The opportunities for a large-scale slave revolt.
A casual observer of the 18th century Surinam slavery system might have predicted a development akin to that in Saint-Domingue. All the conditions for a large-scale rebellion by the black population seemed to be present in optima forma. Eugene Genovese has outlined the circumstances leading to a higher probability of slave revolt:
(1) The master-slave relationship had developed in the context of absenteeism and depersonalization as well as greater cultural estrangement of whites and blacks;
(2) economic distress and famine occurred;
(3) slaveholding units approached the average size of one hundred to two hundred slaves, as in the sugar colonies, rather than twenty or so, as in the Old South;
(4) the ruling class frequently split either in warfare between slaveholding countries or in bitter struggles within the slaveholding country;
(5) blacks heavily outnumbered whites;
(6) African born slaves outnumbered those born into American slavery (Creoles);
(7) the social structure of the slaveholding regime permitted the emergence of autonomous black leadership;
(8) the geographical, social and political environment provided terrain and opportunity for the formation of colonies of runaway slaves strong enough to threaten the plantation regime.”
It seems at first sight that the situation in Surinam fitted this model rather well.
Absenteism and cultural estrangement.
Absenteeism was rampant in Surinam. Apart from the earliest period, few Surinam planters lived on their estates. They preferred to reside in Paramaribo and in many instances, it took them days to reach their plantations by boat. Consequently, they were only dimly aware what went on there most of the time. The majority did not seem to be very interested anyway. They were driven by an animus revertendi, a desire to return to their homeland with their fortune made. In many instances, their eagerness for maximum profit overrode any humanitarian concerns they might have had. As the saying goes in Holland: what one does not know does not hurt. The Surinam plantation owners preferred not to know. After the Amsterdam stock-exchange crisis of 1773, the situation worsened. Many of the new plantation owners were Dutch investors, who had little knowledge of agriculture and who only tried to recoup their losses as much as possible. They gave free reign to callous administrators and directors. The latter, in the 17th and 18th centuries especially, were mostly recruited from the lower rungs of white society, in particular from the ranks of former soldiers and sailors. Accustomed to harsh discipline themselves and obliged to deliver a maximum crop by their patrons, they were not unduly bothered by altruistic feelings either. So, Surinam exhibited the classic features of too much absenteeism.
Just as important was the fact that masters and slaves had totally different cultures, with only limited influence on each other. This was partly the result of the fact that the bondsmen formed a large numerical majority and spent most of their time with little or no white supervision. However, it was also partly the result of a deliberate policy of the whites. Being such a tiny minority, they were in danger to be swallowed up by their subjects: biologically through miscegenation and culturally through ‘negroization’. Therefore, they strove to keep people of color apart from white society and to keep some cultural accomplishments exclusively their own, in particular those with a ‘boundary defining character’ (like language and religion). The whites jealously guarded these: they did not want their slaves to speak Dutch, or to become Christian. In later times, they relented a bit and saw some advantage in converting slaves to Christianity, but by then it did not matter anymore.
Surinam has shown the characteristics of a volksplanting only for a very limited period. By the time slavery became entrenched, it was already clear that Surinam would be an exploitation colony par excellence, geared to produce commodities for the world market and largely oblivious to the needs of its own population. One result of this attitude was the fact that production for the home market was often neglected. This was the case with timber, for example: Surinam had an abundance of high quality wood, but people were often forced to import timber from the United States to build their houses. It was even more apparent in the production of food. All through the slavery era, there were plantations that specialized in the cultivation of victuals, but most of their products went to Paramaribo and they never produced sufficient quantities anyway. Especially during the early period, the lowland planters preferred to put all their energy into the cultivation of cash crops, hoping that they would be able to buy the foodstuffs they needed for their slaves at home or abroad. Often this was indeed possible, but when droughts, floods, or other calamities resulted in a particularly meager crop, the slaves went hungry. Some planters were even forced to let them fend for themselves in the forest. In the 18th century, the situation improved somewhat because the coffee grounds often produced more plantains than they had use for, but even then, many planters could buy only a minimal amount of food –just enough to keep their slaves from running away or being unable to work. The ‘frugality’ of the planters was even more visible in the distributions of ‘luxuries’ as meat, fish, salt, tobacco and clothes. These always had to be imported, which drove up the prices, and they were often unavailable when the trade routes were cut off during one of the many wars that plagued the Caribbean during this period. However, it was not only stinginess that withheld food and clothing from the slaves: in later times, many plantations fared so badly that they could hardly afford the barest necessities.
