Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Chapter 1: On the edge of the wilderness.

The conquest of the colony.

Early explorers.

The early explorers called it the Wild Coast, a seemingly unsuitable name for that nearly impenetrable stretch of forlorn land between the Orinoco and the Amazon basin. The images conveyed by such an epitaph probably include a vision of thundering waves hurling themselves against bleak rock formations, but nothing is less accurate. If anything, the Wild Coast must have presented a rather peaceful appearance to the first explorers. These adventurers were Spaniards, driven by their desire to gain treasures and spread the gospel. The English and Dutch lagged behind almost a century.

The first sailors to glimpse the territory were Alonzo de Ojeda and Juan de la Cosa in 1499, a year later followed by Vicente Yáňez Pinzón (the former captain of Columbus’ vessel the Niňa). They saw few prospects for profit at the time. Not until 1593 did Domingo de Vera officially claim the land for King Phillip II. Sir Walter Raleigh scouted the coast in 1595, lured, as many others before and after him, by the chimera of El Dorado, the Golden One, master of a land where the streets were paved with gold. In the hinterland of what was later to be called Surinam, they suspected a mythical saltwater lake, Parima, surrounded by endless treasures.

The Spanish interest in this forbidding part of the Tierra Firme soon dwindled to negligence and consequently the region was mainly disputed by adventurers from France, England and the Low Countries. Notwithstanding the lingering hope that there might indeed be golden cities hidden in the jungle, they were mostly lured by the prospect of a profitable trade with the Indians, by bartering for tobacco, dyes, gums and precious wood.

If there was anything inherently ‘wild’ about this land, it was the character of its aboriginal population. The two most powerful tribes, the Caribs –who gave their name to the abominable man-eaters- and the Arawaks, fought each other tooth and nail. A tiny group of traders, who by shrewd diplomacy had established friendly relations with one band, might easily be wiped out by another.

The Dutch were relatively late in venturing into these parts, due to backwardness in state formation. By the end of the 16th century, the Low Countries were little more than a bunch of tiny, ceaselessly quarreling provinces, glued together against their will by tyrannical Spanish rule. It took the newly protestant northern half an arduous Eighty Years’ War (1568-1648) to shake off the Spanish yoke. This meant a long and hard battle for a people few in numbers and poor in natural resources, yet these times would later be known as the Golden Age. During this period, Holland, Amsterdam in particular, became the commercial and financial center of the Europe-centered world economy. This process was greatly enhanced by the fact that a religious tolerance quite exceptional for this age had lured numerous well-to-do Portuguese Jews, Huguenots and Flemish Calvinists to the north. After 1590, the Dutch ships set out to conquer the world.

The West-Indian Company.

The strides in western direction were dictated by the desire to strike the hereditary enemy Spain at the heart of her colonial empire. Thus, it was no coincidence that the West-Indische Compagnie, which enjoyed a monopoly on all enterprises in the New World, was established in 1621, two months after the end of the Twelve Years’ Truce. Although patterned after the illustrious Verenigde Oostindische Compagnie, its aims in the beginning were profoundly different. Not trade but piracy ruled.

At first, the WIC reaped spectacular profits. The most painful blow for the Spaniards was the loss of the famous Silver Fleet to Piet Heyn in 1628. However, it soon became apparent that the irregular spoils of brigandage were not sufficient to sustain such a large organization permanently. The WIC was obliged to change its policy. Initially, the company had considered the Caribbean islands only as strategic bases from which to harass the Spanish foe, but later the awareness dawned that they could have profitable uses. The WIC conquered and lost a score of West-Indian islands, in the end only retaining three of the Lower Antilles (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) and the small Windward islands of St. Maarten (shared with the French), St. Eustatius and Saba. Meanwhile, the WIC also cast a greedy eye at the mainland territories.

Since Portugal had been swallowed up by Spain at the end of the 16th century, the WIC considered itself justified in choosing Portuguese possessions on the West-African coast and in the New World as prime targets –even though this policy yielded the greatest benefit after Portugal had regained its independence. The most inspiring victory was the conquest of Pernambuco in 1632. The Catholic plantation owners refused to acknowledge Dutch supremacy and withdrew after sabotaging their engenhos (sugar mills). The Jewish planters, on the other hand, were reassured that they would be able to enjoy a religious freedom unparalleled in the Western Hemisphere and they became the backbone of the new colony. Under the able direction of the new governor, Count Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen, the colony prospered for a decade, but after his forced departure the defenses crumbled through lack of support and in 1654, Pernambuco fell.

The WIC managed to chase the Portuguese from some of their West-African strongholds, most notably Goree, Cabo Verde, Sao Paulo de Luanda and Sao Thomé. The greatest feat was the conquest of São Jorge da Mina (Elmina) in 1637, which remained the Dutch capital on the Gold Coast until 1872. The possession of these Portuguese territories gave the Dutch their first taste of plantation agriculture and slave trading. The fall of Pernambuco proved to be of major importance for the development of plantations in the Caribbean. Many of the Jewish planters decided to leave and they settled, among other places, on the French islands Martinique and Guadeloupe and introduced sugar technology there. The Dutch, after losing their main source of profit, more than ever promoted sugar production in other parts of the West Indies, particularly Barbados. They offered transport, expertise, credit facilities, slaves and hardware. As a result of their efforts, Barbados, which had been the epitome of a tropical farm colony until then, began to change irrevocably into a full-fledged plantation society, in the process ousting out the small yeoman farmers.

The Province of Zeeland.

While preoccupied with their Brazilian possessions, the WIC all but lost interest in the Wild Coast, where, moreover, their monopolistic claims were disputed most. Even before the WIC era, private entrepreneurs, often from Zeeland, had tried to establish footholds there, on the Wiapoco River and in Cayenne (1615) as well as on the Essequibo River (1616). Titles were granted in the form of patroonschappen, under the tutelage of the States of Zeeland and ultimately the States-General. The Zeelanders could never stomach the WIC monopoly and they continued on the same footing, although they might defer to WIC control occasionally. In 1632, the Zeelandian Chamber of the WIC claimed the Wild Coast as its sole responsibility and thereafter Zeeland considered the territory as a private domain and tried to maintain a monopoly on trade and navigation. When the Van Peere group settled on the Berbice River in 1627, it was inevitable that they would cast an eye on the neighboring part of the Guyana’s very soon.

The first settlement in Surinam, however, was not a Zeelandian enterprise. It was a small trading post near the Indian village ‘Purmabo’, established in 1613. There was a tiny settlement on the Corantijn River in the same period, but the Spaniards destroyed it soon afterward. The Hollanders set up their first trading post on the Suriname River in 1633 and according to Cornelis Goslinga, there may have been a few Dutch sugar plantations on the Marowijne and Commewijne rivers, but I doubt that. Not a trace of them remained.

The Dutch claims on this area were not undisputed, other nations tried to incorporate it in their holdings at well. Illness and Indians decimated an enterprising group of Frenchmen, who, in 1640, had built the first fort on the Suriname River. The English captain Marshall and his following of 60 men established a small settlement along the upper part of the Suriname River in 1630, which was eventually abandoned, although the expedition of David Pieterszoon de Vries found them in good spirits four years later. Marshall returned in 1643 with a larger force -according to some accounts 300 families- and settled in the Saramacca and Corantijn regions. They made a good start with tobacco farming, but were driven away by hostile Indians in 1645, probably weakened by internal disputes. In 1644, there also were some Jewish families found along the Suriname River.

The early settlements were mainly trading posts and therefore situated far up the rivers, where their clients dwelt. The English and the Jews, however, pioneered in agriculture -unfortunately meeting failure most of the time. Therefore, when the English started to colonize Surinam in earnest, the only survivor they encountered was a (Dutch) Jew named Jacob Enoch with his family.

Governor Francis Willoughby, Baron of Parham, had sent these Englishmen from Barbados at his own expense (£ 20,000). After a first, largely abortive, experiment by 100 pioneers in 1650, the next year a well-equipped group of 50 men arrived to reinforce the colony. They built a fort, named Willoughby, on the spot where the French had left theirs in ruins. This time they chose the right approach, for the settlement prospered. Willoughby, who left the government of his property to replacements, was a banished royalist, so the Cromwell regime refused him title to the land and only when Charles II ascended to the throne he managed, in 1662, to secure his rights. But it took prolonged negotiations, the pledge of a tribute of 2000 pounds of tobacco a year and the promise to share the revenues of the colony equally with Lawrence Hide, whose only merit was the fact that he was the second son of the influential chancellor, the Earl of Clarendon. This title would provide little security. In 1657, the Zeelandian cities of Middelburg, Vlissingen and Veere decided to launch large colonizing expeditions to the Wild Coast, which they rechristened Nova Zeelandia. The flourishing colony of Surinam attracted the most envy.

