Friday, March 7, 2008

Introduction: An anthropologist adrift in the archives.

The research for this study was conducted between 1979 and 1983. An unfortunate change in circumstances forced me to abandon this project halfway through the second draft and the thesis was never published. Since the manuscript contains information and insights that are still valuable, I decided to put the result of my efforts on the internet, in the guise of a web log. However, I publish the study in a far from finished state: I haven't set foot in a university for almost 25 years, no additional research was undertaken and the existing text was merely edited. Since I do not want other researchers to 'borrow' the fruits of my exertions, I have left out the references. The rest of this chapter is an adaption of the original introduction.

The study.

Choosing a subject for research is seldom done with only rational considerations in mind. On the contrary, more often than not the final decision is determined by coincidences. As for me, I never planned to devote myself to historical anthropology and least of all to archival research, but when the opportunity presented itself and there were no other attractive alternatives on the horizon, I jumped at the chance. I grant that such a study cannot be considered ‘proper’ anthropology and it certainly does not constitute a genuine ‘rite of passage’, as does fieldwork.

This study was part of a project called Development of Afro-American culture in the Guyana’s. The initial subject of my research (slave culture in Surinam) was chosen out of interest and because it fitted in with the other studies in the project, not with the practical matter of data collection in mind. My supervisor wanted me to concentrate on slave religion, but that subject did not attract me at all. He believed, rather naively as I later discovered, that the archives teemed with information about the Surinam slave population and about slave culture in particular. Experience in the archives has taught me in the meantime that this is not the best way to choose a subject for historiography.

Archival sources.

When I first set foot in the archives, they were unchartered territory and no guides were available to put me on the right track. I had several kilometers of archival material to peruse and no clue where to start. For an anthropologist who has been trained to select a subject and, after proper preparation, pursue it systematically (unless beset by calamities), this was a rather bewildering situation. It was simply not possible to study a subject as elusive as slave culture systematically. At most, I could find scattered references to the slave population in a wide variety of sources. If I wanted to get a complete picture, I had to go through all these volumes.

This turned out to be an impossible task. I once heard a historian remark that one should spend at least three whole years in the archives before attempting to write up the material. In the case of the Surinam sources, even ten years would not have been enough to merely leaf through all the pages, let alone read all the potentially interesting parts and make notes. The data I needed could be contained in all kinds of papers. These were usually not indexed and the only guides available were the references in the work of Rudolf van Lier and the citations assembled by the students of Sylvia de Groot in the course of a STICUSA-project. It took me several months before I could see a pattern in the mass of potential data. Some kinds of manuscripts were clearly more likely to yield information on slaves (by then I had already given up looking for data on slave culture alone) than others. Nevertheless, I spent most days hastily perusing notes in the sidelines (which were fortunately present sometimes) hoping to find references to slavery there –which were scant. Ultimately, I did gather many data on slaves, although not often the kind I wanted.

The quality of the data I could find was determined by the quality of the records kept by the clerks that filled the offices of the government agencies. Their interest in the slave population was one-sided at best. Few of them bothered to refer to the ‘personal life’ of the slaves. The only things that caught their attention were the occasional departures from the ideal of the perfect slave: insufficient work, resistance to authority, or too great a preoccupation with their own pleasures.

Most of the archives pertaining to Surinam rest in the General State Archives in The Hague. They were the product of official institutions. Few personal documents have survived, neither has the bulk of the plantation records. The archives that proved pivotal to my research were:
(1) the archives of the Court of Police and Criminal Justice;
(2) the archives of the Government Secretariat;
(3) the archives of the Society of Surinam.

Of these archives, only the records of the Society of Surinam were assembled in the Netherlands. The other archives were put together in Surinam and only sent to the fatherland in the beginning of the 19th century, after the Dutch government had been alerted by the fact that the English had carted away everything that caught their fancy before they returned the colony to the Dutch in 1816. This difference was vitally important. Thanks to the moderate climate and superior care, the archives of the Society of Surinam have withstood the onslaughts of time much better than the other archives. Even the earliest volumes (dating from 1683) can be consulted. The other archives had suffered profoundly from the hot and humid climate, insects and neglect. Many volumes have been lost, or are in such a fragile condition that they have been marked with a red dot (which means that greedy researchers are not allowed to touch them). Consequently, most of the material dating from the 17th and 18th centuries is out of bound. Only manuscripts produced after 1770 have mostly escaped the feared red sign of decay.

These handicaps determined in large part the way the archival research was carried out. For the period before 1750, I was almost wholly dependent on the materials contained in the archives of the Society of Surinam. I concentrated my efforts on the Letters and Papers from Surinam, records sent to the directors of the Society in order to keep them informed. In these volumes, all kinds of data can be found. Very valuable were the population statistics, in the form of the yearly List of Whites and Red and Black Slaves. Furthermore, they included the letters from the Governor and other functionaries, lists of ships and their cargoes, and all kinds of incidental information that could turn out to be very interesting (for example, the complete journal of a slave voyage undertaken in 1686). For the period 1750 to 1820, I depended mostly on the archives of the Government Secretariat and the Court of Police and Criminal Justice. The former contained the Governor’s Journal and the Letters of the Governor to the directors of the Society (also present in the archives of the Society), which not only allowed me to trace major events (these records have been used extensively by Rudolf van Lier), but sometimes also included personal observations by knowledgeable insiders and kept faithful track of incoming slave ships.

The archives of the Court of Police were the most valuable resource. I was only able to consult a small part, so I restricted myself to the records that showed the most promise: the Criminal Procedures. They described the trials of the offenders appearing before the Court. Understandably, many times slaves were involved. In the most serious cases, the interrogations of the accused were written up in detail, but even in more routine matters, the defense of the suspect was reported. This was the only way to get information, however distorted, out of the mouths of the slaves themselves. The Minutes of the Court I consulted only occasionally.

