Monday, November 24, 2008

Chapter 10: The meeting of the twain.


Eugene Genovese has given ample thought to the workings of paternalism in his inspiring book Roll, Jordan, Roll (1974). This part of his work has attracted the most criticism and although much of it was justified, many of his insights turned out to be very valuable when studying slavery in Surinam.

In the opinion of Genovese, the animosity between masters and slaves, which undeniably existed even in the most favorable of settings, did not preclude the development of genuine feelings of responsibility for the welfare of the slaves on the part of the master and attachment and dependency on the part of the slaves. Tied together, against the will of the latter, in an admittedly unjust and oppressive system, masters and slaves had no choice but to make the best of it. Paternalism smoothed the relations between these natural antagonists. It took the edge off black discontent and therefore in some ways increased exploitation, because the slaves were led to believe that much of it was in their own interest, or at least that this state of affairs was inevitable. Paternalism certainly helped the masters to maintain their position. As Genovese put it: “Wherever paternalism exists, it undermines solidarity among the oppressed by linking individuals to their oppressors.”

Although some measure of paternalism can be found in every slave society, it was in the opinion of Frank Tannenbaum primarily a characteristic of the Iberian slavery systems, in particular in Brazil. Genovese, on the contrary, found the purest form of paternalism in the United States, which in the eyes of Tannenbaum was the major exponent of the harsh slavery systems created by the nations of northwestern Europe, which lacked any tradition that may have promoted a paternalistic attitude. Genovese sought the cause of this development not in traditions but in circumstances. In the Old South, the plantations were mostly small and, even more important, most owners lived there permanently, sometimes for generations. Having grown up on the premises, being cared for by indulgent ‘mammies’ and cavorting with the young slaves, the masters not only knew their chattels merely by name, but they knew them intimately and in fact regarded them more as loyal family retainers than as simple property. Many planters were loath to sell any of their hands and often they tolerated a degree of slovenliness, laziness and sassiness that a Yankee would never have accepted from a servant.

It certainly goes too far to suppose that a community of interest existed between master and slaves. Paternalism may have made the slaves less eager to run away, attack whites, or perform acts of sabotage, but it did not stifle their desire for freedom, nor did it transform them into more productive workers. In the opinion of Genovese, it made the masters dependant on their slaves, rather than the other way around: “The whites required that the house servants, like the field hands, work to provide for them, but in addition they required their love and emotional support far beyond anything the slaves needed in return. In the reciprocal dependency of slavery, especially in the Big House, the slaves needed masters and mistresses they could depend on; they did not need masters and mistresses to love them. But, the whites needed their servants’ love and trust. The slaves had the upper hand and many of them learned how to use it.” This may be a little exaggerated, but the distinct sense of betrayal that many masters displayed when their ‘loyal’ retainers deserted or opposed them, lends some credence to this observation.

In the early days of slavery, most Surinam plantation owners lived on their estates. During the 18th century, this changed gradually, until by the end of the century most owners were absentees, either living in Paramaribo and visiting their domains once or twice a year at most, or residing overseas. Although the administrators took over the tasks of the owners, the emotions of the slaves towards them were different. For a full-fledged paternalism to develop, a longstanding, intimate relationship between overlords and underlings was necessary, so in Surinam this sentiment had little chance of growing, not only because of the prevalence of absenteeism, but also because plantations were sold frequently. Few estates were in the hands of the same family for more than two generations. Many owners had no descendants, so their estate often fell to distant relatives. Planters went bankrupt because of high living and were obliged to divest themselves of their property. Eager immigrants with little money but much ambition bought up derelict estates. They had neither aptitude nor inclination for the management of slaves and gladly left that task to (often equally inexperienced) directors, who in the eyes of the slaves were nothing but callous exploiters.

Despite the lack of direct contact, or perhaps because of it, the feelings of the slaves towards their owners seem to have been remarkably positive. In fact, the more remote the grootmeester was, the more positive the feelings appear to have been. When an owner from Holland visited his possessions for the first time, the joy of the slaves can hardly be imagined. They believed that all their sorrows were over at once.

Most slaves projected their anger over their exploitation solely on the director, unaware of, or simply disregarding the fact that it took place with the tacit consent, if not the active cooperation of their owner. When the owner or the administrator showed his face, the slaves flooded him with complaints, sincerely believing that now the brutal director would get the sack, or at least a thorough dressing-down. It was a great disappointment to them that they mostly found a less than willing ear for their grievances. The trust went so far that many mistreated slaves did not seek refuge in the forest, but trekked to Paramaribo to tell their woes to their grootmeester, who usually sent them back after a good trashing. The grootmeesters knew the danger of undermining the authority of their directors by listening to the slaves and they only interfered in a dire emergency. Their interest in the well-being of their bondsmen was at most superficial and was dictated more by the fear of loosing valuable property than by feelings of responsibility or humanity.

The only planters in whom one might look for manifestations of the true paternal spirit were the Jews. Most of them lived on, or at only a short distance of, their plantations. If they were not bankrupted, they retained their estates for generations. Furthermore, they can be regarded as representatives of the ‘Iberian mentality’, which in the opinion of Tannenbaum was so conductive to the development of paternalism. There are indeed some indications of this attitude to be discerned. They treated their colored offspring much better than the Christians did. They allowed them to serve as director on their estates, long before other colonists would even consider them as blankofficier. They supported the organizations of the Jewish coloreds, kept in close contact with them and they were, at least until the end of the 18th century, eager to make them part of their religious community. Other manifestations of this paternalistic attitude are more negative: in some instances, their reaction to the ‘defection’ of a slave seemed rather pathological.

This is amply demonstrated by the behavior of Izak de Meza after a faux pas of his mulatto slave woman Adjuba. She had the nerve to complain about her situation to the Raad-Fiscaal. He did not take her seriously and sent her back to her master, who had to pay for the costs of the proceedings. De Meza was admonished “not to do anything to this slave woman because of the complaints lodged against him”. Not surprisingly, this warning did not make a deep impression on the humiliated master. His disobeyed the order to keep her in Paramaribo indefinitely and dragged her home. Some time later, the Court of Police learned from a slave of the plantation of De Meza that Adjuba had been severely beaten and put in irons. This message was sufficiently alarming to prompt the Court to send Burgerluitenant Vinke to investigate, with the order to bring Adjuba back to Paramaribo if any of these allegations proved to be true. When Vinke arrived on the plantation, he did not find De Meza and a ‘big mulatto’ denied that any woman there had been abused. Vinke went to look for himself and found poor Adjuba in a shed. Her legs were distended and fastened in a block and her mouth was so swollen that she could hardly drink. He did not dare to free her without the permission of her master, so he went to the neighboring plantation Rama, owned by Jacob de Meza, a brother of Izak. Jacob refused to do anything, except sending for his brother. Vinke managed to persuade Izak to let Adjuba go. She arrived in Paramaribo with no lasting damage and was able to tell the tale of her suffering to the Court.

After a stay of about ten days in the house of a certain De Mesquita in Paramaribo, her master had come to fetch her. He put her in a corjaer and as soon as they were out of sight, he tied her hands behind her back and let her lie without food on the bottom of the boat for the entire journey of two days. When they arrived on the plantation, Adjuba had fallen to her knees and swore that she would never complain again, but De Meza merely replied that the next time she went to see the Raad-Fiscaal, she could show him more solid proof of abuse: the scars of a Spaanse Bok on her behind (until now she had only been whipped). The next day, he burned her on both arms, cut off her hair, took away her clothes and gave her a maka paantje, with the promise that from now on she would never wear anything else. When she aroused his anger over a triviality, he kicked and beat her, sent away her relatives to the Joden Savanne and threatened her with a Spaanse Bok. Because she feared that she would not survive without her family to care for her, Adjuba decided to run away to the Joden Savanne, hoping to be able to persuade a white to put in a good word with her master. She was caught and brought to the house of De Meza. He locked her in irons under his hammock and left her there for two weeks without any food or drink –an ordeal she only survived because her relatives occasionally managed to slip some victuals to her. Afterwards, De Meza dragged her back to the plantation and tied her to his bed during the night. The next day, he submitted her to the promised Spaanse Bok. From then on, she had to work around the house and was thrashed so often by De Meza and his wife that she begged to be allowed to work in the field (a great humiliation for a mulatto woman). She was denied that privilege. Finally, De Meza nailed her in a block and said she would stay there for the rest of her life as an example to the other slaves. Luckily, she was rescued in time.

What had kindled the hatred of De Meza most was not the fact that Adjuba had run away, but the fact that he had lost face when she voiced her grievances to the Raad-Fiscaal. He declared that he would rather see his slaves run into the forest than have them tattle to the authorities –even though in the latter case the chances of getting them back were infinitely larger. Though De Meza denied any mistreatment of Adjuba (he claimed that her mouth was swollen because of a tooth ague), Raad-Fiscaal Wichers was convinced of his malice, because he had branded her, which was never done to a mulatto in Surinam.

I think it is more accurate to describe the attitude of the Surinam owners as a kind of avunculism: they shied away from direct involvement in the lives of the slaves and only interfered when they learned of repeated excesses. Yet many of them exhibited a generous attitude on the rare occasions they visited their plantation and they genuinely seemed to enjoy presiding over the distributions and the following outbursts of merriment among the slaves. Some were even willing to forget their dignity for a while and join in the festivities.

In general, the Surinam slave owners preferred to stay aloof. On the one hand, this may have stimulated the development of stereotypes about the slaves, which however in essence departed little from the stereotypes entertained about all the lower and subjected classes. On the other hand, they had less need for negative prejudices to rationalize the oppression of blacks than the planters in the Old South had, who felt obliged to defend their cherished institutions against the onslaughts of abolitionists and skeptic northerners. It is doubtful whether the slaveholders of Surinam put much score on the ‘love’ of their slaves. It is clear that they appreciated the professions of attachment showered on them when they graced the plantation with their presence, but they were realistic enough to grasp the relationship between this good cheer and the fact that a considerable amount of goodies was likely to be distributed on such an occasion. The slave owners who lived in Paramaribo only wanted the services of their house slaves. They did not need them for company or distraction and the rumors about poisonings will have stirred their suspicions enough to make them wary of any real intimacy.

It was different for the directors. They lived on an isolated estate and were only permitted to leave it in case of an emergency. Their tenure was uncertain and even if there were white officers, they were supposed to keep a certain distance from them. Most directors were only surrounded by their black charges, however. Since in Surinam the owners insisted on their remaining unmarried, they were dependant on black women for sexual release. The reason for this demand is not entirely clear. One hypothesis (though unlikely) is that the wife of the director would hobnob with the wives of the white officers, which might undermine his authority. More likely is the theory that the director, being practically obliged to take a black housekeeper, would be better informed about the goings-on in the slave quarters. In the neighboring colony Berbice, on the contrary, the planters preferred their directors to be married, because they believed it would make them more stable and less vulnerable to the lure of alcohol. Whatever the reason, the archetypical mixed couple was the director and his slave concubine.

Sexual relations between the races.

One of the foremost traits of a frontier society in the Western Hemisphere was the lack of women, white women in particular. Black women were scarce too during most of the slavery era, but whites, by virtue of their superior position, could monopolize the most desirable ones for their ‘own use’. Having a white wife did not necessarily prevent a man from acquiring a colored mistress, but this habit seems to have been less widespread in Surinam than in other plantation areas. Many (lower class) white men were unable to procure or support a wife. The directors have already been mentioned. The miserably underpaid soldiers could barely feed and house themselves, let alone take on the responsibility of supporting a family. Even for the officers this was not always feasible and if they did marry, many of them chose a rich older widow, preferably one with a plantation. Ambitious immigrants mostly came alone and few of them sent for a wife from back home.

