The search for immigrants.
This chapter focuses on the white masters, most of the others on the subservient blacks. It is necessary to understand the former, in order to understand the latter. The white overlords in slave societies were able to lay down the rules much more strictly than any other elite in history. The slaves might oppose the rules, but they were seldom able to change them fundamentally.
From the beginning, Surinam has displayed the characteristics of a plantation colony. One of the main distinguishing traits of such a society was the skewed ratio of black and white, man and woman, slave and free. A severe shortage of white settlers, especially women, was inevitable in these conditions and the authorities were acutely aware of this. In an exploitation colony, there usually was no genuine niche for white yeoman farmers and there were only limited opportunities for artisans and traders, in fact, for all workers not directly involved in plantation agriculture. For impoverished people, living in difficult circumstances but not starving, such a colony provided few prospects. Furthermore, the people in the Low Countries had a negative image of the tropical world in general: they saw it as a white man’s graveyard infested with dangerous subhuman beings. A person had to be extremely desperate, or extremely eager to make a fortune to venture there. Consequently, the push factors for emigration were not very strong in the Netherlands. As Charles Boxer has noted: “although the wages were usually very low and working hours very long, unemployment in the Northern Netherlands was never sufficiently severe to induce industrial and agricultural workers to emigrate on an adequate scale to the overseas possessions of the Dutch East and West India Companies.” However, small as the white minority in Surinam may have been (and it was always too small in the eyes of the men in power), its superior position, although sometimes a bit shaky, was never seriously threatened during the slavery era.
Unfortunately, the collection of statistics in colonial Surinam was very erratic. For most of the earlier years, the number of whites must be projected and finer distinctions cannot be made. For the years 1700 to 1745, however, we have the annual count of Whites and Red and Black Slaves, contained in the archives of the Society of Surinam. The soldiers were omitted from these counts, although they made up nearly half of the white population for most of this period. During the rest of the 18th century, the number of whites remained fairly stationary, although a large part of the plantation owners left. The statistics of the 19th century provide even more problems, because the population was often merely divided into slaves and free people and most of the figures pertained to Paramaribo only. In 1811, the English held the first census in Surinam history, which delivered a much more accurate picture. As a result, the population curve can only be drawn with the greatest hesitation. The most important conclusion nevertheless remains the same: the number of whites in the colony was always so low that they were painfully aware of the vulnerability of their position -and acted accordingly.
The only period during which it was not difficult to attract sufficient settlers to Surinam were the years of the Willoughby-colonization. In Barbados, where sugar production expanded quickly at the time, many white farmers were pushed from their small holdings by more powerful neighbours and indentured servants found no place to settle after the expiration of their contracts. These people were keen to join such a venture. Since they were experienced colonists and had already survived the first dangerous years in a tropical climate, they prospered. In 1665, Surinam counted 4000 inhabitants, of whom 1500 were capable of bearing arms (meaning they were free white men). A terrible epidemic cut their number in half and the departure of most of the English colonists after the Zeelandian occupation left Surinam practically depleted of white settlers. Therefore, the authorities spared no measure to lure new hopefuls.
They were, of course, primarily interested in men with enough capital to start a plantation. Governor Van Aerssen hoped that people from Curacao would consent to settle in Surinam, but the lack of slaves ‘diverted’ them. Dutchmen were preferred, but the Society of Surinam could not afford to be choosy. Almost everyone was acceptable, even citizens from countries that Holland might have to do battle with in the near future. Would-be planters were regarded more favorable when they already owned slaves, or had a contract with the WIC to procure them. Then they could be sure to receive a choice piece of land.
The Society had promised new settlers an exemption from taxes for the period of ten years, but this tended to attract fortune hunters and, according to Van Aerssen, this policy harmed the budding colony severely: Your Noble High Mightinesses have been deceived nastily by consenting to such favorable immunities and privileges for such a long period, having the design of the mighty planters only been, to withhold [taxes] here for another ten years, to exhaust their plantations, and then to go wandering everyone to his fatherland, without having contributed anything: their motives of persuasion having been the Indian war by which [they] have been ruined, this also being the reason that many of them have used not to pay their debts and [they] have sent their sugar on their own account to the Fatherland, with the intention that if it goes badly with the colony to leave their creditors with a fair bankruptcy.
Notwithstanding the shortage of planters, the most dubious characters were rebuffed. Governor De Goyer (1710-1715) mentioned in a dispatch to the Society that he had refused land concessions to certain persons, because they aimed “to strip the requested land of wood, and thereupon leave it, after they had been made useless for plantations”. He also sent packing “Such who notoriously have no Slave force, and in all probability could not get such a force in a long time, given their Credit and their Lifestyle”. Surinam was much better off with another kind of planters: the religious fugitives, such as Huguenots and Jews, who not only brought sufficient capital, but also planned to stay.
The need for plantation supervisors.
Respectable planters were not the only whites hard to come by in Surinam: the lower echelons of society were just as difficult to fill. Soldiers, tradesmen and plantation officers, in particular, were desperately needed. In part to simply counterbalance the growing number of slaves, in part to control them directly. Governor Van der Veen (1696-1707) warned that a contagious disease that had swept the Americas had killed off so many whites that “there are several Plantations, where no white is left, and [that] are only governed by Negroes”. He tried to augment the number of whites by ordering the planters to employ one overseer for every ten slaves, fining them 1000 pounds of sugar when they failed to comply. The master and his sons over the age of 15 were included in this number. The Court of Police protested eloquently against this unrealistic law: where would the planters get the necessary personnel from? Even if they managed to entice some men away from Holland now, there was no guarantee that they would be able to find replacements in the future. The councilors claimed that in reality there was one blankofficier for every 20 to 25 slaves and they considered this satisfactory.
The authorities soon realized that they could not enforce this ordinance, so in the beginning of the 18th century, they relented somewhat and prescribed only one overseer for every twenty slaves, adding generously that “it shall be free for everyone to sent for these whites at their own expense” –a privilege for which the planters were truly grateful of course. During the first half of the 18th century, the government continuously demanded obeisance, but to no avail. An advisory committee concluded in 1757 that two whites per 100 slaves, three whites per 200 slaves and four whites per 300 slaves were ample, because too many blankofficieren on one plantation would lead to arguments and unrest among the slaves. After a massive rebellion in Berbice (1773), the States-General was sufficiently alarmed to demand the reinstatement of the old rule, threatening planters who ignored it with a fine of 500 guilders. When the Society agreed to a ratio of one supervisor per 40 slaves in 1772, Governor Nepveu protested vehemently: he considered this wholly inadequate, especially in the upper divisions.
In the 19th century, the abolition of the slave trade, the growing dependence on the protection of the Dutch military and the reduction of internal hostilities made the government relax the rules considerably. In 1817, it was ordered that a plantation had to employ at least one white or free colored supervisor if it counted less than 200 slaves and provide one additional officer for every 100 slaves more. Despite the fear of the ‘mass of slaves’, the government never considered curbing the imports. During the slavery era, there were seldom more than two or three whites on a plantation, even on the largest ones, which could count up to 500 slaves.
In later times, these whites occupied themselves almost exclusively with supervising the fields and the factory, but in the 17th and early 18th centuries, all sorts of white servants resided on the plantations: bookkeepers, carpenters, coopers, surgeons, etc. Only the sugar boilers, in other colonies often white specialists, were exclusively black in Surinam. The craftsmen, even the ‘doctors’, were replaced by trained slaves soon, while bookkeeping was included in the duties of the directors. Although, especially in the 19th century, free coloreds were considered suitable as plantation servants even by the authorities, relatively few of them ever rose to this exalted position. Obviously, they were mistrusted by most planters and only the barest necessity opened the gate for them.
White artisans were in much demand during the early period, not only to work on the plantations, but also to serve the growing population of Paramaribo. Governor Van Aerssen, for example, asked for carpenters, master millwrights, potters and brick makers. He was willing to pay them up to 700 guilders a year plus provisions. The colonists learned to do without them in the 18th century.
There were few volunteers for any of these positions, so ‘gentle’ persuasion was applied on the unwilling. Surinam did not have an official system for procuring indentured labor, yet employers would accept without compunction people recruited forcibly by so-called zielverkoopers (‘spirits’, literally ‘soulsellers’): unsavory characters who plied unsuspecting candidates with liquor to obtain their signature on a contract that bound them to a plantation or to the Society, blackmailed them into signing, or even shanghaied them. So many bewildered wretches found themselves aboard a ship on its way to the West Indies before they realised what was happening to them. These reluctant immigrants were welcomed eagerly at first, but soon most of them proved to be unmitigated nuisances.
Governor Van Aarssen had several unpleasant experiences with them and reported: “Surely I must say again that all the Soulsellers’ hands are expensive, useless and godless hands, with regard to their purchase as well as their services: [I] declare [I] rather want to deal with galley and rasp-house crooks, than with such [men], because the burden rests on my shoulders, and I remain embarrassed with it and the work overtakes me more and more”. The people dragged to the colony for service to the Society were of little use at first, because “they stand Heavily in debt to the Soulsellers, and I to degage them, exert myself as much as possible, and what they get as salary from time to time, all goes through the gullet, above this we enjoy little Service, except for the first Two & Three months from them, their ill health, and sore Legs because of the change of Air here, [is] such that getting their passports after the expiration of the three years, stripped of money, and supplied with health, They are better able to give Service and lacking passage money, are obliged to stay”. Therefore, he objected to the proposal to promise them return passage in order to lure more.
Even these dubious methods did not yield a sufficient quantity of candidates and their quality was so abysmal that Van Aerssen came to believe he would be better off with real criminals. He asked the Society to send “a dozen of those crooks who are sitting in the rasp-house … [I] do not doubt that [I] have a solution for them”. He was indulged right away. In 1684, the States of Holland resolved not to lock up minor offenders anymore, but to give them a chance to redeem themselves. The unlucky ones were shipped to Surinam. The experiment was not a success. Instead of being properly grateful for this generous rehabilitation scheme, the rascals broke their chains, stole a couple of canoes and headed for the Orinoco. Most of them were dragged back by François de Chattilon. Other contingents did not meet the meagre expectations either.
