Slaves were not unwilling to work for their masters, but they wanted to be taken care of in return. For them a full belly was the most important comfort. If they were well fed, they did not mind other hardships so much, but stinginess with regard to food they found hard to forgive. Alas, Surinam slaves were often tried severely in this respect.
Regular food shortages were among the main problems of the colony. Almost all the inhabitants suffered -even, at times, highly placed whites. Officers in the army could not always adequately feed themselves and their dependents from their wages. Their suburdinates were sometimes driven to begging plantains from slaves. Not surprisingly though, the slaves were always the ones suffering most.
This problem worried the authorities constantly. Governor Van Scharphuys wrote in 1689: “it is lamentable, that the land is so devoid of every kind of alimentation, that I fear many slaves will have to die of hunger or run away, as happens daily all too often”. Even the slaves owned by the Society were not spared the pangs of hunger. The reason for the scarcity of food was obvious to him: “most of the people are tempted to expand their sugar works as much as possible, and others who have not yet got one try to attain this, therefore they are so obsessed with planting cane, that barely as much provision is put into the ground, as they need to maintain their slaves and the least accident with rain or dryness, that follows this, sets them back so much that one suffers scarcity with the others, but [I] hope that in the future this will be remedied”. Governor Van Aerssen held high hopes for the planting of rice, but nothing much came of it (although the Maroons gratefully adopted this new source of food).
Not only the insufficient quantity of the food worried the governors, the quality left much to be desired as well. Governor Van der Veen marveled at the endurance of the slaves who “must have a strong constitution when with such [cassava] bread a salted mackerel or a piece of salted meat of which the smell after it has been in this country for some months hits one at 50 passes a glass of brackish water the badness or crudity of which has to be improved with a glass of Kilthum [they] can reach even a moderate age”. The slaves of the Society were somewhat better off than their fellows in lean times: they received food that was usually reserved for the soldiers, like grits or flour. These emergency measures did not always satisfy the bondsmen: “the Slaves are not contented with provisions, that come from far, but they want to see them grow”, Governor Van Aerssen observed.
The authorities tried to battle the shortages by obliging the planters to cultivate one acre of provisions for every four slaves, but it was nearly impossible to enforce regulations like these. So even during the prosperous middle years of the 18th century, starvation among slaves was not uncommon when the harvest was bad or the trade routes were blocked. The Court of Police warned the slave owners in 1758, that they would be held responsible when their slaves were caught stealing food. In the 19th century, the authorities occupied themselves even more with regulating the alimentation of the slaves. The rule establishing a minimum acreage for provision grounds was reinstated and strictly controlled, while the food expert Mulder was asked to investigate the quality of the staple food of the slaves: the plantain. He reported that it was woefully lacking in minerals, vitamins and protein: a slave receiving the usual rations of plantains and bakkeljauw got only 40% of the protein an ordinary soldier consumed.
The situation was in all likelihood not as bad as he feared, because the slaves were only partly dependant on the food provided by their masters. During the English period, the slaves were obliged to support themselves wholly from their provision grounds. Every Saturday afternoon (or the whole Saturday every two weeks) was reserved for tending their plots. After the Zeelandian occupation, this remained the habit in the highlands. The soil there produced very tasty food, but in modest quantities and the cassava tuber, the staple food, remained small in size. Moreover, the sandy soil was exhausted quickly. Consequently, it was necessary to clear new provision grounds every year, which kept the whole slave force busy for about a month. The fields of the year before were turned over to individual slaves, who planted yams, sweet potatoes, nappies, peas, cassava and peanuts there. In the lowlands, the masters preferred to feed their slaves from a common stock (sometimes imported), although they were allowed to have tiny kitchen gardens where they grew peppers, peas, nappies, peanuts, etc. Since the masters favored tending their sugar cane above food production, the lowland slaves often got skimpy rations.
In the early years, food may not have always been sufficient in quantity, but at least it was more varied than later on. For most of the slaves, cassava was the staple food, but it was supplemented by rice, corn and sweet potatoes. Some typical dishes were: sweet potatoes boiled in a closed pot and seasoned with a sauce made of orange juice and pepper and tayer in a soup with salted fish/meat, or roasted over hot coals with a seasoning of lemon, pimento and salt. One of the greatest delights of the slaves was peperpot. This was made by cooking the poisonous juices of the bitter cassava to the consistency of syrup in a pot and adding pieces of meat and fish to it. These could keep for months this way and only had to be heated for consumption.
During the 18th century, the plantain became the staple food in the lowlands. This was party due to the extension of coffee plantations, which employed the plant as coffie mama, to provide shade for the young coffee shoots. These estates often produced a surplus of plantains and sold them to neighbors. Even on the sugar plantations, the planters came to prefer this food, because it required little work and provided a lot of calories. The plantain soon became a necessity for the slaves. Its lack of taste was considered less important than its ability the give a nice full feeling in the stomach. The slaves were brought up to crave this feeling. The plantains were dried, sliced and pounded into flour, which was cooked like porridge for the sick and the children. This dish was called gongotee. As soon as possible, babies were accustomed to its taste. Even when they were still suckling, their mothers supplemented their diet with gongotee. A mother would take the baby between her knees, hold it tightly and with the palm of her hand spoon the porridge into the baby’s mouth until it was filled to the brim (this was called kanten). Lans remarked about this habit: “the negro having been fed like this from childhood, does not feel satisfied, if his stomach is not filled properly; therefore the plantain has become a need for him and he, though not scorning other fare imagines not to have eaten, if this food is lacking”. Therefore, it is not surprising that the slaves sometimes bartered their favorite meat for plantains. Teenstra observed that the Saramacca Bush Negroes eagerly traded their fowl for this “slave food”. For adult consumption, the plantain was usually roasted, boiled with some meat or fish, or beaten into a pulp (called tomtom) and consumed in a peanut soup called blaf or brafoe (from the English word broth) –still considered a treat by modern Creoles.
Apart from the plantains, the slaves were given a variety of foodstuffs by their masters. Most coveted were salted meat (zoutvlees), bacon and fish -either (salted) mackerel or dried cod (bakkeljauw). According to modern standards, they were of abysmal quality and the authorities did not dare to give them to whites, but the slaves loved these foods. They called them switi moffo (literally sweet mouth) and would sometimes even barter fresh meat for these delicacies. The slaves were also supplied with tobacco, pipes, dram, molasses and salt. The meat and fish were usually imported from the United States and most of the other distributed wares did not originate in Surinam either, so they were not always available. Moreover, many owners tried to save money by limiting the distributions as much as possible. Some slaves received meat or fish only once or twice a year.