The authorities did their utmost to prevent white men from taking colored lovers. The Servants’ Regulations of 1686 stated: “All inhabitants are sharply forbidden to become intimate with the Negro or Indian women even less with the free Indian women and have carnal conversation with them”. The penalty was a fine of 2000 pounds of sugar. It was considered particularly mortifying when white men got into a dispute over a colored woman. The brothers Benelle of the plantation NieuwSorgh fought with swords over a slave girl. One was killed, the other died a few days later of his wounds. As a punishment and to spoil her beauty, one of the eyes of the girl was gouged out. Consequently, the slave name of the plantation became Lasai (loss eye).

For white women the scarcity of acceptable partners had the dubious advantage that few of them remained unmarried for long. They tended to live to a much riper age than their husbands (whose debaucheries often brought them an untimely grave) and usually found a successor within a couple of months -often one considerably younger: Dirk Hatterman was only 19 when he married Henriëtte de la Jaille, nearly thirty years his senior. One indomitable lady, Governor Mauricius’ archenemy Mrs. Audra, buried no less than five husbands. Their situation, however, was often far from pleasant. They had to suffer the humiliation of their husband’s philandering without being able to stop it. Their only way of protest was to revenge themselves on the girls involved. The much reviled Susanna Duplessis was rumored to have stabbed a beautiful mulatto girl in the chest nine times, because she suspected her husband of being enamored with her. She also branded an attractive Negress, who had just been purchased, on the cheeks, mouth and brow and in addition cut her Achilles tendon. Moreover, white wives had absolutely nothing to do: servants took care of the housework and children, politics were out of bound, if they owned a plantation the husband or administrator saw to that, etc. This only left charity, church, visits and gossip –and idleness often bred malice.

Even the possibility of a relationship between a black man and a white woman was regarded with the utmost horror. If something of the kind did occur, the secret was closely guarded. However, two such unions, which came to light in 1711, prompted the Governor and the Court of Police to the following statement: “as we have found to our profound regret that some female persons do not scruple to have carnal intercourse with negroes and while these are affairs giving a great scandal to the whole colony [so is it that] to prevent this kind of whoring and fornication in the future, we have decided ... that in case it shall be discovered that any white female person being unmarried, shall have carnal intercourse with a negro, that female person shall be severely whipped and banished from this colony for life. And in case any married female person shall stoop to this, she shall not only be severely whipped, but also branded and banished from this colony for life and the negro with whom this has been done shall be punished with death without any connivance.”

Stedman also claimed that the black lover would be “put to death without mercy” and it seems likely that this has indeed happened on several occasions. Though I never encountered an actual case of a black being executed for this reason, I found an Indian slave (Jantie) who did fall victim to this kind of injustice, even though the woman involved (Janna Levie) acknowledged that she had seduced him. She was banished from the colony, but the Court of Police did not grant the Raad-Fiscaal his wish to thrash her soundly.

White society did not look upon the liaisons of white men with tinted women in quite the same way, though there was a lingering residue of ambivalence about these relationships. Because of the circumstances, they were common enough and the man in question incurred little stigma, but he was supposed to keep his private life scrupulously private. Governor Van Sommelsdijck, for example, refused to accept Lucas Couderc as a member of the Court of Police, because he was “living very scandalously with a [black] house maid”. The fact that the church denounced such relationships as sinful (even though church servants indulged in them just the same) and that the authorities had officially forbidden them (deluding themselves that they could actually be stopped), made it ill advised to flaunt them. The social control exerted by white women may not have been sufficiently stringent to oblige the erring men to mend their ways, but at least it made them careful not to confront these matrons with their unwanted presence during social gatherings.

The element of force in the establishment of such liaisons must not be discounted. Many colonists were in an excellent position to force non-white women into relationships that disgusted them. The women on the plantations were especially vulnerable in this regard. Some cautious owners explicitly forbade their employees to trifle with the ‘married’ women, but it was a rare one indeed who declared all plantation women taboo. Some directors, either too drunk or too insensitive to care, did not shy from actually raping their unfortunate charges. Several instances of such scandalous behavior became known and the culprits were brought to trial. In one case, the director obliged female slaves to lie side by side in his room, while he amused himself with one or the other. A suckling woman was instructed to leave her child with a friend while she awaited her turn. Usually, more subtle forms of pressure were sufficient.

Sometimes slave men functioned as a kind of pimps. Coridon of the plantation Montauban was on patrol when his commander Rodenkirchen asked him to procure a girl for him. Coridon fortunately knew several girls without husbands and sent him one. The girl was not very cooperative, though. After her second visit, she declared that she loathed him and refused to come again. Rodenkirchen blamed Coridon for this humiliation and the farce ended in a fight between them.

It was not unusual for slave women to refuse the advances of a white suitor and if he was neither her owner, nor her director, she had a good chance of getting away with it. A girl named Nanoe, who belonged to Willem Bedloo, a member of the Court of Police, had been hired out to the chirurgijn Oeting, who had forced her to become his concubine. He treated her so badly that she fled back to her master and refused to have any connection with him anymore. Twice, Oeting tried to speak with her, but she would not give him the time of day. One night, Oeting and a couple of friends, in an inebriated state, kicked in the ‘Negro gate’ of Bedloo’s domicile, beat up the stable boy Donné and scared the hell out of Bedloo's aged mother, whose door they also assaulted. All in a vain attempt to get Nanoe back. Though no real harm was done, the Raad-Fiscaal recommended Oeting for punishment.

Often, little force was necessary because the women got tangible rewards from a liaison with a white, especially a plantation director. At the very least, it lightened their workload considerably. Many of the sissies had few tasks beyond supervising the household and pleasing their lord. Sometimes, they only had to do the latter. Kappler once visited the director of the plantation Onverwacht in the Para region. He noticed that after breakfast the director climbed on his horse and rode to the plantation “where he visited the pretty negresses, who willingly subjected to his sultanic pretenses, but though they were entered as house maids in the slave list, since no director lives there, they did not have to perform the least work and spent their time in idleness”. Other directors spoiled their favorites terribly. Director Mamin of Vrouwenvlijt had a series of concubines. The first one, Adjuba, “continuously received presents of money from his meager wages”. She was replaced by Animba for whom “he tries to move heaven and earth to get her on the plantation with him”. Finally, Neeltje came along: she was promised her freedom in his will, but as she had misbehaved after his demise and had been sentenced to forced labor, it is doubtful that she was actually manumitted. Another reason that slave women may have preferred white lovers is the fact that their children could hope for a less difficult existence and even freedom.

In a number of cases, there seems to have existed a lasting and genuine affection between a director and his concubine. The director and blankofficier of the plantation ‘t Eyland, for example, were much surprised when their bastiaan Hendrik caught four slaves of Santa Barbara who were bringing back the slave woman Mimi in the middle of the night. It turned out that the director of Santa Barbara often sent slaves to fetch Mimi on Saturday night and to bring her back on Monday morning very early. He had formerly been the director of ‘t Eyland and had started a relationship with Mimi that had resulted in five children. Mimi confessed that she still felt a great affection for him and this was obviously mutual. Both lovers were punished, not so much because of the affair, but Mimi because she had left her plantation without the permission of her master and director Hoth because he had undermined the authority of his colleague by fetching slaves from his plantation without his consent and because he had endangered the slaves he had sent to fetch Mimi. They could have easily been mistaken for runaways and shot, or they could have come into conflict with the slaves of ‘t Eyland.

The concubines of plantation directors were mostly slave women, but in the city, the majority of the mistresses of white men were free or freed. Many employees of the Society had a relationship with a slave girl and attempted to buy her freedom. Jacques Richard, the assistant tax collector, for example, bade Governor Nepveu for the freedom of Dorothea and her two mulatto children in 1770. He was willing to give a good slave in compensation for each of them. Nepveu was tempted to accept the offer: “I must say that these Slaves even the Mother though she is still a Maid in the prime of her Years, are now so weaned from doing anything that they are of no use to the Hon. Society nor any governor who may come here at any time”. She was not the only one who was indulged like that: “there are several Other Maids who are in the same position, and as it seems have done nothing, but to Divert themselves and to breed Mulattoes”. Some of them had lost all sense of decorum: they had received baptism and occasionally they “had themselves driven to church in a carriage”. Nepveu concluded: “Certainly such spoiled People can do little Service here anymore”.

Sometimes a man wanted to free his concubine, but because of the circumstances was not able to and when he did not own the woman himself, this could lead to tragedy. Benoit witnessed how a beautiful young Creole woman, the mistress of one of his friends and the mother of his two children, was auctioned off. The man had vowed to buy her freedom, but died on the day he had planned to go to Paramaribo to arrange this.

Whatever the feelings of a white man for his colored mistress, he would never treat her as an equal. She was not allowed to accompany him when he went out, because even though most white men did not mind this, white women would never tolerate their presence. Therefore, the missies were limited to each other’s company, which consequently they sought out frequently. Theirs was an idle, but not unpleasant existence, according to Lammens: “The housekeepers confine themselves, [in order to] to maintain authority and direction in the house and among the slaves: to do little or nothing with regard to housekeeping; -they pursue pleasure, their parties, visits, dus, all these affairs make for large posts on the credit side”. Only the lowliest whites would seat themselves at a table with them to eat. A man might speak of his colored offspring as his son or his daughter, but he would never refer to their mother as his wife.

The female partner in such a relationship was usually very loyal. When the man went to Europe and she expected him to return, she would refuse any other commitment. When she did not count on seeing him again, however, she would try to find another white to take his place. If she was beyond her prime, she was often reduced to relationships with privates and other common folk. Sometimes, a man was willing to take his mistress to Europe with him, especially if she was light in color, but in most instances the women refused, because they feared they would be looked down on in Europe. Such was, for example, the stance of Joanna, the beloved of John Gabriel Stedman, who reluctantly left her behind in the care of a good mistress. These steady relationships between a white man and a colored woman were called Surinamese marriages.

In spite of all the tolerance for such bonds, an official marriage was definitely out. In the eyes of many colonists, a white man who wed a colored woman disgraced himself beyond redemption. The Court of Police wrote to the directors of the Society on this matter: “The objection against such a marriage is that it is repugnant and repulsive, utterly disgraceful for a white person, whether out of sexual perversion or for food, to enter in such a marriage, which has always been despised here. It is also true that in order to maintain our upright position in the middle of such a perverted and twisted people we must rely more on the feeling of the negroes for our preeminence over them, as if we are of a better and nobler nature, than on our real power. What will they believe about that excellent nature if they see that they need only to be free in order to join with us in a solemn bond of marriage and thus have their children the companions of our own? Should not the laxity of whites who so debase themselves be singled out for criticism?”

The case that brought on this outburst was the request of Nanette Samson to be permitted to wed a white man. She was one of the richest of women in Surinam, whose plantations yielded a yearly income of more than 80.000 guilders -an excellent catch for a penniless white. The Court refused permission, but the Society decreed it had no right to do so. The first candidate having died in the process, Nanette Samson then appeared with a second one and was duly married. Agnes de L’Isle also wed a white man, Herman Stukkenbroek. “She is the daughter of a Negro, born on the Plantation named ‘t Eyland, of which she then has adopted the name L’Isle”, noted Samuel Duplessis. After her husband had died, she was accused of operating a brothel in her house and even of performing abortions. There were more colored women with a white husband, but they remained a rare phenomenon. For the man in question such a marriage often proved a handicap for his career. When Lieutenant Cremer got engaged to a colored woman, the Governor muttered that “her grandmother had never been married” and had borne children from several men. Her whole family was dark-skinned and she herself was so dark that he doubted that white Mr. Adolf “really was her father”. For a colored woman, the official marriage to a white man was the ultimate triumph. It could only be attained by the most prosperous and cultivated and placed them at the top of their class. It did however help little towards their acceptance in white society. Only at the end of the slavery era, when some exceptionally talented, light-skinned men, like attorney-at-law H. C. Focke, gained acceptance in the highest circles, this attitude slowly changed.

The wages of ‘sin’.