Therefore, it is not surprising that Van Aerssen’s successor, Jan van Scharphuys(en), pleaded to be spared further shipments: “To my regret prisoners are still sent with nearly every ship; we cannot understand Your Noble Lords’ concept of this, as it is nothing but a plague for the Colony, and of great damage to the Society; for if they are craftsmen, the other honest [men] will not work with them, but with regret; and so they obstruct the work more, than they are of avail; are they no craftsmen, they can do naught but slavish labor, and for that they are not worth their clothes nor food, and always [there] ought to be one after them, or else they will not work, and [they] spoil with this the slaves too, and who knows what evil in the evening or in the morning they will come to do, or run away to the Indians and incite them against us, and other rascalities, of which one does not lightly think; so that from sending these rogues no hail or benefit is to be expected.”
Dutch orphanages soon became another source of unenthusiastic immigrants. In 1685, the Court of Police begged the Society to transport 20 to 25 orphaned boys and an equal numbers of girls to the colony. Apprentice craftsmen and clerks were sorely needed, while the girls should be versed in sewing, spinning and performing household chores. They were to earn 25 guilders a year (plus food and lodging), from which amount a total of 30 guilders for their passage would be deducted. It is understandable that the trustees of the orphanages at first considered this a marvellous opportunity for their charges, who had a dim future in the Netherlands. They knew little of the drawbacks of colonial life and they had little empathy with the anguish of those children, as they were herded onto leaky ships to face an uncertain future.
Some of the youngsters seem to have done rather well, considering the circumstances. Governor Van Scharphuys noted: “The orphans, boys as well as daughters are all delivered to good Masters, and of the girls a good part is already married, or about to marry; we wished however, that more of the most decent of the house had been sent to us at first, since we hear many complaints about their rashness and unruliness; of the girls we have been obliged to send one back on this occasion, since she thrives very ugly, wetting herself every night, destroying everything, and by her trade with the Negroes and others giving a general scandal.” He nevertheless asked for 10 to 12 more to be sent with every ship.
Within a decade, hundreds of orphans had been fetched from Middelburg and Amsterdam, but the reports that got back to the trustees alarmed them sufficiently to discontinue this practice until “less dangerous times”. The whereabouts of most of these children remains a mystery. The majority of them probably died shortly after their arrival in the colony. Some, like Clement Andriessen, obtained the sought-after fortune: he married a prosperous widow and became a planter on the Surnau creek. Most girls, if they survived, found a husband easily. A few children returned to the Netherlands. [The destiny of the orphans referred to by Van Scharphuys has been recorded. They arrived in the colony on the Princess Royal in 1691. In the beginning of the 18th century, most had disappeared from view. Of the 27 boys, 18 had died in Surinam and six had returned to Holland. Only two were still residing in the colony and the fate of one was unknown. Of the 20 girls, 11 had died, one was sent back to Amsterdam and one managed to leave of her own accord. The remaining seven had married inhabitants.]
The results of all these experiments were so discouraging that the inhabitants of Surinam soon concluded that they could do without European craftsmen and that they could survive a shortage of plantation supervisors. They trained blacks for most of these jobs. One category of hirelings was alas indispensable, whatever their flaws: white soldiers. These mercenaries were recruited from the scum of Dutch, German and Scandinavian society. Even condemned men were not frowned upon. Consequently, it was practically impossible to get the desired service from them: they were used to the whip and the stockades and most of them had little to lose. Even the slaves looked down on them. Governor Van Aerssen warned the Society that these “are not soldiers whom we would dare to trust in an emergency, of which [I] daily have experience”. We have already seen that he was not unduly pessimistic.
These drunken loafers nevertheless had their uses, so it was made difficult from them to leave the colony. They were kept in debt as much as possible and they were forced to match wits with a very stubborn bureaucracy in order to assemble the papers they needed for leaving. Before a former soldier could depart, he was obliged to obtain five permits from the secretary and have them read in four churches in Paramaribo, Zandpunt, Commewijne and Perica, as well as in the Jewish synagogue. After six weeks of waiting, he had to get a note from each of the clergymen stating that his departure had been announced and that no objections had been voiced (by creditors). He then had to deliver these to the Governor, whereupon he was finally issued a passport. Many gave up in despair long before that and settled on a plantation instead.
Later in the 18th century, the attempts to attract settlers were aimed primarily at farmers. They were badly needed to grow provisions, to offset the numerical majority of the blacks and to form a buffer against the Maroons. In 1747, the Society decided to invite some farmers from the Paltz to move to Surinam. They were supplied with cattle and tools and the plan was to settle them along the Oranjepad, a road constructed through the forest in an attempt to hold back wegloopers. They proved unwilling to exert themselves much and the experiment faltered. Some years later, Baron von Spörcke tried again with several Swiss families, with similar results.
It took almost a century before the interest in this kind of colonization flared up again. The rate of unemployment in the Netherlands had become disquieting by then and overpopulation was considered a major cause. Reverend A. van den Brandhof and his colleagues Copijn and Betting were convinced that landless laborers had a promising future as independent farmers in Surinam. They won the support of the Secretary of the Colonies for their scheme. The deserted military post Groningen on the Saramacca River was chosen as an ideal place to start and the government of Surinam promised slaves for clearing the forest, digging trenches and building houses. When the preparations threatened to become too expensive, the abandoned government plantation Voorzorg was selected as an alternative. The first group of 50 families and 40 bachelors arrived in 1845.
A painful disappointment awaited them: the huts were barely habitable, the land was not cleared and furniture and tools were absent. Copijn noted: “When the anchor had fallen gruesome scenes took place on board of the ship. Women and children wailed and cried; the men, at the sight of their destination, strode desperately and angrily across the deck. Most people refused to get off the ship; some of them who still possessed money, offered this to the captain for the return passage.” They were not mistaken in their apprehension: soon contagious diseases broke out, which killed off half the unfortunate colonists. It was decided to return to Groningen and many people, especially the widowed, departed for Holland at the first opportunity.
The would-be farmers received ample help from the authorities. The support was, perhaps, too generous, because few of the immigrants sincerely tried to become self-supporting. Food from the colonial warehouses was doled out constantly and they were paid daily wages for constructing their own houses. The most diligent farmers tried to grow vegetables, but even when the harvest was good, the products wilted before they reached Paramaribo. Experiments with cochineal also failed. A yellow fever epidemic delivered the coup the grace in 1851. Two years later the settlement was abandoned entirely. Some of the colonists followed another pioneer, by the name of Westphal, to his project on the plantation Rama in Upper Suriname, some returned to the motherland and the rest settled near Paramaribo. They contented themselves with tending small plots and supplied the inhabitants with milk and vegetables. Their descendants, the Boeroes, still live there.
Dutch abolitionists continued to have high hopes for white colonization, but the government had enough of sponsoring such ventures. Ambitious private enterprises, like August Kappler’s on the Marowijne, lasted only a few years.
A house divided.
Calvinists and other Christians.
In most Caribbean societies, there was one dominant group of whites, who were either subjects of the colonizing power, or their descendants (white Creoles). There was often a lot of hostility between the metropolitan and colonial whites, who referred to each other in unflattering terms as ‘power-hungry intruders’ or ‘vicious slave-beaters’. In Surinam, Protestant Dutch nationals and their progeny did not form a clear majority. Quite the opposite in fact, numerically they were overshadowed by groups with a different national origin and/or religion.
Notwithstanding their minority position, the Dutch made their mark on Surinam society by virtue of their control of the government and official institutions: the placards were based on Dutch law, the official religion was Dutch Reformed and the official language was Dutch. It would not have been surprising if the French tongue had been chosen for this purpose, because there were many immigrants from France, the Dutch upper class spoke French perfectly and the (mostly Sephardic) Jews had fewer problems with this language than with Dutch. The Society of Surinam, however, decided in 1688 that documents in foreign languages would not be accepted in the colony. Until the middle of the 18th century, the Dutch Reformed Church was the only one officially permitted, apart from the related Walloon church. The construction of the church buildings and the services of the ministers were paid from public funds. The Conventus Deputatorum, consisting of the ministers and two members of the Court of Police, kept in touch with the Classis of Amsterdam. It successfully barred the recognition of other religions until the middle of the 18th century.
Many of the immigrants were of kindred North-European stock and embraced the Protestant faith. After the departure of most of the English in the 1670s, few were left in Surinam and in the 18th century, few felt the urge to settle there, as they had plenty of colonies of their own. This changed after the English occupation of the neighboring Zeelandian colonies of Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo (which together were to form the colony of British Guiana) and the overtaking of Surinam in 1799. As a result of this, many of the planters who settled in the western part of Surinam were of English and Scottish extraction. Nickerie and Coronie soon displayed a distinct British imprint. The influence was discernable in architecture, language and lifestyle.
Subjects of other related nations usually melted into the dominant culture without leaving many traces. There is no German influence comparable with that of the English, although Germans were of vital importance for the development of the colony. Marten Teenstra even maintained that they were greatly favored over other nationalities, especially on the plantations. Many soldiers were of German stock as well. Rudolf van Lier concluded that in some circles there existed a certain measure of animosity towards the Germans, who were often portrayed as the cruelest of slave masters, but this certainly did not hamper their prosperity. The position of Scandinavians was comparable.
Together, these nationalities, which formed the bulk of Surinam whites, were a more or less homogenous body, which shared the same basic ideas about slavery. The remaining groups of foreigners departed somewhat from this pattern. The Huguenots shared the same faith, but as a minority despised in their homeland they had burned their ships behind them. The Labadists and Hernhutters were protestant too, but their philosophy differed profoundly from the other Protestants. They had all been persecuted in one way or the other and in Surinam, they found a heaven of religious tolerance (or rather indifference) quite unusual for this time and place.
Since the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685, the Huguenots did not feel safe in the French territories anymore, on the mainland nor abroad. Many of them escaped to the Northern Netherlands. Governor Van Aerssen had friendly relations with many prominent Huguenot families in France (his mother and wife descended from them) and he offered these persecuted Protestants safety in Surinam. The first group accompanied him to the colony in 1683, while in 1686 a large contingent departed from Amsterdam on a vessel called Prophet Samuel. Among them were rich men desiring to set up plantations and trained craftsmen. Other Huguenots emigrated from the French Antilles. At the end of the 17th century, there were about 20 French plantation owners. Van Lier believed that the Huguenots (along with the Jews) were the most important white group in Surinam at the end of the 17th century. According to Van der Linde, their language, traditions and fashions even became dominant during the 18th century. Many of their descendants rose to influential positions in the government (they supplied six governors -De Cheusses (2x), Coutier, Crommelin, Nepveu and Texier- as well as a commander -De Raineval) and in the courts (in 1735, for example, the Court of Civil Justice counted three 'French' members -Dupeyroux, De Lisle and Juran- and the Court of Criminal Justice one -Labadie). The Huguenots had their own church in Paramaribo and their ministers were treated on a par with the Dutch Reformed clergy. In 1783, the two churches were amalgamated.