The nature of the sources and the data they yielded forced me to revise my research program considerably more than once. At first, I planned to concentrate on the earliest period (1683 to 1750), during which the colony was governed by the Society of Surinam. However, most of the records from this period were out of bound and those available could not give a comprehensive picture of the slave population. Therefore, I decided to shift the focus of my research to the second half of the 18th century (1750 to 1795). The records of this period were complete and it was an interesting era in the history of the colony. The economic crisis of 1773 constituted a breaking point and abruptly transformed Surinam from a hopeful and prosperous colony to a dispirited and declining one. The situation of the slaves also changed profoundly. The decision to include the beginning of the 19th century as well was only made after a trip to Surinam, where I had searched in vain for the remaining 18th century sources, but found some 19th century materials that I could not afford to pass by. Since I had not planned a systematic study of the 19th century archives and I did not have sufficient time, I only glanced at the sections of the government and court archives that have remained in Surinam (the first covering the years 1846 to 1863 and the latter the years 1828 to 1845).

Thus, most of the material included in this study dates from the second half of the 18th century, though I try to paint a picture of the whole slavery era. The lack of data pertaining to the earliest period cannot be remedied. My relative neglect of the 19th century is primarily caused by lack of time, but it has to be noted that from 1820 on few changes in the position of the slaves occurred, until they were emancipated in 1863.

The subject of my research had to be revised as well. It soon turned out that the data on slave culture were too erratic and the gaps were too large to permit me to finish a study solely about this phenomenon. I could have chosen another specialized subject: the treatment of slaves by the juridical system. The archives of the Court of Police yielded ample data, at least for the second half of the 18th century. However, I preferred to broaden my scope rather than to narrow it. There were two important reasons for this choice. One is purely opportunistic: I had assembled a treasure trove of information about the various aspects of slave life, which had taken a substantial amount of time and sweat, and I considered it a waste not to use it. I did not want to save this material for a later publication, because I anticipated returning to a more traditional brand of anthropology later on and I certainly did not want to spend the rest of my professional life researching slavery. There also was a more scientific reason: no ‘holistic monograph’ about slavery in Surinam had appeared yet, or was likely to appear in the near future, and I believed such a monograph would be worthwhile, if only to give a further stimulus to the comparative study of slavery systems. Therefore, I decided to produce a general description of Surinam slavery, with emphasis on three closely related aspects: the treatment of slaves, slave culture and slave resistance.

Unlike most historians, I was not alerted to the pitfalls of archival research when I started and I only became aware of them as my research progressed. Since the Surinam archives are the product of government agencies, they are very limited in scope. Not only were they filled with the scribblings of white officials, but these functionaries were mostly of upper class background as well. They certainly did not make their notes with a future scientific investigation in mind. A researcher has to make do with what they considered worthwhile and hope that at least they were accurate in the way they recorded it. Unfortunately, the quality of the archival materials detoriated as time progressed. Statistics, for example, were collected with much greater care in the first half of the 18th century than later on. The lists of inhabitants contained in the archives of the Society of Surinam were abolished in 1736 –much to my chagrin. In other instances, the earlier data seem more trustworthy because they were recorded in meticulous detail. The lists of slave imports present a good example. All ships were entered into the Governor’s Journal when they arrived and sometimes periodical overviews were included in the letters sent to the Society. In the earlier records, the provenance of the ships was noted, as well as the duration of the voyage and the exact numbers of slaves that had died at sea or had been brought into the colony. In later years, changes in the manner of trade made it impossible to list the specific harbor the slaves had been shipped from and indications like “the coast of Guinea” or even “the coast of Africa” are not particularly helpful. In most instances, the duration of the Middle Passage and the number of slaves that had succumbed at sea were no longer listed. Even worse, the number of slaves imported was often only recorded in hundreds.

The Governor’s Journals did not get any livelier either. The quality of the content was, of course, primarily dependent on the person who made the entries and so could vary considerably even in earlier times, but at least it was the habit that the governors filled the pages themselves. The most knowledgeable of them included many candid observations on everything that caught their attention (including sometimes –but not nearly often enough- the slave population). This changed after 1780. The secretary took over the journal and at best kept us informed about the comings and goings of His Excellency, the arrival and departure of ships and the sessions of the various courts. The most valuable information can be found in the journals of two of the ablest and longest serving governors: Joan Jacob Mauricius (1742-1751) and Jan Nepveu (1768-1779). They were both excellent observers and gifted writers. While Mauricius remained an outsider (a very critical and therefore hated outsider at that), Nepveu was a product of the colonial system. The fact that he was never truly brainwashed by the system and retained enough detachment to comment cynically on any development he did not like, is proof of his stature. None of this candidness can be found in later journals.

It is evident that the greatest caution is necessary when using court records, especially those dealing with the slaves, a feared and despised group that had to be kept at bay at all costs. Since these are the only records that can give us an impression of the feelings of the slaves, they cannot be ignored. There are several important drawbacks in the data they delivered. First of all, the slaves who appeared before the Court of Police were not a representative sample of the slave population as a whole and not even of the slaves who broke the rules –most runaways, for example, were never caught. Secondly, the statements of the slaves were rarely recorded verbatim. Only in cases where they were accused of insulting or threatening whites phrasing was important. Most of the time, a mere résumé of their examination was entered into the records. Answers to specific questions were noted in detail solely during the trials of the most serious offenders. These questions were always phrased in advance and often invited a simple yes or no answer. Sometimes, the space for the answer was left blank when it had been decided not to pose the question.

On the other hand, not all slaves who appeared in court were offenders who had to lie for their life. Many slaves were called up simply as witnesses (against other slaves, because they could not testify against whites). They often unwittingly gave away much information on the life in the slave quarters, which may not have interested their interrogators much, but which is certainly appreciated by the researcher. Furthermore, the members of the Court may sometimes have misunderstood the statements of the slaves, but they had little reason to tamper with them. They preferred to elicit a confession and they did not hesitate to resort to torture to loosen tongues, but a confession was not an absolute necessity for a condemnation. Moreover, the whole process of repeated interrogations, recourse to torture, confrontation with witnesses, etc, was incorporated in the records with an almost naïve honesty (the Court officials did not have an inkling they would be judged by history so harshly). In complicated cases, the judges showed an amazing persistence to uncover the truth, not only because that permitted them to rid the colony of unwanted elements, but also because they were curious themselves. The masters were not particularly intent on proving the inherent depravity of the slaves, or on giving credence to unflattering myths in order to reaffirm their superiority. Little difference was made in the way major offenders (be they black or white) were treated (although whites were less easily subjected to torture).