The Tannenbaum-Elkins thesis is that the easier acceptance of interracial sexual relationships and their fruits (probably caused by a greater familiarity with swarthy persons) lubricated the communication between black and white in the Latin-American territories. Interracial liaisons were much more common in these parts and consequently, the slavery system was considerably less harsh. Marvin Harris has objected vehemently to this theory: “In general, when human beings have the power, the opportunity and the need, they will mate with members of the opposite sex regardless of color or the identity of grandfather. Whenever free breeding in a human population is restricted, it is because a larger system of social relations is menaced by such freedom.” In his view, the libido of West-Europeans was no more 'monochromatic' than that of their Latin counterparts.

It is true that the frequency of such encounters did not differ fundamentally -but the attitude towards them did. Many Protestants were crippled by feelings of guilt because of their weakness in the eye of temptation. The whites of Surinam, although mostly stiff Calvinists by heritage, did not seem to have been much troubled by such feelings, though. Their attitude with regard to the fruits of interracial liaisons was, however, closer to that of the Anglo-Saxons.

Inevitably, the peccadilloes of white men with their colored mistresses yielded results. These were carefully classified according to tint. In fact, the colonists seem to have been just as precise in distinguishing various shades of brown as their Brazilian colleagues were. The offspring of a white and a black was called a mulat, that of a mulat and a white a musties, the offspring of a white and a musties was a casties (or quateron in the parlance of Stedman), while the mating of a white and a casties produced a poesties. Beyond that, no further distinctions were made and people with more European blood were quietly allowed to pass for white. The offspring of a mulatto and a black was called a karboeger. No other names for the children of a musties, casties or poeties and a black were known, indicating that these unions were rare indeed. The Indian seemed to have held a position equal to that of a mulatto on the color scale, because the child of an Indian and a white was also called a musties and that of an Indian and a black a karboeger.

Contrary to the situation in the United States, a careful distinction was made between the black and the colored slaves. A mulatto slave did not have to labor in the field. The men were mostly taught a trade and the women worked as house servants and were in much demand as concubines. The lighter-skinned slaves proved more of a problem. A musties could not be forced to do the same work as a mulatto. The boys were therefore taught a more sophisticated craft, like cabinetmaker or silversmith, or they traded in valuables; while the girls were taught to sew and embroider, or were trained as a ladies’ maid. Slaves of even lighter hue were a bit of an anomaly: it was difficult to find the right employment for them. At the same time, their numbers increased steadily because of the preference of the white men for lighter partners. Consequently, they made up the majority of the manumitted slaves.

Not all men took good care of their children by colored women. Some were (still) too irresponsible to face the consequences of their actions. Nassy complained, for example, that boys of no more than twelve years already sired children with slave women. This occurred more frequently among the Christians than among the Jews, in his opinion, because the Jews guarded their children much closer -especially the girls, who were never allowed to be alone with a Negro. It made a difference, of course, whether the father lived on the plantation, instead of being a former resident or a passing visitor. A director had no reason to be particularly indulgent towards the children of his predecessors. The presence of white women played an important part as well. Hoetink maintained that after the stock exchange crisis the Surinamese marriage gained in respectability: “several fathers taking care of their Surinamese children with a dedication which would have been almost unthinkable if the number of European women had been sufficiently great to exert ‘normal’ social control”.

When a father went back to Europe, he was expected to provide for his former mistress and his children. Sometimes he even took his children along. Stedman traveled back in the company of his son Johnny and he saw to it that the boy received a good education. In the 19th century, some men even sent their sons to university. Several of these ‘chosen ones’ later returned to the colony and gained a prominent position. The offspring of the many casual matings were not so fortunate. With little or no support from their father, who was often dead poor himself, they lived like paupers on the fringe of society -an inevitable outcome in a colony that was not really geared for the accommodation of non-whites who had escaped slavery.

The price of freedom.

Until far into the 18th century, the number of free Negroes (vrijnegers) in Surinam was so small that it did not merit separate attention in the yearly census that was sent to the directors of the Society of Surinam. The figures concerning whites and red and black slaves were all that mattered. By various ways, their numbers steadily increased, however, and they became a factor that had to be taken into account.

There were three ways in which a slave, if he was talented and dedicated enough, could win his freedom. Firstly, he could be manumitted by his owner, as a reward for faithful service, or by virtue of being his offspring. Secondly, his freedom could be bought by someone else for the same reasons. For example, the government sometimes purchased and freed slaves who had denounced a conspiracy. Lastly, he could buy his freedom himself, though this happened only sporadically. The percentage of free Negroes in Surinam was among the lowest in the whole Caribbean. Obviously, manumission was not stimulated by the desire to have a group that functioned as a buffer between whites and slaves, or performed tasks for which no white workers could be found and that could not be done by slaves –which, according to Harris, were the main reasons free coloreds were so plentiful in Brazil.

In Surinam, being manumitted was the privilege of the lightest and of the most favored slaves and for most of the slavery era, it was a comparatively rare occurrence. It necessitated a complicated and rather expensive bureaucratic procedure. In the early period, there was already a stringent manumission code. It decreed that the prospective freedman had to be able to earn his keep. Furthermore, he was obliged to show the proper respect to all whites and especially to the ex-owner, who was to be awarded “all Honor, Respect and Reverence”. In case he forgot his station to the extent of hitting his former master or mistress, he could be reduced to slavery again. If his former owner sunk into poverty, the manumitted slave had to contribute to his support. He was not allowed to marry a slave woman and if he had offspring by one, he would loose his freedom when the third child was born (the first two only carried a fine). If he died without issue, the former owner was entitled to a quarter of his estate. Owners seeking to manumit a slave were obliged to have him educated and brought up in the Christian faith.

At the end of the 18th century, when scores of planters manumitted slaves merely to spite their creditors, new obstacles were put in the way of freedom. The owner had to post a bond of several hundreds of guilders, which would be used for the support of the ex-slave if he was no longer able to care for himself. The freedman had to donate 100 guilders to the Runaway Fund, or serve for three years in the Vrijcorps. Manumission by will was declared null and void if the estate was not solvent. The former owner had to keep an eye on the freedman and make sure that he was able to support himself, or he could appoint a guardian (called straatvoogd) to do so. In that case, the caution was not necessary. In 1832, it was reaffirmed that, in order to qualify for freedom, a slave had to be a baptized member of an officially recognized denomination, be it EGB, Lutheran, Dutch Reformed, Catholic, or Jewish.

The amount of money the owners had to pledge rose steadily over the years, to 500 guilders in the beginning of the 19th century. Few of them were prepared to lay out so much cash. To circumvent this kind of extortion, the slave was sometimes ‘sold to himself’. As long as the ‘new owner’ did not pay off his debt, he legally remained a slave. He then got the status of piekie-njan (literally ‘one who is looking for food’). The number of these quasi-slaves rose so fast in the beginning of the 19th century, that it was decreed in 1829 that they had to report for registration, on penance of becoming government property. In principle, they were supposed to earn enough money to pay for their emancipation, but few bothered: it was better to be one’s own slave than to be free. In 1843, the caution was lowered to 200 guilders and it could be bought off by donating 75 guilders (for children under 12), or 50 guilders (for adults) to the colonial treasury.

The costs also included the fee for drawing up the official manumission letters: in 1843 16 guilders for a single slave and 25 guilders for a woman and her children. An example of such a deed is the following declaration of Gratia Grandis (1754): “I the undersigned declare to relieve from slavery and give freedom to my negress named Filidas, with her three children named Betina, Datú and Sipion, and this in reward and compensation for Filidas’ loyal services, rendered to me from time to time, she will however not be allowed to enjoy her freedom sooner, then after my demise, like she will then also be able to live where she considers it best, without anyone, whoever it may be interfering with her or disturbing her”. It has been well documented that provisions like these prompted slaves that did not want to wait any longer into poisoning their benefactor.

Not all freedom papers came with no strings attached. The testament of Simon van Halewijn (a notorious troublemaker who got himself embroiled with half the colonists) stated: “I relieve from slavery the following; my Negro Isaac, the First Negro Officer of my plantation het Eiland, for his faithful services, his Wife Affrica, with their Children and descendants, as well as the children he will have with his second Wife Lisabeth, who he will recognize as his own. I also give freedom to my negro House Servant Leveille and his Wife Mauri and the Children and descendants that they may have in the future. Under the condition that Isaac and Leveille and their aforementioned Wives and Children and the descendants that they may have in the future continue to live on one of my Plantations on the Paulus creek or the so called Peperpot situated between the Plantations Meersorg and Laliberté in Surinam, and that they will continue in the service they perform at the moment”. They were to receive a salary of 150 guilders a year and a ration of meat and clothes, which would be theirs even when they could not work anymore. Their children would be taught a useful trade. A slave called Coffy was freed as result of the deathbed request of Governor J.A. de Cheusses, whom he had nursed during his final illness. However, were his widow to leave for Europe, Coffy had to accompany her, whether he liked it or not.

In the 19th century, an owner who wanted to free a slave had to place an advertisement that announced the happy occasion, so other colonists were able to voice their objections. One such an advertisement read like this: “As Mariana Isaak Nathan Samson has addressed the Court of Police and Criminal Justice, with a request to His Excellency the Governor, asking, for reasons included, with dispensation of the normal period of Session, to be allowed to obtain letters of freedom for the negress named Affiba and her two children by the names of Bébé and Fannij, belonging to her. So be it, that now everyone who claims to have any right or pretense on the said slaves is advised to state these, at the secretariat of the said Court, before the 29th of this month: since after expiration of this period the request will be decided on as shall be deemed proper. Paramaribo 15th of March 1826”

When the freedom of a slave was bought by others, it could be for several reasons. The authorities sometimes freed a slave who had performed a meritorious deed, occasionally with the provision that he had to (continue to) serve them. In 1772, they also decided to buy and free slaves who had yet to perform their heroic acts: as members of the Vrijcorps, who had to fight the Maroons. In an orgy of frenzied spending, they bought 300 of the best slaves of the colony, some at prices surpassing 1000 guilders. The recruits received a salary of 9 guilders a month while on patrol, but had to provide their own sustenance when not. To this end, they were given a tract of land near Paramaribo: Frimansgron.

They were assured that they would have free access to the plantations to visit their wives and children, but it turned out that this was an empty promise in many cases. Quite a few directors did not allow them on the premises, fearing trouble and the envy of the not so fortunate slaves. For this reason, the Governor and Court of Police issued the following statement in November 1772: “Since some planters and administrators or their directors refuse, to receive and tolerate the aforementioned freedmen on their plantation, by which they are wholly separated from and deprived of their wives, children and families, which causes such great desperation in them, that not only all the courage and willingness disappear from them, but even despising the awarded freedom, [they] would rather choose slavery again than remain separated from their relations … And since the affair is of such vital importance for the survival and well-being of this precious Colony and its inhabitants … [we] have approved and considered [it] necessary to recommend every citizen, to permit the aforementioned freedmen to stay in the most suitable manner, when they are not on patrol or used for the common good, on the plantations with their wives or families”.

Few slaves were able to save enough money to buy the freedom of themselves or their loved ones. One exception was the baptized Dorothea van Paramaribo, who succeeded in buying her own and her children’s freedom for the impressive sum of 1600 guilders (unfortunately it is not clear how she managed to procure such a fortune). Some successful artisans were very well able to buy their freedom, but refused to do so because of the protection their slave status provided: they could rely on their master for help to secure payment for their services; they did not have to pay taxes, nor serve in the militia and they were less subject to arbitrary treatment than vrijnegers. Stedman remarked about this subject: “I have known a negro, being a smith, and named Joseph, who had, because of his long and faithful services, been offered freedom, but who refused this with great conviction, and preferred to remain slave with a good master. This man owned several slaves himself; he lived in a comfortable and well-furnished house, and he even owned some pieces of silverware. When his master and mistress came to see him, he offered them delicious wine and sherbet.”

Most of the slaves who were manumitted by a white owed this fortunate turn in their circumstances to their intimate relation with the man concerned. He often had to make a considerable sacrifice. Governor Texier, for example, advised the Society in 1780 to divest itself from the mulatto slaves Coba with her son, Andrea and the boy Pietje if “6 young sturdy Man Negroes” were given in return. This was a good deal for the Society, as the women were ordinary house servants and Pietje was retarded because of convulsions.