In the eyes of many people, even the inhabitants, 18th century Surinam was the epitome of a prosperous plantation colony. In the early part of the century, when the prices of the commodities it produced were high, this was indeed the reality. Money poured in and the planters were quick to spend it in the most conspicuous manner possible. The apparent prosperity made the planters eligible for ample credits and generous loans and this enabled them to maintain a high level of consumption a few decades longer. However, during the latter part of the 18th century, Surinam lived far above its station. The conditions for plantation agriculture were not exactly ideal. Land was plentiful, but land suitable for plantations was not and it had to be prepared by a costly procedure. Slaves were hard to come by and the fact that Surinam was located outside the main trade routes made them very expensive. As a result, the production costs compared unfavorably with those in other parts of the Caribbean, especially the French colony Saint-Domingue and (in later times) the Spanish colony Cuba. Fortunately, the Dutch market could absorb all of Surinam’s production (in fact much more).
In the 19th century, the number of plantations fell drastically and the remaining ones barely survived by a process of shifting to sugar, modernization of the production and much subsidy (mostly by hapless stockholders, who wasted the chance to invest their money more productively in the Netherlands). What it boils down to, is that Surinam has been a genuinely prosperous colony only during a few decades: it merely managed to give that impression a while longer because of high prices in the developing world market and the misuse of credit that was never paid back. Economically speaking, the situation of most Surinam plantations for most of the time was precarious and only in favorable circumstances the slaves were not victimized by this.
A predominance of large plantations.
During most of the slavery era, sugar plantations formed the majority of Surinam estates. They were condemned to a certain minimum size to make it possible to exploit an expensive sugar mill profitably. In the early period, when most of these mills were simple, animal-driven constructions, Surinam plantations could be small: a force of 10 to 20 slaves was not unusual. However, when water mills (and in later days steam mills) came in vogue, the production capacity increased and additional slaves were needed. Plantations with more than a hundred bondsmen became the norm in the 18th century. Even the coffee grounds, though much more flexible in the number of hands they employed, were comparatively large. In other plantation colonies, they were often relegated to marginal lands, but in Surinam, they took up some of the most fertile grounds, especially in the Commewijne district. Their overall size was somewhat smaller than that of sugar plantations, but they had more land under permanent cultivation. In the United States, planters owning more than 100 slaves tended to split up their holdings into several independent units, because it made supervision easier and the cotton plantations that predominated there hardly profited from the economies of scale. In Surinam, on the other hand, the few plantations specializing in cotton belonged to the largest in the colony.
While the coffee grounds lost terrain in the latter part of the slavery era, the remaining sugar estates grew in size steadily through a process of concentration: many 19th century estates boasted 200 to 400 slaves. Although this did not facilitate close supervision (which had never been a prime concern for many Surinam planters anyway), it made technological innovation -on a modest scale- possible. For the slaves, this process of concentration held little promise and they often protested the fusion of slave forces vehemently. With regard to the United States, it has often been maintained that the treatment of slaves was much better on small units than on larger ones. In Surinam, size seems to have made little difference. The slaves on large plantations were in some ways better off: they had less supervision and fewer problems to recruit the personnel for a large-scale rebellion.
A divided ruling class.