One of the main reasons I am inclined to trust the archival data, especially when they are factual, is my conviction that the whites of Surinam felt no need at all to defend their ‘peculiar institution’. Even in the 19th century, they were not in the least worried by the weak stirrings of abolitionism in Holland. They were convinced that they would only be forced to give up slavery because of economic failure and they concentrated on proving that plantation agriculture in Surinam could be saved with the right measures. The practical Dutchmen were late in discovering anything repugnant about the slave system as such, although most of them agreed that one ought to treat one’s slaves decently. In Holland, the rejection of slavery on ethical grounds only gained momentum after 1840 and in the colony, there were few moral objections ever. Most whites were certain that they had a divine right to rule over blacks and that the slaves were much better off in Surinam than they would ever be in Africa. They believed that slaves had to be forced to work, because they were so lazy by nature that they would starve otherwise. The slaveholders did not have any doubts about the rightfulness of appropriating the fruits of the slaves’ labor, because they provided the means of production and the organization necessary for a large-scale agricultural venture. The archives mirror this complacency. They betray no recriminations, no defenses, no nagging doubts and certainly no feelings of guilt. They just recorded they way things were –and ought to be- in the eyes of the masters.

Printed sources (some of which are available on the internet nowadays).

The printed sources should be approached with more caution. If an author decided to offer a manuscript on slavery to a publisher, he usually had an ulterior motive. Few men wrote for the love of science or for the sake of diversion alone. Published authors were more likely to defend the slavery system openly than the men who filled the pages of the archival volumes. However, they clearly felt less threatened by the writings of abolitionists than their counterparts in the USA, who became increasingly fanatical and only stopped short of declaring slavery a proper status for poor whites as well. These authors were besieged at all sides by very persistent, very ardent and very intelligent abolitionists and, worse still, a large part of the country had no economical interest in slavery whatsoever. Surinam did not have such internal divisions and only towards the end of the slavery era, some Dutch abolitionists attacked thralldom with equal eloquence and occasionally with equal sentimentality (W.R. van Hoëvell could bear a candle to Harriet Beecher Stowe). Consequently, the Dutch literature on slavery is somewhat less tainted by prejudices than American literature of the same period (although some authors made no bones about their low opinion of coloreds or about their scorn for barbarian colonists).

The major writers on Surinam were in part inhabitants or long-time residents and in part people who had merely visited the colony, or had never even been there. Most of the published accounts of Surinam life are not particularly accurate and have been used extensively before. Despite this fact, I am obliged to lean on them rather heavily for two reasons. Firstly, they provide the only systematic overview of certain aspects of the life of the slaves, especially their private preoccupations. Secondly, these authors often had access to archival material that is no longer available. The fact that most of them had an ax to grind cannot be ignored, however. I shall point out some of these axes in the next paragraphs.

The first important work dealing specifically with colonial Surinam is J.D. Herlein’s Beschryvinge van de Volk-Plantinge Zuriname (1718). He resided in the colony for several years. According to his own statement, he arrived in 1707 and he may still have been there in 1715. His work is all the more important because so few of the records of this period have survived, but he cannot be trusted out of hand. For example, he did not hesitate to plagiarize large sections of other people’s writings, particularly the French author Rochefort, only changing references to Caribbean islands into references to Surinam. Moreover, there were two printings of the book in one year and they differ in numerous places. The picture he sketches of the colony is a grim one: rough frontier conditions, an unprecedented cruelty towards the slaves and a naked thirst for economic gains. When in the 1760’s the question of republishing the book presented itself, Governor Nepveu embarked on the task of commenting on Herlein’s statements. This venture resulted in a substantial manuscript, the Annotatiën. A neat version of this manuscript is present in the archives of the Society of Surinam and may have been meant for publication. Although Nepveu left few of Herlein’s paragraphs intact, this in itself is no indictment of the book, because in 50 years many things can change, even in colonial Surinam.

Thomas Pistorius was a long-time inhabitant of the colony and served in the Court of Police for a considerable period. He was the leader of several expeditions against the Maroons. At the end of his life, he decided to publish an account of his experiences, but the frailty of his memory often led him astray. Nepveu claimed that he had realized his mistakes and that he had tried in vain to stop the publication of his book Korte en Zakelijke Beschryvinge van de Colonie van Zuriname (1763). Despite these reservations, the book still contains valuable information and should not be brushed aside in advance.

Nepveu was also involved with the third classic that must pass scrutiny: Jan Jacob Hartsinck’s Beschryving van Guiana, of de wilde kust in Zuid-Amerika (1770). Hartsinck was intimately connected with the Society of Surinam: his father had been a director and he served as its secretary for a long time. He never visited the colony, but had vital information at hand, in the form of official charters and documents and the reports received from the colony. He also had the first draft of Nepveu’s Annotatiën at his disposal, which he used with great gusto. Many phrases he copied literally. Amazingly, Nepveu, not in the least shocked by the plagiarism, found little fault with the book. If anything, Hartsinck was too thorough. He wasted much space with verbatim copies of all kinds of treaties, records and appeals. Subjects he was not as familiar with –among them, not surprisingly, slavery- received considerably less attention. Still, his work is indispensable for a valid description of 18th century Surinam.

John Gabriel Stedman, a captain in the Scottish Brigade that was part of the State troops fighting in Surinam during the Boni War, is one of the most famous and the most frequently cited of the authors who published books on Surinam. The main reason is that he wrote in English, so English-speaking writers on slavery (the majority) are more apt to refer to him than to anyone else. He stayed in the colony from 1773 to 1778, but his book Narrative of a five years expedition against the revolted Negroes of Surinam [Dutch translation: Reize naar Surinamen en Guiana] did not appear before 1792. According to Rudolf van Lier, comparison of his diary and the Narrative proves the authenticity of this tale about his experiences in Surinam. It is undeniable that it was primarily this book that gave Surinam slavery its unenviable reputation. Stedman was a kind and humane man with serious doubts about the rightfulness of slavery. He greatly admired his adversaries (the Maroons) and he had little sympathy for most of the Surinam whites. They were greedy, callous and stupid in his eyes. He fell deeply in love with a beautiful mulatto girl named Joanna, whom he was unable to free. She bore him a son, Johnny, who eventually followed his father to Europe (Johnny enlisted in the English navy and died at sea). Stedman was obliged to leave Joanna behind, in the care of a friendly mistress. She soon died under mysterious circumstances (probably poisoned by a jealous rival). This tragedy no doubt embittered him.