Its population had speedily grown to about 4000 souls (slaves included), of whom 1500 were ‘capable of bearing arms’. Then tragedy struck. In 1666, Governor William Byam was ordered to attack the French in Cayenne and, as the distraught Byam noted: “At the return of our forces, which was in August following, we were visited with such a contagious pestilence that in a short time we lost a great part of the chiefest men of the land”. In February the next year, a powerful Zeelandian fleet under the command of Abraham Crijnssen attacked the shaken colony “which found us in a most weak condition, near half our men dead, and half that were living, miserably weak, ill armed and our fort not half built, but one bastion perfected”. After a short struggle with few casualties, the English surrendered.

The victors proved generous: the English inhabitants who chose to stay were promised protection of their possessions and liberty of conscience. They were not obliged to swear an oath of loyalty to their new lords, but merely had to vow that in the case of an English counterattack, they would “keep themselves quiet” and refrain from aiding their compatriots. They were granted the same rights as the Dutch colonists and they were free to leave the colony whenever they desired. These privileges were also extended to the Jews; both the Jews of English provenance who had arrived with Willoughby and the Jews who had migrated to Surinam in 1664, after their settlement in Cayenne had fallen into the hands of the French. Crijnssen soon left with a booty of 100,000 pounds of sugar, after installing a garrison of 120 men in the fort (which he rechristened Zeelandia) and appointing Maurits de Rame, one of his captains, as provisional governor. They did not have to wait long for a counterattack of the English.

The Treaty of Breda, which ended the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667), obliged the warring parties to cease hostilities, while permitting them to keep the territories they had in their power at the time. For the Dutch, this meant the loss of New Amsterdam, a colony whose potential they did not fully realise. They could consolidate their hold on Surinam and considered this a good trade. Meanwhile, however, a fleet commanded by John Herman had been dispatched from England, and, being unaware of the treaty, had reconquered Surinam in October 1667. The garrison was shipped to Barbados. Governor William Willoughby (brother of the deceased Francis) directed his son Henry to Surinam to persuade the English inhabitants to pack up and leave. Even after being ordered to return immediately, the irate Henry Willoughby spent several hectic weeks wrecking and stealing sugar mills, burning cane fields and dragging off livestock and slaves “so that the Dutch shall have little reason to glory of their purchase”. Following Dutch protests, King Charles II ordered Willoughby to send back 168 slaves, 126 animals, 8 sugar mills and 21,000 pounds of sugar, on penance of incurring his ‘high indignation’. Predictably, few of the stolen items ever materialized in Surinam again.

During his stay, Willoughby, by fair means or foul, prevailed upon many Englishmen to change their domicile. In excess of 1200 persons departed. Most of them went to Jamaica, some wound up in Barbados or Antigua. In the end, only 39 English planters remained. The emigrants had to pay their debts first and were not allowed to take along any slave they had purchased from the Dutch. This drain on the work force threatened the very survival of the colony. The authorities so desperately needed settlers, that Governor Versterre refused a group of 10 Jewish planters and their 322 slaves permission to leave the colony on the ‘frivolous pretext’ that they were not English. They had to appeal to the English monarch for release.

When the Dutch took over Surinam, they gained a territory on the way of becoming a profitable plantation colony. Willoughby had never intended to found a settlement for white farmers, as Barbados was. Black slaves had been sent along with the first group of pioneers and soon many more followed. By 1666, Surinam counted about 175 ‘plantations’, 40 to 50 of which were sugar estates. The rest were tobacco or provision grounds. From the beginning, the Dutch had high hopes for their prize. They considered the colony eminently suitable for plantation agriculture and they believed that it only lacked hands and capital to transform it into a veritable Garden of Eden. They soon found out that they had greatly underestimated the grit of the land and its native population.

The land and its people.

Natural conditions.

The charter of 1662 fixed the Corantijn and the Marowijne as the borders of ‘Willoughby Land’. Other documents, however, designated the Sinamarie River as the easternmost limit. Although the Dutch allowed the French to advance to the Marowijne, they continued to consider the region in between as belonging to Surinam.

Since the border rivers flow in a virtually straight line from the south to the north, the shape of Surinam approximates a square as closely as any territory with natural limits can. The country is situated between 54º and 58º northern latitude and 2º and 6º western longitude. The rivers shape the landscape. The major ones are, from the east to the west, the Marowijne (Maroni), the Cottica, the Commewijne, the Suriname with its tributary the Para, the Saramacca, the Coppename, the Nickerie and the Corantijn. They flow more or less parallel to each other, although the smaller rivers (Commewijne, Saramacca and Nickerie) are diverted from their course in western direction by sand ridges and seek an outlet in the estuary of a larger neighbor.

In colonial times, the inhabitants only managed to make a small dent into the forest cover and they limited their clearings to the areas adjacent to rivers and creeks. The Suriname was the main artery. The earliest plantations were all situated on the high sandy grounds along the upper part of this river and its largest branch, the Para. The second river to draw settlers to its banks was the Commewijne, initially along the lower reaches. Soon the cultivated area was expanded to the Upper Commewijne, Cottica and Perica. Later, the canals of Matapica and Warappa were dug, running from the Lower Commewijne to the sea and opening up the fertile coastal lands. The Suriname/Para and Commewijne/Cottica regions remained the core of the colony for 130 years. Only at the end of the 18th century, the Saramacca district was drawn into the plantation orbit and it took until the 19th century before the advantages of the Nickerie district were appreciated.

The rivers and creeks constituted the main channels of communication. There were no roads, except in the environment of the capital Paramaribo, so all transport was done by boat: a tentboot for passengers and a pont or lastdraager for goods. At the end of their course, the rivers were very broad and deep enough to allow the largest vessels to sail up at least 25 km. Unfortunately, they were blocked by rapids (sulas) about 70 km upstream. These formed an effective barrier against further expansion of the plantation range, since whites were unable to traverse them unaided.

There are three types of soil in Surinam: (1) the Precambrian basement; (2) the old coastal plain; and (3) the young coastal plain. The latter two have been formed by alluvial sedimentation and take up a zone of about 30 km wide near the Marowijne and 150 km wide near the Corantijn. These were the soils that permitted plantation agriculture.

The most striking feature of the young coastal plain is the sequence of sandy ridges (ritsen), alternated by swamps (zwampen). These ridges are elongated embankments, parallel to the coast. In the west, they are separated from each other, but in the east, they are often attached. Consequently, these ridges normally occur in bundles spreading westward. The breath varies from barely ten meters to several kilometers. In the eastern part of Surinam, they consist almost exclusively of sand; near Paramaribo, the sand is mixed with shells; while in the west, shells and shell fragments predominate. The ridges are covered with forests, contrary to the swamps, which sport aquatic vegetation. On the older coastal plain, ridges also occur, but less frequent and only along the northern edge. Here, they appear as savannas, while the adjacent areas are wooded. As in many other tropical countries, the soil conditions are not very favorable for agriculture, particularly on the higher terrains.

Surinam has a typical tropical climate with much precipitation, a fair amount of sunshine and moderately high temperatures. The monthly average varies between 25ºC and 29ºC. The temperature seldom drops below 23ºC or rises above 31ºC. The yearly rainfall hovers between 1500 mm along the coast and 3000 mm in the higher areas in the interior. The inhabited part of the colony, small as it may be, still boasts three different climatic zones. Just along the coast, there is a 5 to 10 km wide strip with a ‘savanna’ climate, meaning that in some months the evaporation exceeds the precipitation so much that it cannot be compensated by the abundance of rain during the rest of the year. However, the vegetation does not conform to this situation, since the grounds are so low that swamps are the rule. Adjacent to this is a nearly 10 km wide zone with a ‘monsoon’ climate: some months score less than 10 mm of rain, but this is counterbalanced by ample showers during the rest of the year. Swamp vegetation dominates here as well. The largest part of cultivated Surinam, a zone 70 to 120 km wide, is characterized by a genuine ‘tropical’ climate, wet in all seasons. This permits the growth of a dense jungle vegetation.

The seasons are almost solely determined by the pattern of precipitation. They can be divided into: (a) a short wet season, from the beginning of December until the beginning of February; (b) a short dry season, from the beginning of February until the end of April; (c) a long wet season, from the end of April until the middle of August; and finally (d) a long dry season, from the middle of August until the beginning of December. These periods cannot be sharply demarcated, particularly in the coastal area. Here the circulation of the sea winds is a disturbing factor. The starting point of each period can fluctuate by more than a month.

The designations of the seasons notwithstanding, they are all wet. Rain usually falls in the form of short but intense showers. Even during the so-called dry periods, more than 100 mm of rain may fall in less than two days. The overall precipitation peaks during the wet seasons, of course. The average humidity is high, rising from about 80% during the day to no less than 95% at night. Because of this, there is ample formation of dew and this can make the nights seem ‘cold’ to some people.

The number of daylight hours is more or less fixed. In Paramaribo, for example, the sun sets between 17.51 and 18.30 and the difference between the longest and the shortest day is barely 40 minutes. Mornings are often sunny, with clouds gathering only in the late afternoon.

