The layout of the plantations.
Eric Wolf and Sidney Mintz have sketched the general conditions necessary for plantations to flourish:
(1) a technology adequate for the creation of a surplus, that is to say, the possibility to profit from the economies of scale;
(2) a certain measure of class stratification, to keep the underprivileged from gaining access to production factors and to help diverting the surpluses solely to members of the elite;
(3) the possibility of production for an outside market: since the plantation was specialized in the production of a single commodity, it could not depend on the internal market of the colony, but had to produce firstly for the motherland and secondly for the international market;
(4) the ability to accumulate sufficient capital for the large investments plantation agriculture usually entailed;
(5) a political-legal system that supports the operations of plantations, which had three functions (a) to permit the planters to procure the land and workers they needed; (b) to establish a political and legal setting stimulating for the growth of the plantations; (c) to provide the means for transferring the surpluses.
In Surinam, most of these preconditions were adequately met initially. Because the Dutch had been instrumental in dispersing sugar technology all over the Caribbean, the Surinam plantations certainly met the prevailing standards. Since the colony was conquered territory and opted for slavery, the class stratification was introduced automatically. Holland provided an lucrative market for the products of the plantations and was even able to absorb much more than Surinam could produce (the colony never supplied more than 1/3 of the sugar and 1/2 of the coffee needed). The Dutch merchants were willing to invest the profits of their commercial ventures in colonial enterprises and furthermore, Surinam managed to draw wealthy immigrants who could finance the establishment of plantations with their own means. As property of the Society of Surinam, the whole political-legal system of the colony was geared to plantation agriculture. However, even though the conditions were ideal from this point of view, the expansion of the plantations was handicapped by a chronic lack of workers and a limited amount of fertile grounds (which often needed extensive water works, leading to high production costs). In the late 18th and 19th centuries, moreover, the conditions deteriorated considerably. Surinam lagged behind in technological innovation; capital investments were diverted to other colonies; the Dutch government showed little interest in facilitating plantation agriculture and the scarcity of workers became even more acute. No wonder that Surinam could no longer be a serious competitor in the world market and not even in the Dutch market.
In 1651, the English pioneers started from scratch. Nevertheless, the number of plantations grew fast (to 175) during the few years their hegemony lasted. It dropped dramatically (to 107) after the Zeelanders had taken over, but during the government of Cornelis van Aerssen, the plantations recouped their former territory and until the end of the 18th century, they steadily increased in number, although a good part of the old terrains had already been abandoned. The 19th century saw a process of decline and concentration.
The English did not experiment with small-scale subsistence farms, as they had done in Barbados, but started with laying out full-size plantations at once, although the less affluent pioneers limited themselves to provision grounds and tobacco farms. The Zeelanders inherited a plantation system almost bankrupted by the departure of most of the English planters and slaves and in their desperation to fill this void, they resorted to near anarchy in the distribution of grounds for cultivation. Once the Society of Surinam had taken over the rudder, however, the laying out of the plantations happened systematically and orderly.
Contrary to the situation in other mainland colonies, the way the plantations could expand in Surinam was severely limited by the peculiarities of the landscape. The plantations were depended upon the rivers to provide water power and transportation facilities and the land had to be divided under strict control to make sure everyone would get a fair share of the land along the riverbanks. In this sense, the view of Surinam as a ‘frontier society’ is not entirely accurate. Later arrivals could not get all the land they wanted and existing plantations were unable to expand freely. Nevertheless, a situation of 'open resources' had prevailed during the crucial period of initial colonization, when the economical and social foundations of the colony had been laid.
Plantations seeking additional terrains had to expand their operations further inland and so developed a rectangular shape. Aspiring planters were allowed to stake their claim wherever they found suitable soil. When they went looking for a desirable location, they preferred to go in “the most heavy Rainy Season when one has to wade through the forest with water coming up to the Waist Yes to the Neck because only then one can See which lands Stay above water [and] which Drown”.
The English were forced to limit their plantations to the higher sandy grounds along the upper part of the Suriname and Para rivers, because they did not know how to drain the swampy lowlands. The Dutch, on the contrary, encountered a familiar landscape there, that could be conquered with the proven technique of inpoldering, a craft they had thoroughly mastered in their homeland. This way, the Lower Suriname and Lower Commewijne divisions were added to the plantation area in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. In the middle of the 18th century, the Cottica and Orelane regions were incorporated, followed in later years by the districts of Matapicca and Warappa, between the Commewijne and the coast. Some planters in the highlands shifted the focus of their operations to the lowlands, but nevertheless retained their former estates, even though they were not productive anymore. These show up on the maps as well, so the number of functioning plantations may ocassionally have been overstated in archival sources.
On the initiative of Governor Friderici (1790-1802), the first grounds along the Saramacca River were given out in the 1790’s, beginning with his own plantations La Prevoyance and Catharina Sophia. However, this part of the colony never boasted the flourishing settlements he had hoped for: barely fifty years later, most of the plantations had been deserted and the projected town of Columbia had never materialized. The first plantations in the Nickerie district were established in 1797. Coronie (then called Upper Nickerie) followed in 1808. Many Scottish and Irish planters settled there and, after the abolition of slavery in the English colonies, planters form Barbados and other islands as well, giving these districts an atmosphere totally different from that of the old plantation area. Quintus Bosz found that a large part of the concessions given out between 1799 and 1802 had already been deserted by 1809, partly because the owners could not get sufficient slaves as a result of the English occupation.
In the early period, there was no lack of fertile land, but even then some regulations were necessary to ensure a fair distribution. The Zeelandian authorities were the most generous of patrons. They gave out warrants for full ownership without any conditions or charges. The concessionaries did not even have to pay recognition dues or akkergeld.