Fortunately for the slaves, they were not totally dependent on their masters for their protein supply. They could easily satisfy their own needs if they made the effort. The slaves living near the coast found an abundance of crabs and shellfish, which they partly consumed themselves and partly sold for cash in Paramaribo. On the confluence of the Suriname and Commewijne rivers, an area called Krabbebos (crab wood) was located, a name that speaks for itself. Plantation slaves that lived further inland set traps and fished. Especially during the dry season, when the fish got stuck in quickly drying holes, the latter could be very rewarding. The slaves received fishing hooks from their masters, but they would have been even more succesful if they had taken the trouble to construct fish-traps, which few of them did. The habit of catching fish by poisoning the water (with stinckhout) had been quickly outlawed by the authorities. The slaves preserved the fish with extra salt they received from their masters, or they smoked them over barbakots. Nepveu advised the planters to give salt freely; otherwise, they would gorge themselves with the fresh fish and get sick. The slaves also placed snares to catch konkonnies (a kind of rabbit) and some trusted retainers were permitted to hunt larger animals with a rifle.
The craving for meat among the slaves was so great that it made them devour creatures that were very unappetizing to whites. Maria Sybilla Merian claimed they were fond of pipa's, a kind of toad that carries its young on the back. Pistorius noticed their preference for spiders: “The Negroes are very keen on those, and their mouth waters if they only see one from afar; but one has to keep them from this banquet, as much as one can”. Fermin found that they considered the white larvae living in palm trunks a delicacy. These were stuck on a pin and roasted over a fire, or eaten raw. Both Hostmann and Teenstra were horrified by the unsavory habits of the slaves, like digging up the carcasses of large animals that had been rotting for days, or eagerly devouring putrefied cow skins, of which the hair was letting loose. Lammens wrote with disgust: “the sauces or the liquid, remaining in the fish casks [called herén watra], however spoiled, is an excellent delicacy for them, of which they are very fond.” With regard to other foods, however, the slaves could be very particular, as Brother Borck, the baker of the Moravian missionaries noticed: “nobody buys old bread here, not even the poorest Negro”.
Many slaves had a wealth of fruit trees around their houses, which provided much-needed vitamins and allowed them to make a healthy drink once in a while. Moreover, they were permitted to keep chickens and ducks. In the beginning of the 18th century, some slaves had pigs as well, but this was soon prohibited because these damaged the cane fields and the gardens. The owners did not take the loss of their pigs lightly. On Palmeniribo severe trouble ensued when the director threatened to shoots the pigs of the slaves if they did not sell them forthwith. Nevertheless, many slaves managed to get their way regardless of rules like this. Bartelink observed that on the plantation of his employer many slaves held pigs in a cot beneath their cabin. “And while the pigs of the director were let loose during the day and chased into the cot at night, they let theirs out in the evening and brought them in again in the early morning. So the director did not find out that they also kept pigs. Maybe he just pretended to know nothing because the directors, that were seeing blind and hearing deaf, played the best cards. They made product on their slippers.”
Procuring drinking water was often a worse problem than supplying enough food. In the highlands, the water from rivers and creeks could be used without any bad effects, but in the lowlands, this water was brackish and could not be consumed. Plantations on sand ridges sometimes dug wells, but the water these provided was “bad, stinking, and injurous to health”. Furthermore, as Blom observed, the slaves from neighboring plantations would also come there to fetch water, with the result that the well would quickly fall dry “so that the negroes on such plantations partly drink bad water, and partly suffer from thirst, both of which often cause malignant fevers and flux, and many a negro loses his life thereby”. Nepveu surmised that the lower mortality in the highlands could be the result of the better water supply. Most lowland plantations had large water reservoirs that were filled during the rainy seasons, but they could not always contain sufficient water to tide the slaves over during the dry seasons.
Often, the slaves tried to make their water more palatable by adding a generous dose of alcohol. Early in the 18th century, they made a crude drink called garappa by mixing froth skimmed from the second and third kettle in the sugar mill with water. Later, the planters started to distill the froth and the result was dram or kilduyvel. It became the habit to give the male slaves a glass of dram when they returned from the field, especially when they were soaked. The women usually received molasses only. Lans had the impression that many slaves bordered on alcoholism, especially in Paramaribo. Dram cost very little and although it was forbidden to sell it to slaves, they nevertheless seemed to have an inexhaustible supply. Some bondsmen bartered their clothes and sometimes even their rations for the fiery drink. At parties, many slaves became intoxicated. Fortunately, the choice was not always only between alcohol and water. The slaves prepared a tasty soft drink from black berries. Another favorite was a drink made of coemoe, a purplish fruit resembling blue grapes, which pounded and mixed with syrup or sugar made a strong, fat beverage with a delicate taste.
If the food supply was particularly bad, the slaves could sometimes find nourishment in the bush. Foremost among the edible plants was the palm cabbage (cabbes). Fermin illuminated that if one removes the outer leaves “one finds around the heart of the tree, a bunch of leaves folded like a closed fan, shutting upon each other, that are white, mellow and delicious, and almost have the taste of artichoke bottoms”. The maurici palm was the favorite. The leaves could be eaten raw like a salad, or were boiled in salted water. European aficionados would serve them with a white sauce seasoned with nutmeg, or pickled. Nepveu claimed the slaves ate them like cassava bread: rasped and fried. Runaways often had to depend on this generous gift of nature for the first few months of their absence, before they were able to gather their first harvest. Sometimes, they could not find enough cabbes and were reduced to eating leaves.
By largely providing their own food, the slaves partly labored for their own benefit, but the work that was demanded of them above this subsistence level brought them few rewards: the distributions of their masters were usually stingy and in this respect, they were exploited more than a little.
The plantation slaves were housed either in large barracks (divided into chambers, with a separate entrance for each family or residence group), or in small detached cabins. In the early period, the first set-up predominated and the barracks were often very crowded: ten persons to a room was not unusual. The barracks were situated behind the owner’s residence, often in the shape of a half moon. They were 20 to 40 feet long and each contained 6 to 8 different ‘cells’, often occupied by two or three families. During the 18th century, the population of the plantations slowly became more stable and living in family groups became more entrenched, so the planters were less reluctant to let the slaves built their own living quarters. Naturally, they preferred separate cabins. Most of these, very basic, units were constructed with the wood of the Areca catecha, called pina or pallisade in Surinam, and they were covered with straw (tas) or pina leaves. They were not very durable, so they had to be rebuilt every couple of years. As early as 1711, the authorities ordered that all thatched roofs had to be replaced by shingles because of their vulnerability in case of a fire. They threatened to tear down the huts if the planters did not comply with this regulation, but, predictably, were largely ignored. Nevertheless, an increasing number of planters came to prefer houses built of the much hardier wane or copie wood, with a roof made of shingles.