The vegetation is the product of the interplay between soil conditions and climate. A dense coat of rain forest covers most of Surinam. This type of forest displays an enormous variation in plants: there are more than 1000 species of trees alone. The forests can be grouped into three types, depending on soil conditions and drainage: (1) the hygrophytic (dry) types, e.g. flood (parwa) forest, mangrove forest and swamp (dras) forest, which can be found at the seaside and between the ridges on the young coastal plain; (2) the xerophytic (dry) types, mainly savanna forest growing on sandy soil and rocky plateaus; and (3) the mesophytic forests, on well-drained but sufficiently moist soils, that take up most of the wooded area.

The influence of men on vegetation is easily observable in Surinam. There are vast stretches of secondary forest (kapoewerie), which consist of a nearly impenetrable mass of light-seeking species. It takes the primary forest a long time to reclaim its former territory. Burning makes an even larger imprint on the environment. In places where drainage is too efficient, the forest dries out during the dry seasons and becomes vulnerable to the ravages of fire. Repeated burning causes the degeneration of forest into brush. This phenomenon is usually limited to the ridges because the mesophytic forest is much less sensitive. Strangely, the swamps often suffer most. During an extremely dry spell, the peat that has accumulated dries out and when it catches fire, the flames are difficult to extinguish and the trees lose their grip and fall over.

Intentional burning has been one of the primary causes of the formation of savannas in Surinam, although soil conditions contributed as well. Cohen and Van Eijk distinguished 10 different kinds of savannas, located in 8 different landscapes. In the plantation area, savannas were present in the Upper Suriname and Para region and along the Commewijne. The former were situated on both dry and wet white sands and the result of leaching of the soil. The poor soils only permitted a vegetation of savanna forest, which after repeated burning was replaced by thick brushwood (on the dry sands) or sparse savanna vegetation (on the wet sands -for example Zanderij, nowadays the location of the national airport). The transition has been gradual most of the time, except where fires kindled by men have eaten into the surrounding wallaba forest. The brown sands of Commewijne do not suffer from leaching so much, but become saturated with water during the rainy seasons. Here too, the original vegetation was destroyed by burning and replaced by dense scrubs and savanna forest. On the whole, the savannas were barely suitable for plantations.

The climatic conditions and the extensive swamps turned Surinam into a veritable paradise for vermin of all kinds. Strains imported from overseas throve just as well as the native species. Many of them were extremely dangerous to the health of the inhabitants and contributed a lot to the high mortality rate. Fortunately, there were also more useful representatives of the animal kingdom present. Surinam was poor in large game, especially in the more populated part, but during the plantation era the tapir and pingo often provided a treasured addition to the diet, as did the smaller konkonni (Surinam ‘rabbit’). The rivers teemed with fish and on the seaside, abundant shellfish and crabs could be found. The colony was not exactly infested with predatory animals, but the tigri (jaguar) was considered enough of a threat to merit special placards.

Overall, the natural conditions made Surinam into a country that proved to be inhospitable to white settlers. Whoever ventured here, risked his life. If he was not felled by the ruthless climate or disease, a colonist might easily fall victim to the men who considered this stretch of land as their property and who were determined to show the intruders that they could only stay with their permission.

The Indian Population.

The Indians of Surinam, called Bokken by the whites, mostly belonged to three tribes: the Caribs, living along the Marowijne, Coppename and Corantijn; the Arawaks, living along the Upper Suriname, Commewijne and Saramacca, and the Waraus, living along the Upper Nickerie and Maratakka. J. J. Hartsinck further mentioned the Secoties (Schotjes). The Acouri, who lived far into the interior, slipped from view during the 19th century. Their numbers are difficult to ascertain, but it is highly unlikely that there were more than a few thousand Indians present at the moment the whites set foot in their territory.

The Indians lived in sedentary villages of varying size along the rivers and creeks, but were frequently on the move. The whites, on encountering these ‘Noble Wilds’, were intrigued by the fact that most them went around entirely naked, or sported only a diminutive apron. Their existence was based on hunting large game (aided by dogs that they trained with great care), fishing and swidden cultivation with cassava as the staple crop. Governor Van Aerssen held them in great esteem: “many of them have more natural wisdom, than our drunken lazy, and vain whites”. They struck Hartsinck as gay but extremely indolent people (at least the men), but he was impressed by their sense of justice and cleanliness (with the exception of the Waraus, whom he considered extremely dirty). Their fondness of hard liquor was well known and used by the whites to their own advantage. The Indians quarreled fiercely among themselves and white observers were appalled by their cruelty towards captives. This made the traders feel very moral when they persuaded their allies to sell the unfortunates to them as slaves. All kinds of strange stories about these heathens circulated in Europe and lurid pictures portraying them in an orgy of cannibalism were in much demand. These images disturbed the communication between red and white people.

On the whole, the Indians received the strange visitors friendly, not infrequently saving their life, or nursing them back to health. The relationship between Indians and whites was not blatantly exploitative at first, since the Guyana’s were not the target of adventurers seeking a quick profit in mining, nor were they initially designated as plantation colonies. The early contacts were limited to barter. The trading goods of the whites consisted of axes, shovels, cutlasses, knives, mirrors, white and blue osnabrug linen and beads. Although the traders sometimes brought back treasures, more often the profits were meager. A WIC rapport written in 1633 stated: “These nations are so barbarous and have so few needs, because they don’t dress nor work for their daily bread, that all trade that is possible there can be handled by two or three ships annually”.

Once the first plantations had been established, the whites were even more interested in trade, because it could supply them with slaves. The Caribs, in particular, were eager to oblige. They bought slaves from other tribes, or set out to catch a few themselves. The value of a slave amounted to “two choppers, two axes, some beads, or other trifles”. Many of the traders were villains who cheated or enslaved Indians and this created a climate of discontent. In colonial Surinam, traffic with the Indians became the prerogative of the governor, who charged bokkenruylders (also called zwervers) with the actual work.

Indian slaves were useless for the strenuous work in the fields, so they were employed as fishermen and hunters on the plantations (or as house servants in the case of women). Some free Indians settled on the plantations with their wives and children as well. They hunted for their patrons and received kilthum (crude rum) or trinkets in return, while keeping part of the catch for their own consumption. Although their numbers deteriorated steadily, Indians were present on some plantations until the end of the 18th century.

The pioneers were acutely aware of the need to maintain good relations with the most powerful tribes and they courted their favor shamelessly. Since the English had cemented an alliance with the Caribs, the Dutch turned to their archenemies, the Arawaks, who as a result finally got a chance to revenge themselves for past indignities. This greatly antagonized the Caribs and when their anger finally erupted, it nearly heralded the end of the colony.

The administrative structure.

The Charter.

Zeeland saw the Wild Coast as her rightful domain. The fleet that had conquered Surinam had solely consisted of Zeelandian ships, although they had been equipped partly at the expense of the States-General. The other provinces, Holland in particular, did not acknowledge Zeeland’s sovereignty, since the patent of the WIC gave the organization dominion over all the Dutch West-Indian possessions. To appease them, the States of Zeeland ceded ultimate control to the States-General, with the provision that it would not be transferred to the WIC. The States of Zeeland were allowed de facto patronage.

Zeeland tried hard to attract new settlers to the sparsely populated colony and promised to all inhabitants immunity from taxes for a period of two years and to all newcomers “of whichever nation or condition they may be, who want to move to the Said Province of Surinam to live there with their Slaves, Animals and other necessities for cultivation, not only free access, but having arrived there to supply them with good quarters & environments for the cultivation of sugar & the other fruits of the land, with general immunity & exemption from all taxes for the period of five years”.

Zeeland was more interested in mercantile than in agricultural pursuits and the expenses of administration were prohibitive. Therefore, the States of Zeeland sold their ‘rights’ in Surinam to the WIC in 1682, for the price of 260,000 guilders. The transfer was arranged in an octrooy (charter) that included the following provisions:
(A) the inhabitants would be exempted from taxes (except from several modest ones included in the Charter) for a period of ten years and the same immunity would be granted to new settlers;
(B) no taxes would be imposed other than the ones stipulated in the Charter;
(C) the WIC would have a monopoly on the slave trade and was obliged to deliver as many slaves as were needed;
(D) Dutch citizens were free to trade with the colony on the condition that they paid certain ‘recognition dues’ to the WIC, while ships from other countries were barred from entering the colony;
(E) anyone was at liberty to settle in the colony with their slaves and goods and to leave again unencumbered;
(F) the WIC was responsible for the defense of the colony.
These provisions laid the foundations for the government of the colony until the end of the 18th century.

The Society of Surinam and its heirs.

The WIC soon concluded that the burdens of administration and defense were too heavy to shoulder alone and it offered a third part of the stock to the City of Amsterdam and to the noble family of Van Aerssen van Sommelsdijck. They resolved to form the Geoctroyeerde Societeit van Suriname (Chartered Society of Surinam), which adopted the articles of the WIC-charter and governed the colony from 1683 until its demise in 1795 -shortly after the WIC, crippled by debts, had been dismantled. In 1770, Van Aerssen’s third was purchased by the City of Amsterdam for 700,000 guilders -a bad investment as it turned out. The Society could run the colony more or less as it pleased, but the States-General retained ultimate sovereignty and felt justified to intervene when disputes threatened to get out of hand.