The Society of Surinam, and more in particular Governor Van Aerssen, wanted to retain more influence over the use of the land. He added all kinds of limiting conditions to the warrants: the payment of an akkergeld of 5 cents an acre per year; an interdiction to sell the land without the permission of the Governor during a period of twelve years and a sales tax of 10% if permission was granted (lowered to 5% after the designated term); the obligation to put the land under cultivation within a year and twelve weeks with at least 10 slaves working it; and the obligation to have the land registered officially by a surveyor within three months. The planters were also required to build a good wooden or brick house at least fifty feet long and twenty feet wide with squared posts and rafters of bolletrie or other good and durable wood. In order to stop the wasting of land, it was forbidden to clear new fields before the older ones were under cultivation. When grounds were deserted by their owners (following an Indian attack for example), the planters had to declare within three months (or eighteen months when they lived abroad) whether they planned to reclaim them. If not, the land reverted to the Society. Van Aerssen reserved the right to confiscate the land if the planters abused any of these conditions. He considered the akkergeld to be a rent, not a tax. The inhabitants did not share this view and they appealed to the Society successfully: Governor Van Scharphuys was forced to return the money contributed between 1683 and 1694.
Van Scharphuys proved to be a true friend of the planters. He abolished most of the conditions inaugurated by Van Aerssen. He introduced the term allodial ownership, to denote unconditional ownership. Obviously, he did not consider the land to be a hereditary tenure for which the planters owed rent. The only condition he imposed was the duty not to harm the interests of the Indians. In the early 18th century, most of the conditions eliminated by Van Scharphuys were re-established in the warrants. The right to confiscate the land was introduced again, the planters were obliged to register their grounds and have a map drawn and if there was no legal heir, the land reverted to the Society. New conditions were added in the middle of the century. In 1747, for instance, a planter named Knöffel was forced to leave a tract of land along the river uncultivated in case the Society wanted to construct a road there. Furthermore, he had to attach at least 10 slaves permanently to the property. The latter condition was to have far-reaching consequences. In 1755, the akkergeld resurfaced for newly distributed terrains. For the rest of the slavery era, these conditions remained in the warrants. The most important addition to the new model of 1821 was the fact that expropriation of land for the common good became possible.
Some early placards forbade surveyors to measure out more than 1000 acres on one warrant. This became the acreage of the average plantation (usually in the proportion of 500 acres of cultivable land and 500 acres of ‘backlands’). Dishonest planters managed to obtain several times this amount by registering land in the name of a relative, sometimes fetched from Holland for precisely this purpose. The intermediate sections of land often turned out much smaller. Officially, the surveyors had to measure out 10 ketting (= 20 m) of inland grounds for every ketting along the riverbank. Furthermore, all plantations had to stay on one side of the river. Given the choice, planters would take up enough space along the river to accommodate several houses and sugar mills. A large number of ‘typical’ plantations in the Lower Commewijne division had a surface of about 1000 acres, with a facie (part along the river) of 30 ketting and a depth of about 330 ketting. On the Upper Suriname and Upper Commewijne, however, the facie was usually much larger: 60 to 70 ketting. The plantations could not extend too far inland, because then the drainage system would fail. This system of ditches and pumps could handle a maximum depth of 7 to 8 kilometers. Even when this maximum was not reached, the backlands often remained soggy and would be used only after all other grounds were exhausted.
Only a small part of each plantation was actually cultivated. Kappler mentioned a portion of 10% of the surface, but this was only the case on some of the largest sugar estates. Generally, about a quarter of the land of a sugar plantation was planted with cane. For the coffee plantations, which tended to be smaller since they often took up the pieces left over by the sugar estates, the part of the land cultivated more or less permanently was larger: often nearly half their surface. The remainder of a concession was stripped of wood (for the sugar mills) and held in reserve. Exhausted land was abandoned and reverted to kapoewerie (secondary forest).
During the English period, special parcels had been set aside for cattle and provisions, with a maximum size of less than 100 acres. The Dutch adopted this initiative by earmarking fields near Paramaribo for the growing of provisions. These parcels were much smaller: up to 10 acres. The Gemeene Weide (common grazing area), where the citizens could herd their cattle and horses, was also situated near the capital. When the population density grew, problems arose from the fact that these animals sometimes damaged the crops of neighboring provision grounds. In the first half of the 18th century, there were modest ‘cattle ranches’ on the savannas in the Upper Commewijne division, but they were gradually abandoned because of Maroon attacks and no substitutes were established.
Some locations were clearly more popular than others. Most planters wanted to be as close to Paramaribo as possible. Not only because the transportation of products was easier then, but also because the estates on the fringe of the plantation area were constantly subjected to enemy attacks. After the initial expansion up the Suriname and Commewijne rivers, the plantations were concentrated more and more in the coastal region during the 18th century. The popularity of this part of the colony was reflected in the profits the terrains yielded upon sale. Governor Nepveu noted that in the 1770’s, the lands along the Orelane, Matapicca, Warappa and Tapoerica creeks were most sought after, finding eager buyers at a price of 100 guilders or more an acre.
The fertility of the grounds could vary considerably, even in restricted areas. The most valuable soil was blue or grey clay covered with a generous layer of peat. Soils consisting solely of sand (the ridges) were infertile, but when they were mixed with clay and topped by peat, they were among the best. Their greatest drawback was the fact that they were quickly exhausted. Even the soggiest lands were often intersected by sand ridges, a waste as far as cultivation was concerned, but ideal for the location of plantation buildings. Unfortunately, they were not exploited to their fullest advantage.
In Surinam, the various kinds of soil were usually named after the kind of vegetation they supported. The fertile clay soils were often covered with large trees and called pina or pallisade lands. The biribiri lands along the coast were named after the reed that dominated the vegetation. They consisted of soft clay crowned by a thick layer of peat and when properly drained, they were extremely fertile. The mangroe lands, low-lying and salty clay soils covered with mangro(v)e or parwa trees, were also suitable for plantations when the excess water could be dealt with. The so-called parwa lands were not soils covered with parwa trees, but very meagre, infertile soils, useless for plantations. Best suited for agriculture were the clay soils along the coast and the riverbanks. Sandy pina lands could also be used, but they did not last as long. In the highlands, the layer of peat was thin and the soil dried out quickly.