The slave huts had a door, but no windows. Furniture was largely absent. The fireplace was in the middle and there was no chimney, so the smoke had to draft out of the door. They lay around the fire on two or three boards, lifted somewhat above the ground. Plaited mats of tas leaves, which they spread on top of them, served as mattresses. Pillows and cushions they had no knowledge of, or they used a block of wood as such. The mat was called papaija. Stedman claimed that some slaves used a hammock instead. However, few would have been able to afford such a luxury, because these had to be bought from Indians and cost about 25 guilders -a fortune for the average slave. Most bondsmen also owned a couple of iron and earthenware pots, calabashes and a chest to store their Sunday finery in. Some fortunate plantation slaves lived in remarkably comfortable circumstances. When Lammens visited the slaves of the celebrated plantation Berg en Dal, he found that each family had a separate, sturdy wooden cabin, some with verandahs. They formed a small village at the foot of the Blue Mountain. In Paramaribo, some slaves could enjoy the luxury of a proper bed, curtains, tables, chairs and even paintings.
The inhabitants of the slave cabins would in most cases consist of a matrifocal family, formed by a mother, her children (and possibly grandchildren) and the current partner of the mother (not necessarily the father of her children). After the death of the matriarch, a group of brothers and sisters, with the children of the latter, might continue to live together, or split up into different households. Often, single slaves had to share a cabin, voluntary or not. New recruits would be housed with an experienced older slave, who served as their mentor during the seasoning period. Only the most influential senior slaves (drivers, master artisans) sometimes had a living space entirely their own.
The slave cabins were not always in a sensible location. Not rarely, they stood on marshy land, without the benefit of neuten (wooden poles) to keep them off the ground, so water could seep in during the rainy season and they might even occasionally be flooded. The resulting dampness was harmful for the slaves and it worsened the mosquito plague. For this reason, Kuhn advised to place them on higher, sandier grounds. In the lowlands this was not always possible, of course. Sensible owners forced their slaves to clean out their cabins regularly and the most progressive even made them paint the walls. Unfortunately for the slaves, these activities usually had to take place on their ‘free’ Sunday. On the whole, the slave huts were a dilapidated lot and although the occupants did not mind this kind of deprivation as much as the scarcity of food, it could be almost as hazardous to their well-being.
It should not be supposed that the Surinam slaves did not mind wandering around in nothing but rags and tatters. They valued their appearance highly and were dressed sparingly, but decently most of the time. The clothing of the plantation slaves was rather simple. The men usually wore nothing but a piece of cloth of about 6 el (one el is ca. 70 cm) wrapped around their waist and slung between their legs to cover their private parts. The ends hung loose and were used to carry money and other valuables. A slave in rough linen pants with a matching jacket and a hat was at his Sunday best. The women wore a paantje (French: pagne): a piece of gaily colored cloth of about 2,5 el long, that was wrapped twice around the waist. It was sometimes supplemented by another cloth around the breasts called bobbelap. Many women left their breasts bare, or they merely hoisted their paantje under their armpits. Some wore a loose-fitting jacket, open in front and cut low in the back, which slipped from their shoulders continuously and hindered their work. The children often went naked until puberty, not only because of the stinginess of their masters, but also because their parents preferred it, according to Governor Nepveu. They believed it would preserve their innocence longer (and of course it also saved a lot of washing).
Von Sack remarked that for the Europeans who had just arrived in the colony, the nakedness of the Negroes was a strange sight, but they soon learned that the field hands preferred it this way. The less clothing the better, in this hot and humid climate. Lammens noted that “the black skin of the negro hardly insults: -it seems as if the person had put on a very tight black garb”. A less esthetically pleasing sight for him were the women who had borne several children: after much suckling their breasts were only “a long wrinkled skin, drooping along the body”.
The slaves could stand the heat much better than the cold. Van der Smissen observed that as soon as the air cooled in the evening and the Europeans started to breathe easier, one could see the Negroes, if they ventured outside at all, wrapping themselves in their duffle coats or squatting near a fire. While during the English period, the slaves had only been covered by “their own black skin” at night, they were later issued blankets, usually every three or four years. This was formally regulated by the Dutch government in 1854.
Plantation slaves were generally not issued ready-made clothing, but received a couple of yards of different kinds of cloth: Salempouris (blue cotton from the East Indies), Osnaburg linen, Vries bont, or calico, plus scissors, needles and thread. They also received a hat, a duffle coat and sometimes a jacket, as well as a mirror and comb, etc. These wares were issued once a year and it was always a festive occasion. If the slaves did not get their distributions in time, or if they considered them insufficient, they became unruly. Governor Van de Schepper, for example, wrote in 1738 that the slaves of the Society had not yet received their usual New Year distribution of Osnabrugh linen, so they bothered him daily with their complaints.
Brother Riemer noted in 1779 that “[the slaves] are, even in their most beautiful suit, obliged to go barefoot”. He was not mistaken: slaves were forbidden to wear shoes. This was a prime mark of distinction between the free and the bonded and no exceptions were permitted. Governor Van Raders (1845-1852) was severely criticized in 1848, when he distributed shoes to some exemplary slaves of the government plantation Catharina Sophia. Putting on shoes was about the first thing a manumitted slave did –and so did the slaves who tried to pass as Free Negroes. The prohibition on footwear could endanger the health of the slaves, as we shall see.
Sickness and health.
The slaves of Surinam generally did not live to ripe old age, although there were exceptions. Teenstra recorded that two women who died in Paramaribo in 1829 had reached the age of the very strong: Maria Bessie could boast 95 years and Hermina an astounding 105 years. He also mentioned the rumor that a Negro called Simon Willem Petrus had died at the blessed age of 135 years. Few bondsmen will have lasted even half that number of years.
Mortality was exceptionally high in Surinam during the entire era of slavery. Contagious diseases were a prime cause. Not all categories of slaves suffered alike. Some were considered weaker than others. Kuhn hypothesized: “The Negroes who are born here (the Creole Negroes) are, in general, less strong, less black in color; many have, because of distension of the bones of the feet, a bad gait. With a number of Negresses, the section of the pelvis is smaller than one observes with the originally African Negresses, and for this reason difficult deliveries of women in labor, also from other causes, are not rare here; on the whole, the Negroes of both sexes are very vulnerable to diseases.”
This belief in the greater weakness of Creoles, Mulattoes especially, is found all over the Caribbean. There is little proof that this actually was the case, however. Often, the opposite was true. As we shall see in the next part, the mortality among Africans was considerably higher than among Creoles. However, Kuhn may have been right about the difficulties in childbirth, which were probably due to malnutrition during childhood.
It is often difficult to determine the exact causes of death among the slaves. Few planters bothered to record them in detail: they could only distinguish a few broad categories. On the plantation Nieuw Rosenbeek in the years 1742 and 1743 only de loop (dysentery) and jaas (yaws) were specifically mentioned. Most planters could also diagnose smallpox and leprosy, but that was about the limit of their expertise. In the 19th century, medical knowledge had expanded so much that the causes of death listed on the plantation Vossenburg in the period 1822 to 1852 included: convulsions, dropsy, yaws, consumption, dysentery, tetanus, venereal diseases, fits, whooping cough, pleurisy, smallpox, paralyzation, etc.