The Labadists, for the most part also of French extraction, were a smaller and more tragic sect. It had been started by Jean de Labadie and after his death it was continued by Pierre Yvon. Three unmarried sisters of Governor Van Aerssen (Anna, Maria and Lucia) belonged to this sect, which settled on the Thetinga State in Wiewerd (Province of Friesland). Some scouts went to Surinam with Van Aerssen in 1683, but they came back with disappointing tidings. Nevertheless, Yvon sent a group to Surinam a year later. Van Aerssen advised them to buy an estate near Paramaribo and offered them the use of the newly imported slaves until these were sold, but they wanted to stay clear of the ‘wicked people’ and selected a spot near the isolated Marshall’s creek, where they established a plantation called La Providence.
Since they did not know the first thing about agriculture, nor about the management of slaves, their eventual failure was predictable. It seems that they treated their slaves with uncommon gentleness at first, but they soon became convinced that that “one cannot rule this beastly kind of people other than by beastly leashes”. In their solitary state, they were a prime target for Indian attacks, their crops failed and many members suffered from swamp fever. Understandably, serious discord soon arose. A second group, dispatched by Yvon to bring tools and provisions, was overtaken by pirates and completely robbed out. In 1719, the plantation was sold. By then, most of the survivors had already left the colony for greener pastures. In the eyes of the other inhabitants, they were nothing but “suspicious tramps” anyway.
The reputation of another group whose behavior was determined by faith, the Moravian Brothers (Hernhutters), was just as negative. In Surinam, this congregation was called the Evangelische Broedergemeente (EBG). In 1734, their leader Spangenberg started negotiations with the Society about moving to the colony. The directors regarded the proposal favorably, but did not want to permit their settlement without consultation with the Dutch Reformed Council in Surinam and the Classis in Amsterdam. These organizations were not overly enthusiastic about their coming, but did not oppose it in earnest either. Therefore, in 1735, the first missionaries arrived to reconnoiter the territory. They were especially desirous to explore the possibilities for the propagation of their faith. They found the white inhabitants of the colony not particularly susceptible to their ideas, but few real barriers were put in their way. The main difficulty was the reluctance of the Brothers to accept the obligation to bear arms and to swear an oath of loyalty to the government.
The inhabitants of Surinam did welcome the services the Brothers offered (shoemaking, baking, tailoring and other crafts), but the Dutch Reformed Council objected to their religious services in Paramaribo, because they drew such a large crowd. Consequently, the Brothers bought a deserted plantation near Paramaribo, from where they conducted their missionary work. This started to bear fruit from 1754 on, after several able organizers had arrived. As long as they limited their activities to spreading the gospel among the Indians and Bush Negroes, the whites did not care, but they were barred from the plantations until far into the 19th century. At the end of the 18th century, Brother C. Kersten and some colleagues started a trading company called Kersten & Co., which unto this day is one of the most successful indigenous companies of Surinam.
The abovementioned groups, plus the Lutherans (who got their own church in 1742) were opposed mainly by the Dutch Reformed clergy, but the rejection of Roman Catholics was more widespread. The Zeelandian conquerors were ardent Calvinists, so when Surinam was turned over to the WIC, they insisted on a provision in the Charter barring practicing Catholics from official positions and forbidding their religious services. They were also stripped of the privileges that had already been granted to them. The tolerant Governor Van Aerssen let in three Franciscan priests and one lay preacher in 1683 and Zeeland furiously demanded their expulsion. They all died within a few years, so in 1686, Van Aerssen ordered their corpses dug up and their bones sent to Zeeland, accompanied by a sarcastic note. This ended the Catholic mission in Surinam for almost a century, though an increasing number of Catholics (mostly from the Southern Netherlands and Germany) entered the colony -and public service as well. Only in 1785, a priest was finally permitted to conduct services openly and the building of a Catholic school was even partly financed by donations from members of other churches. In 1803, Catholics were granted the same rights as those adhering to other faiths. The remarkable thing is that most of the Catholics deemed so alien by Dutch Protestants had a very similar background, but the traditional suspicion of ‘Papists’ was strong enough to overcome the otherwise prevalent religious indifference for a long time.
The Jewish Nation.
The Jews were considered even more alien. Not only was their religion distrusted and despised, their cultural background differed fundamentally from that of the rest of the white inhabitants. In fact, their ‘otherness’ prevented integration. Partly out of choice, partly because they were isolated by the Christian whites, the Jews remained an entirely separate group, and became a nation within a nation.
We have already seen that the first Jews arrived with the Willoughby-expedition and were of English extraction. Many were lured away after 1670. A second group rifted to Surinam in 1664 after a long history of migration. Their forbearers had settled in Brazil after having been expulsed from Spain and Portugal by the Inquisition. Many of them were Marranos, Jews converted to Christianity whose sincerity of faith was no longer believed in. They welcomed the Dutch conquerors of Pernambuco, who offered them real religious freedom. When Count Johan Maurits of Nassau-Siegen was forced to leave the colony in 1644, a large group of Jews accompanied him and decided to settle in Amsterdam, which already had a flourishing Jewish community. Many of them did not feel at home there and wanted to put their agricultural expertise to good use. In 1659, David Cohen Nassy received a patent of the WIC, permitting him to establish a ‘patronship’ in Cayenne (which had been conquered by the Dutch two years earlier). The next year, a group of 152 Jews from Livorno joined the party. When the French took over again in 1664, the Jewish settlers moved to Surinam, where they were cordially received by the English authorities. The government granted them the same rights as the English nationals enjoyed and even some special privileges, such as freedom from public duties (except military service), a separate Council for Small Affairs and their own jurators. They were eligible for all official positions.
When the Zeelanders conquered Surinam, they promised to respect these privileges. The Jews would be treated “as if they were born Dutchmen”. They received 10 acres of land near Thorarica, where they built a small synagogue in 1672 -the first one in the Western Hemisphere. In 1682, the government donated a tract of land to Samuel Cohen Nassy (about whom Governor Van Aerssen wrote: “[I] declare to have found no abler, more sensible and more reasonable man in the colony, Jewishness apart”). He ceded it to the Jewish community and in 1691 added 25 acres of his own. The terrain was expanded again by a grant of 100 acres from Governor Van Scharphuys and became known as the Joden Savanne (Jew Savanna). This way, residential segregation was attained: most Jews of Iberian extraction (the so-called Sephardic Jews) lived on the Joden Savanne, while the Christians preferred residence in Paramaribo. During the first half of the 18th century, the most prosperous epoch for the Jewish Nation, 50 to 60 families, with 4 to 5 slaves each, lived on the Joden Savanne. Those not engaged in plantation agriculture gained their livelihood as craftsmen.
At the end of the 17th century, the first East-European (Ashkenazi) Jews entered the colony. Around 1690, they made up about one third of the Jewish population. They settled in Paramaribo and never became involved in cultivation. Contrary to the Iberian Jews, they were mostly of lower class origin and worked as artisans or petty traders. They did not intermarry with their Sephardic cousins, although they shared a synagogue at first. After much discord, the two congregations separated in 1734. The Eastern Jews did not profit from the privileges awarded to their Iberian counterparts.
The Sephardic Jews were governed by a council, the Mahamed, consisting of four regents (parnassijns). They had their own juridical code, the Ascamoth, and according to David Cohen Nassy “all that did not collide with the laws of the land, nor was explicitly excluded in the privileges, was handled by the regents, without appeal”. The Jews had no official rabbi, so marriage ceremonies were conducted by them as well. Wills were drawn up by the Jewish jurators. In 1704, the States-General resolved that all marriages had to be concluded in accord with the regulations made by the States of Holland and West Friesland in 1580. This was a nuisance for the Jews, because these regulations forbade marriage to certain relatives (for example first cousins), who were perfectly acceptable as partners under Jewish law. In case such a marriage was planned, the Jews had to apply for permission from the Raad-Fiscaal, who would usually grant it –after payment of a hefty fee. Raad-Fiscaal Karseboom, however, decided that they had to obtain permission from the States-General, which entailed heavy costs.
For the most part, the Jews located their plantations on the sandy soils of the Upper Suriname district. A few could be be found along the Para River. It was hard for them to get land in the more fertile regions (Commewijne and Cottica), although a few persistent candidates succeeded. The high grounds were quickly exhausted, since they were never fertilized. Consequently, Governor Coutier (1718-1721) could report as early as 1720 that: “The Jewish nation in general, in this land, impoverishes and deteriorates considerably, being among them a very limited number who still own some good and debtless plantations, and the others [are] only underlings, who as a result of their impotence are in no state to buy any slaves, on the conditions under which these are sold these days, but who are by the most prosperous among them barely kept afloat”. Several decades later, Governor Mauricius remarked that the Christians in Upper Suriname did better than the Jews, because they could revert to the only kind of animal husbandry that could add to their profit (the breeding of pigs), while the Jews could not.
In the opinion of Governor Crommelin, they found an easy solution for their problems by switching from sugar production to timber “as the Jews usually do to get cash in hand and to leave their correspondents in the dump”. Governor Nepveu did not consider the erosion of their lands the main problem. Even in the lower and more fertile parts of the colony, the Jews did not do well, “on the contrary they have been set back by their Profusion of Feasts there too, which moreover spoil the slaves”. He may have had a point, for Samuel Cohen Nassy had already tried to limit the number of festive days in the 1680’s -without success. The Jewish apologist David Cohen Nassy considered these factors of minor importance. He pointed out that Jews were often too attached to the Joden Savanne to be willing to leave, even if they had the chance to better their lot. Furthermore, it was very difficult for Jewish owners to hold on to their debt-ridden plantations: they could not get credit as easily as their Christian colleagues could and when their estates were taken over by creditors, they often did not receive more than a quarter or a third of the money they owed. In addition, they were less likely to be allowed to stay on as directors.