Although they concentrated on sugar, the English pioneers did not hesitate to experiment with other products. They cultivated tobacco, indigo, cotton and provisions and they collected speckle wood (for dyes) and gums in the forest. These products could provide no real competition for sugar, so when the Dutch took over, they embraced sugar production wholeheartedly. They showed little interest in the other pursuits, however, neglecting even the growing of sufficient provisions. At the end of the 17th century, Surinam was essentially a monoculture of sugar. Some planters, either unable to invest in a sugar mill or out of curiosity, tried other crops on a small scale. In 1710, Governor De Goyer could report: “The Cultivation of Indigo, Cotton and Cocoa starts to come in Vogue with some or the other, who if they find their Profit in it, will undoubtedly be followed by many others, to which I shall encourage the Interested as much as possible”. Not only the authorities favored diversification. A number of inhabitants wanted to introduce an even greater range of crops and remarked: “The Coffee and Olive seeds brought into the colony a short wile ago, are growing well, but [we] have not had the time, to judge, what the fruit shall be. [Regarding] the Saffron, Flax and Hemp, [it] is apparent that there would be a profit, likewise with the Silk, while the Mulberry-tree will grow well here”.
These attempts at diversification were little successful at first: “with regard to the growing of the Cocoa, Vanilla, Cotton, Roucou, Indigo & the like [it] seems that not much work is made of it here, under pretext that the Planter finds better profit with the cultivation of the Sugar cane”, was the complaint in the beginning of the 18th century. This, however, turned out to be too pessimistic a view. Many Surinam planters, especially those lacking the means to invest in a water-powered sugar mill, were quite willing to try other crops if the prospects were sufficiently alluring. Cocoa, roucou (orange dye), indigo (blue dye) and spices never became more than sidelines, but cotton gained terrain during the 18th century, particularly after the coastal grounds were cleared. It became a major crop, although it could never hold a candle to the other alternative, which for a while was even a threat to the hegemony of King Sugar: coffee.
Despite this competition, sugarcane remained the principal crop, if not in acreage then surely in revenue. In many ways, sugarcane was an easy plant to cultivate. It thrived on most soils (the only kind it could definitely not stand was the salty clay of the coastal region). It grew well on both the better sandy soils and the mangroe and biribiri lands, so sugar estates could be found all over the plantation area. The greatest concentration, however, was in the Suriname, Upper Commewijne and Saramacca divisions.
A tiny sugar plantation was an impossibility. Because of the nature of the crop, the sugar estates were forced to extend over a certain minimum surface, depending on the kind of equipment used in the mill. To make the heavy investments viable, a minimum level of production was necessary, which implied that a corresponding number of slaves had to work the property. The various sugar colonies differed profoundly with regard to the average yield of sugar per acre and the number of slaves deemed necessary to work each acre, but as a rule the more sophisticated the machinery, the larger and more populous a plantation had to be. Some English observers considered the maximum size of a sugar plantation to be 600 acres in cane, which were cultivated by 600 slaves. The average yield was then about one ton of sugar per acre. The optimum size was only half of this: 300 to 350 acres, cultivated by as many slaves. So on the British islands one slave was needed for every acre under cultivation. In Surinam, Blom considered 500 acres to be the absolute minimum for a plantation in general, while a sugar plantation could hardly survive with less than 1000 acres, of which at least 200 were planted with cane.
A sugar mill in Surinam could be propelled by animals, water, or steam. The kind of machinery selected was partly determined by the amount of capital a planter could muster, partly by the location of the plantation. In the highlands, the differences between the highest and lowest tides were not large enough to permit the use of a water mill, so the planters had little choice but to retain the animal-driven mills of the pioneers. In the lowlands, these also dominated sugar production at first, but they were replaced by water mills at the earliest opportunity. Often prematurely, for Blom believed that a plantation producing less than 300 tons of sugar a year had better stick to a beestewerk. Most plantations had only one kind of mill, but some planters did not want to put all their eggs in one basket and combined the two, as can be inferred from the observations of sailor Jan Reeps during a visit to the colony at the end of the 17th century. He found such a set-up on the plantation of the late reverend Basseliers.
Both the animal-driven and the water-driven mills had certain advantages. The former was cheaper to construct and could show a profit even with a modest level of production. Moreover, it was always ready for use. Ironically, the operating expenses were often prohibitive, due to the appalling mortality among the draught animals, which were moreover hard to replace. Sometimes oxen were used, but these were slow, expensive and could not stand the climate very well. Mules were also expensive and hard to come by, but they were stronger and did not succumb as easily to harsh treatment. Horses were cheaper but weaker and they often died in such numbers that some plantations used up several teams a year. According to Governor Nepveu, it was not unusual for an estate to lose 50 to 60 horses within a year. Water mills had a larger production capacity and when they were constructed sturdily, they lasted almost indefinitely, but there were clear drawbacks as well. They necessitated a substantial investment and the planters were often tempted to build much more elaborate mills than they needed. The greatest problem was that they could only be used around spring tide and then had to mill the whole night through to make proper use of the high water level. This often had grievous consequences for the wellbeing of the slaves.
The relative technological sophistication of Surinam in the 18th century was largely the result of the employment of water mills. Most of their competitors were not able to upgrade their animal-driven equipment until the introduction of steam power. In Surinam, machinery powered by steam, especially the vacuum pan, was introduced later than elsewhere and it remained a rare phenomenon, since the necessary investments were beyond the means of most planters. The capacity of steam engines was enormous. Furthermore, they could be worked during the daytime only and still be profitable enough, which was a great improvement for the slaves. However, they needed maintenance by experts –who were not available in Surinam. Consequently, if they broke down, they usually stayed down. This was one of the reasons its costly Derosne and Cail vacuum pan nearly bankrupted the (by then) government plantation Catharina Sophia in the 19th century.
A lot of money was involved in the establishment of a sugar plantation. In 1718, Herlein estimated the costs at 23,000 guilders: 12,500 guilders for 50 slaves at 250 guilders a head, 1600 guilders for four horses and four oxen, 6000 guilders for the construction of a house, a mill and sheds and 3000 guilders for tools and boats. He calculated that a planter could recoup his investment in 18 to 20 months, which undoubtedly was overly optimistic. Half a century later, Governor Nepveu foresaw a less rosy future for aspiring planters. To start a plantation at least 80,000 to 100,000 guilders were needed. That kind of money could buy an estate with a slave force of 180 to 200 slaves and a production of 400 to 450 hogsheads of sugar a year. Even in the most favorable circumstances, it would take the planter nearly ten years to win back his investment. The projections for a highland plantation were even less promising: the first few years a planter could barely recover his expenses and only after five years he could look forward to a small profit, which was easily wiped out by an unexpected mortality among the slaves or draught animals. In the 1780’s, Blom found that for a large sugar plantation with a water mill, a surface of 1626 acres, a ‘general slave force’ of 232 slaves (including the children and elderly) and a production of 500 hogsheads of sugar a year an investment of 201,150 guilders was needed. A smaller plantation, producing 300 hogsheads of sugar a year with 140 slaves would cost 155,000 guilders. [The same kind of plantation with a beestewerk was cheaper: 117,220 guilders.] For an estate with a water-powered mill a surface of about 1000 acres was the minimum. Plantations with animal-driven mills could be smaller, but then they would provide a marginal existence at most.