Some bondsmen gained their freedom by the simple fact of having been in Europe. Their owners had decided to take along their favorite servant when returning to their homeland to recuperate and it turned out that it was most expedient to free them in advance. Otherwise, the slave had a good chance of securing his freedom papers by a decision of the Court, as can be inferred from the following case. In 1717 an alleged slave woman arrived by boat from Holland. She had formerly been owned by a Mr. Groenwoud, but claimed to be free and showed a letter signed by the Reverend Hibersma from Amsterdam, stating that he had accepted her as a member of the Dutch Reformed Church (the implication being that she was not a slave at the moment). However, the director of the plantation of Mr. Groenwoud claimed she was still the property of the estate. The case was left to be decided by the Society.

Dutchmen, though accepting slavery in principle, were not prepared to deal with it in their own country. Their presumptions were in favor of freedom. The alleged owner had to prove unequivocally that the slave in question had not been freed before departure. Most of the time, black servants got the benefit of the doubt and were treated as free persons. The Burgomaster of Middelburg, for example, wrote to the Governor that a servant named Eva “here totally is and was acknowledged & regarded as a Free Person”. When Eva returned to Surinam, she wanted to have her free status confirmed. Her mistress Jacoba Nullings strongly disagreed.

How great a risk an owner took by sending a slave to Holland, is further proven by the trials of Salomon Duplessis. His correspondent in Amsterdam, Jean Couderc, informed him that the slave Gideon, who had accompanied his son as a tutor and whose return he had demanded, had run away and had sought the protection of Mr. Erbefeld, the agent of the King of Prussia. Erbefeld had sent Gideon to Germany, where he had entered the employ of a prominent man. Couderc declared not to be able to reclaim him, because “to force such a person with violence is not permitted here”. If he tried to kidnap him, he could be fined 3000 guilders. When a slave had spent six months in the Low Countries, he was, for all intents and purposes, free.

In the 19th century, a few slaves could thank the awakening abolitionist sentiment in the Netherlands for their release. It had taken a remarkably long time for this to happen, especially since by then it had been a red-hot issue on the other side of the Channel for over 30 years. The Christians in the Low Countries had never been much in favor of emancipation, because they felt that as the descendants of Cham blacks were destined to be ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’. Neither had they forgotten the bloody revolution in Haiti. Nevertheless, during the 19th century they gradually adopted the Negroes of Surinam as charity cases. Some of them joined the Liberals (who were not deluded by the teachings of the Bible and considered slavery to be an economically unviable institution at the very least) in the Maatschappij ter Bevordering van de Afschaffing der Slavernij (Society for the Promotion of the Abolition of Slavery). They raised money and eventually bought the freedom of about 200 bondsmen. This was an almost negligible percentage of the slave population, of course, but important as a token of their compassion.

Towards the middle of the 19th century, the opposition against slavery became increasingly vocal and put a heavy pressure on the members of the Dutch parliament, who in turn forced the government to better the treatment of the slaves and to come up with a scheme for peaceful emancipation. The government dallied with various strategies, until a date was finally set: the first of July 1863. The owners received a compensation of 300 guilders per slave and the ex-slaves were required to stay on as plantation laborers for a period of 10 years.

Their new status brought little joy to most of the freedman during slavery times. Apart from the very light-skinned coloreds with well-to-do and indulgent fathers, most ex-slaves barely scraped by. The majority of them had either been artisans or house servants. The first group was in theory excellently prepared for their new position, but often it did not work out as planned. The white inhabitants preferred to hire slaves when they had the chance, even when this was more expensive, and they had great trouble collecting the money due to them. For the others it was even more difficult to make ends meet. They had an indestructible disdain for plantation labor, so they tried to keep their head above water with odd jobs, or by becoming itinerant traders. Many were dependent on subsistence farming. They hovered along the outskirts of Paramaribo, looked down on even by the slaves.

Most colonial authors did not have a very favorable opinion of the freedmen. Lammens, for example, grumbled: “They stroll along the streets of Paramaribo with nothing to do: -abandon themselves to all debaucheries –the philosophy of the day, this unbound charity changes an industrious class, into a true burden to society. A large part of the ones freed this way would, without the loving support of their former masters perish from want, or help themselves to other people’s property illegally. Though one can gain a considerable daily wage here, and needs for the living expenses only the work of two days a week; many of them are not able, to pay the poll-tax, but are in deep misery, are needy, without any apparent cause, but laziness. We would need a tropical Frederiksoord here.” Westphal was even less charitable: “The Creole or native of Surinam, not belonging to a highly civilized class, is on the whole very lazy, indolent and imperious, very fond of jewelry and beautiful clothes, the dance parties are his beloved pastime, agriculture is a horror in his eyes, when the Master or Owner frees a slave, be it Negro or Mulatto, the freed slave may then wear shoes and receives from his countrymen the Honor of being called Masra, which in the Dutch language means Lord, even if the Owner of this freed slave gave him a beautiful and fertile piece of land the freed slave would not work that piece of land himself! And when one asks such a person why he does not work that piece of land, one gets as the answer of this freed slave, I have no hands, meaning I have no slaves!”

Even if a freedman had a good education, he often did not display the least initiative. Kappler was extremely irritated by one of his travel companions, a “thick, idle, bloated mulatto”, who had been trained as a chirurgijn, but did nothing with his precious knowledge. Some freedmen made good use of their opportunities though: Governor De Goyer noted in 1711 that a free Negro named Jan Wittekar worked his grounds with the aid of two whites and two slaves.

According to Harry Hoetink, “a paternalistic slave system which through frequent manumissions produces a relatively large number of free people for whom there is hardly any place in the economic structure may tend to intensify unfavorable attitudes toward them among the whites. The situation in Surinam would then suggest that a cruel slave system tends to interest the whites into the creation of alliances with free people, which may lead to the improvement of the latter’s social and economic position.” There is a lot to say for this hypothesis. For their very survival, the Surinam whites were obliged to create alliances with several groups of non-whites: Indians, the ‘satisfied’ Maroons (later called Bush Negroes) and ultimately the ex-slaves of the Vrijcorps. However, it goes too far to say that this improved the social and economic position of the freedmen class as a whole, because Surinam society did not really have a niche for them either, nor did it improve the attitude of most whites towards them, as we have seen. The free coloreds without specialized skills were especially difficult to integrate. Moreover, the lighter their hue, the bigger the problem. Only at the end of the slavery era, when (as a result of the growing scarcity of educated whites) the government came to depend more and more on colored civil servants, they found their place in society.

Many writers have castigated free Negroes for their lack of revolutionary zeal, but Genovese has eloquently defended the American freedmen against these allegations: ”If, under the circumstances, the free negroes never rose against the regime in a suicidal gesture, neither did they ever give clear evidence of their loyalty and reliability to the master class. They kept their own council and held on to what they had as best as they could. Their course may have lacked the theatrics that nowadays pass for revolutionary heroics in middle-class circles, but it had dignity, purpose and wisdom.” This goes for most of the Surinam freedmen as well.

It is a little naïve to believe that slaves and freedmen had many common interests just because they had a common skin color. Most Surinam whites never really feared an alliance between the vrijnegers and the slaves. They established the Vrijcorps to fight against the Maroons and to perform other military duties, with little suspicion that military training and armament might make them better allies of slaves trying to escape bondage, or Maroons trying to drive them out of Surinam. The Redi Moesoe proved indeed to be singularly successful in battling the forces that threatened stability. The authorities also created a burgerwacht platoon of free coloreds, which, however, turned out to be virtually useless. Not because the members consciously tried to sabotage the efforts to subject the Maroons, but because they simply lacked the fighting spirit of the ‘redhats’. The freedmen just reacted to the circumstances. In Surinam, they had no reason to believe they would be better off in a ‘black republic’ under the domination of Maroon leaders. Yet, an uprising of the vrijnegers and the slaves together would have had a good chance of success in Surinam. In this light, it is all the more remarkable that the whites did not exert themselves more to court their favor.

A black superman.

An interesting departure of the usual pattern is the remarkable career of Quassi van Nieuw Timotibo. Born on the coast of Guinea in 1692 and dying at a ripe old age in 1787, his very lifespan is already intriguing. The first time he gained attention was when he rang the alarm bell of his master’s plantation during the attack of Jacques Cassard in 1712. This started a long career of devotion and service to the whites, who proved themselves properly grateful.

Quassi was soon singled out by his master because of his intelligence and was employed as a trader with the Indians (bokkeruylder). During his sojourns among them, he learned their languages and all he could about their use of medicinal herbs. Around 1730, he discovered the remarkable qualities of the plant that became known as kwassibita. It soothed fever and stomach troubles. Linneus, who received a sample from the planter Dahlberg, classified it as Quassia amara L. During the next 50 years, Quassi established an enviable reputation as the best dresi- and lukuman of the colony. He was regarded with awe by black and white alike.

Quassi started to get into trouble with his (new) master after he had been employed by the Court of Police as a guide in the campaign against the Maroons. If we believe the testimony of director D’Anglade, he may have had good reason to be dissatisfied with the behavior of Quassi, which was not befitting of a humble slave. In a long letter to Frederik and Abraham Camijn, the administrators of Nieuw Timotibo, D’Anglade complained that “he goes, he comes, he moves, he brings along and takes away again some Negroes, and as many as pleases him, without condescending to inform me”. When he objected to such irregularities, Quassi turned insolent and replied: “I may be a Negro, but such a Negro as I am, is worth more than ten whites”. The much-plagued director came to hate him so much that he wrote: “wouldn’t it be better if the heads of all the Negroes, who are like Quasje, would be used to decorate the tops of the gallows, in my opinion this is the only place where one should allow them, I know no better one”.

Governor Mauricius explained to the States-General (in his defense against accusations that he employed a criminal): “The truth is, that he, shortly before I bought him, has been in jail, and his whole crime had been, that he had been used to be treated as a free Negro under the former Administrators [but] nowadays had to live under the severe Government of a Frenchman, named Danglade, and possibly well-known in the Fatherland, who, being more demanding than another, wanted to employ this Negro, who sometimes had advised him too boldly for his taste on the Direction of the Plantation, for the dirtiest Jobs. When Quasje did not answer respectfully enough, d’ Anglade sent him to the Fort, as the Owners often do who do not want to punish a Negro themselves.”

To alleviate these problems and to retain Quassi’s invaluable services for the government, Mauricius proposed to the Society to buy him for the Mineral Company and when he did not receive permission to do so, he bought Quassi himself (giving in return two slaves valued at 600 guilders). He employed him as a scout and bokkeruylder. [The profits of the trade with the Indians had traditionally accrued to the Governor, but by the time Mauricius came to power, they had dwindled to almost nil.] The contract of sale explicitly forbade Quassi “strictly and at the peril of his life … to come directly and indirectly on the aforementioned Plantation Nieuw Timotibo, or even to traverse the River Perica”. Neither was he permitted to wander around freely in Paramaribo, but he had to go straight to the Waterkant to preclude ‘correspondence’.

The Court of Police was soon convinced of the usefulness of Quassi. Jan van Sandik, for example, informed the members that many of the young slaves on his plantation Correpinibo had died and that he suspected poisoning, but had been unable to ferret out the culprits. Therefore, he asked the Court permission to employ Quassi, who was believed to be a clairvoyant, but only discovered the truth “by his Intrigues during [the] examination of several slaves, when he spent a couple of days on such a Plantation, and also by the fear the other Negroes feel for him, [pretending] as if he could see it like a clairvoyant, and also only for this reason playing this this way, so they would fear him, because he has always uncovered the deeds in advance, as he has proven repeatedly”. The Court mused that “no honest man will believe in the superstitions of clairvoyancy, and in order to discover such evil-doers who are so ruinous for every planter, one should use the best measures available, to bring a people like [the] Negroes who are so obstinate, that before they would confess anything to a white [they] would let themselves be beaten to death, to Confession by this superstition they are afflected with”.