It is obvious that Stedman faithfully recorded what he saw, or rather what he thought that he saw. Adriaan Lammens has pointed out that he sometimes misinterpreted the events he witnessed. He provided, for example, a heart-breaking description of a Negro chained to a furnace, giving the impression that the poor man was being roasted alive, while in fact he was chained to a wall near the fireplace and forced to fuel a sugar mill. An uncomfortable position, no doubt, but a common enough punishment for offenders and no diabolical manner of execution. For Stedman, a genuine knight in shining armor, it was pure torture to have to stand by helplessly while defenseless slaves were abused before his very eyes. He could never understand the crude logic inherent in the steadfast refusal to let anyone interfere in the exercise of ‘domestic jurisdiction’ and he did not realize that his pleadings only increased the misery of the slaves. Even thought he participated in the war against the Maroons, he did not share the fear of the white population for the ‘mass of slaves’, which prompted them to crush any resistance with such ferocity. He only saw the most despotic willfulness. In short, he was prejudiced. Nevertheless, the description he provided may have been one-sided, but it certainly was a side that existed and that may indeed have dominated during the scary years of the Boni War.

The physician Philip Fermin was one of the many travelers who visited the colony and could not resist the urge to jot down their impressions. His book Nieuwe algemeene beschryving van de colonie van Suriname (1770), became quite an icon -of misrepresentation, that is. Few books have been criticized by contemporaries so fiercely. Blom and Lammens, for example, considered the work practically worthless. Fermin copied large parts of the writings of the French author Labat with only slight alterations and seemed to have misunderstood virtually everything he had witnessed himself. Consequently, his statements can only be trusted when they are corroborated by other sources. Unfortunately, not all the present writers on Surinam slavery are sufficiently careful: Richard Price, for example, has used Fermin’s work extensively for his overview of Surinam history.

Another favorite of Price is David (Ishak de) Cohen Nassy, the main author of the Essay Historique (1788) [Dutch translation: Geschiedenis der kolonie van Suriname], the history of Surinam as perceived by ‘A Company Of Learned Jewish Men’. The ulterior motive for writing this book is obvious: it is an apology for the Jewish Nation, whose position in the colony was seriously undermined during this period. It was composed as an answer to the query of a ‘Prussian Gentleman’, who wished to be informed about the situation of the Jews in a colony reputed to be remarkably tolerant where religion was concerned. The authors emphasized the former prosperity of Surinam and the contributions of the Jewish Nation. In this respect, the book certainly cannot be taken at face value. On the other hand, Nassy and his fellow authors had access to manuscripts kept in the archives of the Jewish Nation, which either have been lost, or are difficult to translate. Therefore, the book is certainly useful.

Anthony Blom arrived in the colony around 1766 and spent more than 30 years there. He eventually rose to the position of Comptroller General, but for most of these years, he worked on plantations as blankofficier, director and administrator. He had a keen interest in the technical aspects of plantation agriculture and published his findings in a study that became a standard in the field: Verhandeling over de landbouw in de colonie Suriname. The book is not only full of good advice on the establishment of a plantation and the care of crops, but also contains apt observations on the relationship between masters and slaves. There is one problem, however: the first edition of the book, dating from 1786, was edited and supplemented by Floris Visscher Heshuysen. It is hard to distinguish Heshuysen’s additions from the original text. Blom was clearly not pleased with his editing and published another version himself in 1787. It was considerably smaller and in his later work, Blom only referred to this edition. Unfortunately, the publication of 1786 was the only one available to me.

Attorney-at-Law Adriaan Francois Lammens also spent a considerable time in the colony, in several elevated positions. He was a Patriot and he served as burgomaster of Axel and Vlissingen during the Napoleonic occupation of The Netherlands. He arrived in Surinam in 1816 and became a member (and later the president) of the Court of Civil Justice. In 1819, he was appointed as a judge with the Paramaribo branch of the Mixed Court (which strove to end the slave trade in the Caribbean). In 1832, he became president of the Military Court. Lammens was an honorable and hard-working civil servant. He kept aloof from the vain pleasures of Surinam high society and displayed a genuine interest in the slave population. After the death of his second wife, he married a woman of color (a sister of the Creole painter Gerrit Schouten). During his stay, he filled 18 large notebooks with observations. He obviously planned to have some of them published, especially part 13. Nothing came of it, because the publisher demanded that he would leave out certain critical passages he considered essential. In 1852, he pondered publication again, but by this time, his work was deemed out of date. These injustices were finally remedied in 1982, when Professor De Bruijne of the Free University of Amsterdam published excerpts from book 13 (Bijdragen tot de kennis van de kolonie Suriname). This volume is undoubtedly the most interesting of his notebooks (though the others contain valuable information as well). It provides a ‘geographical description’ of Paramaribo and devotes many pages to the habits of the colored population. The second part records several trips in the interior of the colony. The original notebooks are preserved in the library of the Surinam Museum in Paramaribo, while photocopies can be consulted in the General State Archives.

One of the most frequently cited travelers is Baron Albert von Sack, a German aristocrat who visited the colony briefly in 1807. The shortness of his sojourn did not impede him to devote two volumes to his adventures in the colony. The Dutch translation, Reize naar Suriname, verblijf aldaar en terugtogt over Noord-Amerika naar Europa, was published in 1821. Von Sack undeniably had less phantasy than Fermin, but it seems he was not always able to understand what was going on. His work should be handled with care as well.

After 1820, an avalanche of books on Surinam was published. Many of them bore the mark of slaveholder or abolitionist propaganda. Only a few were interesting: mostly the ones that did not strive to herald the benefits or evil of slavery.

Marten Douwes Teenstra, a farmer’s son from Groningen, was an indisputable ‘abolitionist’. He had worked for several years as an agricultural expert on Java before coming to Surinam. He detested slavery, but little of this revulsion can be found in his best-known book: De landbouw in de kolonie Suriname (1835). In his later study De negerslaven in de kolonie Suriname (1842), however, he compared their position unfavourably with that of the slaves of Curaçao.