As the fortunes of the Jews dwindled, so did the population of the Joden Savanne. Around 1790, there were only 22 families left, who could barely make ends meet by trading with the soldiers along the Cordon Pad. Nassy complained bitterly about the fact that in the 1780’s the Jews were even barred from the modest public offices they had been allowed to occupy before (surveyor, sworn clerk) and were replaced by coloreds. In 1832, a large fire, probably kindled intentionally, destroyed the dismal remains of the village. The famous synagogue was last used in 1885 and thereafter allowed to fall into ruin.
Although Nassy blamed the Christians for most of the additions to the colored class, there were coloreds with Jewish fathers as well, of course. Overall, the Jews had closer relations with their accidental progeny than the other whites. In the 18th century, they would often raise them in their own faith and they sponsored an organization of Jewish coloreds financially. Moreover, if any colored plantation overseers were found in this period, they were usually employed on the plantations of Jewish owners. The Jews were also more likely to free their colored children. The fact that these often lived close by stimulated generosity. Christian fathers frequently moved on and did not have to witness the sufferings of their slave children. During the 19th century, the relations between Jews and coloreds seem to have lost much of their former warmth, perhaps as a result of the competition mentioned by Nassy. The habit of raising children in the Jewish faith was abandoned: the Jews came to prefer that they adopted the Moravian or Dutch Reformed religion.
Despite the religious indifference of most Surinam inhabitants, the Jews were always the victims of some form of discrimination, official or otherwise. Governor Van Aerssen was an ardent Calvinist and forbade them to work on Sundays. In addition, he refused to acknowledge wedding ceremonies conducted according to the Jewish rites. He was overruled on these points by the Society in 1685. A decade later, however, his successor Van Scharphuys reinstated the prohibition to work on Sundays and denied the elders of the Jewish Nation the right to the title of regent. Again, the Governor was upbraided by the directors of the Society. In 1718, the Jews were forbidden by law to open their shops on Sundays, a habit that signified, according to the Court of Police, “disdain for our religion and vilification of our placards”. They were also barred from operating vettewarier (grocer) shops. So impoverished Jews tried to survive by buying merchandise at auctions and selling it on the streets, but the number of itinerant traders was too large and they suffered stiff competition from the slaves sent out by wealthy women. There were plans to establish a separate Jewish quarter in Paramaribo, but nothing came of it. In 1767, however, a law was passed denying the slaves of Jews the right to stay overnight in Paramaribo, “with the pretext that they have their Savanna where they ought to make their home”, Nassy noted. Again, the directors of the Society intervened. After the economic crisis of 1773, a law was promulgated which refused poor Jews admittance to the colony.
Although the Jews were eligible for public office, they were rarely chosen and only for the less important functions. Many Christians kept vigil that their privileges would not put them on an equal footing with the North-Europeans. In 1736, the members of the Court of Police requested that the Jews would be excluded from possible nomination forever. In 1753, some inhabitants even wanted them barred from the secretariat.
The Jews honored their debt to the Society. Governor Nepveu pointed out that that they “bred bad feelings” by their habit of always siding with the Governor in disputes between the government and the colonists. Governor Mauricius, who profited from their loyalty in his battle with the Cabale, reported: “That the Jewish Deputies, or so-called Regents, come the evening before [the election of new members of the Court of Police] to pay compliment to the Governor in order to ask him, whom the Governor recommends, is a habit, as old as the Colony”. Therefore the regents of the Jewish Nation were extremely shocked when the Jewish burgercapitein Isaac Carilho supported the Cabale: “They opine, that Carilho being a Jew, ought not to have interfered in deals against the Lord Governor, as representing the Sovereign, of whom the Jewish Nation in this land has received her Privileges, under the explicit condition of being his loyal Vassals”.
By the end of the 18th century, the houses of Jews were no longer frequented by Christians and the use of derogatory epitaphs (like smous) increased. Nassy believed that it was their economic decline that fueled the resentment against the Jews. Van Lier, on the contrary, saw political strife as the main cause. Not only the whites felt freer to express their animosity towards Jews, Wolbers claimed that “even the slaves treat them, after the example of the Christian masters with disdain”.
During the 19th century, when the Jews featured heavily among the few native whites remaining in the colony, they started to climb the ladder of bureaucratic success largely unopposed. Many ended up in high positions and they dominated (along with the coloreds) the colonial administration -except for the top jobs, which were reserved for continental Dutchmen.
With their money and knowledge, the Jews made a vital contribution to the economical development of the colony and a clear (and more lasting) imprint on the evolution of Creole culture.
The ways of the masters.
The whites of Surinam have often been portrayed in extremely unfavorable terms, not only by foreign observers, but also by Dutch writers and their own compatriots. It cannot be denied that the license whites enjoyed in this unruly frontier society often brought out the worst in them. Governor Van Aerssen, for example, bitterly complained about the sort of planters he encountered on his arrival: “[I] have already found pretty much Confusion and bewilderment [the planters] pretending to do everything still the old way, lying, cheating, and paying no one wanting to ship off the sugar for their Own Profit, and listening to neither Commanders, Magistrates or Justices, nor asking [I] daresay, that they would acquit them most honorably of a Sentence or Execution, and they convey such an insolent, improper, Canaillous, infamous, and Seditious propositions, the planters as well as the skippers, to which I have reacted by doing right, to exercise Justice, reconcile parties Punish dissoluteness and Constrain the unwilling to payment, all these things have inspired [a] timidness and fear in them that they are not accustomed to, playing proud Companions with the Judges, the One being no better than the other, all covered and coated by the same Dust, the one who was the most dissolute, Libertine, and Haughty, was the one considered best”.
A brief overview further yields the following judgments from their contemporaries. Governor Nepveu remarked that the native whites “who from the cradle have been used to absolute mastery and being fêted, are most inclined to haughtiness and pomp”. John Gabriel Stedman’s judgment was just as harsh: “he is a miniature King, as contemptible, obstinate and despotic as anyone can be”. He considered these planters a plague for the colony: they spent money like water and “pay nobody, under pretence of bad crops, mortality amongst the slaves, & etc. but like an upstart rascal massacres the negroes by double labour, ruins and pillages the estate of all its productions, which he clandestinely sells for ready money, makes a purse, and runs away”. Adriaan Lammens described their greatest weaknesses: “greed, avarice, lust of power, lust of ostentation and pleasure, improvidence, indifference and laziness”. Marten Teenstra was hardly less deprecating: “Most of the natives, especially the white Creoles, are lazy and indolent in character; for the arts and sciences they have absolutely no inclination. To be allowed to rest with a full belly is their greatest delight.” Julien Wolbers, finally, pictured them as follows: “rough, badly educated, driven by passionate inclinations, repeatedly surrendering themselves to quarrels, games and immorality, while cruelty, conceit and stupid pride are amply found among the population, yes form their major flaws”.
Rudolf van Lier found the same unattractive traits. He also concluded that Surinam was a ‘typically male’ society. Native white males were drilled almost from birth to prove their mastery over the blacks constantly and to be able to defend themselves at all times. As early as 1677, for instance, it was ordained that every white man had to possess a good rifle “to stand up against the enemy in case of necessity”. The conviction that they had a monopoly on the use of violence was instilled diligently. Since they lived in an unmistakable minority position where mere numbers were concerned, the whites were keenly aware of their vulnerability and they displayed clear evidence of what Michael Craton has called a ‘siege mentality’. They felt inordinately threatened by any display of spirit, pride, confidence or ‘lack of respect’ by their slaves and were quick to crush it in its vestiges.
The Surinam planters have been designated as the cruelest of all Caribbean slave masters in a wide variety of sources. This judgment was largely based on the plethora of horrendous scenes featured in the work of John Gabriel Stedman, a Scottish officer serving in the army of Colonel Fourgeoud during the Boni War. He was not exactly objective, to say the least. The fact that he was in love with a mulatto girl he could neither free nor marry colored his perspective.
Many foreign observers were eager to contrast the slavery systems of their own colony favorably with those of their competitors, so they mainly mentioned the excesses. But Surinam planters undeniably treated their chattels with much severity and this was a shock to all newcomers. As Van Lier noted: “Young men of some refinement, who came from the Netherlands, had much trouble adapting to the ruling system. But the environment affected them, the career beckoned, and the personality split, which was necessary to preserve oneself in these surroundings, manifested itself in them as well.” A later chapter will be devoted to slave treatment and it suffices here to say that the Surinam slavery system can certainly be classified with the harshest systems in the West Indies, but this was less the result of the (psychological) peculiarities of the owners than of the adverse circumstances.
There was a lot of disagreement as to which groups in Surinam made the worst masters. When this subject came up, anti-Semitism reared its ugly head sometimes. Stedman concluded that Dutch nationals could not be held responsible for the dismal reputation of the Surinam planters and that “mostly other people, especially the Jews, are to be blamed for this general and infernal barbarism”. The German traveler Baron Von Stack concurred: “People reproach the Jews in this country that they punish their slaves very cruelly; also the Negroes are much afraid that for their bad behavior they will be sold to a Jew”. According to Wolbers “the antipathy of the oppressed negro against the Israelite master was always greater than against the Christian planter. Between them a mutual grudge prevailed, which continues and whose hidden origin escapes us.” Van Hoëvell found additional scapegoats: “The slaves generally regard it as one of the worst disasters, they can suffer, when they become the property of an Israelite … because they and the free coloreds are the cruelest masters”. Other writers (for example Bosch) branded the Germans as greatest fiends. Despite this blaming, the conclusion is warranted that empathy with their human property was rare among Surinam planters in general. Masters abusing and even tormenting their slaves could be found in all strata of society without a significant concentration in specific ethnic groups or nationalities, although inexperienced slave owners and directors, plus people whose fortunes were threatened often made the most uncompromising taskmasters.
One factor contributing greatly to the general insensitivity was the heavy drinking of many whites (a large number of them bordered on alcoholism), partly out of boredom, partly because it was considered manly. Beer and wine were the usual drinks at dinner. Water was scorned, not in the least because it often tasted foul. The hundreds of bottles that still can be fished from the rivers, near the former jetties of the plantations, silently bear witness to this extraordinary fondness of liquor. Often, men became totally different personalities when intoxicated. Bosch wrote of a certain director: “indeed, the change in the man, in his sober condition, was so profound, that one hardly recognized him”. Many slaves had to live under the control of incorrigible drunkards, who had been appointed as directors in spite of their condition. Not out of preference, but because they were the only ones available. Even the director of the government planation was, in the opinion of Governor Mauricius, "an incompetent drunken fellow". Countless crimes were perpetrated in an intoxicated state.