For more than forty years, Quassi was also the most prominent intermediary between the colonial authorities and the Maroons, “serving first as a scout, then as a negotiator, and finally as the spiritual and tactical advisor of the specially selected black troops who fought alongside European mercenaries in the great battles of the 1770’s and 1780’s”, according to Price. The Saramaka still feel a enormous hatred for the ‘traitor’ Kawsimukamba. What made them so angry was the following: in 1754, Quassi came back to his patron after a long absence and told him that he had been living among the Saramaka for a year and was willing to direct a patrol to their hideout. Within a year, a force of 500 men, commanded by Captain E.G. Hentschel and guided by Quassi, mounted an attack. The mission was a dismal failure, however. When years later the Saramaka were sounded out about the possibility of a treaty, they demanded Quassi’s head as part of the deal. Not surprisingly, this was refused. In the memory of the modern Saramaka, Quassi lives on as a “self-appointed secret-agent, a spy who almost brought about a terrible defeat which, thanks to the Saramakas’ gods, was transformed into a famous victory”. In their legend about these events, the Saramaka cut off one of Quassi’s ears in revenge, and Price saw their claim substantiated in the drawing made of him by Stedman, in which he indeed seems to miss an ear.

Quassi was showered with rewards for his services. To name but a few: in 1730 he was presented with a golden breastplate stating “Quassi, faithful to the whites”; in 1747 the Court of Police allowed Mauricius to give Quassi his freedom, because this would increase his loyalty even more; in 1776, Governor Nepveu sent him to the Netherlands, where he was presented to the Stadhouder.

After helping to bring about the peace treaty with the Djuka at the end of the 1760’s, Quassi became a planter himself. He established a plantation on the Perica Creek and persuaded some Carib Indians to work for him. In order to lure more of them to his plantation, he spread the tale that the earth would be destroyed in the near future by apocalyptic floods and fires and that only his plantation would be spared. Many Indians took refuge with him, some coming from as far as the Coppename River, but most of them soon realized that nothing was about to happen and they left again. In 1772, Maroons burned his plantation to the ground and Quassi, who had already celebrated his eightieth birthday and was “grey like a dove”, in vain tried to put together a patrol of slaves to pursue them.

In 1777, Governor Nepveu reported that Quassi, at his own request, had been presented with a yard in Paramaribo. The Society paid for the construction of a sturdy house with a lean-to kitchen, which cost about 4000 guilders. He was cared for by a couple of slaves, also donated by the authorities. Quassi was not granted his other request: freedom for three relatives who were still living on Nieuw Timotibo.

During his lifetime, his fame not only spread all over Surinam, but to Europe as well. He was deluged with letters by European admirers, addressed to “The Most Honorable and Most Learned Gentleman, Master Phillipus of Quassy, Professor of Herbology in Surinam”. His was a remarkable life, but of course utterly different from that of most freedmen.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Chapter 9: The limits of expression.


Shakespeare wondered ‘what’s in a name’ and the answer must certainly be that there is a hell of a lot in a name. One’s name is an integral part of one’s personality and to abuse it is to humiliate the person himself. The process of becoming a slave took away all individuality of the victims. To their dismay they discovered that their physical integrity was no longer assured: they could be branded, shaved, stripped naked, whipped, etc. For their capturers they were no more than faceless creatures, interchangeable and only valued for their physical abilities. An important feature of this process of dehumanization was the loss of their name: Surinam slaves were stripped of their birth names just as they were stripped of all other reminders of their past. The original African names were often hard to pronounce and hard to remember for whites. Names also identified class and status and elicited the proper degree of respect from one’s fellows. The last thing the masters wanted was for some slaves to feel superior because of descent and for the slave nations to cling to their old status patterns. By bestowing new names on their chattels, they forced them to accept their reversal of fortune symbolically.

The birth names of the new slaves were replaced by epithets given to them by the masters. Most of these were specific ‘chattel’ names that a colonist would not dream to use for anyone but a slave or an animal. These included ridiculous and insulting names like Siekedoos (Sickbox) or Dommekragt (Jackscrew); demeaning names like Lakey and names reflecting the pecuniary expectations the master had of the ownership of the slave: Winst, Geluk, Fortuin, Profijt, Present, etc. A mulatto house servant on the plantation Peperpot was called Matras (Mattress). Many slaves were known by the (Dutch) names of the days of the week -a good African usance, but any correspondence between their African day names and these new acquisitions was probably pure coincidence. The names of the months were popular as well (one plantation had slaves from Januari to September), so were classical names (Hector, Achilles).

Dutch-sounding names were the most frequently bestowed and not all of them had demeaning connotations. Not a few slaves went through life with perfectly ordinary names like Hendrik or Willem. All the baptized slaves chose a (Dutch) Christian name, the most popular being Johannes. Many slaves sported rather pompous French names like Jolicoeur or Lafleur, although names like François or Pierre were also popular. The women often had more pretentious names like Amarentie, Candasie, etc. Some English names were also in use, but less frequent than one would have expected in a former English colony where an English-based creole was widely spoken. They also displayed less creative zeal than the French-sounding names mentioned above.

This did not mean that all African names were out. Strangely enough, quite a few slaves went about with popular African names. Whether these were their own original names, is not sure, however. The masters seemed to employ Ashanti day names eagerly, which in the Surinam versions were for boys (from Sunday to Saturday): Kwassi (also written as Quassi), Kodjo, Kwamina, Kwaku, Jaw, Koffi and Kwami and for girls: Kwassiba, Adjuba, Amba, Animba, Acuba, Jaba, Afiba, Abeniba. In Africa, the day name was in principle a ‘secret name’, which was supposed to have magical connotations. Often, strangers were not allowed to know it. All this makes it highly unlikely that the day names the slaves sported were their own (accept by accident). This is further substantiated by the fact that some of these day names were bestowed frequently, like Kwassi or Koffi, and others hardly ever, like Jaw. Among the women, there was less variety in the names used, so some of the day names, like Amba or Jaba, were especially popular. Sometimes, slaves had African names that may have been their own, Masongo or Jambo for example. Maybe the ingenuity of their masters had temporarily petered out.

It should not be thought that the slaves meekly accepted the names bestowed on them by their owners. The whites used them, but frequently their peers did not. Therefore, slaves often had several names (just as the Bush Negroes still have): their ‘official’ name, given to them by their master; their day name; a ‘Negro’ name used by their fellows and sometimes a nickname as well. It is obvious that the whites were aware of this practice, because in the archives they frequently listed ‘aliases’. Slaves that were caught in runaways’ camps were only known to their companions by their ‘Negro’ name.

Surinam slaves lacked a surname. In some ways, the plantation name functioned as a surname. A slave was known as Pluto van Twijfelachtig, for example. In the 19th century, it became the habit to take the surname of an ex-owner after manumission and to add Van (of) to it. This could lead to strange combinations (in Dutch eyes), especially when the name of the ex-owner already started with Van. This could result in surnames like Van van Onna. In some instances, when the former owner was a vrijneger (free Negro), the name of the freedman would become even more elaborate since his/her first name was also added. Such a manumitted slave could then be called something like Johannes van Lydia van van Onna. When the number of manumitted slaves increased, it was realized that there ought to be rules governing the process of choosing a surname. The authorities decided that slaves would not be permitted to borrow the name of their former master or any (other) Dutch surname present in the colony. The ex-slaves circumvented this problem by taking an anagram of their ex-master’s name: for example, Dessé became Essed and Gerholt became Holtreg. Others changed just a few letters. This rule did not stretch to foreign names.

When slavery ended, all former slaves had to select a surname and for some this posed a problem. Civil servants were sent to the plantations to register the freedmen and the chosen family names. There was no objection if slaves proposed a name themselves, but most did not care very much, or could not think of an acceptable name. Therefore, most of the surnames registered were the creation of the civil servants themselves. This resulted in many Dutch-sounding, but to Dutch ears somewhat ridiculous names, like Azijnman, Braafheid, Nooitmeer, Treurniet and the like. Other ex-slaves were graced with the names of Dutch cities (Staphorst, Hilversum), or countries (Rusland). Groups of people who considered themselves a family took the same surname and this gives some insight to the composition of the households. Many slaves were single and their surnames would die out soon.

Names reflected the individuality of the slaves in several ways. In the first place, the choice of a ‘Negro’ name showed that the slaves did not meekly accept their master’s decision in this matter. The bestowing of nicknames, especially, afforded a large measure of creativity. They were inspired by special occasions, strange habits, distinguishing marks, etc. and often this name changed several times during a person’s life. Furthermore, the slaves not only renamed themselves, but also their plantations. In this respect, however, they showed a remarkable lack of inventivity: scores of plantations were known as Santigron, which did not reveal anything but the fact that they were located on sandy soil. Another frequently employed name was that of the (former) owner: one estate was called Kaukanasi after the first French owner Caucanas, for example. The Maroons took over this custom: their clans were named after the plantations their core members came from. Just like people, plantations were also renamed after remarkable occurrences: the plantation Johan en Margaretha, for example, was rechristened Kerkigron when the Lutheran church became the owner. With their naming practices, the slaves expressed their independence and made the plantations symbolically their own. Many of these names have endured longer than the fancy epithets (like Va Comme Je Te Pousse) bestowed by the owners.


It is remarkable that the slaves seemed to have had so little tradition in handicrafts. Most crafts that were widely known in Africa (iron and copper work, basketry, pottery, weaving, etc.) were largely lost by the slaves of Surinam (though they were partly revived by the Maroons). Even woodcarving receded to the background. The slaves probably fashioned some crude furniture, bowls and spoons for daily use, but it never became much of an industry with them. Among the Maroons, woodcarving became the most prominent craft, in which they attained a high level of mastery. Even with them, though, the very African-like designs only were developed in the 19th century, in all probability, as Jean-Marcel Hurault claimed, without much direct African influence. The ‘rebel’ objects that Stedman collected were “of a crude fashion and bore no ornaments at all”.

Only around 1845, Coster detected the first decorations on the properties of the slaves. These were probably carvings on calabashes, which were the first to develop among the handicrafts. The slaves seem, for the most part, to have limited their passion for decoration to their own bodies. Since the majority of the utensils they used were ready-made (often of iron), they had little impetus to beautify them. Crafts like weaving and pottery were abandoned because they were of no use to them: clothes and pots were issued by the masters. Even the rebels in the forest did not reinvent the skills needed to fashion them. They remained dependant on the goods of the whites, which they stole with glee. Only the Saramaka learned to make pots from the Acouri Indians. If the slaves had any artistry, their talents did not lie in designing but in expression.


Clothes are not only pieces of fabric to cover one’s nakedness or provide warmth. If they were, the slaves would have contented themselves with the stingy allowances the masters provided, because these were (just) sufficient for these purposes. Clothing was for slaves a prime way to adorn and distinguish themselves. Slaves wanted to show off to each other, especially during dances. Consequently, these were a colorful sight: “The girls not seldom wear the clothes and jewelry of their mistresses at these occasions and there is a splendor that amazes”, wrote Kappler and he added: “It is indeed a beautiful sight to see this mass dressed up in all colors, glittering with real and phony gold and jewels by the sheen of a mass of lamps and by the din of a horrible music in a perpetual movement, so one imagines having been transported to the East”. Von Sack mentioned that one could see “all the fashions of half a century on their bodies”.

Without doubt were the slaves of Paramaribo dressed much better than their plantation counterparts. They were a walking advertisement for their owner’s wealth, so the mistresses vied with each other in dressing up their maids and supplied chintz dresses and other finery. The most elegant of the house slaves were dressed like princesses in: “a silk skirt with on top one of flowered gauze and a narrow short jacket of East Indian chitz or silk, laced in front; between this jacket and the skirt a hand’s breath of fine linen showed; the hair more or less frizzed, was covered with a black or white beaver hat, which was decorated with a feather or a golden button or loop”.

Although the usual garb of the plantation slaves was rather drab, on Sundays and feast days they vied with the city slaves in dressing up. Many spent a large part of their hard-earned money on festive garb (although there were also slaves who bartered the clothing issued to them for liquor). In their desire for beautiful clothes, some bondsmen resorted to theft, which may have improved their appearance temporarily, but endangered their skins, since the usual punishment was a thorough whipping.