Surinam whites were divided in many ways. Their backgrounds were more diverse than anywhere else in the Caribbean. In all other plantation colonies, the citizens of the mother country made up a large majority of the white inhabitants. A take-over by another nation usually meant the substitution of most of the old planters by ambitious newcomers. In Surinam, Dutch planters indeed replaced most their English colleagues in the 17th century, but not because these were forced out. The Dutch wanted a strong and prosperous colony and welcomed everyone who could contribute to that. The varied backgrounds of the planters hardly ever posed a problem: Dutch, French, German, English, Scandinavian and Iberian planters all found their niche in Surinam society. However, since France and England were among the worst enemies of the Dutch Republic in the 17th and 18th centuries, the danger of a split along national lines in the ruling group always lurked in the background.
Religious differences also divided the white group. On the whole, Surinam exhibited a degree of religious tolerance that was quite remarkable for the age and the area, but some animosities remained. The largest minority, the Jews, had every reason not to challenge the status quo, because they could not expect a more favorable situation anywhere else in the region. It was different for the Catholics. Although they were no longer discriminated against openly in later years, they were mistrusted because of their alleged bias in favor of Catholic countries like France and Spain.
Class differences played an important role as well. Surinam was largely ruled by the planters and their allies. They provided the councilors for the courts and many higher civil servants and schemed to further their own ends (modest taxation for one). A small middle-class, consisting of traders and government employees, only took shape in the 19th century. Members of the lower classes (artisans, soldiers, sailors and blankofficieren), though numerous, were wholly dependent on the upper echelons and rarely stood up for their own rights. An exception was the mutiny against Governor Van Aerssen, but this was suppressed effectively.
Political differences were the most important. There was a continuous strive between the representatives of the planters and those of the Society of Surinam and the Dutch government, who vied for ultimate control. The first signs of this animosity could already be discerned during the 17th century, when the question arose who should substitute for an absent governor: the Commander (usually an outside appointee) or the members of the Court of Police. The earliest evidence of this fundamental opposition was the conflict over the defense of the colony in the aftermath of the attack by Jacques Cassard and his cronies. From then on, the relations remained strained. Sometimes they deteriorated so much that outside intervention was necessary to restore law and order. When the Dutch government took over control of the colony at the end of the 18th century, the planters were increasingly stripped of their power, the deathblow being given by the English occupancy during the Napoleonic Wars.
In the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century, the Caribbean was one of the main theaters of war: no European conflict went by undetected in these parts. The Napoleonic Wars in particular had serious repercussions. Though not the finest prize of the Caribbean, Surinam was worth plundering at the very least and the danger thereof was present during any conflict, whether the United Provinces were directly involved or not. The inhabitants of Surinam were painfully aware that their defenses were woefully insufficient –and so were the slaves, who patiently waited for a chance to break their shackles every time a conflict broke out. Surprisingly, they were often well informed about the events abroad.
Blacks outnumbering whites.
In few areas of the Caribbean, blacks have outnumbered whites so heavily as in Surinam. During the heighdays of slavery, there was less than one white for every 20 slaves. Only some of the smaller Caribbean islands, which were less vulnerable to slave revolt by virtue of their situation, topped this. Because of the uneven distribution of whites over the colony, this ratio rose to 70 : 1 in the plantation area. This made the supremacy of the whites an extremely shaky one, which did not escape the slaves. The possibilities for communication were limited, so in times of trouble a beleaguered master could not count on timely aid from the outside.
Africans outnumbering Creoles.
Surinam has exhibited the characteristics of a frontier society for an inordinately long time. Compared to the normal life cycle of plantation colonies, this meant that the first phase, the phase of building a stable society, took longer than normal. Although Surinam chose the road it was to travel in an early stage of its colonial evolution, the obstacles encountered (lack of settlers, lack of slaves, lack of funds) delayed the onset of the second phase, the phase of the mature and prosperous plantation colony, for a considerable period. Moreover, this phase had lasted only a few decades before clouds started to gather on the horizon. The last phase, the period of decline, dragged on for nearly a century, although most of that time the inhabitants remained optimistic about the possibilities of recovery.