The most famous among the ‘abolitionists’ was W.R. van Hoëvell, author of Slaven en vrijen onder de Nederlandse wet (1854). He was a typical product of the Christian ‘Reveille’ and living proof of the fact that Dutch abolitionists were mostly driven by ethical considerations. His work was often sentimental to a fault. He devoted, for example, an entire chapter to the heart-rending story of the beautiful mulatto girl Lucie, who is ceaselessly abused by a jealous mistress, while her free mother, who had been forbidden to buy her from her tormentor, was forced to stand by helplessly and finally saw the girl disappear into the living hell of a sugar plantation. Van Hoëvell is likely to have exaggerated more than a little: he never set foot in the colony.

Julien Wolbers was not sentimental at all. On the contrary, he had a cool scientific mind. He was the author of several major books, among others De slavernij in Suriname (1853) and Geschiedenis van Suriname (1861). Although he made extensive use of the work of earlier writers like Hartsinck (whom he often copies verbatim) and Teenstra, he also spent a considerable time in the archives, not only the General State Archives in The Hague, but also in the Public Record Office in London. Many of the sources he consulted are now out of reach for researchers and this makes his work all the more indispensable. Wolbers was a great admirer of the German School of historiography and his studies reflect their preoccupation with political history.

The defenders of the colonial system were primarily interested in ‘saving’ plantation agriculture and they considered slavery a vital ingredient. Foremost among them were J. van der Smissen and F.W. Hostmann. Both were full of prejudices against the slaves, who in their view would be lost without the guidance of white masters. Van der Smissen tried to prove [in his book Beschouwing over de kolonie Suriname (1849)] that many free laborers in Surinam were worse off than the slaves. Hostmann, a physician by trade, had turned to planting and was the owner of the ill-fated indigo plantation De Twee Kinderen. His experiments with tobacco were not very successful either. In his book Over de beschaving van negers in Amerika door kolonisatie met Europeanen (1850) the reader can find some of the harshest condemnations of Surinam blacks ever to be put into writing.

A few of the 19th century authors are not so easy to place. F.A. Kuhn was a physician with considerable experience in the colony. He did not reject slavery, but in his book Beschouwing van den toestand der Surinaamse plantagieslaven (1828) he castigated the slave owners for their ignorance and avarice, which caused many slaves to die from medical neglect. A. Kappler, author of Zes jaren in Suriname (1854), tried his hand at (plantation) agriculture and failed miserably. He therefore had a good insight in the trials and tribulations of the planters.

All the printed sources from the 18th and 19th century must be handled with care, but for a proper description of the Surinam slavery system they cannot be missed. It is often difficult to decide when they can be trusted and when not. The fact that they often provide the same information does not help, because many authors used the writings of their predecessors without compunction and so may well have heaped error upon error. However, some of them seem well-informed (Hartsinck, Blom, Teenstra, Wolbers) and will not lead the reader astray too far.

Modern research on Surinam slavery.

After a neglect of almost a century, the Surinam slave system again attained ample attention from Dutch historians. Rudolf van Lier laid the groundwork in his impressive study Samenleving in een grensgebied (1949). He did such a thorough job that newcomers in the field still find his traces everywhere. Van Lier covered the entire social history of Surinam, from the first colonial enterprises during the 17th century up to the aftermath of the Second World War, so he was only able to sketch the broad outlines of the social and economical developments during this period. Moreover, he mostly used secondary resources and undertook only limited archival research. Consequently, many details still have to be filled in. For example, he allotted only one chapter to the slaves of Surinam, although he mentioned them occasionally in other chapters. It is a tribute to the skills of Van Lier that most of his conclusions concerning the slave population still stand, but many developments during the colonial period merit more attention than he was able to give them.

The end of Dutch colonial rule in Surinam (1975) instigated a renewed interest in the history of the country and the slavery period in particular. Several revealing studies appeared during the next decade. They all focused on one particular aspect of the slavery system. Van der Voort, a forerunner of this new generation, researched the West Indian plantation loans. Lamur contributed an interesting article on the demography of the government plantation Catharina Sophia and Van den Bogaard and Emmer explored other aspects of the organization of this estate. Siwpersad studied the problems surrounding abolition. Hira contributed a Marxist analysis of resistance in Surinam. Various dissertations were started during this period: on Surinam Maroons, the economic viability of Surinam plantations, the census of 1811.

Despite all this activity, a full-length monograph on Surinam slaves was not forthcoming. Much information was available, but often in places and in a form that put it beyond the reach of the interested historian, especially if he came from abroad. Many authors, who nevertheless managed to draw some far-reaching (and dubious) conclusions from the wholly inadequate material, bemoaned this ‘white spot’ on the map. In a time when the comparative study of slavery was becoming increasingly fashionable, a more detailed knowledge of Surinam slavery was certainly useful. It was this need that I aimed to address.

The main characteristics of Surinam slavery.

There are two commonly held notions about the slavery system of Surinam. Firstly, as Melville and Frances Herskovits have argued (in Suriname folk-lore), the blacks of Surinam (the Bush Negroes in particular, but the Creoles as well) were the Afro-Americans most successful in preserving their culture: it has retained the largest number of ‘Africanisms’. In this respect, they even surpass the Haitians. Secondly, Surinam slavery has the unenviable reputation of being one of the cruelest (if not the most cruel) slavery systems in the Western Hemisphere. [Some writers believed that the ‘unprecedented suffering’ of the slaves was entirely due to the ‘pathological disposition’ of the planters.]

It shall be clear that either notion can be correct, but that it is hardly possible for both of them to be accurate at the same time, at least where the Creoles were concerned. When a slave society is ruled by the most blatant terror, there is no room for the development of the kind of culture we now know existed in the slave communities. Of course, there were sadists and men inexperienced in the art of lording it over others among Surinam planters, but on the whole, they were no more evil than other slaveholders living under similar conditions. The circumstances in Surinam, however, differed in crucial ways from those that characterized the United States or the Caribbean Islands.