Until the middle of the 18th century, most newbie planters were able to finance the establishment of a plantation from their own resources, although they did not shy away from running up debts within the colony. After 1750, they started to depend on outside loans, which greatly augmented the number of seedy adventurers in the business. In the 19th century, their inability to pay their debts would result in a serious fragmentation of ownership rights, although Surinam plantations never became genuine corporate ventures during the slave era.
Sugar estates had to balance the needs of their workers against other considerations. As Michael Craton observed: “It was regarded as socially as well as economically unwise to allow the exigencies of the five month fury of the sugar crop lead to the building up of a slave population larger than could be kept from dangerous, and unprofitable, idleness in the intercrop period”. Slaves were often dangerously overworked by their masters during the harvest season. In Surinam, this problem was aggravated by the fact that many plantations did not even have sufficient hands to perform the work in slacker times and were unable to hire additional help during the most hectic periods.
Blom claimed that one field hand could tend four acres of cane and provisions, which means that two acres were cultivated for every slave in the ‘general force’. This is almost twice as much as in Jamaica, where the rule of thumb dictated one cultivated acre for every slave. I am not sure whether this difference was due to the fact that in Jamaica most sugar mills were powered by wind or animals, while in Surinam tide-mills predominated, or that it signifies that Surinam slaves were exploited more.
The average number of slaves on sugar plantations steadily increased during the slavery period. This was partly the result of the transition from animal-driven to water-driven equipment. Also, after 1750 the ample credits permitted the planters to expand their holdings considerably. Since they were often unable to obtain additional land, they chose to cultivate the land they had more intensively. Finally, in the 19th century a process of concentration took place whereby slaves from other kinds of plantations were transferred to sugar estates. According to Van der Linde, the largest planter (Samuel Cohen Nassy) owned only 80 slaves in 1682. No less than 68 ‘planters’ had fewer than 10 slaves. Jan Reeps, who visited the colony in 1692, claimed that a ‘good’ plantation needed at least 100 slaves, but “there are some with 30 to 40 bondsmen”. During the second half of the 18th century, most sugar estates counted between 100 and 200 slaves. In the 19th century, plantations with a force of 200 to 250 slaves became the norm. About 10% of the estates had a larger number and a few even counted more than 500 slaves (e.g. the government plantation Catharina Sophia). The average ‘integrated unit’ (sugar, cattle and provisions) in Jamaica owned about 240 slaves. These were among the largest estates in the Caribbean, so the average 18th and 19th century Surinam sugar plantation can be classified as fairly large.
The amount of sugar produced per acre was largely determined by the location of the plantation and the age of the cane. However, all kinds of accidental circumstances (especially the weather) also played a part, so the harvest of a plantation could show considerable variation even without calamities, as is proved by the following production figures (derived from the production statistics in the Letters and Papers from Surinam) of La Jalousie, owned by Gerrit Pater and the largest sugar producer during this period: 1730: 435 hogsheads; 1731: 624 hogsheads; 1732: 610 hogsheads; 1733: 673 hogsheads; 1734: 403 hogsheads; 1735: 568 hogsheads; 1736: 888 hogsheads; 1738: 622 hogsheads; 1739: 570 hogsheads; 1740: 780 hogsheads; 1741: 1013 hogsheads. [A Surinam hogshead equalled 800 pounds.]
Overall, plantations in the highlands produced considerably less sugar than their counterparts in the lowlands. According to Governor Nepveu, one could expect only two good harvests from the former. The first crop would net between 5 and 8 hogsheads per acre, the second crop barely 2 and after that, the results deteriorated quickly. For that reason, a prudent planter cleared new grounds every year and abandoned old cane fields after four crops at most. This ensured a more regular supply, but was feasible for large plantations only. The smaller estates were forced to use the same piece of land for a much longer period and when it was finally left, it was often totally exhausted and could not be cultivated again for at least 30 years. Lowland soils could produce sugar satisfactorily for a period varying from 8 to 15 years, the most fertile even longer. The first crop would yield 2 to 3 hogsheads of sugar, the second the same or more. The revenue would drop only gradually. Blom advised to turn over the soil and to replant when the land started to yield less than 1,5 hogsheads of sugar an acre. When the soil had been allowed to recuperate as kapoewerie for about 15 years, it could be used again for a period of 6 to 8 years. Most planters, however, continued to cultivate the same fields for a much longer term, until steeply diminishing returns forced them to leave these grounds at last.
The yearly sugar production of Surinam grew steadily, until in 1830 its zenith was reached. The gains in the 17th and 18th centuries were mostly the result of, or at least in tune with, the growing number of sugar estates and the increasing number of slaves per unit. The developments in the 19th century were primarily the result of concentration on sugar production, the introduction of new varieties of cane and technological innovation. After 1830, the average size of sugar estates continued to increase, but the number of plantations diminished so much that overall production fell.
Whether or not Surinam sugar plantations were a worthwhile venture in a business sense, is a question not easily answered. During the 18th century, many of them eluded an aura of prosperity and some of them indeed represented considerable wealth. Meerzorg, the largest plantation at that moment (owned by Political Councillor Paul Amsincq), was appraised at 79,800 guilders in 1715. In a period when the assessment of a plantation still reflected its true value, this was indeed an impressive fortune. Later in the 18th century, the valuations became more and more divorced from reality. They were inflated until they no longer had any relation to production capacity and merely mirrored the tragic consequences of rampant speculation in land and galloping slave prices.
Production costs in Surinam were always relatively high, compared to most of the islands. The soils were exhausted more quickly, substantial investments were necessary for the drainage system, the mortality among slaves and draught animals was much higher (not in the least due to the unfavorable climate), etc. These were of course debilitating handicaps when competing in an open market.