Some authors have sought the source of these unfavorable characteristics in the lowly origins of the early colonizers. Panday, for example, stated that “it goes without saying that [they] came from the lowest rung of European society”. He was not entirely wrong, of course. The criminals, orphans, soldiers and sailors that poured into the colony, willingly or not, did not originate from the upper classes. Many others, however, especially among the Jews and Huguenots, were perfectly decent and often wealthy people. Surinam was not a colony where ‘upstarts’ or ‘parvenus’ were sharply demarcated from the gentlefolk. The planters, whatever their roots, did not diverge much in behavior or lifestyle. Few fundamental adaptations were demanded of men with a modest background. On the contrary, it was the more ‘civilized’ that often became a little rougher around the edges.
Some experts, most notably Rudolf van Lier, have surmised that the circumstances in the colony created perverted personalities. He held that “the institution of slavery led to the unbridling of the passion for power and sex and thereby created a personality with psychopathic characteristics. Often unstable, irascible, touchy personalities with maniacal tendencies developed”. He believes that the slave owners acquired a sense of superiority combined with a deep fear of the ‘mass of slaves’. They unconsciously considered their fear a demeaning emotion and this made them irritable and quick to retaliate against real and imagined slights. Insecurity could even lead to sadism. The slaves, in response, developed masochistic traits. He illustrated this theory with the example set by Salomon Duplessis, the archenemy of Governor Mauricius, who after a political defeat made an interesting display of himself. According to Mauricius: “Mr. du Plessis has angered himself so much, about this reverse result of all his agitation, that he has given the Spectacle to the whole Fort [Paramaribo], staggering like the wanton sailor with a hundred horrible curses, and NB biting furiously on a bullet. Thus he has presented himself in the afternoon at an auction, and in the evening in the Inn, with a hundred silly declamations until late at night.”
This theory is not very convincing in my opinion, as has been concluded before by Harry Hoetink. Firstly, Du Plessis is not exactly representative for the bulk of Surinam whites, although Mauricius’ enemies were quite willing to let him do their dirty work. Secondly, many of these characteristics were also displayed by men who had few contacts with slaves and who consequently never got the ‘habit of command’. Thirdly, it is very risky to employ terms as ‘sadistic’ or ‘psychopathic’ in the evaluation of whole groups instead of individual persons. Few Surinam planters were sadistic in the clinical sense: they did not derive sexual satisfaction from inflicting pain. Similarly, few slaves were truly masochistic. To be sure, depraved persons can be found anywhere and Surinam society certainly put few barriers in their way.
Most of the atrocities described in such gory detail by Stedman and others were not the aberrations of sadistic louts, but either punishments of an exemplary nature, often inflicted very coolly, or the result of drunken excesses. Because of the ruling principle of ‘domestic jurisdiction’, Surinam masters were at liberty to punish their slaves for any transgression they committed. They were not at liberty to inflict serious harm, but the courts and the public were loath to meddle in other people’s private affairs. Furthermore, it was not always clear where insensitivity ended and sadism started. The majority of Surinam planters had little regard for the law and were unwilling to tolerate any interference from the authorities, especially concerning the treatment of their slaves. True sadists were a tiny minority, but they often could wallow in their perversities undisturbed for a long time before public opinion interfered.
Authors like Williams, Hoetink, Mintz, Genovese and Knight have argued persuasively that the treatment of slaves was dependent on the phase of development of the colony concerned. Slaves were exploited most cynically when a territory had just been drawn into the orbit of world capitalism and the plantation system was expanding quickly. The personal characteristics and ethnic origins of the planters made little difference in this regard.
Surinam was a place where men of modest means could strike it rich. At least, that was what the migrants that poured into the colony were led to believe. Some of them succeeded in realizing their dreams, but for many others fate had something quite different in store. It is often thought that during the 17th and 18th centuries few ambitious starters failed, although at a later date they might have been tempted to overextend their affairs. However, many of them found themselves in the same position as the widow of the former Political Councilor Adriaan Bloos, who lamented that “twenty Years we have already been here, and [we] never had anything but a hired place, since as a result of the uncommonly [heavy] rains for several years now, it being new Land everything drowns, desertion of Slaves, fire, etc. have set us back not a little and [I] am now totally desperate”.
If an ambitious planter did manage to scrape together a modest fortune, the proverbial Dutch sobriety evaporated. Many whites seem to have run into debt out of principle and eager lenders were only too willing to oblige. “Almost everything is given on credit; but if one wants to collect payment one has untold trouble. The shipmasters complain about this a lot and usually have to leave their claims to others when they leave”, the Moravian Brother Liebish noted in 1791. Of course, the (would-be) planters mostly gathered debts to buy slaves and estates and they did this on a grand scale: “everyone tries to be a planter, especially since the large credits have come so much in vogue, so a man who has won 5 or 6 thousand guilders, has his eye on buying nothing less than a plantation of 50 to 100 thousands guilders, although only one of every hundred who attempts it succeeds: this is a large defect in the colony”, Governor Nepveu observed. An enormous inflation plagued the colony during the second half of the 18th century. The prices of slaves and plantations rose far above their intrinsic value. The planters did not seem to care in the least, as Nepveu noticed: “daily the prices augment, and they run after it with an incomprehensible rashness”. Van der Voort observed that when planters managed to obtain credit facilities, they often did not attempt to improve their estates, but instead wasted the money on “beautification of houses and interiors, buying materials and alimentation too expensively and on costly slaves, many of whom do not partake in the production process”.
Thus, many formerly frugal Dutchmen became reckless consumers in Surinam. Henry Bolingbroke mused: “The Dutch planters are clear and strict accountants, very regular in all their mercantile transactions. They deserve credit for their industry and perseverance, and according to the old adage, they are slow but sure. They would be better planters than the English, were they to make an equal point of encreasing progressively their cultivation; but they cling to the maxims of their native land; they aspire only to a competency not to a fortune; and they waste labor, under an idea of having their estates look like gardens. The English makes more of his property; but the Dutchman leaves it a better inheritance.”
Many planters liked to display their real or imaginary wealth as stylishly as they could. They enjoyed the most sumptuous comforts a colonial society could supply. Apart from their spacious town residences, the plantation owners often had luxurious houses built on each of their estates, which they used a few weeks a year at most. Some traveled in gold-studded tent-boats worth more than 1500 guilders. They ordered precious furniture, books and wine from Holland, although they were hardly the types that could appreciate them, since in the judgment of Wolbers, they lacked a “delicate and noble taste”. Their clothing, simple in the old days, increased in splendor all the time. They were draped in silk and velvet, covered with gold and silver. They surrounded themselves with slaves who had little else to do than to wait on them hand and foot. Philip Fermin observed that “one sees neither man nor woman in the street without a slave, who carries a parasol over his head”. When a rich slaveholder went to church with his family, they were usually attended by half a dozen slaves, each carrying a small item.
This kind of display seems incongruent with realizing their fondest dream: to save a fortune that would enable them to return to the Low Countries and to live comfortably of the interest. Governor Mauricius was very annoyed by the animus revertendi of these whites, who had “no attachment to a land which they consider to be a land of alienation and passage”. The result was a high incidence of absenteeism, even though a large part of the returnees fell short of their goal and went home bankrupt.
The position of women in a society like Surinam was a difficult one. The circumstances were completely unsuitable for a proper family life. Single men predominated and married couples formed a sad minority, except among the Jews. Affairs with black and colored women were common, although it seems the men were less likely to continue them after marriage than colonists in Latin territories. Women could never be certain that their husbands remained faithful and not a few were consumed by jealousy. Often, they vented their frustration on their helpless slaves. Since these excesses received more attention and created more indignation among the public than the sadistic outbursts of men, some authors got the impression that women were much more inclined to this kind of violence and they painted the horrors in full color (e.g. the castigation of Suzanna Duplessis by Stedman). There is, however, no reason to believe that women made up a larger part of the slave torturers than their numbers warranted.
Stedman observed: “The extravagances, these faithless husbands indulge in with their mistresses, carry them to their grave soon, and their wives are freed thus, to give their hand to another, which happens very often”. Some women survived three or more husbands and the widowed often remarried within a couple of months. Since progeny was scarce in the colony and women inherited equally with men, these ladies often ended up as (part-)owners of a plantation and sometimes even as the sole heir to a considerable fortune. With their affluence they could gain a certain measure of influence. One of the most formidable and notorious of the Surinam matrons was Charlotte Elizabeth van Lith. She wed three governors in a row (Temming, De Cheusses and Raye) and she finished her marital career with two French ministers (Audra and Duvoisin). She became one of the fiercest opponents of Governor Mauricius, who noted sarcastically that she obviously had some trouble remembering that she no longer ruled the ruler. She was an exceptional case, however. Nassy found that most white women were “scared and confused” in the company of strangers. Pious men, on the other hand, dismissed them as empty-headed and frivolous.
Most heiresses never actively partook in the direction of their holdings (with the notable exception of Mrs. Boxel). Since even the poorest families had slaves to perform the household chores, women usually had little else to do than visit each other and gossip. Even the humblest widows seldom had to gain their own livelihood: either they had some slaves that they sent out to work, or they were supported by the government or church. They may not have been put on a pedestal like the women of the Old South, but they were spared the hard facts of life anyway.
Body and mind.
The erratic temper of the Surinam whites may have been partly caused by the climate, to which many of them did not take very well. Especially during the first years of their stay, it took a heavy toll. For example, in 1715 the Court of Police reported the following observations about their white servants to the Society: “The occasion has shown to us repeatedly, that those who are sent to us from Europe, before being familiar with the Climate, are of little or no use to the garrison, and especially not to Your Noble Lords’ Slaves who suffer from many ailments and [were] neglected by the deceased [overseers], and before this can happen they are often torn away by death, or are persons wholly surrendered to liquor.”
If they survived the first trying years, their prospects for continued health were better and some men lived to a ripe old age without ever being plagued by serious illness. Most inhabitants, however, suffered from periodic bouts of fever and other ailments. Many whites could not stand the sun and the heath and rarely went out between 10 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon. Some writers considered the climate the greatest killer, but Hostman discarded this view: he believed that the damages wrought by excessive drinking, overeating, venereal diseases and too little rest proved fatal much more often.