Famous were the koto missis (literally: girl in a dress), because of the intricate headkerchiefs they proudly displayed. Wearing headkerchiefs was more than a way of enhancing one's appearance. They all had names, often a proverb or an expression about the joys and sorrows of love. Genovese has pointed out that “the custom of wearing these headkerchiefs originated in Africa and appeared most strongly in those areas of the world in which African values retained their greatest strength –the same areas in some cases, in which revolutionary resistance to slavery had been most pronounced and successful”. This does not mean that in Surinam the display of such headkerchiefs was a kind of protest, at least not in the eyes of the masters, who were probably much more bothered by the fact that their slaves greedily adopted their discarded Parisian fashions. It was, however, significant that, despite their desire for clothes like these, the slaves remained true to the maxims of beauty they brought from Africa.

In later times, some female slaves received strings of glass beads from their masters, but most had to be satisfied with the strings of teeth that some slaves had brought from Africa and bartered to others, or with the ones they made themselves from kernels and shells. Personal adornment was a major preoccupation for many slaves. Some of them put much of their earnings into valuable pieces of gold (not very wise because these were frequently stolen by jealous rivals), gems, jewelry etc.

Lammens had the impression that the slaves were careless with their clothes. In all probability, they will not have taken much trouble to mend their working garb, but Benoit pointed out that blacks ridiculed everyone who dared to appear in public in mended garments and taunted the unkempt by calling him a: “poor man aben abie no pikien monie to baay n'joen kloosio” (pauper with no money to buy new clothes).

Many observers were favorable impressed by the slaves’ penchant for hygiene. Stedman concluded: “The cleanliness of the negro nation is peculiarly remarkable, as they bathe above three times a day. The Congo tribe in particular are so fond of the water, that they may, not improperly, be called amphibious animals.” The bondsmen also regularly brushed their teeth. To do so “he uses nothing but a sprig of orange-tree, bitten at one end, until the fibres resemble a small brush; and no negro; male or female, is to be seen without this little instrument, which has besides the virtue of sweetening the breath”. This may have contributed to the whiteness of their teeth, so often remarked on by contemporary authors.

The slaves tried to distinguish themselves by their bodily appearance as well as by their clothes. However, they seem to have been reluctant to continue the African custom of beautification by mutilation. There is no sign that the Creoles ever adopted the habit of cicatricion. Imported Africans proudly displayed their tribal marks, which made it possible to distinguish them: “The Coromantyn negroes, who are most esteemed, cut three or four long gashes on each of their cheeks … The Loango negroes, who are reckoned the worst, distinguish themselves by puncturing or marking the skin of their sides, arms and thighs with square elevated figures, something like dice. ... These also cut their fore-teeth to a sharp point, which gives them a frightful appearance”, wote Stedman. Perhaps the Creoles regarded this custom as too primitive, perhaps they could not find the right occasion for making these marks (often connected with rites of passage). Probably their masters did not allow it anyway. Some slaves had roses or stars burnt into their skin by gunpowder. According to Hartsinck, many slaves adorned their body with laan, a blue paint that also protected them against insect bites. The men usually wore their hair short, the women sometimes longer in the shape of a spout. Occasionally, they made designs with a razor or comb.

Mintz and Price have pointed to the willingness of the slaves to try out new ‘fads and fashions’ and have perceived this as a commitment to change. This may have been true, but it was a commitment to change on a rather trivial terrain, because the slaves tended to be as conservative as possible in other respects. In my opinion, this sensitivity to the currents of fashion must be explained primarily from a desire to distinguish themselves among people who had few alternative possibilities to excel. Along the way, they may have voiced a veiled protest, because, as Genovese remarked, there often was “something impudent, and therefore subversive, about the slaves’ finery”.


Benoit noted that “many of the colonists are driven by humanity, and even more by interest, to keep the attachment, the confidence and especially the love of the negroes by an honest distraction”. This ‘honest distraction’ was in most cases a dance (baljaar) party. Whatever their private thoughts on this subject and their fears for trouble resulting from this may have been, they also knew that a baljaar party now and then let the steam out of the kettle and helped them to retain the upper hand. The authorities, who only thought about the possible repercussions for law and order, tried to suppress them. In 1722, for example, they recorded with distaste that partying slaves were guilty of much insolence: they roamed the streets “yelling and raging” and “their assurance has come so far that they even refuse to give the whites encountering them right of way”. But they were never successful, because, as Governor Nepveu explained, not even the death penalty would keep the slaves from attending.

Sometimes, the masters flaunted the regulations just as openly as their slaves. Governor Mauricius was very much annoyed by the actions of a carpenter named Berkhof, who “has let his negroes dance, without permission, for two nights in a row, and at that occasion has fired [a gun] the whole evening until ten o’ clock, as I and the whole city were able to hear, so I even sent my orderlies the second night to stop it, which he has resisted violently”. He was quite vitriolic about the “useless train of a legion of House Slaves and Slave Women, who having nothing to occupy them, sleep, booze, play and do malice” as well as about the “costly splendor of the finest chintz [dresses], coral necklaces, gold, silver, even gems, with which the creole Missis vie with one another in decorating their Slave Women”.

The authorities finally realized the futility of their exertions and permitted the city slaves to dance in the yard of their master with soft music until 10 o’ clock in the evening. The plantation slaves were officially permitted to dance only four times a year, but this was even more difficult to control. Many planters would not only let them baljaar when they wanted, but even provided refreshments.

Great feasts were held at least twice a year. The most festive occasion was New Year. In Paramaribo, the slaves trekked along the houses, firing their guns and asking for a New year’s gift, which resulted in many disorders. The plantation slaves had a holiday of several days, the owner or administrator visited the estate and the major distributions took place. “The owners of the slaves spend during this period not a little money to entertain their slaves: pastry, wine and liquors are distributed in abundance at these occasions”, noted Kappler. Another highpoint was the formal visit of the master at the beginning of the dry season: “When in the great dry season the family came to stay on the plantation, often with a large retinue, then the people would be feasted for 3 or 4 days, and sometimes longer. At the end of this, the slaves brought as an expression of gratitude a large quantity of fowl and eggs as a present for the administrator. The present was accepted graciously, but nothing reached the city. Everything was left for the director and the officers”, relayed Bartelink (who profited himself).

The ordinary entertainment was on a much more modest scale. Kappeler revealed: “Often small dance parties are held in the negro cabins on Sundays, which usually end before midnight, and for which only a few families, however not but with permission of the director, gather. The music then consists only of the sound of a drum (a hollowed piece of wood, over which a pig or deer skin has been stretched) and of the sound, made by beating pieces of iron in tune on some old hoes or similar objects.”

The manner of dancing was somewhat anarchistic, even indecent, in the eyes of the whites: “everyone dances to his own preferences, and seems bound by no fixed rules: - the posture of the women, however, slightly bended forward, with the hands in front of the body, the wrapped-around cloths moving up and down continuously, seemed to me indecent, and does not agree, with the exterior chastity, that they otherwise display”, complained Lammens. In the opinion of some, it was also rather primitive: “I hardly trusted my eyes, when I saw in the year 1826 on the plantation Anna Catharina, situated in Surinam on the Matapicca Creek, by the light of the moon a hundred young Negroes and Negresses, arranged in two half circles, at the sound and to the beat of a drum, amuse themselves by dancing. They managed to imitate so accurately and regularly all the movements (those of the face as well) of the African great ape species, that I was reminded of these animals involuntary”, confessed Hostmann.

There was a clear difference between the ways men and women danced. Women participated in larger numbers, but were restrained in their movements. The men danced more boisterously. Stedman observed that the slaves danced in couples: “the men figuring and footing, while the women turn round like a top, their petticoats expanding like an unbrella”. This movement was called waey-cotto (swaying petticoat). In another dance called banya, men and women stood opposite each other: “Then one dancer separates himself from the row, and approaches dancing any person in the opposite row he or she desires, up to a distance of two or three feet, and then turns back in cadence, until the sound of the drums warns them to approach one another and join, bumping the thighs and bellies together, the men against the women. After this they turn back, and repeat soon these same movements, link arms, turn this way two or three times, make many indecent gesticulations and kiss.” A dance with a strong athletic component was the susa. It was a dance of African origin that was performed most often by two pairs of men competing with each other. They had to execute certain steps while the audience clapped and sang. The first one to make a wrong move lost. It was described as follows: the dance “consists of jumping opposite one’s dancing partner, beating the hands on the hips to keep in tune. They are so hot for this kind of exercise, that it often happens with seven or eight pairs at the same time, which, because of too much violence, has caused the death of several of them more than once; therefore the government of Paramaribo has forbidden it”.

The slaves were so fond of dancing that it can be appreciated how much they sacrificed when they joined the Evangelische Broeder Gemeente. They were not only expected to refrain from participating, but even from watching –and to make things worse, they had to pretend that they did not mind. When Brother Wietz visited the plantation Breukelerwaard, for example, the slaves had a baljaar party and the baptized refused to join in. The director asked him how that was possible and Wietz answered smugly: “we have not forbidden it, but they themselves have no desire for such things anymore”.

Most slaves were not very particular about whom they danced with. They would visit the baljaar parties of their worst enemies if they could. This may have been one of the reasons why so many of them ended in brawls. The Bush Negroes could afford to be choosier. When Von Sack was traveling in their company, he offered them a dance at the plantation L’ Hermitage, as a token of gratitude for their good care. “Barely the dance had started when a new quarrel arose, since the Bush Negroes considered it demeaning to dance with the Negroes of the plantation, while these asserted that they, as their masters gave the party, had the right to participate. To end the quarrel, we told the Negroes of the plantation, that they had to look for another place to dance, and that they would have their just share of the meal, that had been prepared for all.”

The favorite entertainment in the city was the du (doe). These were song-and-dance gatherings that were mostly held in the beginning of the year. The initiators were associations of freedmen and/or slaves and they had names and mottos. These du societies (also called Du/Doe) organized splendid feasts, the costs of which were sometimes borne by one of the members and sometimes by all of them together. Some Dus were only for free coloreds, others accepted free Negroes and/or slaves too. When one of the members died, the organization often paid for the funeral. Although they had religious underpinnings, their activities were primarily secular in character.

The gatherings were held in an open shed, or a tent covered with tasseled silk, which was set up for the occasion. These were beautifully illuminated by lanterns. Most of the time, the participants danced to ‘secular rhythms’. They were dressed up in their best clothes and food and drinks were passed around. If it was a ‘singing du’, the invited gathered in a house and sung solemnly. Since the cost of a du was very high (the organizers had to pay for the refreshments and the tent), it was believed that these festivities encouraged the Du-members to steal. Therefore, organizing a du was forbidden unless the Raad-Fiscaal had given his permission.

Many of the dus had ornaments of gold displaying their motto in Dutch (although this was officially forbidden). Famous Dus were: Biggie Doe, Goutho Doe, Vertrouwd op God, Barnsteen Doe, Monny Principale, Kaneel Doe. The free women of color used the singing du as a kind of trial before a ‘court of women’. If someone felt insulted or humiliated, she rounded up her female slaves and those of her friends, dressed them in their finest clothes and marched them to a special terrain where a tent had been put up. The insulted party sang libelous and humorous verses with the slave women forming the choir. Afterwards there was a dance. The next week it was the turn of the opponent. This often went on for several weeks before big audiences. Even the most prominent citizens came to watch. Sometimes such a contest was staged just for fun and then bystanders fell victim to the wit of the participants.