For their income, Surinam planters were wholly dependent on the prices their products fetched in the world market, for their sugar enjoyed no special protection in the Dutch market. Scarcity kept prices reasonably high until the middle of the 18th century, but from then on there was a steady downward trend because of increasing competition. During the Napoleonic Wars, production halted, but this did not drive up the prices, so Surinam was not able to profit from the hostilities (as it had done during the War of the Austrian Succession in the 1740’s). From 1818 to 1833, sugar production plummeted all over the Caribbean (except in Surinam), but the price level did not recover.
In the beginning of the 18th century, Surinam was one of the main sugar producers, but it could reach this exalted position only because it was one of the first sugar colonies coming into full production in a time when sugar was still a scarce commodity. However, Surinam was never the leading producer in the West Indies, as some observers maintained. Barbados held that position around 1680, Jamaica took over around 1750 and passed the torch to Saint-Domingue around 1780. After 1830, Cuba became the main supplier. Surinam soon lost its initial prominence: by the middle of the 18th century, it was merely number four on the list of sugar producers, lagging behind the English and French islands and Brazil, while the Spanish territories were closing the gap fast.
In the 19th century, Surinam could no longer compete. The colony had been too slow in adopting technological innovations (some of which, like the steam engine and the railroad system, revolutionized sugar production) and the costs had risen to fatal heights. The colony fought a losing battle against upstarts like Cuba. Surinam plantations even failed to adopt more easily applicable innovations that could have increased their production substantially. As Craton observed, in Jamaica the production of rum “turned marginal operations into profitmakers and prosperous plantations into gold mines”. The only liquor Surinam plantations managed to deliver was a crude (but potent) rum called dram, barely fit for human consumption.
On the Dutch market, Surinam sugar could not hold its own either. It suffered fierce competition from the sugar produced on the French islands, where the production costs were significantly lower. After the Napoleonic Wars, the Dutch government had clearly written off Surinam as an agricultural supplier. The Society of Surinam had always been reticent about imposing high taxes on the export of plantation products (to its own detriment), but the Dutch government, guided by other mercantile and industrial interests, had no such scruples. The traditional export tax of 2,5% was augmented to 3% in 1822, another 2% was added in 1826 and finally, in 1846, the rate was increased to 7,5% for sugar sold abroad and even to 10% when it was transported in a foreign ship.
In the 19th century, the Dutch were clearly looking elsewhere for their sugar supply. In the East Indies, the cultuurstelsel was inaugurated, obliging natives to plant certain cash crops. Sugar was among them and soon East-Indian sugar took over a steadily increasing part of the Dutch market. Beet sugar, introduced during the French occupation, made inroads as well, although it only became a serious rival after emancipation.
The consequences of this combination of negative developments were tragic for the plantation owners, but fortunate for the slaves. Emancipation turned out to be the deathblow for most of the sugar estates left. In the beginning of the 20th century, only five had survived (Rust en Werk, Marienburg, Alliance, Waterloo and Hazard).
Coffee was the second important crop of Surinam plantations. At the end of the 17th century, it had been brought to Java from the Arabian town Mocha. From there, it had been introduced in Surinam, probably by way of the botanical garden of Amsterdam. In the 1720’s, it spread further to Martinique, Guadeloupe and Jamaica.
According to most sources, coffee made its entry in Surinam when the German silversmith Hansbach found some still vital beans in a batch of coffee in 1714. He let them sprout in baskets. He profited little from these efforts himself, but others did. In 1717, Governor Mahony could report that the coffee trees started to grow well. The tax collector Van Sandik had two trees, which by then were nearly four years old and bore their first fruits. Mahony asked the directors for an “ample memorandum” on the cultivation of coffee. In reply, they sent him the journal of a trip to Mocha and some directives for the establishment of coffee plantations. A year later, Van Sandik sent the first batch of coffee beans to Amsterdam and the taste of the coffee brewed from them was considered very pleasant. The first genuine coffee planter was Van Sandik’s brother-in-law Stephanus Laurentius Neale, who constructed the plantation Nieuw Levant in Cottica. In 1723, eight planters (including Commander De Raineval) were shipping coffee to the motherland and a year later that number was doubled. The first waaggeld was also paid then, indicating that coffee had become an established crop.
In the early period, coffee was only planted in the vicinity of Paramaribo and experiments were conducted with all kinds of soils. Governor Temmink concluded that almost all soils were suitable for the planting of coffee, as long as they were not too low or too wet, because then the water could not be properly drained off. Fields where cane would no longer grow and even sandy soils could be used, if they were fertilized with cane straw. However, it soon became apparent that in meagre soil the trees bore fruit earlier, but less abundant and that they had to be fertilized each year. The plantation of the Society struggled for a while to get coffee production going, but the soil was not suitable for it and in 1736, Governor Raye was permitted to switch to cocoa. Coffee obviously thrived best on fat soils and these were not found in the environment of Paramaribo.
The best lands for coffee were the blue clay soils (mangroe or pina land) and biribiri land. These were mainly available in the lowlands, especially the coastal strip. The first expansion of coffee plantations took place in the Lower Commewijne division, where they soon surpassed the sugar estates in number. Initially, coffee was mainly grown as a secondary crop on sugar estates. The plantations specializing in coffee took up the land the former had left over, so they were rather small. But it did not take long for the average ‘coffee ground’ to rival the average sugar estate in the number of acres under cultivation and especially in the number of slaves employed. The planters did not hesitate to resort to dirty tricks in order to get this far. Along the Orelane (Hoer Helena) Creek, for example, the land originally was reserved for provision grounds for the slaves and officially the planters could only get 100 acres there, but they let their relatives and clients apply for land as well. Consequently, this became a region with large coffee plantations. After 1750, the land along the Matapicca, Warappa and Tapoerica creeks was cleared for coffee plantations, financed by credit from Holland. In the beginning of the 19th century, a few new coffee grounds were established along the Saramacca and Nickerie rivers, but by then most of the older ones were already in decline. The coffee plantations in the Matapicca region mostly switched to cotton after 1820, while many of those in Lower Suriname, Commewijne and Cottica either adopted sugar, or were abandoned.