The lack of hygiene may have been a contributing factor: the Dutch in particular did not adapt to the climate very well when personal grooming was concerned. In the eyes of their compatriots, sanitation was adequate. Lammens, far example, wrote complacently that “one seldom sees people who do not bathe from time to time”. The Englishman Bolingbroke was not so easily impressed. In his view, the Dutch scorned cleanliness: “I scarcely ever saw a hand basin in any of their houses, even when there were white females. This is a strange inconsistency when compared to the interior of their houses, in which they are nicer than about their persons.”
Like colonists everywhere, Surinam whites had little interest in cultural pursuits. Moreover, they lacked a proper regard for laws or religion and a true sense of community. ”Exertion and serious study are an abomination for most Creoles”, Van Hoëvell judged. Most of them were members of a church in name, but hardly ever visited the services. Genuinely devout men were extremely rare and likely to become very frustrated in these circumstances.
The white inhabitants were nevertheless not quite as moronic as some biographers would like us to believe. Most authors praised their hospitality and generosity towards strangers. When touring the colony, it was a waste to bring supplies or arrange lodgings: the weary traveler was welcomed like a king at every plantation. Furthermore, it seems that in the 19th century the white Creoles were changing in their favor: Van Lennep Coster noted in 1842 that a great transformation had taken place in the course of just a few years: “In general one lived more composed, and in company paid more heed to the so-called etiquette than in earlier times. It had become fashionable, when visiting or attending social gatherings of the most prominent people, only to congregate around eight o’ clock in the evening, on which occasions more care was given to grooming, and during the intercourse very much ceremony was observed. The intercourse between the whites and the prominent people of color I found more customary, and nowadays one meets women of color in the company of European ladies, something which in earlier years rarely happened. Likewise mixed marriages were more common and they did not create as much ashtonishment as before.” It seems the rough edges had been filed off a bit, no doubt as a result of the presence of a larger percentage of fresh continentals.
The Society had decided in an early stage that at least three schoolmasters were necessary for educating the white children of Surinam. Few candidates were willing to move to the colony and those who let themselves be persuaded either died soon, or were practically illiterate themselves. So in fact, schools mostly existed in the form of private ventures. The majority of Surinam Creoles had little or no schooling and the knowledge of the privileged few was, according to Wolbers, limited to the essentials of “writing, arithmetic and the mechanical recitation of the Catechism”. The habit of sending youngsters to Europe for further education only took root in the 19th century and most of the boys profiting from this never came back. Exceptions were the colored descendants of rich whites, for whom life in Holland held little promise. Some even returned with an academic title, like attorney-at-law H.F. Focke.
Surinam standards of excellence were not very high. There was no vocational training. Boys who wanted be become craftsmen were apprenticed to a master for several years and learned the trade by practicing it. Agriculture was never taught formally. The skills of a planter had to be learned by trial and error. A few planters were interested in innovation. They experimented with new crops, introduced better varieties of cane and cotton and attempted to manure exhausted fields. They were also willing to try new machinery, but lack of funds often prevented them. Some progressive planters united in the agricultural society De Eensgezindheid, which published a book about Surinam agriculture in 1804. Such planters formed only a tiny minority.
The religious instruction of Surinam whites was hardly any better, partly because of their general indifference to religious matters, partly because of the abysmal quality of the clergymen sent to the colony. Most were unable to cope with the harsh circumstances they encountered. One such unfortunate was the reverend Wilhelmus de Bruyn, ‘Ecclefs in Pirica’, who wrote plaintively to the Society when asking for his demission: “Since it has pleased the LORD to take away by death my beloved Wife on august 30 1708, after we had been in this colony for 10 months, and 10 days, and my Sister, in august 1710 by marriage, and I cannot get a second Wife to give me the necessary help: speaking no Negro-English [I] cannot do right by my slaves, and have no faculty to make them serve me, as they cannot be governed but with severity, which is wholly against my temperament: Furthermore there is here for a minister no land at all to make it possible to saw or plant something for the kitchen, neither are there foodstuffs for sale, and I am therefore in a very lonely, embarrassed and desperate state.”
Many ministers had a doubtful moral standing themselves. The Reverend Hendricus Bolinus, for example, was fired for “evil Comportment and [an] unchristian life” in 1695. His colleague Hoevenaar, who worked in the colony in the 1740’s, was quickly insulted, threatened people with gun and sword and became totally insane in a very short period. Even the more pious ministers, who sincerely tried to fulfill their duties, became frustrated easily, as their efforts were not appreciated at all. When planters felt that a clergyman was trying to interfere in their affairs, they immediately complained to the Classis in Amsterdam. There was one consolation: the ministers were among the best-paid public servants. They pocketed a salary of 1200 guilders a year.
The cultural life in the colony was stifled by economic preoccupations. Only at the end of the 18th century, there were modest endeavors to change this. In 1795, some inhabitants established a theatre, where plays were performed by amateurs. Jews were denied entrance, so they built one themselves. Christians were permitted to attend the performances too, and the authorities were even issued free tickets, but the trustees of the other theatre were barred. These institutions did not survive long, but they were replaced modestly: by a military theatre, a second theatre housed in a building that was soon transformed into a Catholic church and a third one in a dilapidated hovel described by Teenstra as “a real sweat hole”.
The Freemasons played an important role in the cultural life of the colony. The lodge Concordia was the oldest and most influential one: many prominent inhabitants were members. The Jews had their own lodge called De Standvastigheid, which was inaugurated in 1786. The third lodge, Union, was destroyed by fire and rebuilt in 1828.
A Collegium Medicum was established in 1782 and consisted of president (a member of the Court of Police), 2 doctors, a pharmacist and a surgeon, all nominated by the Court of Police. They had to screen all persons who wanted to practice medicine in the colony. In 1785, the Jews inaugurated a literature club called Docendo Docemur, under the patronage of Governor Wichers (1784-1790). A society for the study of natural sciences was also established in this period. A couple of aspiring poets founded another club for ‘Friends of Literature’, which published several volumes of Surinam poetry. Few of these initiatives survived until the 19th century. In later times, charity came more in vogue. A Maatschappij tot Nut van het Algemeen (Society for the Common Good), established in 1794, was discontinued in 1800 and revitalized in 1816. It was supplemented by a Maatschappij van Weldadigheid (Society for Charity) founded in 1827. Few inhabitants were involved in activities of this kind and most limited their recreational pursuits to visiting taverns.
As a frontier society, Surinam permitted a greater measure of social mobility than Holland. Yet at the same time, the blurring of social distinctions was discouraged. A man might rise from plantation officer to plantation owner, but he would treat his inferiors with the same haughty disdain as born aristocrats did.
The top of the social hierarchy was formed by the highest civil servants: employees of the Society of Surinam in the 17th and 18th centuries, employees of the Dutch government in the 19th century. Many of them originated directly from the Netherlands. A rung lower on the ladder stood the planters. Until the economic crisis of 1773, they were mostly plantation owners, who were replaced in later times by powerful administrators. These men filled the Courts of Criminal and Civil Justice and the other councils. The plantation directors were several steps removed from these exalted positions, but they had the possibility to climb. This chance was much smaller for the lower class whites: plantation officers, small traders and artisans. A few of them were successful and ended as a wealthy planter, but most remained at their lowly stations all their lives. At the bottom of the ladder, the soldiers and sailors congregated -with the exception of the officers, of course.
The first administrators entered the plantation scene long before the crisis. They took over the job of supervising the directors and attending to contacts with the Netherlands from owners who were lazy, or too busy with politics, who had returned to the motherland, or who, as women, were not believed to be capable of handling their own affairs. Some plantations had several owners, in which case appointing an administrator might solve tensions. After the crisis, the administrators became a real force in the colony. Many owners departed when their debt-ridden plantations reverted to their creditors, mostly investment companies called negociaties. The new owners were very unlikely ever to visit their estates and knew nothing about plantation agriculture, so the administrators got a free hand –which they often used to their own advantage. Their duties included the purchase of supplies for the plantations (so they practically monopolized the import trade), the sale of plantation products, the financial administration and the supervision of directors and other plantation officers.
Like resident owners, they visited the plantations only once or twice a year, sometimes with a large retinue of friends. According to Teenstra, it was not unusual that “administrators came to inspect the plantations, who like grand-masters abandoned themselves to exaggerated sensuality, as a result of which partiality through injustice was born”. Also like resident owners, they entertained lavishly during their stay. They never interfered directly in the running of the estates and Bartelink maintained: “Tales of inferiors –overseers or workers- were not listened to. If they came to the city, they could present themselves, and that was it.” Administrators demanded that their superiority was acknowledged at all times. Bolingbroke was struck by the humble posture of plantation officers in the presence of their patrons. When approaching the administrator, they had to remove their hats and hold these under their arms and when they addressed him they had to reply “yes, honorable Sir” at every command. An even greater humility was expected of the slaves: “The negroes belonging to Dutch estates, copy the overseers’ humble politeness, and are considerably more respectful to whites than those belonging to English plantations.”
The income of administrators could reach impressive proportions. They pocketed 10% of the revenues of the estates in their care. Many administrators had more than one plantation to supervise. In fact, some of them, who usually combined their forces in offices, had thirty or more. In 1847, for example, there were 145 administrators who governed 285 ‘large’ (= more than 10 slaves) plantations. Of those, 17 had more than five plantations in their care, which together housed more than half of all the slaves. Because of this concentration of income, some administrators came to belong to the select group truly rich inhabitants, acquiring plantations of their own and winning positions in the councils. Therefore, it is not surprising that in 1845 all six members of the Colonial Council were administrators.
The directors were of vital importance for the Surinam plantation system. For various reasons most plantation owners preferred not to reside on their estates permanently, so they left them in the care of replacements. As early as 1709, of the 26 plantations in the Commewijne division only nine were directed by their owners. Surinam directors had a bad reputation. The American traveler Apthorpe wrote in 1790: “I consider [the slaves] as the most unfortunate of all human beings, not so much on account of any ill treatment from their masters (whose interest it is to treat them well, humanity being a word unknown in Surinam), but from the cruelty of barbarous managers, who being for the greatest part old soldiers and others of low extraction, are people, who to a great ignorance add a total carelessness with respect to the property of their employers, and as long as they can make annually their stated quantity of produce, care not by what means.”