The culture of the Surinam slaves was a new configuration of elements derived from three continents. It was the product of a gigantic collective effort, but this effort would have been in vain if the slaves had not been able to profit from the conscious neglect of their masters. Slave communities were small, often isolated and they suffered from a continuous change in personnel. Despite these handicaps, the slaves succeeded in creating a viable social organization and a flourishing cultural life. A comprehensive ‘black culture’ and a variety of ‘plantation cultures’ with certain distinctive traits (especially in the sphere of expression) existed side by side. The most pivotal (‘boundary defining’) aspects of this black culture were language and religion.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, it became fashionable to accuse the slaves who chose to stay on the plantations of cowardice and to applaud the Bush Negroes as the true heroes. Whether slaves decided to stay or to run, however, was not determined by bravery, but often merely by circumstance. Neither decision was inherently nobler than the other. As a rule, the slaves felt a strong tie with their plantations and often opted to hang on as long as the situation was remotely bearable. Many Maroons would never have taken to the forest if some unfortunate incident had not spurred them into drastic action. Escape was easy in Surinam, but in neither situation the people concerned were spared risk and pain. Whatever choice a slave or group of slaves made, it was a deliberate one. They did not passively submit to stronger forces. The Maroons waged an endless battle for their liberty, while the plantation slaves faced a continuous struggle to wrangle concessions from their overlords.

The ultimate purpose of slaves everywhere was survival: not only individually, but also collectively and not only in the physical, but also in the spiritual sense. The ‘defense mechanisms’ of culture and resistance helped the slaves to keep sane and to keep together, but they pulled in different directions and may have partly obliterated each other. While developing a separate cultural tradition is always a collective effort, resistance can be purely individualistic and even blatantly anti-social. Certain forms of collective resistance, like mass revolt, were a threat to the slave communities, which had been built up with so much effort. These communities, corresponding with ‘plantation villages’, gave the slaves a sense of belonging and they were loath to expose them to the danger of annihilation frivolously. However, if oppression became too harsh, the slaves had no choice but to rebel and move their communities into the jungle. The Surinam slave system may have been unique in its cruelty, but it was also unique in the possibilities for both cultural autonomy and effective resistance. Describing this ‘other side of the medal’ was one of the main objectives of this study.

Some issues in Afro-American historiography.

In my opinion, there is no genuine difference between the approach of the historical anthropologist and the social historian where the study of slavery is concerned. However, I have remained true to some cherished anthropological principles: (1) my study basically delivers a holistic monograph in the best anthropological tradition and (2) I employ a comparative approach (albeit a limited one), mostly to give some perspective to my observations on Surinam slaves, but also to permit me to fill in some gaps in the data (especially with regard to demography).

I restrict the comparison mainly to two territories: Jamaica and the United States. This choice was dictated by pragmatic reasons, for I read no Spanish or Portuguese and these are the English colonies I am most familiar with. This approach has the added attraction of eliminating a possible snag: the influence of ideological factors on the way the slaves were treated. Frank Tannenbaum has argued that the Dutch, the English and the Danes had the harshest slave systems due to the fact that: (a) as protestants, they were not particularly interested in saving the souls of black ‘heathens’; (b) the laws of their countries were not adapted to slaveholding and (c) their sensibilities were offended by too much intimacy with their darker ‘inferiors’. There has been a lot of opposition of ‘materialists’ against this theory, which, for the most part, I support. Nevertheless, ideological factors did influence the treatment of slaves in certain ways. The background of the Dutch and English was sufficiently similar to ascribe to them the same basic attitudes where slavery was concerned. This way, ideological factors are eliminated from the equation and the variances found in all probability reflect disparate material conditions.

The subjects of culture and resistance have been very much in vogue in Afro-American research lately. This mirrors a changing focus in historical research in general: from political history and the elites to social history and the underdogs. The relationships between these ‘defense mechanisms’ are intimate but complicated. The boundaries are often blurred: Stanley Elkins, for example, complained that in most of the historiography of the 1970’s and 80’s, culture has been perceived as merely another form of resistance. There may be some value in this point of view. After all, clinging to one’s despised culture is a way to symbolically ‘spit in the eye’ of the master, since the master preferred the slaves to adopt his culture -at least the parts of it that would make them more tractable and more diligent workers. On balance, however, I consider this perspective a bit too simplistic. Culture and resistance served the same purpose, but in different ways.

Stanley Elkins has castigated contemporary writers for the tendency to underplay the harshness of slavery systems in favor of stressing the resilience of the slaves. Researchers are confronted with two possibilities that seem to be mutually exclusive: either slave resistance was successful and slaves managed to create their own culture, but then oppression cannot have been that bad; or the slaves were mercilessly terrorized, but then resistance was futile and their cultural accomplishments have been greatly overrated. Elkins clearly supported the latter option: he found many similarities between the slave plantation and the concentration camp.

Elkins defended this dubious analogy in his famous study Slavery: A Problem in American Intellectual and Institutional Life (1959). On the basis of descriptions of human behavior in concentration camps, he concluded that all people could be turned into totally dependent, childlike and passive Sambo’s by sufficient cruelty. I will be the last to deny the inhumanity of the slavery system, but its objective was not the annihilation of a hated minority and in this respect, the slave plantation certainly differs greatly from the concentration camp. [I have addressed this question in greater detail in my article: Was de slavenplantage een totale institutie?] The slave plantation did not automatically produce Sambo's, in fact it more often did exactly the opposite: it proved that people can display hidden strengths even in the most adverse circumstances. The trial of being part of an unjust system brought out the best and the worst in the slaves. Generally, they stood their ground admirably, but this should not blind us to some of the less lofty aspects of their behavior.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, the growing influence of the Black Power Movement not only fueled the interest in resistance, but also determined the way historians approached the subject. Some writers seemed to have suffered from a fatal case of ‘white guilt’. They bent over backwards to please the sternest (potential) critics. Their obsession with resistance grew until they saw heroism in everything the slaves did, including infanticide. This unfortunate tendency can be traced in the work of one of the greatest historiographers of slavery, Eugene D. Genovese. From his balanced views on the use of violence evident in his earlier work, to his support of the most hateful aspects of it –like terrorizing one’s own people to force them to join the ‘revolution’- in From Rebellion to Revolution, he certainly came a long way.