From the beginning, the hopes for the new crop was high and therefore it was protected fiercely. A placard issued in 1719 strictly forbade the inhabitants to take any coffee plants or untreated coffee beans outside the colony. Stealing coffee plants was severely punished: a white colonist who was caught at it could expect a fine of 300 guilders and if he was unable to pay, he would be whipped and branded; a Negro would be put to death. The planters were ordered not to permit their slaves to plant any coffee of their own, out of fear that this would encourage them to steal from the stocks of their masters.
The cultivation of coffee had several advantages over sugar. (1) It could be planted on small plots. In fact, there was hardly a minimum size for a coffee ground. (2) It did not demand heavy investments, as sugar did, so coffee production was feasible for men with only a few slaves and a tiny tract of land. (3) The growing of provisions could tide aspiring planters over during the four years the trees needed to mature. Coffee plantations, especially in the early stages, had an abundance of plantains, because these were used as shade trees for the growing coffee sprouts. (4) Because of this (and because the work was much lighter), the slaves enjoyed better health and were less tempted to run away. On the other hand, coffee was less lucrative than sugar and it took longer for the plantations to show a profit.
The average coffee plantation may have been somewhat smaller in size than the corresponding sugar estate, but usually employed nearly as many slaves. In that way, the Surinam coffee grounds differed from their Caribbean counterparts, which were almost invariably smaller than the sugar estates. On the islands, they were mostly limited to the higher grounds, while in Surinam they were concentrated in the lowlands. In the 19th century, the coffee plantations tended to diminish in size and their yield declined dramatically.
Although the coffee production reached its zenith in the 1790’s, the deterioration of the coffee grounds had set in much earlier. In fact, it had started barely 30 years after the first plantations had been established. The main reasons for this debacle were the exhaustion of the soil and the ageing of the coffee trees. Most of the coffee grounds were set up between 1740 and 1760 and by 1790, the bulk of the trees were more than thirty years old. A coffee tree in its prime can produce about one pound of clean coffee a year, while ageing trees do not even yield half this amount. The owners neglected to replace the old and even the dead trees with new ones. Moreover, they used the same tracts of land for such a long time that not even an extended resting period could restore them. When they were finally forced off their original fields, they were obliged to use the soggy backlands, where the coffee trees pined, instead. Another mistake was the fact that shade trees (coffie mama’s) were only used during the first four to five years. When the young coffee trees started to bloom, the plantains were removed. The lack of shade was very harmful for the soil. Real shade trees came in vogue only by the middle of the 19th century.
Consequently, practical all coffee plantations started to dwindle into oblivion after only a few decades. Production sunk and profits melted away. For that reason, the planters were no longer able to keep up the strength of their slave force and the trees were not cared for properly, resulting in an ever-punier harvest. From the end of the 18th century on, the number of coffee plantations decreased steadily. They were either deserted, or switched to another crop. The few that survived could barely afford the most necessary expenses.
A development that certainly did not help was the downward trend in the coffee prices. In the 1720’s, coffee sometimes brought in 5 to 6 guilders a pound, because it was such a scarce commodity. From the 1730’s on, production levels rose steeply and the prices inevitably dropped. The incomes of the planters followed suit. In the early period, some managed to make a fortune: Stephanus Laurentius Neale (later Count Neale) enjoyed an income of 40,000 guilders a year from his plantations in the 1740’s. None of the planters entering the business later could ever match this. Blom calculated that even large plantations, producing about 200,000 pounds of coffee a year, started to loose money when the price on the Amsterdam market fell below 4 5/16 stuivers a pound. Smaller plantations did not survive at this price level. Since even this minimum was not reached during the largest part of the 19th century, Surinam coffee plantations were doomed.
Cotton was introduced by the English and some Dutch planters experimented with it on a modest scale during the early years, but production did not become important until the grounds along the Matapicca, Warappa and Tapoerica were cleared in the middle of the 18th century. These were ideal for cotton, because this plant prefers fat blue clay with a thick layer of peat (biribiri lands) and thrives in a salty soil and atmosphere. Too much shadow is fatal and the wind must be able to blow freely.
Two kinds of cotton were grown: the ordinary (black seed) cotton and the Sea Island (green seed) variety. The latter yielded more and had a longer and finer fibre, but was more difficult to gin and only cultivated on some plantations along the Warappa Creek. In the 18th century, cotton was often grown as a secondary crop on coffee plantations, but during the 19th century, the number of plantations with a monoculture of cotton multiplied. They were often former coffee grounds.
Surinam cotton plantations were very large compared with those prevalent in the United States. Since the economies of scale make little difference when growing cotton (except where supervision is concerned), the planters of the Old South tended to split up their holdings into several independent units when their slave force threatened to become too large for comfort. In Surinam, exactly the opposite happened: a process of concentration of slaves on fewer units (partly because of the scarcity of blankofficieren) resulted in some exceptionally large cotton plantations. Zeezicht, for example, counted more than 400 hands. The greatest number of cotton plantations (90) existed around 1820. In 1850, there were only 31 left and in 1862 no more than 15.
Cotton profits peaked around 1800. In later years, the competition of American cotton became oppressive. Since prices showed a downward tendency, the slaves could be put to work on sugar plantations to much more advantage. For the slaves this was an unfortunate development, because the cotton grounds were the healthiest plantations in the colony and they very much preferred to work there.
During slavery, cocoa was mostly grown as an auxiliary crop on coffee grounds. Only after emancipation, when it was adopted by black smallholders, it became more than a marginal product. According to popular lore, cocoa was introduced by François de Chatillon, who brought it along from an expedition to the Orinoco in 1686. It is, however, much more likely that some trees were smuggled out of Trinidad, where by this time cocoa production was already flourishing. A few beans were planted in the garden of Governor Van Scharphuys and they quickly multiplied. He distributed the offshoots among interested inhabitants. Two types of cocoa were cultivated in the colony: the yellow Criollo and the red Caracas, the latter since the middle of the 18th century.