The development of the demography of the slaves generally corresponds with the life cycle of the plantation colony. During the period in which the Surinam plantation area expanded, the slave population grew fast, in the absolute sense and in relation to the number of whites. Mortality was high and fertility extremely low. The sex ratio was skewed: males greatly outnumbered females. During the period of stabilization, the percentage of zoutwaternegers fell and although mortality remained at a fairly high level, the sex ratio became slightly more normal and fertility increased. The period of decline was ushered in by economic hardship and later accompanied by a ban on the transatlantic slave trade. The planters had to depend largely on natural increase to keep their slave force intact. The sex ratio became more balanced and fertility rose. Mortality declined as result of better treatment and improvements in medical knowledge, though it remained too high for a ‘third world population’ during the whole slavery era. Because of this evolution, the African-born bondsmen heavily outnumbered Creoles during the 17th and most of the 18th century. Only after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, this situation gradually changed.
The importance of this observation lies in the fact that African-born slaves were more apt to resist oppression and more willing to risk their lives to gain freedom, partly because they had less to lose. The Creoles tended to bide their time and to strike only when they were reasonably certain of success.
Surinam provided excellent opportunities for the development of black leadership. Not on the plantations: though the bastiaans could wield a great deal of power, they were chosen primarily for their loyalty to their masters and their ability to make the slaves do their masters’ bidding. The struggle to survive in the jungle, on the other hand, allowed talented leaders to emerge. In Surinam, able warriors could amass a strong following and form a real threat to the continuance of white domination. Their main problem was that they did not connect very well with the majority of the slaves.
Possibilities for marronage.
In essence, Surinam was little more than a large jungle in which tiny groups of people carved out small and often only temporarily granted footholds. The forest always threatened to reclaim the plantations. Although the whites managed to tame the elements up to a certain point, they could never influence sufficiently those factors that made Surinam such an inhospitable place: the climate, with its predictable excesses of rain and unpredictable occasional droughts; the vermin that plagued the inhabitants regardless of skin color; the weeds against which a perennial war had to be waged; the soil whose fertility was often so precarious. The slaves suffered from these hardships as well, but the harsh environment also offered them opportunities to win their freedom. Once swallowed up by the jungle, they were hard to track down and they could always evade their white pursuers by retreating deeper into its recesses. Even when they chose to stay in the proximity of the plantations, the forest hid them comfortably. Thus, they could build up their communities relatively undisturbed. The jungle also gave the Maroons cover while they waged a guerrilla war against the colonists. If slaves and Maroons had joined forces and had striven in earnest to overthrow the supremacy of the whites, who knows what might have happened.
The obstacles to a large-scale slave revolt.
We have seen in the preceding chapter why the Maroons were not particularly eager to overrun the plantation area. This is one of the main reasons why no large-scale slave revolt ever shook Surinam. It is hardly likely that the slaves would have remained idle during an all-out Maroon attack. Whatever their initial objections to such an undertaking might have been, when forced to choose sides, most would have supported their own kind. Without the stimulus of such a Maroon offensive, however, the factors working against the outbreak of a slave revolt proved too strong. Moreover, the circumstances that favored the possibility of a successful rebellion only form half of the story. Although, for example, absenteeism and depersonalization of the relations between owners and slaves was prevalent and the cultural estrangement between whites and blacks was nowhere as large as in Surinam, but this may have had different consequences than Genovese postulated.
The slaves of Surinam were neglected by their masters in many ways, but on the other hand, they were not constantly bothered by them either. Consequently, they had a large measure of freedom to arrange their own affairs. Surely, they often had to work hard and the daylight hours belonged to the master, but the nights, holidays and Sundays were their own. The slaves could develop an independent culture with profound African influences. It set them apart from their overlords, it signaled a silent protest, but it also helped the slaves to adapt and it blunted the worst onslaughts of slavery on their psyche. The planters were reluctant to interfere in the social life of the slaves as well, so the slave community was, in fact, independent in many ways. To give up this satisfying social and cultural life for an uncertain and often dangerous existence in the jungle was the inevitable price of freedom: a price that was considered too high by many of the slaves.