The creation of the Batavian Republic changed this situation profoundly. Surinam came under the direct rule of the Dutch government in the guise of the Committé tot de Zaken van Coloniën en Bezittingen op de Kust van Guinea en in America. The colony found itself under English ‘protection’ in 1799, but governor Friderici, a firm 'Orangist', was allowed to stay in power. The English departed after the Peace of Amiens in 1802. Not for long: two years later, when the war between France and England flared up again, the English reconquered Surinam and this time they decided to keep hold of the reigns tightly themselves. Surinam became an English crown colony under an English governor.

In 1814, a new treaty was concluded between England and the Netherlands. Surinam was ceded to King Willem I as a crown colony. To obtain this concession, the Dutch had been obliged to ratify the treaty that ended the transatlantic slave trade, decreed under English pressure in 1807. They had also agreed to the installation of a so-called Mixed Court in Paramaribo, which faced the unenviable task of putting the lid on illegal slave imports and punishing offenders. Willem I was much interested in West-Indian affairs, but as a constitutional monarch could not be involved directly, therefore the supervision of Surinam rested with the Departement van Coloniale Zaken.

The modified structure eroded the last traces of Surinam self-reliance. The new governors were appointed, rather arbitrarily in the opinion of the inhabitants, by the Dutch government. From 1828 tot 1845 Surinam was even joined together with the Dutch Antilles under the direction of one governor, assisted by a High Council for the West-Indian Possessions, a very unsatisfactory situation. Public opinion forced the Second Chamber of the States-General to take more interest in Surinam affairs –to the point of formulating laws regarding the situation of the (black) inhabitants.

Surinam, like most colonies, was characterized by a fundamental opposition between the inhabitants and the metropolitan powers. The precise causes of these clashes shall be elaborated later, but they can all be traced back to the uncommon generosity of the Charter, which allowed the citizens such a measure of freedom and permitted them to dodge taxes to such an extend, that the situation would have been unworkable even if the Society had honored all the privileges. The influence of the planters could reach such impressive proportions due to the fact that (1) the Society lacked the means to keep intransigent planter representatives in check; (2) the white population (reluctantly) paid for most of their own defenses and consequently did not depend on the Society to provide protection; (3) Surinam did not yield a high enough profit to create an influential ‘West-Indian interest’ in the Netherlands, which would have demanded a say in the affairs of the colony. The States-General were contented to let the sleeping dogs lie most of the time. The ability of the motherland to steer decision-making was hampered by the fact that the lines of communication were long: it took at least 15 weeks before the answer to a letter was received.

Sandew Hira has designated the administrative structure of Surinam as a “segmented state”. This evaluation was based on the belief that the domestic jurisdiction enjoyed by the planters gave them such a margin of independence, that their influence on the government remained decisive. I do not agree with this conclusion as far as the 19th century situation is concerned. The planters were robbed of most of their clout in public affairs after the demise of the Society of Surinam, a trend that was acerbated by the fact that the colony became increasingly impotent to pay for its own administration.

Civil servants.

The Charter entrusted administration to a governor, who was its primary representative in the colony and who was appointed by the Society with the approval of the States-General and the Stadhouder. Although endowed with discretionary powers in some respects, the Gouverneur was dependent on the consent of the representatives of the planters in most affairs, especially taxation. He was both civil and military commander. No law could be enforced without his permission and he alone had the power to grant a pardon.

The first governor during the reign of the Society was part-owner Cornelis van Aerssen, Lord of Sommelsdijck (1683-1688). The agreements between the three partners laid down in the Octrooy included the provision that his descendents would have precedence if they were qualified. His son declined the honor, but in the early 18th century, several governors [Johan de Mahony (1716-1717), Carel (1728-1734) en Jacobus (1734-1735) de Cheusses] were related to the Van Aerssen family. Most of the early governors were professional soldiers with no colonial experience and did not last long in the merciless climate. With the appointment of the experienced diplomat Joan Jacob Mauricius (1742-1751) this policy changed: he was deemed ideal to tame the ‘wild west’. He aroused so much indignation among the inhabitants, however, that the States-General felt obliged to intervene. From his forced departure up to the English occupation, preference was given to men who had risen from the ranks and who had a long period of colonial service behind them. After 1816, a new breed of governors was introduced, most of them strangers to Surinam and career diplomats or high officers.

The Commandant (commander) ranked just behind the governor in the hierarchy. He was the head of the army and responsible for the fortifications. He had the rank of colonel and sat as Eerste Raad (First Councilor) in the political council. He served as governor ad interim when the rightful occupant of the position was absent or indisposed. The position was often a stepping-stone towards a governorship. The mixing of military and civil tasks was abolished in 1783, and thereafter the Commandant was merely a colonel with few civil responsibilities.

The highest civil servant, only slightly inferior to the Commander, was the Raad-Fiscaal, who in later times would surpass him in power. The Raad-Fiscaal was the successor of the marshal of the English period and functioned as the chief magistrate. He decided in large part how planters were allowed to treat their slaves. In most instances, he was a ‘local man’ (instead of an outside appointee), who wrote extensively in the official documents and thus reflected, more than any other public servant, the attitudes of the colonial populace. The Raad-Fiscaal was the prime juridical advisor of both the Gouverneur and the courts. He had to uphold the laws of the motherland, the ‘general articles’ of the WIC and the regulations of the Society, as well as the placards and ordinances of the Surinam authorities. He acted as prosecutor in all major criminal and civil cases and was expected to bring lawbreakers to trial speedily, “without tormenting or pursuing someone out of hatred or private enmity or ignoring someone’s offenses and crimes out of friendship”. In addition, it was his duty to forestall the illegal import of slaves. He was aided in his tasks by the Schout (bailiff), two deputies and six ‘servants of justice’, who together formed the police force. In 1754, a second Raad-Fiscaal was added, who doubled as a judge advocate in the Military Court.

The Raad-Fiscaal could wield substantial influence. There was “a discretionary power confided to him, whence there is no other appeal than to the court of justice, the expenses of which are so enormous as to induce the appellants to forego this method of redress in favor of making a composition with the fiscal, who is generally inclined to receive one-third in ready money, rather than to throw it into the court, where the seeds of litigation are so completely sown, as to make it dubious, when the whole would be recovered”, Henry Bolingbroke observed.

In the early days, the Raad-Fiscaal was usually chosen from the members of the Court of Police, and thus a planter himself, with little (if any) juridical expertise. Around 1730, this anachronistic situation started to change. The rewards of the job had reached such lavish proportions, that it became a desirable position for members of prominent Dutch families, who wanted to lay the foundations for a colonial fortune. The first breath of fresh air was the arrival of Willem van Meel, a brother of the Society’s secretary. He found to his dismay that his envious inferiors banded together to undermine his position. His successor Jacob van Halewijn, Lord of Werven, was also a rosy-cheeked immigrant and no more diplomatic. The appointment of these continentals probably reflected a deliberate change in policy by the directors of the Society. They had been profoundly shocked by the horror stories of slave mistreatment that had reached their ears and they realized that a Raad-Fiscaal chosen from the ranks of the planters was unlikely to root out these excesses.

The new appointees, inexperienced and greedy, proved no better choice. They were opposed by the courts at every turn, ignorant of colonial sensitivities and no more humane towards the slaves than their predecessors had been. Therefore, the Society changed its policy again and made juridical training more or less a prerequisite for the job. The first of this new breed was attorney-at-law Jan Gerhard Wichers, who proved to be remarkably fair when prosecuting blacks.

During the latter part of the reign of the Society, the civil and military hierarchies were sometimes mingled: a soldier could be appointed Raad-Fiscaal before rising to the position of Commandant. Also, a civilian Raad-Fiscaal could be promoted over the Commandant to a governorship. Contrary to the Commandant, the Raad-Fiscaal survived the transition to direct metropolitan rule, losing much of his former power in the bargain, however.

Initially, the function of Raad-Fiscaal was a bit of an anomaly. Though appointed by, or at least with the consent of, the directors of the Society, he was not paid from public funds. Instead, he enjoyed the proceeds of the position of Exploiteur. It was the duty of the Exploiteur to survey debt-ridden plantations and to put them under sequestration if necessary. He had two or three poorly paid substitutes to actually perform the work and he pocketed the revenues. These spoils made for an enviable income: proceeds of more than 20,000 guilders a year were common. Compared to this, the Gouverneur (6000 guilders a year) and the Commandant (1200 guilders) were paupers. Moreover, the Raad-Fiscaal could lay claim to part of the fines demanded from miscreants. Therefore, it is not surprising that this was a much-coveted position.