Around 1780, many free Negroes and the principal slaves had joined in two Dus that competed fiercely: Biggie Doe and Goutho Doe. This resulted in “discords and angry disputes”. Even whites got involved. The head of Goutho Doe, the free ‘wench’ Cato van Vuijst was arrested because she gave a feast in the yard of her house, despite the fact that the Raad-Fiscaal had expressly prohibited this. She explained to the Court of Criminal Justice that the slaves had made a ‘purse’ for the occasion: each had contributed one guilder and she and her sister had added three ‘cards’ of ten guilders. When the feast was forbidden, they had decided to hold a meal instead. She claimed that only freedmen and whites had been invited and that the slaves who were present had ‘crashed’ the party. The Court did not believe her and she had to pay a fine of 500 guilders. [The same fine was levied on the ‘free Negress’ Amimba, when she gave a pley in remembrance of the old woman who had raised her, without the permission of the Raad-Fiscaal.]

Because of the disorders, the du societies were forbidden in 1828. Freemen caught at a du were fined 200 guilders and slaves received 100 lashes and a monetary penalty -to be paid by their masters. Later they were revived under the protection of highly placed whites, who misused them for political purposes. Governor Van Lansberge (1859-1867), for example, was patron (jobo) of Boenhatti Gi Ondroefinnie.

The laku was also a kind of musical comedy, but more elaborate. It featured many costumed actors. Before emancipation, it used to be staged at several plantations, performed by a solo singer and a choir of plantation women. The cast of characters was rather limited and full of symbolism.

According to Von Sack, the slaves had secret societies with many committed members, who had to take an oath not to reveal its secrets, to be obedient to the chosen leaders (only known under pseudonyms) and to use the money they raised for a common cause. These institutions also originated in Africa. Women were not admitted as members, but they had their own associations. It is not entirely sure what their function was. They may have been burial societies, kas moni (communal saving) associations, or, more likely, they may have been pseudo-military companies, like the ones discovered in Paramaribo in 1780.

The slaves of Paramaribo had formed three companies, patterned after those of the Black Chasseurs. They gathered regularly. The most ancient one counted 90 members, congregated behind the Governor’s Palace and boasted a full hierarchy, including a ‘general’. The second company was called England, had a green banner and counted about 50 members. They gathered in the former house of the deputy bailiff. The most recent addition had only 24 members and was not yet complete. They had their headquarters in an empty house, owned by the widow Brandon (whose slave Adam had the key). Usually the exercitions were held from 7 to 8 o’clock in the evening. The members were ‘armed’ with wooden sabers and lances decorated with tassels. After the training, the participants celebrated with a fair amount of liquor. The activities came to light when some members were caught in the house of the widow. The authorities did not suspect a conspiracy, but the ‘officers’ were shown the error of their ways by a number of Spaanse Bokken executed around Paramaribo.

Not much is known about the games the slaves played. Most were probably incorporated into the baljaar parties. One popular African game that survived was (a)wari, a kind of tric trac.


Despite their sometimes difficult situation, slaves were usually rather gay and extroverted. Many authors noticed their habit of singing when performing a heavy task and although their songs might have an undertone of melancholy, they were usually not expressions of sadness. Governor Crommelin remarked that slaves were somewhat reluctant to sing in the streets of Paramaribo, because then they often encountered a white “who would lay the stick on them”, but otherwise they sang continuously (especially when rowing) and sometimes their songs had lyrics that were rather rebellious. These songs had two functions: they gave the slaves the possibility to express their frustrations and ridicule their masters and they contributed to social cohesion by providing them with an innocuous way to criticize each other.

The manner of singing amounted to a virtually pure African polyphony, as Stedman observed, who equated it with a ‘clerk performing to the congregation’: “one person constantly pronouncing a sentence extempore, which he next hums or whistles, and then all the others repeat the same in chorus”. According to Von Sack, the solo singer, when rowing, would beat the rhythm on the water with his oar.

The lyrics of the following songs, which have been collected in the last century, suggest that they date from slavery times. For example:
Sing san de na mofo sing de kong. (Sea, what comes from you.)
Peroeng peroeng mi patron. (The turkeys cackle my master.)
San wanni kong meki a long. (Let come what may be.)
Ingrissiman sa tjari pranga (The Englishman will move the planks)
go na Jobo plang. (to Jobo plantation.)
According to Van Capelle, this song is based on a historical event: when the English attacked, the turkeys started to cackle and warned the population. The whites had nothing to fear, because the attackers were certain to bring them to Jobo’s Rust (a graveyard where Jobo had been the first customer).

Another song went like this:
Toto grinjing Willing Willing (Still Willem has run away)
na wan gama gama (to an old woman)
na wan singge singge wasi kaiman. (who has washed the caiman.)
Batoto nenge nenge sa begi granman. (The Bantu Negroes will ask the chief [of the plantation] for forgiveness.)
During slavery, the caiman was venerated by the blacks. Almost every water hole housed a ‘mama’ or ‘tata’ on the bottom. There was a treef connected with the caiman: no woman wearing a maka paantje (a paantje made from course material, perhaps a signal that the woman was menstruating) was allowed to come near it. The water otherwise would be polluted and had to be purified. Willem had to stand guard, but left his post. An old woman came to the water hole and was frightened by something. She yelled for help and beat around with her stick, “after which the power [of the water hole] rose and helped the old lady”, explained Van Capellen.

The songs sometimes revealed a keen insight from the part of the slaves. This was sung at a du in Paramaribo in April 1832, according to Teenstra:
The country of Surinam
is like the hole of a crab
that has only one opening.
Things go like a crab.
The country is like a crab without a head.
Nothing goes right, but everything awry.
The land of the whites is good.
It is like a rabbit hole.
It has many openings.
Surinam has only one opening
that we cannot pass.
We are kept prisoner.

Some songs that are recited during ‘prees’ (pleys) nowadays almost certainly date from slavery times and reflect the longing of the slaves for the homeland they will never see again. A Kromanti song from Para, recorded by Charles Wooding, goes like this:
Nengre Kondre moi so te. (Negroland is very beautiful.)
Nengre Kondre moi so te. (Negroland is very beautiful.)
A weti fan. (It is snow white.)
And another one:
Nengre Kondre, ma Negre Kondre, farawé. (Negroland, but Negroland, [is] far away.)
Nengre Kondre, n’ Ashanti Kondre farawé. (Negroland, that is Ashanti-land, far away.)
Nengre Kondre, n’ Ashanti Kondre farawé. (Negroland, that is Ashanti-land, far away.)
Mis Animba, Mis Adjeo, farawé. ( Mother Animba, Mother Adjeo, far away.)

Sometimes the slaves clearly voiced a protest against their oppression and this lives on in the songs performed until today. Wooding recorded the following ‘Jorka song’:
Un jere, famiri-man, un jere (2x). (We hear, relatives, we hear.)
Langu-wipi na un baka. (The long whip on our backs.)
Tjapu-tiki na un anu. (The hoe in our hands.)
Un jere, famiri-man, un jere (2x). (We hear, relatives, we hear.)
He also found a ‘Susa song’ in which the slaves reviled stingy masters:
Basja taki pondro doro (The basja says that the boat has arrived)
ma njanjan no kon. (but has brought no food.)
Kabito Nengro o ... (Well, Negroes in slavery)
pondo doro na njanjan no kon. (the boat has come but without food.)
O kabito sonde. (What slavery on Sunday.)
O kabito sonde. (What slavery on Sunday.)

The slaves often celebrated the feats of the Maroons and succesful revolts in their songs, for example the Berbice uprising of 1763 –which did not go unnoticed by the authorities. All over the Caribbean, the slave songs displayed this characteristic. Alan Rice summarized the findings of his study as follows: “a song could be the resting place for hidden allusions to coming liberation, to hatred of the plantation or to the idiosyncrasies of the whites”.

The songs also functioned as a means of enforcing social control in the slave quarters. Gerard Voorduin remarked about this: “The improvisations recited by negroes during those [baljaar] parties are often naïve, and usually have as subject what on the plantations and in the private sphere of the negro population, deserves criticism or ridicule.”

When singing and dancing, the slaves were accompanied by a variety of instruments, mostly of African origin, or variations on African examples. Stedman provided the following list (between parentheses: the often more accurate names supplied by Lammens): (1) qua-qua (kwakwa): “a hard sounding-board, elevated on one side like a boot-jack”, it was played with two sticks or bones; (2) kiemba too-too: “a hollow reed, which is blown through the nostrils”, it had two holes, one for blowing and one for the fingers; (3) ansokko bania (resembled the kwakwa): “a hard board, supported on both sides like a low seat, on which are placed small blocks of different sizes”, it was likewise played with two sticks; (4) great Creole drum (mandron): “a hollow tree, open at one end and covered at the other by a sheep-skin”, the player sat astride and beat with the palms of his hands; (5) great Loango drum: closed with sheep-skin on both sides; (6) Papa drum (papadron): the largest drum, according to Lammens played with sticks; (7) small Loango drum; (8) small Creole drum (pouia); (9) coeroema (kroema): “a wooden cup, ingeniously made”, it was covered with sheep-skin and played with sticks; (10 & 11) Loango bania: a piece of dry wood mounted on a calabash, with elastic splinters of palmwood that were snapped by the fingers with “a soft and very pleasing effect”; (12) saka-saka (zakka zakka): “a hollow gourd , with a stick and a handle fixed through it, and filled with small pebbles and pease”, it made a rattling sound; (13) conch (not used as an accompaniment to dancing, but to sound the alarm); (14) benta: “a branch bent like a bow by means of a slip of dry reed, or warimbo; when held to the teeth, is beaten with a short stick and by being shifted backwards and forwards sound not unlike a jews-harp”; (15) Creole bania: half a gourd covered with sheep-skin, on which a long neck was fastened; it had four strings, three long ones and a short one, which made the bass tones, and it was played with the fingers [According to Fermin, the strings were made of silk or the intestines of birds that were rubbed with date oil and it was the forefather of the banjo.]; (16) too-too: war trumpet; (17) horn: used on the plantations to call the slaves back from the fields; (17) Loango too-too: a flute with four holes for the fingers, played the ‘European’ way. Lammens mentioned in addition the jorre-jorre: nuts strung on a cord, which the women shook in a ‘waving movement’ and the doura: “a piece of iron of a certain shape that is beaten with another piece of iron”.


The slaves had many odo (proverbs).
Some commented their situation:
(1) Ningre wani fri, vo weri soesoe hedi; a no sabi, taki da likdoren a de go kisi. (The slave wants freedom, so he can wear shoes, but he does not know that he will get corns.)
(2) Sranan-kondre da hasi-tere: tida a wai so, tamara a wai so. (Surinam is a horsetail: today it flies this way, tomorrow the other way.)
(3) Mi da koti-jesi, mi no ha wroko nanga resiga-man trobi. (I am the earless man, I have nothing to do with the troubles of the earring man.)
Others were inspired by European proverbs:
(4) Wan han wasi trawan, ala toe sa krin. (When one hand washes the other, two shall be clean.)
(5) Te joe habi glasi-fensre, joe na taki ston, broko vo trawan. (When you have glass windows, you do not take a stone and break the one of your neighbor.)
(6) Da bigi balki na tapa joe noso joe no de si, ma da pikin spinti na mi huida dati joe de si. (The big balk on your nose you do not see, but the tiny splinter in my skin you do see.)
(7) Apla no fadom farawei vo hem boom. (The apple does not fall far from the tree.)
(8) Spiti na tapo a fadom ne joe fesi. (Spit upwards and it falls in your face.)

Storytelling was important in Africa and it became no less vital in Surinam. It was one of the few remaining venues that made it possible to keep the remembrance of Africa vibrant. Rethoric skills were highly admired and many slaves were consummate orators and raconteurs. The usual stage for storytelling on ordinary evenings was the slave cabin and the importance went beyond mere amusement. The prime time for tales was during the wake for a deceased companion (dede hoso). On these occasions, lai tories (riddles) were a popular diversion. There were four categories of subjects: stars and other natural phenomena; plants and animals; the human body (including its discharges); and human activities. Even more popular were the ‘fairy tales’, called Anansi tori in Surinam. In many of them, a smart spider called Anansi was the hero. According to Lawrence Levine, the habit of referring to all fairy tales indiscriminately as Anansi toris derived from the Ashanti habit of calling them Anansesem (spider stories). Anansi himself had undeniable Gold Coast roots and the stories in which he stars are still found in all Caribbean areas where Gold Coast culture figured prominently in the past.