The cocoa tree needs fertile, fat soil (for example pina land), while mangroe and biribiri lands were not suitable. The fields have to be well drained. The trees have to be protected more from the wind than from the sun. According to Teenstra, old, deserted coffee grounds, which had been left to regenerate for at least 12 to 15 years, were the best, but Blom preferred virgin soil. Cocoa initially grew well on the meagre, sandy soils of Upper Suriname, but these were soon exhausted. In the beginning of the 18th century, the first plantations growing cocoa were situated there. Later, they spread to Lower Commewijne and Cottica. One of the largest plantations with cocoa was Alkmaar, producing 80,000 pounds of beans a year around 1775.
In 1702, the first sacks of cocoa beans were sent to Holland and until 1745, the production increased each year. In 1734, Governor De Cheusses enthusiastically reported a substantial growth in the cultivation of cocoa, but barely 20 years later Governor (ad interim) Van der Meer (1754-1756) found that only a handful of planters still stuck with it. When the Seven Years' War (1756-1763) drove up prices in the world market, Surinam planters put their faith in cocoa again, but this was the last revival until emancipation.
The development of the price curve kept cocoa production from becoming big business during the slavery era. Most of the cocoa plantations switched to coffee during the second half of the 18th century, as a result of the adverse evolution of the prices. In 1740, one pound of coffee sold for 3 stuivers, a pound of cocoa for 10. In 1748, the price of coffee had risen to 13 stuivers a pound, while cocoa dropped to 7 stuivers. The price of cocoa rose again in the 1760’s to 10 stuivers or more per pound, but from then on it kept falling: to 5 stuivers in the 1780’s, 3,5 stuivers at the end of the century, 10 cents in 1829 and an average price of 12 cents a pound for the next 30 years. No wonder that many planters lost heart and merely held on to a few trees for their personal use. Alkmaar, for instance, first turned to a mixed crop of coffee and cocoa and then to sugar.
Even in Holland, Surinam cocoa never became very popular. The quality left much to be desired. According to Teenstra, the taste was “a little strong and bitter”, although the fat content was satisfactory. For the slaves, cocoa was an ideal crop. The young shoots required tender care, but the mature trees needed very little maintenance, so most of the exertions on a cocoa plantation were concentrated in the harvest periods (twice a year), which lasted only a couple of weeks.
Surinam inhabitants often spoke of timber ‘plantations’, but this is of course not correct: timber was not planted, merely felled, squared and sawed. These activities might have formed the foundations of a modest industrial enterprise, if the planters concerned had shown more ingenuity and had invested more money, but the ones that ended up in such backwaters were the ones most devoid of initiative.
Sugar planters always needed heaps of firewood for their mills. Consequently, they quickly depleted their original concessions and applied for more land with the sole intention of stripping it of wood. The authorities tried to remedy this misuse of fertile land by giving out warrants for the less promising parcels expressly for this purpose. These were tied to a sugar estate and did not yield high quality timber for construction or export. When, towards the middle of the 18th century, the sugar plantations of the Upper Suriname and Para divisions had completely exhausted their lands and had to turn to other sources of income, the owners discovered logging. The authorities, wanting to force them into the steady production of good, durable timber, levied a double akkergeld of four stuivers an acre, to make sure that the land was used to the best advantage of the colony. Many of these ‘timber magnates’ were Jews, whose sugar estates had been the first to go under. Timber grounds like these were only established along the Suriname and Para rivers. The fields in Upper Commewijne, where the same development could have occurred, were simply deserted because they were too far from the capital and transportation costs were prohibitive.
The products of the timber grounds included: bolletrie (Manilkara bidentata), bruinhart (Vouacapoua Americana), ceder (Cedrela odorata), groenhart (Tabebuia serratifolia), kopi (Goupia glabra), letterhout (Piratinera guianensis), locus (Hymenaea courbaril), purperhart (Peltogyne) and wane (Ocotea rubra). The valuable trees grew far and wide, so it did not take long before the concessions were depleted. Since the planters neglected to plant young trees to replace them, they had to expand their operations continuously. The concessions moved southwards up the Suriname and westwards towards the Saramacca rivers, until they nearly encroached upon the territory of the pacified Saramacca Maroons. These ‘Bush Negroes’ became their fiercest competitors. Needing money for their purchases in the capital, they got increasingly involved in logging and managed to deliver timber much more cheaply than the plantations. The latter were handicapped by the fact that they had to pay taxes and their production costs were much higher. Most timber grounds became marginal operations, which yielded barely enough to pay for the salary of the director, let alone furnish the owner with a nice profit. Since they were largely self-sufficient, however, they could stretch their existence almost indefinitely, even if this meant that the slaves went around practically naked and had to grow all of their food.
The timber grounds were about the only plantations in Surinam that did not suffer from a lack of labor. There was no harvest season, so no balancing act between the labor needs during the hectic periods and during the slack times was necessary. The owners had little hope of ever gaining a fortune with these possessions, so the workers were not exactly driven to the limit of their powers. There were no sawing mills in the colony, so all work was done by hand and little was won by large-scale ventures. On the whole, the timber grounds were characterized by a relaxed and, in the case of some directors, even decadent atmosphere.
All plantations had to set aside part of their lands to grow provisions (mainly plantains). Most of the specialized provision ‘plantations’ were located in the vicinity of Paramaribo and supplied the cityfolks with staple foods and vegetables. They could barely satisfy the needs of the capital and when the plantations, the sugar estates especially, lacked provisions for one reason or another, these grounds could offer little relief. Mostly, they employed less than 20 slaves and were managed by the owner. After the Tempati area had been abandoned in 1759 (as result of a slave revolt), Surinam no longer had a modest parallel to the Jamaican ‘cattle pens’. Only a couple of planters near Paramaribo owned a few heads of cattle, primarily for the milk. Fresh meat was rarely available and very expensive. This was remedied when the Boeroes settled near the capital in the 1840’s.
Except for the small, but indispensable provision grounds, the other plantation products were sidelines. Indigo was cultivated in modest quantities in the 17th and early 18th centuries. Processing the harvest was a very unhealthy task for the slaves and the revenues did not merit the risk, so production was discontinued soon. In the 19th century, the crop was revived through the efforts of some adventurous planters. One of them was the physician and author Hostmann, who owned a small plantation (De Twee Kinderen) near Paramaribo.
The production of tobacco met the same fate. It was introduced by the English and for a while the crop seemed to have done reasonably well. Some Dutchmen tried their hand at it in the 1670’s, but it never regained its former prominence and was driven from the market by the much better Virginia tobacco. An experiment with the cultivation of tobacco in the 1830’s failed because of excessive rain and was not repeated.