The Surinam masters often failed to provide their slaves with sufficient provisions, let alone food that was varied and of good quality. As a result, many slaves went hungry from time to time. This would certainly have prompted them to rebel, if they would not have had ample opportunities to add to their diet themselves. In the eyes of the slaves, this did not absolve their owners of the duty to provide for them, but it made them less desperate to challenge masters who failed to do so. The slaves could get additional food by hunting, fishing, collecting shellfish and robbing other plantations (although the latter was not without risk). Moreover, they had their own gardens and fruit trees and they raised fowl (sometimes even -in secret- pigs). Many slaves were sorely tried by masters who neglected to furnish other necessities, especially clothes, but this usually did not inspire them to a spirited protest: the Surinam climate was mild enough to go without if the need arose.
While the slave force of a large plantation might be strong enough to keep attackers at bay and even beat them in combat, it was seldom sufficient to stage a genuine revolt. For that, cooperation between slaves of different plantations was required and this was not easy to organize. There were always slaves ready to reveal a plot -either for material gain, or because they feared being dominated by other blacks even more than being dominated by whites.
Although the white colonists were divided in many ways, they were also very much aware of the precariousness of their situation and they tried their best to hide their differences as much as possible from the slaves. They were determined never to give the slaves a chance to set them up against each other and they usually cooperated loyally in case of any outside threat. Irreconcilable political differences, like the one that split the whites in Berbice (Patriots vs. Orangists) did not exist in Surinam.
Blacks may have greatly outnumbered whites, but this advantage was upset by two factors. Firstly, a large percentage of the black population was in no condition to wield any resistance: they were too young, too old, or too ill. A much larger percentage of the whites than of the blacks belonged to the category of ‘men capable of bearing arms’. Secondly, the whites managed to enlist the support of the Indians and did everything in their power to drive wedges in the black front, setting up the pacified against the not-pacified Maroons and runaway slaves, former slaves against Maroons, privileged slaves against their less favored colleagues, etc. On the whole, solidarity between the various groups of blacks was limited and the whites saw to it that it stayed that way.
Perhaps because of their scarcity, the Surinam whites had a lot of confidence in their Creole slaves, especially the Mulattoes. They deliberately tried to increase their loyalty by a preferential treatment. Also, the Creoles had good reason to fear the Africans because of their supposed magical powers and that distrust was mutual: Creoles were kept out of conspiracies as much as possible. In the 19th century, African runaways disliked the Creoles so much that they often killed any Creole who dared to enter their camp. The distrust between Africans and Creoles created another gap in the black front, which weakened it considerably. Moreover, for most of the slavery era the Creoles were not numerous enough to concoct their own revolts (which in the perception of Genovese were more sophisticated and therefore more dangerous).
Surinam slave society permitted the emergence of black leaders, but they were Maroon leaders. Their interest primarily lay with their own people, not with the black population in general. Most of them had little objection against slavery as such (they often treated the runaways that had drifted to their villages little better than slaves), but only to the fact that they had been degraded to slavery themselves, or had been mistreated. Once they had reached their goals -freedom, peace with the whites and a steady supply of European goods- they were quite willing to support the status quo.
The geographical situation of Surinam gave the slaves the possibility to withdraw from an unbearable situation individually, but at the same time it created so many obstacles that only the most desperate and the most brave ventured far into the hinterland. Runaways could fairly easy form independent communities beyond the grasp of the whites. The forest provided them with food and other necessities, but the Maroon societies continued to need the whites for many other goods (pots, knives, cloth, guns, gunpowder, etc), which made them less eager to drive their adversaries from the colony. Once the whites realized it was not a matter of conquer or be conquered, they learned to live with independent Bush Negro communities tucked away in the hinterland.
In Surinam, the situation was favorable for the articulation of various forms of protest: from sabotage and strikes to running away and small-scale revolts. However, these very same factors hampered a large-scale rebellion aimed at overthrowing the slavery system. The pressure was siphoned off the kettle in so many ways that the bursting point was never reached.