When, in the 1730s, many plantations failed and the income of the Raad-Fiscaal consequently rose to staggering heights, it became clear that this arrangement upset the balance of power. The Gouverneur and the courts decided that the functions of Raad-Fiscaal and Exploiteur had to be separated. The Raad-Fiscaal was to receive a salary of 5000 guilders a year, in addition to his share of the fines (which still made him the best-paid official). The Exploiteur was awarded a salary of 1000 guilders a year. Because of the spirited opposition of the then-occupant of the position, the influential Willem van Meel, this scheme was not adopted until 1745.

Although the prosecution of suspects was put in the hands of professionals eventually, most of the accused had no professionals to defend them in court. Very few solicitors (praktizijns) practiced in the colony and most defendants could not afford their services anyway. The secretaries of the two courts functioned as jurators (notaries), as did some of the gezworen klerken (sworn clerks) of the government secretariat.

The administrative apparatus was not exactly ‘heavy’, but the servants of the Society made up a prominent part of the whites employed outside agriculture. Of vital importance were the various ontvangers (tax collectors) and the Controleur-Generaal (a function created in 1777 to bring some order in the chaotic finances of the colony). The secretary of the Gouverneur was the pillar of the administration. He was aided by several gezworen klerken. The police force in later times included a Provoost, charged with the apprehension of runaway slaves and other erring blacks. The Venduemeester supervised the public auctions, the Havenmeester made sure North-American ships did not smuggle any slaves into the colony and two public announcers kept the inhabitants informed of the promulgation of new laws. Four keurmeesters made the rounds of the plantations to inspect the quality of the sugar. Two surveyors measured out the surfaces of the plantations for inclusion in the warrants. When Surinam planters jumped at the possibility of negotiating easy credit in the Netherlands, the office of Priseur van Effecten was created (1778), to assess the value of the plantations that were given as collateral. From 1761 on, the government kept in touch with the Bosnegers (pacified Maroons) through a posthouder, who lived in their midst.

Few civil servants could be encountered outside Paramaribo and a large measure of self-reliance prevailed there. The colony was divided into divisions, which were joined together or split up as they grew or diminished in importance. In the middle of the 18th century the following divisions were in operation: (1) Thorarica; (2) Upper Suriname; (3) Upper Commewijne; (4) Para, Corrupine and ‘subordinated creeks’; (5) Cottica and Perica; (6) Lower Cottica; (7) Lower Commewijne; (8) Matapicca and ‘subordinated creeks’; and (9) the ‘Jewish Division’. In the 19th century, the separate Jewish division had disappeared, while the division of Saramacca and the districts of Upper and Lower Nickerie had been added.

At the head of each division stood a burgercapitein, chosen from the planters and aided by two lieutenants and an ensign. A burgercapitein was the head of a company of the Burgerwacht (militia) and he also had administrative tasks. It was his duty, for example, to ascertain the number of whites and slaves for the purpose of taxation, to check if there were enough provision grounds, to keep the roads (if any) in good repair, to clean overgrown waterways, etc. At the end of the 18th century, when the military contribution of the Burgerwacht was less essential, a heemraad (dike-reeve) replaced him.

Courts and commissions.

The corps of burgerofficieren provided one way the planters could participate in the administration of the colony, but more important were the representative councils (which doubled as juridical courts). They were relics from the English period. Lord Willoughby had planned to govern Surinam as a feudal patron, but he had been obliged to grant his subjects considerable influence through their councils. When the Dutch took over in 1667, they adopted many of the offices their predecessors had created. Thus, in 1669 a ‘Political Council’ (Raad van Politie) and a ‘Juridical Council’ (Raad van Justitie) were established, patterned after the English agencies. They were combined in 1680, but the Charter of the Society reestablished them as separate entities in 1682. The Political Council was renamed Hof van Politie en Criminele Justitie (Court of Police and Criminal Justice) and started work in 1684. The Hof van Civiele Justitie (Court of Civil Justice) did not commence its activities until 1689. The members of both courts were called raden. The designation Raad (Council) is in fact more accurate than Hof (Court), especially in the case of the Political Council, because deliberating criminal and civil cases was only part of the duties of the raden: more important were their functions of ‘parliament’, lawmakers and advisors to the Governor. The Political Council far surpassed the Civil Council in importance and its members were treated with much more respect. Therefore, many a civil councilor actively lobbied for a seat in the more powerful assembly.

For each vacant position in the Court of Police and Criminal Justice, the white inhabitants chose two candidates by plurality of votes, of which the Governor selected one. The nominees had to belong to the “most prominent, wisest and most moderate of the colonists”. They were obliged to serve for life and received no monetary compensation. This court, nicknamed the Red Court for the color of their robes, consisted of the Governor, the Commander in his capacity of Eerste Raad, the Raad-Fiscaal (as prosecutor and advisor), a secretary and nine members. It convened four times a year: in February, May, August and December.

The Court of Civil Justice (Black Court) consisted of the Governor, the Raad-Fiscaal (again in a largely advisory capacity), a secretary and six members. The latter were chosen by the Governor from candidates nominated by the Political Council. Every two years, the six members abdicated and three of them were immediately reelected. The other three places were filled by newcomers. The Civil Council solely handled pecuniary matters. Cases involving more than 600 guilders could be referred to the directors of the Society.

Overall, positions in the courts were coveted, but some of the men so honored did not seem very eager to assume their duties. In the beginning of the 18th century, the councilors were usually chosen from the ranks of the owners of the largest plantations, so they had little pecuniary interest in the job. Furthermore, they were busy expanding their empires and not smitten by the prospect of neglecting their own affairs for the sake of the common good. When the Governor died, he ideally was replaced by a council consisting of the Commander (as Governor ad interim), the Raad-Fiscaal and two members of the Court of Police. It was often difficult to find two raden available for duty, because most of them lived far from the capital, so it was agreed that they would take turns for the period of a month. Later in the 18th century, the planters were increasingly able to leave the running of their estates to their directors and they spent more time in Paramaribo, free to indulge in a game of politics.

Towards the middle of the century, a new type of raden emerged: men with smaller fortunes, who hoped to improve their situation by gaining a seat in one of the courts. Raad-Fiscaal Willem van Meel, though a fortune hunter himself, was not far from the mark when he grumbled: “The largest part of the Court consists of Soldiers of fortune and of lowly birth having attained their purses and plantations by Administrations for others And [they] do not only solicit [this appointment] but Some would be willing to give something to own this plume Ergo a large difference between a man of decent birth who leaves his fatherland to push his fortune and such a Justice Some also covet that Office [because they] have many debts And people spare them somewhat And also to get credit like a few of them do here".

Since the interests of the Society and the inhabitants clashed in so many areas, the Court of Police was often the arena for spirited political disputes. Many times, the members of this court petitioned in the Netherlands for the dismissal of a governor who refused to do their bidding, sometimes with favorable result. For example, Governor Van Scharphuys (1689-1696), the successor of Cornelis van Aerssen, was so maligned in complains, particularly by the Jewish community, that he was recalled. The most notorious case was the feud between Governor Mauricius and a number of prominent members of the Court of Police (with their coterie), whom he called the Cabale. Although Mauricius was highly esteemed in the Netherlands and the Surinam planters were considered barbarian troublemakers, his position nevertheless became untenable and he was forced to leave the colony. (He spent the rest of his life accounting for his deeds.) To reestablish order, the States-General sent a contingent of soldiers commanded by Baron von Spörcke, who took over the reigns.

The courts were the instruments by which the planters could steer the government of the colony. They retained this power more or less intact until the end of the English occupation in 1816. When Surinam came under the umbrella of the Netherlands, there was no longer room for agencies mingling state affairs with the administration of justice. The internal government structure had to be brought in line with the Dutch system. The Court of Police was allowed to continue her juridical duties until 1828 and even retained some say in domestic affairs, but the new administrative structure established in the Government Papers of 1828 clearly underlined the principle of a division of power. A new Hof van Civile en Criminele Justitie was created that no longer interfered in political affairs. It consisted of a president and at least four members who were trained lawyers. The two remaining justices were chosen from the inhabitants and were not obliged to have juridical expertise. After 1845, however, citizens without these qualifications were no longer eligible.

The Hoge Raad van de Nederlandse West-Indische Bezittingen, established in 1828, was a select group of officials (the Attorney-General, the Comptroller-General, the Commissioner for the Inland Population and the Commissioner for the Domains, plus the Government Secretary) and in no way represented the population. The inhabitants protested their disfranchisement and not in vain: in 1832 they got a new ‘parliament’ in the form of a Coloniale Raad, consisting of the Attorney-General, Comptroller-General and six representatives of the people, whose influence, however, was limited to advising the Governor. It was abolished in 1862, a year before Surinam slaves were finally set free.

Increasingly, the administration of Surinam became the terrain of a bureaucratic apparatus, which recruited its members partly from the inhabitants (Jews and coloreds in particular), but was dominated by ‘continentals’. Consequently, the civil servants were less intimately related to the planter class. Not without reason, the inhabitants of Surinam came to believe that their interests were subordinated to those of the motherland as never before.