The curse of easy money.
Around the middle of the 18th century, the prospects of Surinam agriculture were definitely rosy. The number of plantations and the levels of production grew continuously, the prices of the most important products were favorable and there was every reason to believe that this would be the beginning of a golden age. During the same period, the Dutch had lost their dominance at sea and their mercantile empire crumbled. In the past, they had earned fortunes with shrewd trade and the rich merchants were looking for profitable investments. The industrial revolution was still nearly a century away in Holland, so it is not surprising that plantation agriculture caught their interest.
In 1751, the Amsterdam regent and former burgomaster Gideon Deutz decided to start a so-called negotiatiefonds in order to raise money for investment in Surinam. People could buy shares of 1000 guilders and were promised a substantial return on their money: 6% (nearly twice the usual rate of interest in the United Provinces). Many people jumped at this opportunity and Deutz was able to provide loans totaling more than a million guilders. On paper, he did not take much risk. The planters could not lend more than 5/8 of the appraised value of their holdings. That value was to be determined by way of a prisatie (assessment) under the auspices of the Court of Police. In addition to the interest, the planters had to give their products to Deutz, who sold them in commission, charging a fee of 2,5%. Moreover, they were obliged to procure all their necessities through him. The repayment was to start after ten years in installments of 10%. In 1763, the first repayments had to come in, but after two years nothing had materialized yet. Most debtors did not even pay interest on their loans, so Deutz could not compensate his investors. Van der Voort believes that he made up the deficient out of his own pocket, but he could not keep this up very long and went bankrupt. Other funds did not fare any better.
The reasons for these failures were threefold. (1) Fraudulous assessments abounded. The priseurs were perfectly willing to assess a plantation much too high in return for a small token of appreciation. When the inventory of Petit Versailles was made in 1770, for instance, the priseurs Geselschap and Biertempel recorded 80 acres, planted with 42,477 coffee trees and 6547 cocoa trees, while in reality there were only 33,5 acres with 13,513 coffee trees. The loans, therefore, often greatly exceeded the actual value of the collateral. (2) The plantations increased in value through inflation, so many planters had them assessed anew periodically and took out additional loans. (3) There was no control on how the money was spent. For the most part, the planters did not use their windfall to improve their holdings, apart from buying all the slaves they wanted at ridiculous prices. Many owners indulged in a spree of conspicuous consumption and thereby gave Surinam its aura of wealth.
The prudent reaction of the creditors would have been to withhold further loans, but most of them did not. They poured even more money into the colony, in the hope that this would enable the planters to finally meet their obligations. After the bankruptcy of Deutz, his negotiatiefonds was taken over by Jan and Theodoor van Marselis, who imposed stricter terms and chose the hard line in dealing with planters who defaulted on their loans. They were dismayed to find that planters freed their slaves just to spite their creditors and consequently did not hesitate to put the plantations that seemed bad risks under sequestration and if necessary had them sold at court auctions. The failure of Deutz’ negotiatiefonds should have been a warning to other investors, but they were deceived by reports of promising developments, such as the peace treaties concluded with the most dangerous groups of Maroons and the high level of the coffee prices on the world market.
In the period between 1766 to 1775 alone, Surinam plantations swallowed up no less than 30 million guilders. Pieter Emmer estimated that of the total investment of more than 60 million guilders only about a quarter was eventually paid back, often after a considerable delay. Most planters were not unduly worried about their inability to meet their obligations. The almost inexhaustible patience of the creditors was stretched to the limit and in the end, they had no option but to call in the loans. Consequently, in the late 1770’s and 1780’s many plantations passed into the hands of Dutch merchants. Since the investors were ignorant about plantation agriculture, they often permitted the former owners to stay on as director.
The Amsterdam stock exchange crisis of 1773 only temporarily halted the flow of capital to Surinam. New loans were extended on a much more modest scale and with sounder security, but the results were no better. Ever more money was dispensed in the hope of restoring the economic potential of promising estates, but adverse circumstances obstructed the way to recovery. An illuminating example is provided by the case of the plantation Vrouwenvlijt, which in time accumulated a debt of 106,000 guilders, while netting only 15,000 guilders when it was sold in 1848. The loss of interest in this case was probably even larger than the loss of capital.
Most of the money invested in Surinam under these schemes was unproductive capital in the hands of mercantile moguls. They could afford to gamble away some of their ill-gotten gains in a risky venture. A lot worse was the fact that hundreds of small savers had put all their money in shares of a negotiatiefonds and were hurt badly by the debacle. The real loser, however, was Dutch society as a whole, because if all that money had been invested in industrial enterprises instead, it would not have had to suffer from economic stagnation during such a large part of the 19th century. For that reason, Pieter Emmer was harsh in his conclusion: “Surinam was for the Netherlands a superfluous and expensive piece of prestige property; we would have done better if we had left the territory to the English in 1674 and the slaves in Africa”.
Surinam was (and is) a country with an economy based on tropical agriculture and extraction, both ventures which, in circumstances like these, are inevitably speculative in character and invite a hit-and-run tactic. Alex van Stipriaan has therefore qualified the Surinam mode of production as roofbouw (exhaustive cultivation). The planters of Surinam used up soil, slaves and capital without the slightest interest in conservation. Exhaustive cultivation of the soil might be considered unavoidable since suitable grounds were scarce and the planters lacked the knowledge and the means to regenerate their lands by fertilization. With regard to capital investment they also had some excuse for the high expectations of plantation agriculture in the 1750’s and 1760’s were not wholly unfounded and ‘gambling’ was an ordinary way of doing business.
With regard to the slaves, however, the behavior of the planters was in many ways totally irrational. The neglect of the reproductive capacity of the slaves when the supply was irregular and the prices were continually rising proved to be a gross error of judgment, to say the least, for it led to a constant scarcity of labor. Insufficient nourishment impaired the productivity of the slaves and cruel treatment drove thousands of the best workers into the forest. These factors helped to seal the doom of Surinam plantation agriculture in an early stage. Moreover, they signify that economic considerations may have influenced the way the slaves were treated, but other factors (basic psychological factors like fear of the black majority) were equally important.