Higman found that the slaveholders in Jamaica blamed ‘bad air’ for most cases of illness. The Surinam planters seemed to agree. They particularly feared the atmosphere of low-lying grounds that had just been brought into cultivation. The slaves themselves, according to Kuhn, “consider illness [to be] the result of a filthy body and putrefaction of the [bodily] fluids”. Consequently, they tried to purify themselves by “vomiting, purging and sweating, salivating, quarantine and decoction”. In reality, slaves will have ascribed most of their maladies to the anger of the gods or the envy of their fellows.
Epidemic diseases often wrought havoc among the slaves and the free population alike. Smallpox was the most feared. Many of the slaves imported from Africa were inflicted with this scourge. Although suspected cases were put in quarantine, this was not always effective. Several large epidemics ravaged the colony. An epidemic that raged in 1763 and 1764 decimated the slave population. Another one claimed the lives of more than 3000 people in 1789. Many planters lost “a great number of slaves ... as a result of which many have fallen into dire poverty … of which they suffer the sad consequences until this day”, the Surinaamse Almanak reported in 1796. The worst epidemic recorded was the one of 1819, when reportedly more than 15.000 slaves died. This could have been avoided, because some years before the disaster hit, Dr. Walter Cadell and the physician Wöllfing had experimented with inoculation and only a few of the slaves they had treated succumbed during the epidemic. With the usefulness of inoculation convincingly proven, more owners were willing to let their slaves be vaccinated afterwards. Other contagious diseases did not reach epidemic proportions, but nevertheless caused the death of innumerable slaves over the years. The most dangerous were framboesia tropica (jaas) and dysentery (bloedloop).
Lammens claimed that jaas sometimes killed nearly a third of the newly imported slaves within the first year. Bolingbroke described the symptoms as follows: “It has much the appearance of the small pox from the manner of its coming out. The patient is covered with large ulcers in every part of his body, and, as it is very infectious, he keeps by himself. Its duration is uncertain, being sometimes from twelve to eighteen months, during which the eruption returns no less than three times”. He added: “There are black mothers who inoculate their children for this disorder; its violence is thereby lessened”. A person could get this disease only once and was thereafter immune. Children suffered less than adults, but could die nevertheless. Some slaves never wholly recovered and continued to be plagued by severe pains in the joints (jaasboken). Others were left with swellings resembling corns on their feet (krabbejaas), which had to be cut out from time to time. So prevalent was this ailment, that the plantation ‘hospital’ was called jaashuis.
Various forms of dysentery and violent diarrhea killed off many as well. The slaves called this affliction stoeloe watra and Kuhn identified eating spoiled meat or fish and drinking bad water as the main causes. A lack of hygiene in the handling of food was an important factor as well. Since the sanitary conditions on many plantations were appalling, its prevalence should not be surprising. Teenstra unfavorably compared the manner of milking in Surinam with that in Holland: “here one sees not rarely a dirty Malenker cow guard (mostly Negroes with incurable ulcers or hideous diseases) milk the cows, after having spit in the hand first, into a filthy calabash, in which beforehand all kinds of food and drink have been and [which] is now used unwashed, to catch the fresh so healthy milk”. When this was fed to the children, one could expect the worst.
Boasi (leprosy) was also a feared disease. It was probably introduced in Surinam by slaves -Vrijman claimed by slaves from Calabar. The authorities did all they could to keep it from spreading. In 1728, Governor De Cheusses forbade infected slaves to show themselves in public and their masters were fined if they did not keep them inside. On the plantations, they were banished to isolated cabins. Nevertheless, the disease continued to make new victims. Therefore, it was decided in 1764 that all the newly imported slaves had to be examined by a commission consisting of the surgeon-major and a physician. If leprous slaves were discovered, they were brought to a quarantine camp and were later deported from the colony (whereto is a mystery) at the expense of the captain who had brought them. In 1790, Governor Wichers ordered all leprous slaves to be moved to the deserted plantation Voorzorg in Saramacca. There they wasted away with a minimum of care. Finally, in 1830, the government regulations banned all slaves suffering from leprosy or elephantiasis (filariasis) to the establishment Batavia on the Coppename River, far from the inhabited part of the colony. The owners of infected slaves were obliged to turn them over, on the penalty of a fine of 200 guilders. The white victims were not sent there, but had to stay at home. Not all these precautions had the desired effect and until recently, these diseases plagued many blacks and not a few whites in Surinam.
Another vicious killer, though not contagious, was tetanus (klem). The children suffered most. Blom remarked on this subject: “There are plantations where all the children die from this on the fifth or sixth day; on some all the boys die, and the girls never get this ailment; on others the girls die and the boys don’t get it … one has sometimes had reason to suspect that this ailment does not result from a natural cause, but one has never come further than suspicions.” Higman came to a similar conclusion with regard to Jamaica, where tetanus “should probably be classified as the major cause of death overall, accounting for perhaps 20% of total mortality”. In some regions, it was the habit of midwives to cover the bellybutton of newborn babies with a poultice of earth, which often had fatal consequences. Though I have not found evidence of this custom in Surinam, dirt that accidentally infected the wound was probably a prime cause.
In lesser numbers, the slaves also suffered from other discomforts. Stedman mentioned lota (“a scurvious and white spot over the whole body”), crassy crassy (scabies) and tapeworm. Hartsinck pointed to Guinean worms, which nestled under the skin of the neck and the back of the arms and legs. The afflicted had to wait until the swellings burst and could then gently wind the worm around a wooden stick and carefully pull it out. If a piece broke off, dreadful ulcers were the result. Nepveu noted the dangers of ringworm, which occurred in a wet and a dry form. The first kind was the most difficult to cure; sometimes gangrene set in and the unfortunate slave died miserably. Venereal diseases (venusziekten) were rampant in Surinam and probably often resulted in sterility. Diseases that were sometimes relatively harmless for whites dragged many slaves to an untimely grave: measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, etc.
Many slaves limped because of zeeren (sores) on the soles of their feet, caused by sand fleas (chica's) that had to be removed very patiently. Often, the slaves did not bother and became total invalids in the end. The director of the government provision ground De Hoop tried to cure a young woman by putting her feet in boiling water: the fleas did indeed not survive this torture, but neither did the unfortunate patient. The director was summoned to Paramaribo and cut his throat in the boat that was bringing him there.
Although the psychological insight of the masters left much to be desired, even they realized that sometimes the causes of death were not somatic. Not rarely depression led slaves to eat dirt, with an often fatal result. It is true that some bondsmen ate clay because they lacked minerals, but mostly it was a hardly disguised way of committing suicide. Despondent slaves stuffed themselves with earth, coals and other indigestible rubbish, they swelled up and after a while, they died. There was little that the planters could do to dissuade them -apart from preventing them to eat at all.