During the era of the Society, several smaller councils were established in order to deal with less weighty matters. They were also manned by members of the planter class and included the following agencies. (a) The College van Commissarissen voor Kleine Zaken (Commission for Small Affairs), established by Governor Van Scharphuys and consisting of a vice-president (a former member of the Court of Civil Justice), a secretary and nine members. They deliberated cases involving less than 250 guilders and they supervised the upkeep of public buildings and canals. (b) The College van Opzichters der Gemeene Weide (Commission for the Common Meadow), likewise an invention of Van Scharphuys, was responsible for the supervision of the common grazing land near Paramaribo. (c) The Wees- en Onbeheerde Boedelkamer (Commission for Orphans and Ownerless Estates), inaugurated by Governor Van Aerssen, was formed by several trustees (called weesmeesters), a secretary, a bookkeeper, a treasurer and a sworn clerk and administered the properties of minors and the estates of citizens who had died without an heir. Many of these positions provided ample opportunity for personal enrichment.

Bones of contention.


The Society of Surinam considered the colony primarily a fief, which was expected to yield a substantial profit, as well as bear the costs of its own administration and defense. To pay for all of this, the Society levied duties on the inhabitants, the sort and severity of which had been fixed by the Octrooy. In their desire to lure new settlers, the overlords had been a bit too congenial, however. It soon became apparent that these taxes were not sufficient to cover the expenses, let alone furnish the shareholders of the Society with a handsome dividend.

Each duty had its own komptoor (office) and its own ontvanger (collector). The most important tax was the hoofdgeld (poll tax). Each colonist had to pay 50 pounds of sugar (or fl. 2.50) a year for every adult in his household and every slave over the age of twelve, plus half that amount for every child between the ages of three and twelve. The mounting costs of defense necessitated an additional poll tax in 1756. This manner of taxation remained in operation until 1850, when it was abolished for the free population.

Custom duties brought in a pretty penny as well. Incoming Dutch ships had to pay a lastgeld (recognition due) of fl. 3 per last (=two tons), foreign ships double that amount. Furthermore, a tax on exported goods (waaggeld) of 2.5% (in later years 5%) was levied. The customs on imports depended on the nature of the merchandise and the country it originated from. Both kinds of taxes had been stipulated in the Octrooy and accrued to the Society by right of Domaine Utile. Since the revenues were disappointing, the Court of Police consented to a tax on public auctions. A buyer had to contribute 5% of the value of the purchase (except in the case of slaves, when it was only 2, 5%), while the seller was relieved of 3% of his turnover.

Apart from these, taxes were exacted for specific purposes. The Cassa van Modique Lasten collected the duties on alcoholic beverages and the involuntary contributions of taverns and inns (250 to 500 guilders a year). The revenues were set aside for the payment of ministers, the Schout, his deputies and other public servants and for aid to the poor and widowed. The Cassa der Gemeene Weide was filled by the duties on houses, carriages, horses, etc. and paid for the upkeep of the roads and the harbor and for the beautification of the city. In 1750, a ‘runaway’ tax was conceived, collected by the Cassa tegen de Wegloopers and filled by an impost of fl. 1 on every slave and a tax on capital assets and plantation products. The bottom of this chest was visible most of the time.

One kind of tax was a source of constant friction between the citizens and the Society: the akkergeld (land-tax). The Zeelandian patrons had demanded a contribution of one pound of sugar per akker (acre) each year from their ‘tenants’, but this tax had not been included in the Octrooy. It was therefore deemed illegal by the inhabitants and when Governor Van Aerssen tried to impose it anyway, they sent vehement protests to the States-General and where put in the right. All contributions paid between 1683 and 1694 had to be restituted. In 1713, the Society tried to reinstate the akkergeld, but was overruled by the States-General again. Only in 1755, the Society was allowed to legislate that ‘old’ planters and planters who already owned 500 acres or more would not receive new grants of land unless they consented to pay an akkergeld of two stuivers (nickels) a year for each acre. Newcomers were still awarded 500 acres free of charge. In 1774, a tax of four nickels per acre a year was levied on all new timber concessions. This time the States-General supported these measures and the planters had to bow to the authority of the Society.

During the 18th century, expenditures increasingly exceeded receipts, primarily because of the mounting costs of defending the colony against marauding Maroons. Consequently, when the English took over in 1804, the finances were in complete disarray. Governor Bonham (1811-1816) discovered a deficit of no less than 500,000 guilders. Better collecting methods had remedied this by 1812. After 1816, the Dutch government did not expect to make a profit from the possession of Surinam, but did strive for a healthy financial balance. The taxation system was streamlined and all taxes were collected in one rijkskas. The revenues nevertheless never reached sufficient levels. Towards the end of the slavery era, the Dutch government had grown accustomed to the fact that Surinam would remain a drain on her resources. Yearly, more than 200,000 guilders -out of the East-Indian profits- were pumped into the treasury of the colony, a pattern of subsidizing that would continue in one form or another up to this day.

Apart from a few copper coins (marked with a parrot) that were illegally minted during the patronage of Zeeland, for most of the early period, Dutch money was the only legal tender. The planters were allowed to pay their debts in sugar, valued a five cents a pound, but this practice was soon largely abandoned in favor of using wissels (letters of exchange), drawn on correspondents in Amsterdam. The lack of a circulating medium became so pressing that under the administration of Governor Wigbold Crommelin (1757-1769) paper money (the so-called kaartengeld) was issued in large quantities. It was fashioned from playing cards, valued at 10, 5, 2.50, 1 or 0.50 guilders. Because of rampant inflation, this ‘money’ steadily dropped in value, until in the beginning of the 19th century 310 Surinam guilders equaled only 100 Dutch guilders.


Separated from the homeland by thousands of miles of unruly waters, surrounded more by enemies than by allies, the citizens of Surinam were justified in feeling insecure. The inherent vulnerability of this colony, gained by conquest and nearly lost the same way within a few months, became painfully apparent whenever hostilities broke out in the Caribbean (which in the 17th and 18th centuries was one of the main theatres of war). The inhabitants of Surinam had to be constantly on the alert to ward off invaders. Each time the Netherlands were locked in battle with Spain, France, or England, Surinam was threatened. Directly, as hostile vessels came to seek either new colonies or the spoils of extortion, or indirectly when the sea routes were blocked. During the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War (1780-1784), for example, English brigands intercepted so many ships that the colony was practically cut off from the rest of the world. The prices of necessities rose exorbitantly and the slaves and lower classes suffered from famine.

In the late 17th and early 18th centuries, the French proved the worst enemy. From their outpost in Cayenne, they could observe only too well the shoddiness of the defenses and the riches of the plantations. In 1689, a French fleet commanded by Admiral Jean-Baptiste Ducasse sneaked up the Suriname River, but was repulsed heroically -a feat in which Francois de Chattilon, the son of Governor Van Aarssen, took a leading part. In 1712, another French fleet, under the command of the celebrated Jacques Cassard, a brave sailor led astray by his lettre de marque, was chased off at first, but returned, considerably reinforced, several months later. Threatening to burn down Paramaribo and the surrounding plantations, he blackmailed the colony into parting with a whole year’s revenue, calculated at 750,000 guilders. It was paid partly in the form of sugar, partly in the form of 750 slaves, coins, gold, silver and other valuables. The loss was a severe blow for the colony: the tribute represented nearly 10% of the total assets and the inhabitants were taxed accordingly.

The fortifications were strengthened after this debacle, but nevertheless the Count of Kersaint and his fleet could occupy Surinam with only slight resistance in 1782, though fortunately for the planters, the French were not interested in keeping their prize. The English could overrun (and later abandon) Surinam at will in 1799 and 1804.

For most of the plantation era, the internal foes proved a much greater menace than the external ones, however. The Indian War shook the budding colony in its foundations. The Caribs, the allies of the English, had felt increasingly persecuted by the Dutch and their best friends, the Arawaks, but there were other reasons for the outburst as well. Governor Van Aerssen observed that one courted disaster if one “portrays as Heroic and Valiant actions the robbing of women or children from the Indians, as well as taking away their canoes and Slaves, throwing at them the Merchandise one wants to get rid of, and having them serve like Slaves as hunters and fishermen, Without Payment”. In 1674, the Caribs under the direction of chief Kaaikoeni attacked some of their tormentors. However, the revolt only gained momentum towards 1680, when they devastated a large number of isolated plantations in the Upper Suriname and Para region, with the aid of runaway slaves led by Ganimet. For a while, they terrorized the entire western part of Surinam. The shaken whites flocked to Paramaribo and, feeling no safer there, appealed for outside help. At the time, there were only 50 soldiers present, who were of course unable to subdue the irate Indians. In response, Zeeland sent 150 soldiers, who were called back before the hostilities ended (in 1682).