The plantation owners were often not very pleased with the men they had to elevate to the position of director, but they had little choice. When they fired a director, they were obliged most of the time to replace him with someone just as bad. The shortage of whites was such that often none but demobilized soldiers were available. Rarely someone from the upper classes could be tempted to take the position, mostly ambitious young men who wanted to learn the tricks of the trade. Only after 1830, the directors were no longer primarily recruited from the ranks of former soldiers and sailors, but from men of good families who hoped to lay the foundation of a colonial fortune this way. First, they had to put in 3 to 4 years as a blankofficier before they could become a director themselves, usually on a small plantation. They then could work their way up to the direction of larger plantations and eventually become an administrator.
The directors had a free hand in the day-to-day running of the estates, often to the detriment of the slaves, since they were more concerned with production gains than with capital loss (in the form of dead slaves). The owners and administrators visited the plantations twice a year at most, so mismanagement could go on undetected for a considerable period. As long as the production levels were satisfactory and the signs of slave mistreatment not too obvious (especially if not more than an acceptable percentage of slaves ran away or died), they preferred to turn a blind eye.
Either directors were paid a steady salary, or they received a basic remuneration with in addition a part of the revenue of the plantation. The latter system was largely abandoned in later times, because it stimulated the merciless exploitation of the slave force. In the 18th century, salaries usually lay between 600 and 1000 guilders a year (plus food, lodgings and servants). In the 19th century, the remuneration could reach 3000 guilders a year. Knowledge of agriculture was no prerequisite for the job. It was more important that a supervisor could keep order among the slaves. Most directors dreamt of owning a plantation themselves one day, but since they tended to squander their money, very few ever attained this goal.
Directors were not allowed to marry. According to the Moravian missionary Quand, the reason for this prohibition was the fact that owners feared that their wives would be too demanding. Others believed that the unmarried state was prescribed because this way the director could keep track of the goings-on in the slave quarters through their black concubines. The plantation ordinance of 1725 forbade directors to have “carnal conversation” with Negro and Indian women, but this prohibition was, predictably, completely disregarded. A few planters threatened their directors with immediate dismissal if they meddled with the women, but most of them did not care as long as their substitutes did not stir up trouble among the slaves. Consequently, most directors had a black or colored concubine, or even several. Some were free, but most were slave women from the plantation. The former were called missi (mistress), the latter sissi (sister). Not all of them entered into the arrangement out of their own free will. Sometimes these relationships were brutally exploitative, but in many genuine affection was not entirely absent.
The blankofficieren were considerably worse off. They were paid only one third of what the directors received and their living quarters were inferior. If they were lucky, they were allowed to dine with the director, otherwise they only got simple fare. They were kept at arms-length by their superiors, who conveniently forgot their own modest origins. Their job included supervision of the slaves in the fields and the sugar-mill. So while the director rested comfortably on the porch, they were scorched by the sun, drenched by showers and tormented by mosquitoes. Their only hope was to become a director as soon as possible.
Lower class whites.
The fortunes of the artisans, shopkeepers, boatmen, etc. were in part dependent on their own diligence and abilities, but Surinam was not a colony where they could really prosper. They felt the competition of the slaves and freedmen keenly. After the crisis of 1773, their ranks were swelled with former plantation owners, who had gone bankrupt. Only those engaged in international trade and the innkeepers usually did well.
On the same level stood the lower civil servants: clerks, servants of justice and the like. These jobs were also a heaven for the dispossessed sons of planter families. Unfortunately, they required at least a minimum of schooling, which most of them lacked. Therefore, many of the men occupying these positions were recent immigrants, often from France and Germany. Later preference was given to men who had already adapted to colonial life. They seldom earned more than 200 to 400 guilders a year during the 18th century.
The soldiers were regarded as the lowest of the lower whites, not only by the other colonists, but by the slaves as well. Stedman classified them as “something like the dregs of all peoples”. This was no wonder, because the salary they received only attracted the truly desperate. In the 18th century, they were paid a meager 7.50 guilders a month. This did not put them on a par with other wage earners, but the difference was not too glaring. In the 19th century, however, their pay had only risen to 10 guilders a month, from which so many costs were deducted that, according to Kappler, practically nothing remained. In addition, the soldiers were issued rations that were hardly better than those of the slaves. In the 17th century, they received four pounds of salted meat or three pounds of bacon a week, with three pounds of biscuits or two loaves of bread, one kan (= liter) of grits, one kan of peas and some oil and vinegar. Later these rations were improved somewhat, but the irregular supply of the colony made them vulnerable. Stedman witnessed soldiers begging bananas from the slaves at certain occasions. The slaves, feeling sorry for them, even gave in to their pleas. Their dress was equally minimal. In 1691, for instance, Governor Van Scharphuys was obliged to request clothing urgently for the soldiers “who now mostly walk around naked”.
It is understandable that for this pitiful reward the soldiers were unwilling to strain themselves much. To stimulate their exertions the government decided in 1749 to award all privates who went on a jungle patrol with a handgeld (bounty) of 20 guilders. This represented three months salary, but still was a pittance compared with the bounty of the officers: a captain received 240 guilders and the other officers 80 guilders. They could make up for this by capturing a Maroon or delivering his head to the authorities, for that brought an additional reward of 100 guilders.
The soldiers were fortunate that liquor was cheap in the colony, because when they were not on patrol or standing guard they had little to do. Therefore, many soldiers felt bored and these became the most faithful visitors of the various smokkelkroegen (cheap taverns). “This is the reason that soldiers are regarded unfavorably by all inhabitants, and, notwithstanding his whiteness, is even despised by the negroes”, Van Hoëvell concluded. The soldiers also consorted with the lowliest harlots, so venereal diseases were a plague. For all these reasons, the mortality among soldiers was appalling. Of the nearly 2000 troops Colonel Fourgeoud brought to the colony, a pitiful few hundred ever saw their homeland again. Only a minority had been killed by the Maroons.
After the expiration of their contracts, most soldiers had saved no money at all and could not afford the voyage home. They had two options: they could enlist again or become a plantation servant. Many chose the latter. A few of them got lucky and eventually came to own a plantation themselves, sometimes through marriage to a wealthy widow (like the Swede Dahlberg).
The officers stood in a much better light than the gemeenen (privates). They often descended from noble families, or at least from the wealthy bourgeoisie. Consequently, they were wined and dined by affluent whites, they were received in the highest circles and they often won the hand of a plantation heiress. They were also much better rewarded than the lower ranks: in the 18th century, the Commander earned 1200 guilders a year, a captain 800, a lieutenant 400, and an ensign 315.
This seems reasonable enough, but the prices were so high in Surinam that the officers, who were expected to uphold their status, often could barely make ends meet, especially when they had a family. An ensign named Daendels complained in a letter to the Society that he had to feed his wife and five children from his rations, which were finished during the first days of the week “so that the rest of the days [I] must hear my children Cry from Hunger and Thirst with a very woeful Crying and Lamentation, without being able to give them and myself any food let alone Cover”. Governor Van de Schepper (1737-1742) feared that he would abandon his wife and children if he was not granted his demission, so he would be able to get a more rewarding job. When the lower officers managed to obtain a plantation, they usually left the service. The higher officers, the Commander in particular, generally stayed on: their position yielded them more than financial rewards alone.
Whatever their station, the whites had an easy time in Surinam compared with the colored population, although Van Hoëvell exaggerated a little when he wrote: “In earlier times especially the respect someone enjoyed largely depended on the color of the skin. If you had the fortune to be white, honor and riches could not escape you, even though otherwise the qualities of your soul were not the most excellent.” This situation was not to last, anyway. As Hoetink declared: “in Surinam, the native group of West-European descent fell as a result of economic factors back in numbers strongly since the end of the eighteenth century and [has] therefore lost more political power and social dominance than in any other Caribbean society of the same or larger size than Surinam, except Haiti”.
Life in the capital.
The lifestyle of the whites was in large part determined by the fact that the majority escaped the country as fast as they could to settle in the capital, Paramaribo. [The etymology of this name is not clear. Hartsinck believed that it derived from the Indian name Parimombo or Paramorbo (= Place of Flowers). Nassy mentioned three options: it derived (a) from Parham, (b) from little Para (= Sommelsdijck creek), or (c) from the Indian words Panari (= friends) and bo (= place). This map, of which I own a copy, shows Surinam and Paramaribo around 1750. ]
The pioneering Englishmen had established their capital in Thorarica, a place about 50 km from the coast on the Suriname River. They constructed their main defense post on the spot where formerly a French fort stood, however, and soon the more important offices were moved to this safer place. When the Zeelanders took over, they established their headquarters there and baptized the village Nieuw Middelburg (after their own capital). It was soon changed to Surinaamburg and later to Paramaribo, a name that stuck. The situation of Paramaribo was favorable: near a bend in the Suriname River, so the flowing water kept the passage deep enough for large vessels to anchor. Furthermore, the sand ridges reached up to the riverbank and provided excellent drainage.
The easy accessibility promoted economic growth. The products of the plantations were traded by way of Paramaribo, which obliged the planters to visit the town regularly. The political and social institutions were also established there, so people decided to build their houses close by. This way Paramaribo became the center of economic, political and social activity. Both whites and coloreds were attracted strongly by its lure. No secondary centers of any importance developed. Thorarica was abandoned soon and even the Joden Savanne could not compete for long.
The oldest streets of Paramaribo (Gravenstraat, Heerenstraat, Keizerstraat) follow the direction of the ridges, which in this area run from the northeast and the southwest. The old part of the town displays a checkerboard pattern with (in this stage still rather narrow) streets connecting at right angles. The streets added later follow the bend in the river and make an angle of about 35 degrees with the roads in the most ancient part. The first major expansion, in the years 1730 to 1750, was in northeastern direction (up to the Steenbakkersgracht). The parcels were much larger and the streets broader. In 1772, a further expansion took place, this time up to the Drambrandersgracht. Combé, north of Fort Zeelandia, was the first ‘suburb’. It was parceled out at the end of the 18th century, but at first was only used for making gardens. In the 19th century, the town grew further inland. Parcels for houses were given in ‘allodial ownership’, obliging the owner to build a good, sturdy house and fence and drain the lot properly within a year and six weeks.