The ‘occupational hazards’ of the work of the slaves were enormous. The men were the main victims, because of the diversity of their occupations, especially in the manufacturing process and transportation. Kuhn (a physician) made a special study of the dangers inherent in the tasks of the field slaves. The heaviest work they had to perform was digging trenches (particularly when the soil was very dry). Hernia and other back problems could be the result. Turning the soil was done with a hoe and caused a “strong droning in the chest”, especially harmful for the women. Pounding coffee and ginning cotton produced clouds of dust, which could lead to damage of the lungs. Furthermore, cotton was ginned on a small machine that had to be propelled by foot: “this labor makes the negro stiff”. Carrying heavy loads on the back could cause “a prolapse in the groin”. Cutting grass and picking weeds was done in an uncomfortable position “which in the long run also insults the breast and the arm”. The sugar mill was a den of dangers. It was open to two or three sides, so the cool night air had free entry and the sweating slaves could catch pneumonia and other respiratory troubles. Some sugar boilers slipped and fell into the hot likker, getting burned horribly. Rowing was a very tiring work that the slaves often had to perform continuously for six or more hours. The only occupation conductive to both physical and mental health was lumbering: “the Negroes of the timber grounds distinguish themselves … by stronger muscle power and a freer attitude from the rest of the Negro population”.
Pregnancy was the greatest source of danger for the women, but (as Blom claimed) not because of the fact that on many plantations they were not spared hard work when expecting. He had observed that “on several plantations there is an old habit, that as soon as a woman is pregnant, she does not have to go to work; and on other plantations [there] is a no less old habit, that they may stay in their houses a considerable time after delivery … but one has manifold experiences, that on the plantations where they have to work until the last day of their pregnancy, they suffer from fits or difficult deliveries the least; and that (extraordinary circumstances excepted) they can go back to work four weeks after their delivery”. This is in tune with the myth of the easy childbirth, with which African women were supposedly blessed. With experts believing this, it is no wonder that many slave women had a difficult time. The plantation midwives, convinced of their superior knowledge, firmly resisted any interference and many women died from puerperal fever due to their lack of hygiene. In the 19th century, the planters became more interested in the propagation of their slaves and sometimes they sent difficult cases to a special lying-in clinic in Paramaribo. Furthermore, the Government pressured them to give the women a considerable time off, both before and after delivery.
Sometimes, newly imported slaves did not know what they could safely eat. The reason that few plantations cultivated bitter cassava was, according to Firmin, “the risk they run, when they have bought slaves, who have recently come from Africa; because those, being very hungry, could as they lack knowledge of it eat it [raw], and be poisoned by it, as has happened more than once”.
When a slave fell ill, it was not at all sure that he would receive the necessary care. Kuhn discovered to his dismay that “one calculates, whether the slave, after the incurred expenses, will still be able, to work off the interests; whether he will be worth the costs for regaining his health. It has happened to me that when my advice regarding the sickly constitution of such persons was asked, and the result was the amputation of one of the limbs, or any other long-term treatment, they told me: ‘No, Sir! the costs will run too high; the Negro is not worth that much to me; or, what shall I do with the Negro, if he has only one leg or arm: then I can use him for nothing anymore.”
Luckily, not all planters were that callous. The slaves of the Society got the best treatment, even if they had become practically ‘worthless’. In the beginning of the 18th century (when of the 69 adult slaves the Society owned 27 were classified as “incapable”), the Governor decided to abandon the money-loosing plantation owned by the Society and most of the slaves were transferred to other places. However, he was obliged to hold on to the estate, because it housed a slave called Coffy “is unable [to work] and always afflicted with Bad Sores on the legs for which he already has been in the cure three times but [he] cannot be healed”. His wives and children were allowed to stay with him.
The care of sick slaves could be entrusted to plantation directors, dresnegers, chirurgijns (surgeons) living in the district, or chirurgijns based in Paramaribo. The directors were usually not well informed. Some used a simple medical handbook, but most adhered to the premise that sick slaves were either malingering, or so close to death that any treatment would be useless. The quality of the chirurgijns in Surinam was low. Kuhn complained that “at any occasion of any importance [they] stand very embarrassed”. In the 19th century, some chirurgijns obtained a contract with a plantation: for a stipulated fee (in 1827 one guilder per head a year) they treated the sick slaves and came to check on them once a week.
Most slaves were solely dependant on the care and knowledge of the dresneger, however. These were chosen by the planters from young slaves who showed aptitude for the job, or (more often) from the invalids who were unsuitable for fieldwork. Occasionally, the former were apprenticed for 5 or 6 years to a chirurgijn, who taught them techniques like bleeding, purging, setting limbs and opening abscesses. There were also slaves who strove to gain a thorough knowledge of native medicine on their own initiative and who were taught by Africans and even Indians. One of the most famous was the indomitable Quassi, who held a magical sway over the minds of slaves and Indians alike and who gained an international reputation as herbalist and discoverer of Quassi Bita (Quassia amara L.), a medicine against malaria and stomach ailments.
The slaves who fell into the hands of a dresneger were not always better off than those who suffered the neglect or the harsh methods of a chirurgijn: “There is … no more loveless, merciless creature in the world than a negro to his equals, especially a dresneger”, Kuhn judged. The native ‘doctors’ often demanded stiff fees from their patients: large amounts of money in addition to the gold and clothes supposedly needed for the cure. These specialists were often women of ‘advanced age’. Many of them had an excellent knowledge of the use of herbs and drew a white clientele as well: “Many, seemingly not superstitious people, use them, under the pretext, that they have much experience with the use and application of external remedies for illnesses”, Kuhn remarked disdainful. He had even less appreciation for the “health priestesses, who consult the oracle and predict the credulous a good or unfortunate outcome”. Sometimes, the missi’s took pity on their fellow slaves: “it is not rare, that here or there a missi, according to rumor, has the wonderful gift to cure, with secret medicines, eye and other ailments; the payment for this is undetermined, they will accept some token of appreciation, but seldom money, it happens, as it were, out of boen hattie as it is called”.
Most plantations had a small ‘hospital’ on their premises. They were usually very dilapidated: in the opinion of Kuhn “they rank beneath the chicken and the pigeon coop”. They normally consisted of a gallery, a hall and two rooms, one of which was for quarantine (the kwijlkamer, literally ‘drooling room’). The sick slaves lay on cots that were outfitted with shackles to restrain the restless. Fires were lit on the floor, so the patients were troubled by smoke. There was no privy and the slaves were obliged to relieve themselves in potsherds and calabashes. The shutters were almost always closed (to prevent them from escaping this inferno probably), so the stench was unbearable.
In the 19th century, Paramaribo boasted a hospital that specifically catered to slaves, but the expense prevented most planters from using it. During the first three months, they had to pay 75 cents a day for treatment and medicine and during the next four months 40 cents a day –after that the chirurgijn could only charge for food. Some surgeons were even more expensive, so the total costs could run very high: chirurgijn Hendrik Temmink charged plantation De Morgenster 947 guilders for the treatment of the slave Maaslust (who had been in his care for 319 days). One third of the bill was remitted because he had died.