Since the Arawaks refused to join the rebellion –though they did not actively support their Dutch allies either- the tide slowly turned. After destroying five of their villages, Governor Van Aerssen managed to win the trust and respect of the Caribs and in 1684 he concluded a peace treaty with the principal chiefs, consenting to ‘wed’ an Indian ‘princess’ in the bargain. The treaty recognized the Caribs, Arawaks and Waraus as free Indians, who could not be enslaved, except as a punishment for crimes. The Indians belonging to other tribes were not protected this way. During the same period, Van Aerssen reconciled the whites with a group of runaway slaves in the Coppename region (under the command of Jermes), who would later intermarry with the Kalopina Indians and be known as the Karboegers of the Coppename. [The label karboeger was normally reserved for the offspring of a black and a mulatto, so it follows that the colonists considerd Indians equal to mulattoes, namely half black.]

Not only the deprived coloreds formed a threat to the master class, the whites on the bottom rung of the social ladder could not be relied on either. The soldiers of the Society consisted for a considerable part of convicts and paupers ‘shanghaied’ by unscrupulous crimps. Governor Van Aerssen, a just but stern and bad-tempered man and an unbendingly devout Christian, was determined to put a stop to their loafing, drinking and womanizing (the result of boredom in his opinion) by shortening their rations and obliging them to carry stones and dig trenches. When a group of discontented soldiers confronted him with their grievances, he drew his sword and was immediately riddled with bullets. Commander Laurens Verboom was severely wounded. The rebels captured Fort Zeelandia with the aid of the rest of the garrison, but found that they had maneuvered themselves into an untenable position. They were overtaken by the militia and soldiers from the outposts who had remained loyal, reluctantly supported by the crews of the merchant ships moored in the harbor. The murderers of Van Aerssen were executed and the other rebels were taken to Holland in small groups and released there. The suppression of the mutiny was thorough and never again the soldiers united in protest, although their circumstances hardly improved during the 18th century.

The first groups of runaway slaves (called wegloopers or schuylders by the whites) were formed during the Willoughby era, but only around 1720, they were sufficiently strong to constitute a real menace. Until the end of the 18th century, the whites had to wage a ceaseless war against them, which brought Surinam society to the brink of collapse several times. Saddened and wiser, the whites were obliged to swallow their pride and grant their despised inferiors serious concessions. This, however, permitted them to adopt a divide-and-conquer strategy, which effectively isolated their most dangerous foes. They concluded peace treaties with the most important groups of Maroons in 1760, 1762 and 1767 and this helped them to preserve the viability of plantation agriculture for decades to come.

From all of this can be inferred that the whites of Surinam were beset by dangers at all sides. Therefore, it is no wonder that they kept clamoring for a stronger defense and more soldiers. For the most part this was in vain and only in the 19th century, Surinam attained the desired stability. The Octrooy had laid the responsibility for the defense of the colony at the door of the Society. It did not take the directors very long to foresee how this would overtax their means. They did not hesitate to shift the main burden on the shoulders of the inhabitants, both with regard to bearing the costs as to actual performance.

For the largest part of the 17th and 18th centuries, the Burgerwacht was the mainstay of the defense system. The Society did little more than stationing a small garrison in Paramaribo and a couple of other fortifications. These strongholds were mainly constructed to ward off foreign invaders. The inhabitants had to bear the brunt of the bostochten (jungle patrols) against runaway slaves. The Burgerwacht consisted of 10 companies: 3 were stationed in Paramaribo, 6 in the various divisions and there was a separate Jewish company. In 1770, a company entirely consisting of free Negroes and Mulattoes was added. The higher officers were chosen from the ranks of the plantation owners and the most important directors, the rank and file was made up of the less prominent directors and the blankofficieren. In Paramaribo, small traders and artisans were included as well. Every white citizen was free to muster a patrol on his own initiative and expense, but was only recompensed with the reward money for catching runaways or destroying a Maroon village.

Many of the plantation employees were not very eager to risk their lives for the protection of their patron’s property. Governor Van Aerssen complained in 1687 (when a rebellion of red and black slaves in Berbice had obliged him to dispatch Commander Verboom and his soldiers to aid the beleaguered whites): “when planters, or Directors say, that they have been appointed as Directors to continue the Cultivation of the plantations but in no way to act as Soldiers, and hazard their person and life for protection, and Defense of another person’s goods, I should put them outside the fort, with orders not to get nearer than a Musket Shot, or I would make [the soldiers] shoot at them as at the Enemy, and bring them to their duty this way, because now they are a Burden to Your Noble Lords in the fort, doing nothing but eating, and snuffing Tobacco, and walking up and down the fort in their Slippers, and creating discontent by their talk and example”. The behavior of most of the plantation officers, who were cowering in the bushes during the attack of Cassard, proved him right. Their bravery evaporated to an even greater degree later in the 18th century, when they had to venture deep into the jungle in pursuit of the elusive Maroons. The richer planters often ducked the bullet bij hiring replacements.

The attack of Cassard spurred the placid colonists and the Society into action. They tried to heap the blame on each other. The burgerscapiteins sent a long list of complaints to the States-General, which appointed emissaries from Holland and West Friesland to sort out the mess and advise them. The Society countered the accusations by pointing to the unwillingness of the inhabitants to pay their taxes: “so we now had to miss for thirty years, such considerable funds from which otherwise the security of the colony could have been augmented”. In 1713, the emissaries decided in favor of the Society and the inhabitants were ordered to submit to its authority and to pay their taxes loyally. They were denied their request for repayment of the damages they suffered at the hands of the French.

Apart from a small company of artillery, the garrison of the Society consisted in the beginning of the 18th century of three companies of 75 men. From 1726 on, the Governor also functioned as colonel of his own regiment. After the Cassard debacle, the military forces were expanded steadily until the middle of the century, when the Society officially commanded a ‘standing’ army of 1200 men (two battalions with six companies of 100 men each). Furthermore, the City of Amsterdam pledged to supply another company of 300 men. This impressive army existed only on paper, due to the heavy mortality rate of the soldiers, the high expense and the difficulty of signing up mercenaries for duty in these unhealthy parts. At first, the Society and the citizens split the bill evenly, but in 1750, the agreement was revised and the latter had to cough up three quarters of the funds needed.

Several times, the shaky defenses had to be shored up with State soldiers. When the Octrooy was drawn up, the provinces of the Low Countries (with the exception of Friesland) each promised to pay for one soldier in every company. In 1747, when there were only 300 troops fit for duty left, the States-General generously sent 400 more, but the inhabitants had to foot three quarters of the bill. They were called back in 1754. During the height of the Maroon guerrilla (Boni War) in the 1770’s, the States-General came to the aid of the planters again with an army of nearly 2000 men, under the command of colonel Fourgeoud. It was supposed to save the colony from ruin, but its upkeep nearly bankrupted it instead.

From the 1730’s on, the soldiers of the Society and the State had played an increasingly important part in the bostochten against the Maroons, but they did not manage to strike a decisive blow. Consequently, during the Boni War, the insight dawned that white warriors were not only expensive, but also practically useless in jungle fights. Therefore, the representatives of the planters reluctantly agreed to enlist the help of blacks. In 1772, against a lot of opposition, the Corps Zwarte Jagers (Black Chasseurs, also called the Free Corps or Redi Moesoe –Red Caps) was formed. It was made up of 300 of the strongest and most loyal slaves, whose freedom was bought by the government. They proved singularly successful in engagements with the Maroons.

After the demise of the Society, the defense of the colony became the responsibility of the Dutch government. The expenses it incurred for this reason contributed a lot to the permanent deficit of the Surinam administration during the 19th century. This in spite of the fact that the possession of the colony had been secure after 1816 and that the Maroons had been largely pacified.

Fort Zeelandia, taken over from the English intact, remained the pillar of the Surinam defense system during the whole of the slavery era. It was built to shield Paramaribo from outside attack, but left the most prosperous plantations unprotected. Therefore, Governor Van Aerssen took measures for their defense right away. In 1685, he started with the construction of a small fort on the confluence of the Commewijne and the Cottica, after his tragic end renamed Fort Sommelsdijck. It was designed to guard the ‘back’ of the plantation area against sneaky attacks from the Indians and Maroons, but the cultivated land soon extended far beyond it. Van Aerssen also constructed a small stronghold at the mouth of the Para: Fort Para, a rather presumptuous name for a mere fortified cabin, at first manned by a bunch of criminals shipped to the colony in 1684. Its main function was to guard Paramaribo. Having outlived its usefulness, it was abandoned in 1740. The early defense ring was closed by a battery of artillery stationed near the Motkreek on the coast. The military post here was called the Brandwacht. The inhabitants had to contribute to the building of the fortifications by supplying materials and slaves for the heavy construction work. The planters, especially the ones who lived nearby and were bothered most, considered this an unmitigated nuisance.

