until eighth grade. That was a limitation of personal freedom and of everything actually.
I was 18 when for the first time ever in my life I entered a friend’s home, because I was totally exorcised from the community. It’s very formative, in a positive and a negative sense.
Meg: Did your parents die?
Jacob: No. My father, who was in hiding from the Nazis, had a roll in the hay with the daughter of a farmer, who became pregnant. Of course that was an enormous scandal in those days. I was told that he was hiding from the authorities, so he was officially labeled as a criminal, and that totally identified my mother. I was the child of her shame and the product of a criminal in hiding. That’s also the relationship between my parents, between him and her. She hated him for everything he was, and he was just a young man with a roll in the hay. Today we wouldn’t even think about it, whereas in those days it was a horrible situation. There was no love in that relationship.
I had very little to do with either one of them, but I remember meeting my father when he was in his seventies. I would see him every five years or something like that. At a point that I was emotional, I thought I should see him before he died. I remember so vividly at first he didn’t recognize me and at some point he did, and he only had one thing to say. He said, “I never loved your mother for a split second.” That was the character of the relationship with my parents and their relationship between themselves.
Meg: What would you say are the ingredients required for personal freedom?
Jacob: What constitutes freedom? To me as a person it’s allowing yourself to think beyond the boundaries that a society has set upon you. That sounds a little bit like preaching from a pulpit, but I think parents start teaching the little toddler, “You are not allowed to play in this room and you cannot go out of this room.” And the little kid is allowed everything in the room but not outside the room. So you set boundaries upon the people around you, and that’s how our entire society is structured. We have limits. Of course we need that, otherwise it’d be chaos.
The boundaries were initially very much set by religion. Religion would allow you to do this and not do that. It would even not allow you to think beyond a certain point. In the 19th and 20th century, religions were replaced by new religions--the ideologies of politics, socialism, communism, capitalism, you name it, all of them. Again, there was no free handing in those preset ideologies.
Yesterday I was in Colombia in Cartagena. I was watching the news and seeing what was happening in Venezuela. Here’s the president of Venezuela, who is ruling his communist country, and he cut off all the media because people are not allowed think out of the box; that is dangerous.
For me, what constitutes freedom is to allow yourself to think out of the box, and to act out of the box, and to allow yourself to question everything that you can possibly want to question.