In Jamaica, Anansi was, according to Charles Beckwith, usually depicted as a “little bald headed man with a falsetto voice and a cringing manner in the presence of his superiors, who lives by his wits and treats outrageously anyone upon whom he has the chance to impose his superior cunning. He is a famous fiddler and something of a magician”. Sometimes he was also depicted as a spider. He had a wife and a couple of children. Beckwith added that in Jamaica, “it was regarded as ‘not good’ to tell Anansi stories … before dark or on Sunday”. Anansi stories were popular on Curacao and Barbados as well.

Levine, who has made a thorough study of the tales of the North American slaves, divided them into moralistic tales and trickster tales: “the trickster tales could make a mockery of the values preached by the moralistic tales –friendship, hard work, sincerity”. There were, however, “important lines of continuity” as well. He regarded these stories as an essentially sane response to the hardships imposed on the slaves. Stanley Elkins was far less smitten with these tales. He reflected that the ‘king of the tricksters’, B’rer Rabbit, was nothing but ‘one nasty little hustler’: “The world he confronts and in which he survives, he also helps to perpetuate. He certainly does nothing to improve it. In that world of lying, stealing, duplicity and murder there is no friendship, no affection and no mutual trust; ‘family’ counts for nothing and of ‘community’ there is not a shred. If this particular body of lore presents a form of psychic adjustment to slavery, as Levine seems to have proved, one is reluctant to take it as a very positive one.”

It is tempting to conclude that the moralistic tales showed the slaves how to behave in their own community, while the trickster tales exemplified the proper attitude towards superiors and competitors. Nothing is further from the truth, alas. B’rer Rabbit and Anansi both used their cunning to trick and often maim or kill the rich and powerful (fox, tiger, bear), but they did not hesitate to exploit the weak with the same tricks, not even sparing their own kind. Anansi sacrificed his wife Acuba and his countless children to his greed many a time. So, there was indeed a considerable residue of pathology in these tales.

Some of the modern Surinam fairy tales are called srafutentori and relive slavery times. The historical truth is uncertain, although names of real plantations and plantation owners frequently appear. A terrifying and well-known theme is the tale of the callous Susanna Duplessis, a historical figure, who is rumored to have drowned a slave child during a boat trip because its incessant crying annoyed her.

There was a strong vein of protest in the slave folklore. As Sterling Stuckey remarked: “folklore is depending for its survival upon the accuracy with which it speaks to needs and reflects sentiments”. There can be no doubt that one of the strongest sentiments in slave society was the conviction of being treated unjustly. The slaves’ tales served as a means of catharsis for their pent-up frustrations. In this manner, they also helped to maintain the status quo. When Anansi tricked his opponents, when the cunning underdogs beat and killed the stronger animals, the slaves identified with them and applauded their feats, while at the same time the need to perform such feats themselves diminished. The Surinam slaves lacked the promise of retribution, which the slaves of the United States gained from their conversion to Christianity. Their gods were powerless against the wiles of the whites and if they wanted vengeance, they had to look for it in this life. This may have led to an even tinier dose of tolerance in their tales and an even lesser veiled anger in their songs. No Moses would deliver them from the desert, so they had to deliver themselves -or accept their fate.


With a death rate that was as high as 10% during a large part of the slavery era, it is clear that the slaves had a profound need for ritual therapy in order to face these continuous crises. Mortality was staggering in Africa as well, of course, but nothing like what the slaves faced in Surinam, especially during the seasoning period. In some captives, this may have aroused a sense of doom, which made them even more vulnerable. Most newcomers decided to fight as best as they could, however, and religion was a powerful aid in their struggle. They believed “that they / when they come to die / will be reborn / and returning in their Fatherland / will live on in the world in a continuous transformation”, wrote the English Governor Warren. This created hope, but to make sure that the transfer was smoothly, certain rituals were necessary. In later times, the expectation of returning to Africa lost ground, but the proper rituals were still indispensable to insure that the spirits of the deceased would not go on haunting the living. The beliefs as to what constituted the right procedure differed of course between the various ethnic groups. While on the one hand the slaves were probably highly motivated to come to terms with one another on this subject, on the other hand they were afraid that departure of the old habits would be dangerous.

In the early period, there was still a reasonable variety in funeral customs, if we are to believe Herlein. In some instances, the dead were painted to resemble devils “with many mouths and glass eyes”. Sometimes sacrifices were made. Some nations burned the bodies (a habit that was soon abandoned, except for witches). In other cases, the slaves fashioned coffins of planks. The body was laid therein on plantain leaves with two ells of linen, a razor and some coral beads under the head. It was then lowered into the grave and a plate of soup, cooked with the meat of a cock, was poured over it, so the deceased had something to eat when he rose again. The cock would herald the moment of resurrection. Some time later, the relations went back to the grave, walked around a couple of times and had a meal. This was repeated a second time. Occasionally, they planted some branches of the lemon tree on the grave. Meanwhile, the attendants danced around them drinking and sang the praises of the deceased. When a slave had died, all his relatives and friends gathered in mourning “crying and moaning miserably, ceaselessly, as long as the dead is not buried”. Some slaves did not consider it worth the trouble to go through six months of mourning themselves and they “hire women, who for the time of six months cry over their dead every day three times”.

The rituals of the various tribes will have had enough common features to make a compromise possible and during the initial period of creating their community, the slaves may have simply combined the different practices. They had little choice but to be open to new influences and will probably have hoped that the more elaborate the ceremony, the better the chance of success in those uncertain circumstances. The various rituals will have slowly fused into one common ceremony. The first sign of amalgamation will have been that the different nations each made their own contribution to the burial ritual.

When a Popo slave was interred in 1745, the Moravian missionary Zander, who witnessed the occasion, wrote: “The body was carried out by negroes and everyone, that could, went along; especially the family and friends of the deceased. In front of the body went the most important nation, the Coromantees, who carried some flags and made music with drums and pipes. In the graveyard they put down the body next to the grave, which had been decorated very beautifully with precious cloths or silk and things like that, then they put the coffin in the grave. As soon as that was done, a large number of negro women came, who threw cloths in the grave in the customary fashion. Afterwards earth was thrown on the coffin, until the grave was half filled. Then the whole bunch of friends approached and positioned themselves in a circle around the grave. A woman approached with a calabash and passed it around to the friends in the circle; there was a liquid inside, of which everyone took a draught, then the grave was closed, after which one of their sorcerers and conjurers approached, who had a large bottle with brandy in his hand. He positioned himself on the grave, repeatedly sprinkled some of the brandy on the grave, accompanied by some very serious words and jumped and stamped around on the grave, which he repeated so long until the brandy was all gone and the grave was completely level. After this everyone went home again.”

Integration of the various funeral practices would have been easier after the influx of new recruits, who undoubtedly incited their compatriots to stick to the old customs, had diminished. It is clear that by the end of the 18th century, the slaves had a standard ritual, which was satisfying to all of them. Blom described a typical funeral during this period: “They bury their dead with much solemnity: when one of them has died, the corpse is washed and put in a coffin; their relations, as well as others who are somewhat well-off, each bring a piece of 6 to 8 ells of linen, with which the dead body is clothed, so that sometimes the whole coffin is filled with linen; they then go in large numbers to the corpse and make a lot of noise and clamor; thereafter they play on pipes and drums and make noise and cry as if they are inconsolable the whole night through, until they inter the corpse in the morning; then everybody who is able follows the corpse, crying as before, clapping in their hands and singing their death songs: the corpse having been interred, all is done, and everyone goes back to his house: some months after the demise the family holds a dance party, on which they, according to their custom, are very gay: afterwards they pour water on the grave of the deceased; in whose honor this party is given, and wish him that he may rest well.”

In the city, the funerals were even more impressing. According to Benoit, sometimes two to three hundred slaves attended. They obviously did not all belong to the same master, so these gatherings aroused the suspicion of the whites. Their objections were twofold. In the first place, the funerals became much too expensive and they feared that the slaves wanted to surpass their masters in the elaborateness of their mourning and would resort to stealing to cover the costs. Furthermore, they were afraid that the slaves would use these occasions to foment conspiracies. Even the directors of the Society got wind of the accusations that the slaves became ever more insolent during funerals and that they committed illegal acts afterwards. They advised the governor to station a guard at every corner of Paramaribo to keep an eye on them. Other measures were taken as well.

The inhabitants of Paramaribo were warned in 1731, that they “shall not let their slaves be buried but in the ordinary graveyards and that this funeral shall not be permitted but between 6 o’ clock in the morning and the same hour at night”. In 1742, the complaint was registered that “during funerals the slaves do not only use much ceremony, as with regard to the coffin bearers of such a slave, who are issued laurels, and more of such ceremonies, which are habitual when white inhabitants are buried, but also these slaves on the occasion of a funeral come together with many, yes in large numbers and then come through the streets of Paramaribo with much noise of dancing, singing and also laughing, until the door behind which the slave has died [is reached] and there make a lot of commotion”. Therefore, it was spelled out by the government that slaves could only be buried in a special graveyard for Negroes, that only a limited number of mourners could be present and that, as long as the procession was within the city limits of Paramaribo, all noise was strictly forbidden. The bailiff had to supervise the ceremony. Slaves who abused these rules would be punished with a severe whipping. The owners were obliged to report any death and the time the funeral was to take place. The slaveholders who owned fields outside Paramaribo were permitted to let their slaves be buried there, if it already was the resting place of some of their relatives, but the bailiff had to accompany the procession and they had to pay 10 guilders for the privilege. In 1750, it was ordered that slaves “shall be buried with the least ceremony; that no cloths or other weavings shall be allowed to be laid on top of the coffins and especially that no beautiful or extraordinary coffins with copper handles or screws and reeves, or any other extravagant decorations as what is usual on ordinary coffins will be tolerated”.

The relatives of a deceased wore mourning garb for a considerable period. Some older women never laid it off again. Lammens remarked that close relatives wore round hats with broad sloping edges that were called huylebalken (crybabies). The wearing of special colors for mourning seems to have been most popular in the city. The usual colors were black and blue for the men and white and black for the women. The slaves who belonged to the household of a deceased had a white handkerchief tied around their head as a sign of grief. Sometimes, women shaved off their hair (self-mutilation was unknown, though).

In general, slaves were willing to waste large sums of money on funerals. An ordinary coffin cost about thirty guilders, but the slaves spent much more when they had the possibility. Just like many whites, they did not want to appear stingy when burying a loved one and they often dispensed of much more cash than they could afford. To bury someone in the most prestigious graveyard could cost a colonist as much as 500 guilders and an run-of-the-mill funeral set him back at least 150 guilders, but still the whites feared to be outdone by their chattels.

When a slave had been baptized, the old rites were frowned upon. At an EBG-funeral the mourners went to the graveyard in a long procession, dressed in white and walking two by two quietly. For them there was no maximum to the number of attendants. The missionaries followed these ceremonies anxiously, because this was one of the occasions that their converts were most likely to relapse –and ‘pagan customs’ at funerals had to be avoided at any price. It was a bit of a problem how and where to bury a freedman who had not converted to the Christian faith. He could not be buried among the slaves (even whites agreed that a certain measure of distinction was proper), but he could not be interred among the Christians either. In some instances, the authorities allowed freedmen to be put to rest with lower-class whites (who were not considered particularly upstanding Christians by their betters): a freedman named Pasop, a former member of the Black Chasseurs, for example, was buried by his comrades “in a good coffin covered with a black cloth” on the “seamen’s graveyard”.

Officially, a slave owned nothing. When he died, the master could theoretically take away everything he had possessed, but, as Blom remarked “I would not recommend anyone to exercise, and especially after their demise, this right; because they would regard this as a sacrilege, that would not stay unavenged; and they are capable, in such a case, to get rid of their master by poison: if a negro dies unexpectedly, his descendants distribute his goods, according to their sense of justice, and about this there is never any dispute among them”.