The slaves had, not unreasonably, the most confidence in their own cures. They could see no harm in the use of any medicine that was applied externally, which was not always in the best interest of the patient, as Kuhn maintained: “In case of a serious illness they often, without consulting a Doctor, go to work and the sufferer, especially if they have much interest in him, is not left alone for a minute; furthermore they hold it absolutely necessary that he consumes food, and the patient is moreover tortured with insipid porridges all the time. It is indeed a God-given miracle, if I may express myself this way, that the patient escapes the manifold applications safe and sound”.
Kuhn may have been skeptic about the treatment mentioned above, but he admired the ‘quarantine cure’ of the slaves. This included the ingestion of a drink concocted from “medicinal woods, roots and sugary syrup”. The sufferer had to take several ounces each morning and evening. Eating had to be limited to dry roasted plantains and once a week an emetic had to be endured. This cure took four to five weeks and the patients became very skinny. However, there were striking results with “the most tenacious sores, rashes and leg pains”. Open wounds were treated with salves, poultices and native fresh herbs and other ailments with rubdowns and cuts in the skin. These treatments could be hazardous: medicines containing mercury were employed so liberally, for example, that “not rarely the mercurial illness has worse effects than the primitive disease”. The Spanish fly also had a lot of adherents.
Slaves used many herbal and ‘homeopathic’ medicines. To ease delivery for women, the rattles of a rattlesnake were pounded into a powder and given to them. Women fed their children the pulvered leaves of the Arabian cotton (snipkatoen) to drive out worms. The seed of the zandkoker tree made an effective purgative. The slaves born in Africa knew how to ‘inoculate’ themselves against snake poison with a magical cure they called (sneki) cotti. They took the fangs of a snake, dried them, pounded them to a powder and mixed that with the ashes of certain plants. This mixture was rubbed into a small cut (usually in the neck). Afterwards, the patients had to observe certain taboos. When picking out chica’s, the wounds were rubbed with tobacco juice as an antiseptic. Nepveu witnessed slaves gathering dew from tayer and plantain leaves to treat eyesores. Some slaves put loam in their hair: this formed a thick crust that suffocated any lice. Black ‘witchdoctors’ used all kinds of ingredients in their magical cures: kaolin (white clay), dram, feathers, eggs, aromatic leaves, etc.
Benoit was impressed by the personal cleanliness of the slaves. According to him, they bathed at least once a day and washed their clothes nearly every day. Lammens had a different opinion: “very often they have to be forced, like children, to wash themselves and keep clean:- they reek almost always of salted fish, their beloved food”. Perhaps they had met different kinds of slaves.
The conclusion is warranted that the health of the slaves left much to be desired. Many of them seemed to have suffered from one or the other of the following debilitating afflictions: venereal disease, bouts of dysentery, sores, menstrual troubles, hernia’s, etc. Only a minority could be classified as having a good condition (mostly house servants and slaves working on timber grounds). The food they received was often ample in bulk, but deficient in vitamins, proteins and minerals. The slaves could supplement their diet if they wished, but they often lacked the energy or the awareness to do so. Many slaves seem to have been so fond of the salted fish and meat their masters distributed, that they scorned healthier alternatives. They also preferred the starchy plantain to almost everything else. The level of medical knowledge in Surinam was so low during most of the slave era, that the planters, even if they were willing, could do little to alleviate the suffering of the sick. Whether the slaves were worse off than lower class whites is doubtful, however. Where mortality was concerned, there does not seem to have been much difference.
The demography of the Surinam slaves.
Though there can be no doubt that in Surinam there has been a considerable natural decrease of the slave population right up to emancipation, it is hard to find enough quantitative data to explain this phenomenon. Few planters took the trouble to record the demographic data of their plantation for posterity and even if they did, the documents have been long gone. So one has to rely on the scarce data that can be gleaned from the archives and compare these with the findings of researchers active in other parts of the Caribbean.
This is not as far-fetched as it seems, because that the differences in the demographic ‘performances’ of the various slave populations were not as large as is often assumed. Jack Eblen has pointed to the fact that in many instances the researchers compared the wrong rates: ‘crude’ and ‘natural’ rates, when only ‘intrinsic’ rates are comparable. In his definition, “crude rates are ones derived from raw population data, natural rates are those calculated for a closed population, and intrinsic rates are ones reflecting the characteristics of a closed population with a stable age structure”. He came to the conclusion that the intrinsic rates for the black populations of the Caribbean were very similar: “black populations in the Western Hemisphere during the late eighteenth century and in the nineteenth (prior to the end of slavery and during the period of abolition), whether free or slave, lived under very severe and very similar mortality conditions, and reproduced at about the same level of capacity. This generalization seems to be valid regardless of wide variations in the white mortality rates, in the lifestyles and the attitudes of whites, and in the environmental health risks of different slaveholding areas”.
Philip Curtin proposed the theory that slave demography went through three stages everywhere in the Caribbean. The first stage was characterized by a steady and heavy import of fresh slaves from Africa, while frontier conditions prevailed. This led to a sex/age structure that was very different from that of a normal population and to a strong natural decrease. Once the colonies reached full productivity, the imports declined, the bizarre population pyramid slowly took on a more normal shape and the natural decrease diminished. After the end of the transatlantic slave trade, fertility rose, the sex/age structure came closer to the normal ‘tribal’ structure and in the end a surplus of births over deaths might even occur, although the slave population might continue to decline through manumission and flight.
The length of the various stages in the process of adaptation varied from region to region, but in Surinam the situation was worse than everywhere else. The first phase appears to have lasted inordinately long. Until the last quarter of the 18th century, when the cultivated area and the production were no longer expanded continuously, ‘frontier’ characteristics prevailed in the colony. Consequently, the (slave) population could only grow through massive imports, resulting in an extremely skewed population pyramid. Because the natural limits of the cultivable soil had not been reached even then, this process could have continued well into the 19th century, if the stock exchange crisis had not halted it. The second stage started late in the 18th century. The slowing down of slave imports decreased mortality and balanced the sex ratio somewhat. It seems, however, that the development of the Surinam slave population got stuck in this stage: the typical characteristics of the third stage are barely discernable. As Richard Price concluded, “the slave population of Surinam retained these ‘skewed’ and ‘aberrant’ characteristics much more strongly, and for a longer time, than almost any other colony in the Hemisphere”. This phenomenon requires explanation.
For many people, including Price, the explanation is quite simple: slave mortality was enormous because of the extreme cruelty of the Surinam planters. However, there is reasonable doubt about the direct influence of cruelty on death rates. Stanley Engerman, for example, claimed that: “the differences in demographic performance [of slaves] in different areas of the New World reflect differences in objective circumstances (climate and epidemiological factors) to a greater extent than they did variables which the planters might try to control.”