When Governor Van Aerssen set foot in the colony, he found a mere 27 or 28 buildings in Paramaribo, mostly taverns. According to Herlein, in the beginning of the 18th century it had grown to a town of about 500 houses, but this seems overly optimistic. Probably, this number was only reached by the middle of the century. In the early 1800’s, Paramaribo counted about 1200 houses.
Excess water was drained off through five creeks and canals: the Sommelsdijck creek, the Fiotte and the Picorna canals (that joined at the Knuffelsgracht), the Steenbakkersgracht and the Drambrandersgracht. Some parts of the town were blessed with ingenious brick sewers. The streets were unpaved until far into the 19th century. They consisted of yellowish sand mixed with broken shells, which became somewhat soft during the rainy season, but not muddy. On the other hand, when the sun shone, they became intolerably hot and blinded the pedestrians. Most streets were bordered by beautiful orange, tamarind and mahogany trees, which provided shade and gave off a pleasant scent. Van Hoëvell claimed that “the [orange] trees often have a poor and withered look, because, as a result of the habit of the creoles to chew on orange sticks [to clean their teeth], they are constantly robbed of their leaves and branches”.
Paramaribo boasted two large squares, which formed the focus of communal life: the Gouvernementsplein (also called Paradeplein) and the Kerkplein (also called Oranjetuyn). The first one was located next to Fort Zeelandia. One side bordered the Suriname River (the beginning of the Waterkant, a busy boulevard along the river) and on the opposite side stood the palace of the Governor. The Oranjetuyn was the real center of the town. The Dutch Reformed church and the premises of the Court of Police and Criminal Justice were located here. Formerly, there used to be a graveyard, later only memorial headstones were left. On these headstones, slaves (sent out to earn money by trade) established a vegetable and fruit market. Another market was located on the Heiligenweg near the Waterkant and there were two smaller markets on the Jodenbreestraat and in Spanbroek. Another market was foreseen in Combé, but it was located too far from the center and attracted few customers. Economic life centered on the Waterkant and its extension, the Saramaccastraat. The large warehouses and offices were located along the Waterkant, while the Saramaccastraat was almost entirely made up of coffee shops, pubs and vettewarier shops. These shops sold “salted meat, small pieces of bacon, salted and dried fish, tobacco, pipes, knives and beads, Indian mirrors, so-called canimeisjes, paentjes [cloth]”.
The burial grounds were situated at the edges of the town and had to be moved repeatedly as the building sites expanded. The different religious groups had separate graveyards: the most prestigious ones were reserved for Dutch Reformed whites. Slaves and free Negroes had separate burial grounds. These were often named for the first person buried there, for instance: Lina’s Rust. Jews were buried on the Joden Savanne.
In the 19th century, the town was kept clean by government slaves equipped with brooms and small carts. Before that, this job was left to the stinkvogels (vultures). In some places, all efforts were in vain: the smell along the Waterkant was often unbearable as a result of the putrefaction of the dried silt and washed-up carcasses. Nevertheless, most of Paramaribo had a clean and pleasant appearance. In the eyes of Teenstra it looked like a Dutch village ”where the cows, horses, donkeys, sheep and goats graze in the squares, on the corners of the streets and in the open yards”.
This appearance was enhanced by the design of the buildings. Most of the houses were made of wood, partly out of preference, partly because of the shortage of bricks. Qualified masons were rare in the colony and moreover, it lacked the means of making mortar. There were enough (ship’s) carpenters, however, and Surinam had an ample supply of timber, if someone was willing to go out and fell it. Gradually, the colony developed its own style of architecture, although the sparse brick buildings copied Dutch traditions and these were partly incorporated into the wooden structures.
The houses were all variations on one basic design: they were rectangular, symmetrical and covered with a steep roof. The construction plan was simple because of the sturdy materials, which necessitated few carrying beams. The foundations were made of brick, reached up to 50 cm above street level and were painted red. On these rested beams of wane or another durable wood, while the floors were made of softer wood (often American pitch pine). The walls were fashioned of planks that partly covered each other. They were painted grey-white. The doors and shutters were colored a contrasting dark green. The paintwork was often rather shabby. In the early period, the roofs were covered with tas (straw) or pina leaves, but these were soon replaced by wooden shingles and later by tichels (earthenware tiles). Towards the end of the slavery era, slate tiles came in vogue. The houses had large yards, where a separate (brick) kitchen and a well were located.
The earliest houses were simple, one story constructions. At the end of the 18th century, two story houses had become the norm. The first balconies appeared around 1750, but it would take until the 19th century before they became an integral part of the architecture. Few houses had glazed windows, mostly only on the top floor. In general, the windows were covered with green gauze, blinds, or shutters. Most dwellings were rather bare: no tapestries, rugs, or wallpaper. The floors consisted of simple planks, which were frequently scrubbed with orange juice. The furnishings were more exuberant. Many wealthy owners ordered precious furniture from Holland, because the Surinam artisans were slow and expensive. They also proudly displayed books, silverware, crystal, etc. This luxury was usually limited to the ground floor; the other rooms displayed only the most basic necessities. Although many people owned proper beds, hammocks were in use everywhere and much more comfortable in the hot and humid climate.
Many of the official buildings were made of wood as well: for example, the ‘town hall’ on the Kerkplein (where the Political Court resided on the ground floor, while the Dutch Reformed church held its services on the second floor), the two Jewish synagogues, the Lodge Concordia, the theatres, etc. The Governor’s palace was at first partly constructed of wood, but replaced by a structure entirely made of brick later. The most important civil brick building was that of the Court of Civil Justice, opposite (the equally 'bricky') Fort Zeelandia on the Gouvernementsplein, which also served as a meeting place for other commissions (for example the Collegium Medicum).
This building material made Paramaribo extremely vulnerable to fire, although strangely the town escaped serious damage during the 17th and 18th centuries, when it was most inflammable. During the 19th century, the inhabitants were less lucky. In 1821, a large fire ravaged the city. According tot Teenstra, it had been caused by the baking of oil cakes. No less than 400 houses and 800 warehouses and sheds, as well as the building of the Court of Police were destroyed. The total damages amounted to 16 million guilders. Another disaster struck in 1832. This time, however, the fire had been laid on purpose by slaves who wanted to exploit the resulting confusion to steal all they could. Part of the Waterkant, plus the Heiligenweg and surrounding areas were lost.
An increasing part of the free population opted for living in the capital. The whites, in the end, almost all resided there. The slaves would have liked to stay there too, but this was opposed by their owners. Many of them were sent to the plantations in the beginning of the 19th century. Nevertheless, at all times most of the inhabitants of Paramaribo were slaves.
There was some residential segregation among the free inhabitants. The white Christians were concentrated in the most expensive part of the capital: the old center and the Waterkant. The coloreds predominated in the sector between the center and the Drambrandersgracht, although many of the less prosperous whites lived there as well. The Jews were concentrated on the relatively cheap Knuffelsgracht and around the synagogues.
The owners of the stately houses had little work to do. The plantation proprietors just relaxed while the money poured in and even the administrators only spent a few hours a day in their offices. The same was the case with the higher officials. Philip Fermin has described a typical day in the life of an upper class white: He rose about six o’clock and consumed a hearty breakfast, consisting of coffee and tea, ham, smoked or salted meat, young pigeons, butter, cheese, cassava and beer or Madeira wine. Around nine o’clock, he went to the Beurs (literally: stock exchange), the business center, which was located in a tavern. There, he chatted with his friends and drank some punch, beer, or lemonade. Sometimes he played a game of billiard or chess. About one o’clock, he returned home, enjoyed a light lunch and retired for a siesta, which lasted until four o’clock. Then he drank some tea and went for a walk, or he visited the Beurs again. The evenings were generally not spent in public places. One visited friends or attended dinner parties, which usually commenced around six o’clock and lasted until midnight. Most of the time, however, the weary gentleman went to bed before ten o’clock.
The life of modest shopkeepers, tradesmen and clerks was totally different. They started at the crack of dawn and, apart from a siesta at noon, worked until darkness fell. They congregated in the more shady pubs, where they consumed most of their pay. The pleasures of the rich were beyond their grasp.
There was no residential segregation between slaves and masters. The houses of the masters formed an almost closed front along the streets. They were only separated by corridors about a meter wide, closed by a so-called negro-gate. Passing the corridor, one arrived in the yard, where the slave cabins were located. They were crudely constructed of inferior timber and never saw paint. Cabins with more than one story were rare. These cramped quarters sheltered several families. Most of the slaves worked in the household of their owners. Wealthy families often had more than 30 house servants about the place. They could seldom be kept usefully occupied all the time. [Even if they were employed for bizarre services, such as replacing horses, sometimes, as Lammens observed: “when the streets are very wet some women avail themselves of a kind of hand cart, that they let be drawn and pushed by several slaves, which looks special in the eyes of someone not habituated to this”.]
Slave women without household jobs were forced to hawk wares on the streets: fish, shellfish, vegetables, milk, lemonade and sweets. They were called woiwoi women. They had to bring home the proceeds. If they failed to sell enough merchandise, punishment awaited them, so they were often obliged to prostitute themselves to make up the deficit. Their clients were mostly soldiers and sailors. The male partners of these women either gardened, or worked as stevedores, artisans, or day laborers. Since there were only limited opportunities for them in Paramaribo, they were often sent back to the plantations. As a result, the sex ratio was clearly in favor of the women. Slaves dominated the street life of Paramaribo: not only the ones that lived with their masters, but also the plantation slaves dispatched to the capital for recovery, the transport of goods, or trade. They liked to parade along the Waterkant dressed in their finest clothes.
All slaves loved ‘city life’ and the plantation slaves eagerly awaited a chance to taste it. They rejoiced even when the occasion itself was unpleasant. When they were dispatched to receive punishment from experts in Fort Zeelandia, for example. The sights of Paramaribo made up for the pains of the lash. Surinam Negro-English (Sranan) has retained the following proverb: “tangi fo spansi boko mi si binfoto”. Literally: thanks to the Spaanse Bok (a horrible manner of punishment) I have seen the inner fort (Paramaribo). This means something like: ‘every cloud has a silver lining’. When blacks had the choice, they preferred a miserable existence in Paramaribo to relative comfort elsewhere. Most of the freedmen that were not blessed with rich fathers to take care of them, squatted in ramshackle cabins on the edge of the town and barely survived by subsistence agriculture and odd jobs. Nevertheless, they could not be dragged away by a herd of horses.