The line between right and wrong is not drawn so unequivocally in this study as it is in the work of some other writers. My picture of Surinam is not sketched in ‘black and white’, but has various shades of grey in between. Many studies only feature heroes and villains, the heroes being the slaves and well-meaning abolitionists (often of the more fanatical kind) and the villains being the slaveholders and their ‘mercenaries’. I regard the use of a 'double yardstick', whereby the use of violence is regarded as admirable in the case of the slaves and despicable in the case of the masters, as unfair. In my opinion, such a simplistic view rarely leads to good historiography.

The nature of the slavery system inevitably implicated a ‘conflict model’. It welded together two antagonistic groups for the purpose of enriching one of them. Consequently, the relationship between master and slave was shaped by a continuous struggle, but for the sake of survival, conflict often had to give way to compromise. For many authors any compromise signified a defeat for the slaves -a very shortsighted view. So I will not only tell of resistance, but also of accommodation. However, one should never mistake the lack of overt struggle for harmony. No Gone with the Wind plantations were present in Surinam.

The phenomenon of slavery must be studied against the background of the Zeitgeist. Such an observation seems self-evident and has been made before (for example by Harry Hoetink), but this principle is ignored by many of those presently writing about the subject. It is absurd to ‘judge’ historical personages by the ethical standards of today (which themselves might be considered objectionable in a couple of decades). Yet, many recent studies teem with value judgments: the slaves are berated for the fact that they passively ‘took the whip’; the Maroons for failing to cast their lot with their ‘oppressed brothers’; the abolitionists for not favoring the expulsion of all whites from the colonies and the payment of Wiedergutmachung to the ex-slaves; the less ethically challenged among the colonial whites for the fact that they did not reject the domestic jurisdiction of the slaveholders, etc. The only persons who can find grace in the eyes of the authors are genuine heroes and saints. Few people in the 17th and 18th centuries considered slavery morally wrong, not even the slaves. This does not mean that they were inherently depraved and heaping scorn on them serves no purpose but the (Marxist) political goals of those scholars.

It goes without saying that I do not share those political views, even though I do consider myself a ‘materialist’ of sorts [there are considerably less people who give up their livelihood (let alone life) for their convictions than there are people who give up their convictions for their livelihood (life)] -with a tendency towards voluntarism, empiricism, inductivism, diachronism and individualism. I do not believe in inherited guilt or collective guilt and none of my forbearers has had anything to do with Surinam anyway. Therefore, I hope to bring to this study of slavery in Surinam a measure of objectivity too rarely found in other studies on this delicate subject.

Post Scriptum: terminology.

It has always amazed me that nowadays words like ‘negro’ or ‘colored’ are considered pejorative when used to refer to Afro-Americans and Afro-Caribbeans, while the word ‘black’ is not. In my opinion, the Dutch words blanke (light-skinned person) and neger (dark-skinned person) are much more polite than their modern counterparts witte (white) and zwarte (black).

In Surinam, the word slaaf (slave) was most of the time only used when referring to the slave population in general, or to a group of slaves at most. An individual slave was nearly always referred to as de neger Quassi (the slave Quassi). For all intents and purposes, the designation neger was synonymous with slave, even to the point that people would refer to a mulatto slave as a “mulatte man neger”. A freedman consequently was a vrijneger. Since I strife more for historical correctness than for political correctness, I have largely copied this terminology.

The literal translation of wegloper is runaway, but in Surinam this designation was primarily used for Maroons. Runaways staying close to the plantations and congregating in groups of a dozen slaves at most were called schuylders.


Book review of: Sandew Hira, Van Priary tot en met De Kom. De geschiedenis van het verzet in Suriname, 1630-1940. (Originally published in the KITLV Journal, 1982)

Sandew Hira is a young, zealous and very prolific writer. An economist by origin, he has widened his horizons far beyond the traditional boundaries of his trade. Van Priary tot en met De Kom is his first major work and faithfully reflects the precedence that political activity takes over scholarship in his mind. The book sets out to present a history of the resistance of the ‘oppressed masses’ against capitalist exploitation in Surinam over a period spanning more than three centuries. The drama begins in 1630 with the first extended colonial enterprise in Surinam, the settlement of Captain Marshall and sixty Englishmen in the interior, and ends on the eve of the Second World War, which announced the definitive demise of plantation society. Resistance is an intriguing subject, which has enjoyed ample attention in Caribbean historiography over the past decades, but Hira is not bothered by comparative inclinations. Only by the bare fact that he employs a Marxist frame of analysis he ties in with recent tenors in this field.

The main concerns of the book are political. Hira states that there exists a profound need for a history and analysis of the unending struggle against repression and exploitation in Surinam, which need his work aims to meet. Secondly, he strives to pass on the lessons of the past to today's young ‘revolutionaries’. And lastly, he hopes to stimulate the development of a Marxist tradition in Surinam and the formation of a new vanguard for revolutionary action. Hira claims that on the historian rests "the ungrateful task to construct the network of cause and consequence in the drift of events in such a way as to fit in necessarily every deed, every success or every failure, and every mistake with the logic of the historical process which he is analyzing" (p. VIII). Van Priary tot en met De Kom presents in addition a critique of the ‘bourgeois’ interpretation of the history of Surinam, especially of the kind elaborated by the so-called pluralists, exemplified by R. A. J. van Lier. In Hira's opinion, the theory of pluralism cannot explain the crucial developments in Surinam history. It fails most conspicuously when trying to illuminate the heroic fight of the masses against capitalism. Hira is convinced that his brand of revolutionary Marxism can supply a more consistent and revealing analysis of this struggle. He therefore applies these insights with unflagging partisanship to the whole range of insurgent actions in Surinam.

The book opens with a critical evaluation of the famous study by R. A. J. van Lier, Samenleving in een grensgebied (1949). Although Hira considers this work still valuable after 33 years (a bright lantern in an obscure labyrinth), he has little regard for its theoretical foundations. In his view, they consist of a “hotchpotch of contradictory concepts”, the most sophisticated of which represents little more than an ‘idealistic’ misconception: the perception of Surinam as a pluralistic society, a state based on the consolidation of ethnic differences. He believes that the theory of pluralism links sociocultural developments with shifts in the motivations and aspirations of the respective races. He concludes that this theory (a) does not adequately explain social differentiation, and (b) lacks internal consistency. He is particularly critical of the -admittedly unfortunate- fondness of Van Lier for bestowing facile psychological labels upon historical personages. Van Lier, Hira claims, can interpret the resistance of the masses only as sudden outbreaks of hostility by groups of people collectively exceeding their ‘frustration threshold’. Why then, he asks, do the masses revolt regularly? Obviously, the history of resistance in Surinam was in dire need of revision.