Natural decrease of the slave population was not a function of mortality alone, it had two causes: positive (mortality increasing) and preventive (fertility depressing) factors, or in Barry Higman’s words “checks of misery” and “checks of vice”. Humanists held the former primarily responsible, planters the latter. The slave population of Surinam showed a strong natural decrease most of the time, to the extend that Price is justified in stating that “in terms of wastage of human life … Surinam appears to have the dubious distinction of standing near one extreme among the major plantation colonies of the New World”, and there can be no doubt that “mortality was fundamental”, but the causes of this high mortality are not so closely tied to white cruelty as has been hypothesized.
Engerman’s faith in the primacy of climatological and epidemiological factors is well-founded. Edward Long discovered that in Jamaica the highest death rates occurred on plantations located in the “marshy plains”. In Jamaica, these may have been only a minority, in Surinam they were not. The Surinam climate was hotter as well and, apart from a small strip along the coast, no cooling winds brought relief. This also made the epidemiological aspect even more important than elsewhere. The fact that natural conditions in Surinam were extraordinarily unhealthy (and made the whites suffer just as much as the slaves), does not exonerate the Surinam planters from guilt, of course. As Engerman rightly remarked: “to argue that planters in unhealthy climates took good care of their slaves and that there was no evidence of overt maltreatment is not to reduce the moral indictment of slaveowners –the basic point remains that in the absence of enslavement no doubt fewer workers would have been in these areas”. It does, however, exonerate them from the charge that it was primarily their excessive cruelty that led to the exceptionally high mortality among the slaves of Surinam.
During the 17th and the early 18th century, the Surinam planters expected a yearly ‘replacement rate’ of 10% of their slaves. [The same was true for 17th century Jamaica, as Craton discovered.] They had a lot of trouble to repace that many succumbed slaves and did not want their personnel problems come to light. As Governor Mauricius noted: “The mortality of slaves is more considerable, than is known, because nearly all the planters need credit, and so do not proclaim their loss loudly”. Newly bought slaves (usually referred to as nieuwe neegers) were the most vulnerable. Governor Nepveu calculated that his predecessor Crommelin had purchased 232 slaves for the Society during his reign, of which “none or very few” had survived. Most of them had done little or no work and had been left in their quarters behind the government building to recover from the transatlantic voyage, where they “usually wasted away”. Maltreatment and lack of nourishment were certainly no contributing factors here, because the slaves of the Society were positively pampered compared with privately owned bondsmen. While in Jamaica, as Edward Long has calculated, 10% of the ‘saltwater’ Negroes died during each year of the seasoning period (which usually lasted three years), in Surinam 30% died during the first year alone (mostly of yaws).
By the end of the 18th century, the situation had improved only a little. Stedman assumed a natural decrease of 5% a year and he predicted the extinction of the slave population in 20 years, if imports were to cease. This, obviously, did not happen and despite the fact that slaves continued to be smuggled into the colony in appreciable numbers and that the slave population continued to decline, this proves that slave mortality dropped notably during the 19th century. Kuhn calculated in 1828 a decrease of 2,5 to 3% a year “without additional unhappy accidents because of prevailing diseases”. He remarked that in general, the causes of slave mortality had been sought in maltreatment and heavy work and although the latter factor did have influence, “regarding abuses, one can, honoring the truth, assure, that these happen much less than one generally imagines”. Later, the situation improved even more. Kappler calculated a decrease of 1,25% a year during the period 1828 to 1841 and 1% a year during the period 1841 to 1852.
The high death rates among the slaves must be put in perspective. Class often turned out to be a more important factor than the color of the skin, with lower class whites dying at much the same rates as bondsmen. Michael Craton, for example, found that the death rates of Jamaican slaves were higher than those of the English whites in general, but lower than those in London and other large cities. “This suggests some possible correlation at this time between population density and death rates. The importance of epidemics is shown, also, in that the high average death rates seem to result not from continuously high annual mortality, but rather from a large variation in annual death rates, with periodic pronounced peaks.” Considering the high toll of some epidemics, this centrainly was the case in Surinam as well. Moreover, the slaves in the Caribbean were not much worse off than their West-African compatriots. Craton believed that the life expectancy of slaves in Jamaica, once they had survived the crucial first years, was “very likely similar” to that in Africa. Especially child mortality “has tended to be particularly overstated in the past”: in Jamaica, it was certainly not higher than in many English cities.
The composition of the slave population in itself had much influence on mortality. The death rate of African-born slaves was considerably higher than the death rate of Creole slaves. This is understandable, because the Africans came into a totally different ‘disease environment’ and were exposed to European and Amerindian germs to which they had no immunity, while already weakened by the Middle Passage and depressed by the unfortunate change in their circumstances. As a result, they were an easy prey for all kinds of ailments. The toll of death was especially staggering during the seasoning period. Thereafter it became more like that of the Creoles –at least until they reached their middle thirties, when they gap widened again. Sex influences mortality as well. In general, the mortality patterns of men differ significantly from those of women. As Higman pointed out: “male mortality is always greater than female in the first few years of life, maintained a rough equality to about 40 years, then increased more rapidly”. In the case of slave mortality, provenance was more important than sex, however. That is to say: female Africans had a higher death rate than male Creoles -but this difference only became noticeable when they were over 35. The African-born men over 35 in particular “suffered a heavy differential age-specific mortality”.
If we apply these insights to the situation in Surinam, the picture is rather grim. The frontier conditions lasted much longer than in other regions. During the first 100 years of colonization, the proportion of African-born slaves was over 90%. About a third of these slaves had left Africa within the last five years. Many of them still suffered from the hardships of the seasoning period. The proportion of women was low (40% at most, usually less). Overall, Surinam had an extraordinary large proportion of men to women, adults to children and Africans to Creoles, therefore a significantly larger percentage of ‘high-risk’ slaves. Even if the natural conditions had been no worse than elsewhere (which was not the case), the mortality among slaves would have been comperatively high. Importing more and more slaves from Africa was in many respects a self-defeating strategy. Not only did many of them die before they were of any use, it also drove up the overall mortality rate (because it kept the percentages of Africans and men high) and negatively influenced the mortality rate of the Creoles, because they brought African diseases Creoles were no longer immune to.
Higman has discovered that in Jamaica the mortality among slaves became higher as the size of the plantations expanded (the average unit in later times housed 200 to 300 slaves -which seems to have been the optimum size of a plantation from the economic point of view). On such a large estate, “the masters were able to maximize their control over the effective employment of their slaves and capital equipment. Such control may have meant a maximalization of the amount of labour exacted from the slaves, and hence a maximalization of the physical brutality inherent in the slave system”. Engerman pointed out that the correlation between mortality and output per worker could be proof of the habit of ‘working slaves to death’, but also could be spurious, since there also existed a correlation between plantation size and output per worker (because of the economies of scale) and the larger the plantation, the more havoc could be wrought by infectuous diseases. In American historiography, there has been a lively debate whether slaves were worse off on large or small plantations. It seems that what the slaves gained in one respect (e.g. better food), they lost in another (e.g. more supervision), so overall it cannot be said that slaves were treated worse on large units. Nevertheless, it can be surmised that the relatively large size of Surinam plantations at the very least did not have a positive effect on the mortality rates.