In the end, even the most stubborn planters realized that the Society could not finance the upgrading of the defense system on its own. After a lot of squabbling, a compromise was reached in 1733: the fortifications would be brought up-to-date in seven years, with the Society investing 20,000 guilders a year and the inhabitants trice that amount. The money was to be paid into a special chest. The directors sent an engineer with the fitting name Draak (= Dragon) to devise a plan de campagne. The next year the construction of an impressive new fort was begun. It was called Nieuw Amsterdam and situated on a mud bank (Tijgershol) near the confluence of the Suriname and Commewijne rivers. Its canons commanded the river ways and saved the citizens of Paramaribo from more surprises. On the opposite bank, a redoubt named Purmerend was added in 1748 and a second one, Leiden, was built between 1754 and 1758. In 1748, the Society and the Court of Police decided to share the costs of the upkeep of these fortifications equally. The most severe drain on resources in later years was the construction of the Cordon Pad, built during the height of the Boni War (1774-17778) and a brainchild of Governor Nepveu. It walled off the cultivated part of the colony from the area invested with Maroons.

During the 19th century, the fortifications lost much of their former importance, since the defense against external foes was mainly secured by the Dutch navy. Fort Zeelandia and Fort Nieuw Amsterdam, which doubled as prisons during the slavery era (being among the few brick buildings in the colony), ended up exclusively as detention centers.


Trade was another subject of dissent between the homeland and the colony. In general, the Dutch were firm believers in the principle of free trade and only occasionally displayed mercantilist leanings. However, where their East- and West-Indian possessions were concerned, they chose a protectionist line. The Octrooy reserved the trade with Surinam for citizens of the United Provinces. This soon proved untenable, as severe food shortages ensued, which created dangerous discontent. Therefore, in 1704, the Society relented and permitted ‘small foreign trade’ by ships from Nieuw Engeland, Nieuw Nederland and the surrounding islands (in practice mostly from Rood Yland and Boston). The traders were severely curtailed with regard to the goods they could carry: only “Horses and Beasts, on account of which much space is used for food and Water, and further Bakkeljauw, that is bad salted or dried Fish, bad Maryland Tobacco for the Slaves, Flour & C” were acceptable as incoming cargo. It was not permitted to foreign ships to take along sugar, exports were limited to “molasses, Surinam brandy, sawed wood such as beams, planks and trunks, and further all other goods and merchandise brought from the United Netherlands to Surinam”. It was strictly forbidden to ship out “Slaves, Beasts and mills” without permission from the Governor. All foreign ships were obliged to deliver at least one horse, since there was a crippling shortage of draught animals for the sugar mills. This rule was an unwelcome burden for the skippers, who frequently took along only a head and claimed that the horse had died at sea. The value of the imports far surpassed that of the return cargoes, so the balance of trade with the USA was persistently negative. The only other foreign ships that docked in Surinam legally originated from the British Caribbean (Barbados, Jamaica, Granada and Antigua).

During the entire slavery era, Surinam was totally dependent on food from overseas. August Kappler observed: ”The import of the most diverse victuals is so important, that, if this stopped for only three months, the inhabitants of the most fruitful land in the world might famish.” In many instances, Surinam people preferred buying foreign goods to producing them in the colony, even if perfectly feasible. For example: there used to be brick works in the Para region, but during the second half of the 18th century, they were all abandoned, because heaps of bricks were brought from Holland (often in the form of ballast for ships). In addition, despite the fact that Surinam was covered with forests, lower grades of timber still had to be imported from the USA, because the producers could not keep up with the demand. This was not an unsolvable problem, but Surinam planters preferred to focus all their energies on the production of coffee and sugar.

The balance of trade and payment with the motherland was firmly positive during the 18th century, when exports exceeded imports consistently by more than 30%. All the sugar and coffee the colony produced had to be shipped by Dutch vessels and sold on the Dutch market. This did not handicap the planters much, because their entire production could easily be absorbed by the homeland. In fact, sugar production could satisfy only one third of the demand and coffee half. This meant that Surinam planters could always sell their products quickly, but since they were not protected on the Dutch market, after 1750 prices were kept low by competition from the French territories (particularly Saint-Domingue). Considering the high production costs, it is doubtful whether Surinam products could ever have competed in foreign markets. Nevertheless, Surinam planters favored free trade.

They had good reason for this, for the strict regulation of the slave trade under the WIC-monopoly proved disastrous for the young colony. The supply was irregular, the quality of the slaves was dubious and the quantity was wholly insufficient. In 1730, Dutch private traders were finally allowed to participate in the traffic, after the Governor, burgerofficieren and citizens had bombarded the Society, the WIC and the States-General with requests for more than 40 years. Foreign slave traders were belatedly permitted entry at the end of the 18th century, when the stream of slaves dragged to the colony had dried up to a trickle.

Because of all these troubles, the inhabitants of Surinam felt themselves hemmed in by the monetary interests of the motherland on all sides. Even after the Dutch authorities had given up all hope of ever making a profit from Surinam, this sense of deprivation did not disappear. In the 19th century, the Dutch government and investors directed their capital towards the East-Indian possessions and Surinam became an economical backwater with a fastly dwindling number of plantations and nothing to replace them.

A profitable colony?

Rudolf van Lier has chosen the label ‘frontier society’ as the most appropriate for describing Surinam. Colonial Surinam was a society situated on the edge of the territory under European influence, as well as on the edge of the most impressive jungle area of the world. It is important to keep this image in mind, for this curious situation had far-reaching consequences, psychological as well as economical. Van Lier’s other characterizations are complementary to this basic image. He classifies the Surinam of the 17th and early 18th centuries as a volksplanting (farming colony), because a reasonable number of white families had chosen the colony as a permanent domicile. During the 18th century, however, Surinam transformed into a “classical example of a plantation colony”. In my opinion, the mere presence of a number of white families (which in Surinam has always been very modest compared to the proportion of white families in proper farm colonies and compared to the number of single white men in the colony itself) is not a decisive factor. Surinam has never been a real volksplanting, certainly not in the sense that Barbados, Puerto Rico and Cuba were.

The colony was doomed from the beginning to waste people, land and capital in a quest for easy riches. The first ship that sailed up the Suriname River with slaves on board sealed its fate. There probably was no other option in the eyes of the colonists: “Given the lack of an alternative labor supply, it is difficult to see how European nations could have settled America and exploited its resources without the aid of African slaves”, David Brion Davis mused. Surinam was typically a land with open resources about which H.J. Nieboer remarked: “As long as there is an abundance of land not yet appropriated and therefore at the disposal of whoever may choose to cultivate it, nobody applies to an other for employment and the only labourers a man can produce are forced labourers.” Whatever the underlying causes, the colony of Surinam was firmly put on the road to a plantation economy shortly after its discovery, resulting in untold misery, not only for countless blacks, victimized by a slavery system reputed to be one of the harshest in the world, but for most of the rest of the population as well. Those who struck it rich were rare.

To succeed, a plantation colony must have access to an unlimited supply of cheap labor and fertile land, as well as to sufficient capital. Surinam lacked the former two and squandered the latter. Therefore, the colony was much less of an economic success than many authors claim. Richard Price, for example, relying heavily on the overly optimistic Jewish planter David Cohen Nassy, regards Surinam as an “enormously profitable colony”. This may have been true during the few decades (1720-1750) that plantation agriculture spread like wildfire, but during most of the colonial period the apparent luxury was financed by outside sources. Contrary to popular believe, Surinam contributed little to the prosperity of the Netherlands.

The citizens of Surinam had the annoying habit of hardly ever paying their creditors in full. The first victims of this national sport were the Society and the WIC. The tax collectors had to harass the population constantly to get their due. The suppliers of goods and slaves were even worse off. In the beginning, the planters were allowed to settle their debts with deliveries of sugar, but this meant that the creditors had to wait for the harvest to be finished. The skippers could not afford to hang around in Paramaribo for months, so the letters of exchange came in vogue. By 1720, most of the planters bought on credit this way. Since they often spent more than was advisable, it did not take long before the first wissels started to come back ‘protested’ (meaning that their correspondents in Amsterdam refused to honor them) and during the 1730’s, the first plantations went bankrupt. Only a few suppliers were able to recoup their losses. The main creditor was the WIC: it was estimated that about half the money due to the organization was never paid. Later in the 18th century, Dutch investors carelessly sunk more than 40 million guilders into the colony. Plantations and slaves were grossly overvalued. In 1773, the bubble burst and many lost all but the shirt on their back. With that kind of money floating around, it is not difficult to sustain an aura of prosperity.

Lately, it has become fashionable to blame the failure of the Surinam plantations during the 19th century on the reluctance of the metropolitan capitalists to invest in the colony and to technological backwardness. Although these factors have certainly contributed, I doubt whether a different approach would have led to a different outcome. Even the government plantations, backed by an almost unlimited supply of capital and willing to innovate, could not be saved. This does not mean that Surinam planters considered themselves doomed and were eager to rid themselves of the taint of slavery. The only thing that kept the decrepit plantations going was cheap labor. Free workers had no advantages under Surinam conditions. It was outside influence, namely the willingness of the Dutch government to spend 9 million guilders to buy the freedom of the 30,000 remaining slaves, which in 1863 finally ended bondage.