The bulk of the book is taken up by detailed descriptions of the great battles against the ‘monster of capitalism’: the Indian war, the (convict) soldiers' mutiny, the guerrilla of the Maroons (especially the Boni War), slave revolts, the 'Koeli' strikes, the Killinger conspiracy and the struggle for union rights. The chapters on these subjects are preceded by a theoretical analysis of the development of Surinam colonial society in relation to the world economy. Hira distinguishes three principal phases in the evolution of production relations (and, parallel to these, three phases in the development of the centralized state): (1) the foundation of the colony (the period up to 1688); (2) the rise and fall of slavery (1688-1863); and (3) the disintegration of the plantation society (1863-1940). The first period was shaped by the contacts between trade capitalism and the pre-capitalistic, classless Indian communities. The second period saw incorporation of the colony into the world economy through the production of commodities for the international market, while the profits from this were accumulated in the mother country. The agrarian labor was performed by black slaves, which defined the nature of the class struggle in this era. No form of organization of the workers could be tolerated, since this implied a threat to the proprietary rights of the masters and an undermining of the essence of the slavery system. The racist ideology functioned as a justification for exploitation and at the same time, by imbuing the masses with an awareness of their inferiority, discouraged resistance. Surinam, in this period, constituted a ‘segmented state’, characterized by a weak and often impotent central government and a politically vocal planter class. During the third period, differentiation of production relations followed, as slavery gave way to contract and wage labor, independent peasant farming and prospecting. Only after the extirpation of slavery, it was possible for a genuine centralized state to develop. As ethnic and class boundaries coincided, the class struggle was shaped by the clashes between the various ethnic groups. However, the expression of class conflicts along racial lines can be seen as a ‘necessary part’ of the general struggle, and Hira fervently hopes that the masses of Surinam will eventually come to see the light and unite against the common foe.

Each stage in the historical process was accompanied by certain forms of resistance by the oppressed. The ruling elite was endangered by the revolts of the Indians and soldiers in the first period, by the passive and active opposition of the slaves and the guerrilla warfare of the Maroons in the second, and by the fight for labor rights and the Killinger plot to overthrow white supremacy in the period after emancipation. Hira staunchly proclaims the revolutionary fervor of the masses, which he portrays as ever ready for action when the circumstances permit. The prospects for revolution are determined by various factors, among them the severity of exploitation, internal divisions in the master class, and the existence of an economic basis for a sustained struggle. These factors explain why certain groups in Surinam society rose in rebellion at certain times. Hira does not apply these rational considerations when referring to people who chose not to enlist for the holy war, however; they are dismissed as ‘scabs and traitors’, or at the very least as despicable cowards.

In many respects, the book adds to the existing knowledge of the history of Surinam. The descriptive chapters in particular brim with interesting information, much of it hitherto undisclosed. However, there are several serious flaws, which greatly detract from its value. To begin with, Hira repeatedly barks up the wrong tree in his criticism of the work of Van Lier. He errs in assuming that for Van Lier the theory of pluralism ‘explains’ the historical development of Surinam society. Van Lier does not employ a consistent theoretical framework, but neither does he use a hotchpotch of contradictory concepts. He views Surinam from different angles: the country can be regarded not only as a plural society, but also as a colonial society and as a frontier society. These perspectives are little more than ‘devices for heightening perception’. While in his analysis of contemporary society Van Lier leans heavily on the concept of pluralism, in his interpretation of the development of the slavery system he uses the notion of a frontier society, with all its implications for the mentality of Surinam’s inhabitants, to much greater advantage. Van Lier's analysis of slave resistance is largely couched in psychological terms, but he incorporates references to economic, geographic and demographic factors. Consequently, his historiography is less blatantly ‘mentalistic’ than Hira would have us believe. In fact, it often displays more dialectical subtlety than Hira's ‘mechanistic’ way of reasoning.

Hira has not conducted a thorough investigation in the archives: he depends largely on a number of well-known books and some easily available documents. He therefore overlooks primary sources that are vital for his theory. He based his description of the soldiers' mutiny on the work of Pistorius (1763), for example, instead of using the eyewitness-accounts contained in the archives of the Society of Surinam. His interpretation of the data displays a tendency towards inconsistency, since he strives to show the inevitable logic inherent in the historical process. His argumentation is further colored by a rigidly orthodox Marxist view. Hira's basic framework of economic phases has dictated the scheme of the book and the way the material is analyzed. His expositions on the roots of the revolutionary struggle have a somewhat archaic flavor: they remind one more of C. R. L. James than of Eugene Genovese. The book would have benefited if Hira had taken better notice of the more sophisticated studies on this subject which have appeared recently, such as Aya (1979), Genovese (1979), and Skocpol (1976). Hira is most convincing when he restricts himself to analyzing the economic developments proper; the precise relations between these developments and the ways resistance is expressed never become clear.

The book gives the distinct impression of being unpolished: a ‘second draft’ published with undue haste. This has resulted in (often superfluous) repetition and weak composition. There are several annoying mistakes, which make one suspect that Hira is more intent on proving his point than on gaining an insight into the history of Surinam. His haste shows in the misspelling of names, the lack of uniformity in the spelling and the frequent use of inane metaphors (the book features a touching scène in which the ‘struggle bug’ mates with the ‘resistance virus’, with momentous results). The cover, depicting in garish colors a hideous capitalist (complete with monocle) gnawing at Surinam, does justice to the often Caucasophobic content, but will undoubtedly scare away many potential readers. Furthermore, the book falls apart at the slightest provocation.

In the final analysis, Van Priary tot en met De Kom amounts to little more than a catalogue of heroes, skillfully excavated from among the debris of history. However, Hira does deliver what he promised in the introduction and this, perhaps, should be the ultimate yardstick by which to judge an author whose preoccupations one does not share. So budding revolutionaries looking for inspiration are well advised to hurry to the bookshop, but serious scholars interested in the history of Surinam had better turn elsewhere.