The abovementioned factors of climate, epidemiology, location of plantations, the predominance of ‘high-risk’ slaves and the large size of the average plantation were largely responsible for the relatively high mortality rate of the Surinam slaves. That does not mean that they were not often treated badly as well: they were forced to live in an unhealthy environment, inadequately fed and all too often physically abused.
High mortality partially explains the continuous natural decrease of the slave population, but low fertility was a crucial factor as well. The child-producing capacity of slave populations in the New World was impaired. Only in the United States, in Cuba during certain periods and in Curacao at the end of the slavery era, fertility could keep up with mortality and only in the United States the slave population not only reproduced itself, but actually grew. As Fogel and Engerman found, the difference between Jamaica and the Old South did not primarily lie in their respective mortality rates (36 and 30 deaths per 1000 slaves a year), but in their respective fertility rates (33 and 55 births per 1000 slaves a year).
Fertility can theoretically be enlarged by a concious politic of the planters (slave breeding). Richard Sutch believed that the “breeding mentality” of the Southern planters could be credited (or blamed) for the impressive birth rates of American slaves. Some plantations in the Old South indeed seem to have acquired a large part of their income from selling ‘superfluous’ slaves, but to call them ‘stud farms’ is a bridge too far and they were a small minority anyway. It is not easy to force people to conceive when they do not want to, but planters could influence birth and survival rates by absolving pregnant and breastfeeding women from work and preventing mothers from mistreating or neglecting their children. The fact that most plantations in the Old South were rather small, the climate was comparatively healthy and the main product was cotton, not sugar, probably was more conductive to propagation, though.
It has often been maintained (for example by Van Lier and Kuhn) that a high sex ratio (significantly more men than women in a community) depresses fertility. Higman rejected this view, which was, however, prevalent among the Jamaican masters too. Engerman found in the Old South that there was indeed a positive correlation between a normal sex ratio and fertility and that this was the case in regions where males predominated (mostly sugar estates); in regions where females predominated (mostly rice plantations) and in regions where the ratio was more or less equal (mostly cotton plantations). In all probability, it was the effect of a skewed sex ratio on marital stability that was at work here, for Craton and Roberts found a positive correlation between the number of children and marital stability. Surinam plantations generally had a surplus of males, while in the city females formed the majority. The imbalance in Paramaribo became worse after the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade, because many men were sold to the plantations. This had an adverse effect on family stability, but their is no evidence that it resulted in less children.
The most dependable way of measuring fertility is the child/woman ratio. If one takes as a measure of fertility the number of births per 1000 slaves, a high sex ratio has an adverse effect on fertility, but if one takes the child/woman ratio, this does not necessarily have to be the case (in polyandrous tribal societies it certainly does not). If the child/woman ratio is low, this can mean three things: (a) an extraordinary percentage of women is childless (voluntary or not); (b) the number of children per fertile woman is less than is normal (for example because of the use of contraceptives), or (c) a combination of both.
In Surinam, there was a combination of causes. Roughly half of the women do not seem to have had any children at all. Several factors contributed to this. Sterily as a result of venerial diseases or ailments of the reproductive organs was quite common. Not a few slave women practiced abortion by chewing substances like unripe pineapple, zeven-bloemen, or green pinecones, according to Stedman. Miscarriages resulting from overwork or malnutrition were rife. Malnourishment could also prevent conception, because the necessary fat reserves were lacking. [If these reserves sink below 22% of the body weight, conception is inhibited. Prolonged breastfeeding keeps these reserves low, so in badly nourished populations it can significantly depress birthrates.] Higman claimed that in Trinidad, where women suckled their infants for more than two years (despite the objections of their masters), this habit resulted in a significant “spacing of births”. Breastfeeding alone was not always effective as a ‘contraceptive’ in slave populations: alimentation may have been deficient in many respects, but usually it did not lack fat. In Surinam, children were also suckled several years, but in addition the women abstained from sexual intercourse during this period, according to Hartsinck.
Many authors have been stricken by the fact that African-born slaves, who were so fond of children in their homeland, seemed to be so indifferent to them in the New World. There can be no doubt that many women did not want children (and sometimes even killed them), because they did not want them to grow up in slavery. This is accentuated by the fact that “the normal relationship between social status and fertility was reversed”, as Higman noted (in tribal societies the persons with the highest status have the most surviving children). Colored women seem to have been more willing to take on the “risk of pregnancy” than their black sisters, because they could hope for a better future for their children (who were almost always lighter than themselves).
It is also quite possible that many women did want children, but did not want numerous children. It should not be forgotten that African societies are extremely ‘pro-natalistic’ and women are forced in not very subtle ways to bear as many children as they can. Children are necessary for the continuation of the lineage, for ritual purposes, as security for old age, as a source of prestige. If these pressures are not present, it is quite possible that women will be satisfied with two or three children. Most slave societies could be described as basically ‘anti-natalistic’. In Surinam, “the planters do not even see gladly that the slave women bear children, who are of service [only after many] Years”, Governor Mauricius observed. After the slave trade was abolished, their opinion changed of course. Believing that it was the promiscuity of the slaves that prevented births, the planters then even permitted Moravian missionaries to enter their premises, in the hope that hearing the gospel would make the slaves more faithful to their spouses and more prolific.
That the attitude of both slaves and planters did play a significant role in lowering the birth rate is proved by the fact that after gaining their freedom former slave women turned out to be very prolific indeed, especially among the Maroons, whose survival depended on their ability to reproduce in sufficient numbers. Even among the slaves, there were remarkable exceptions: Stedman mentioned a woman named Lesperanza who gave birth to 9 children in three years: in the form of quadruplets, twins and triplets.
Some authors mentioned factors that seem a bit far-fetched. Male slaves often had wives on other plantations and some had to row for many hours “to taste conjugal happiness”. In the eyes of Kuhn this could prevent a man from impregnating his wife, because “not rarely they arrive late and tired, and have to leave again early in the morning, to be able to join the slaves going into the field at six o’ clock on their plantation”. On Sundays, however, they must have had ample time to ‘get together’. Kuhn also blamed the whites for monopolizing the most beautiful women, whereby these were withdrawn from the propagation of their race, while at the same time the colony was saddled with additional “weak and lazy layabouts”.
Although most slave mothers in Surinam had only a few children, among the servants of the Society a brood of four or five was not unusual (again proof that these slaves fared exceptionally well). Van Stipriaan found that on the plantation Somerszorg the average family counted three children and he even called this number the “target family”, but his sample is very small and it is highly unlikely that slaves planned their family this meticulously.
As a conclusion, one can say that the continuous decrease of the slave population in Surinam was the result of a combination of an unusually high mortality and an unusually low fertility. The attitude and behavior of masters and slaves certainly contributed to this outcome, but natural causes were at least equally important.