The African Heritage.
In the opinion of Melville Herskovits, the Surinam Bush Negroes and Creoles are at the top of the scale as far as the “New World Africanisms” in their culture go. They rank above the peasants of Haiti, although the yoke of slavery was lifted there a lot earlier. Their slave ancestors managed to preserve the African heritage remarkably intact, thanks to favorable circumstances and their tenacious mentality. The Surinam slaves were privileged in the sense that they enjoyed a numerical majority that hardly had a parallel in the Caribbean. Even if their white overlords had wanted to, these would have found it extremely difficult to control the personal life of their chattels. The remarkable fact, however, is that the masters allowed, quite voluntary it seems, their bondsmen a large measure of autonomy in their personal and cultural life -even in areas they could (and perhaps should) have controlled. The probable reasons for this ‘generosity’ were their own laziness and their desire to make their slaves more willing to work and less inclined to run away.
The overall influence of Africa on the Surinam slave culture was considerable, but this does not mean that it was equally discernable in all aspects of life. It’s most pervasive presence was in the sphere of expression. Rudolf van Lier mentioned the following areas: religion, narration, music and some of the dances and plays. Sidney Mintz, writing about the Caribbean in general, was even more specific: “many motor habits, the emphasis on the folktale as a pedagogical devise, ceremonial use of the drum, the trickster motif, and certain features of verse-singer and chorus refrain might be parts of the West African cultural substratum; possession by specific gods with specific characterological attributes would be attributable –at least in some measure- to culture specific African traditions; some social-organizational features having to do with descent are conceivably traceable to lineage organizations; and –though very doubtfully- aspects of mother-child relationships may have been perpetuated in a matricentral ‘cell’ unit in plantation life”. Roger Bastide concluded that ‘motor sequences’ and ‘patterns of ritual’ were more likely to survive than ‘images’ or “any accumulation of intellectual memories”. He pointed out that even in cases of unmistakable similarities between African and Afro-American cultural patterns “a clear and careful distinction must always be drawn between form and evolutionary process. The actual form may be African, yet, in order to survive, be forced to adapt itself functionally to conditions of existence that often differ substantially from those it originally employed.” Therefore, the aspects of culture that helped the slaves to adapt to their new circumstances, changed most profoundly: technology, social organization and material culture.
All groups of slaves imported in Surinam contributed in one way or the other to the residue of African cultural elements, but, as Knight and Crahan wrote, “no direct correlation exists between the absolute size of the African and Afro-American population and the strength, cohesiveness and pervasiveness of variants of a discernable Afro-American culture”. In other words, the slave nations that formed the numerical majority did not necessarily determine the development of Afro-American culture most. The slave cultures in the New World were all new creations: it was impossible for the bondsmen to recreate their old way of life, even if some Maroon groups did their utmost to achieve exactly that. The circumstances had changed too drastically for them to succeed. However, Barbara Kopytoff hit the nail on the head when she remarked: “Culture, as a system of ideas generating not only standard responses but a range of variations, can be adapted to new situations without loosing its distinctiveness”.
The shipments of slaves imported during the first period of colonization in the Caribbean were relatively homogenous, especially compared to the situation later on. This made it easier for the slaves to organize themselves in ‘nations’. These informal groups of slaves with the same ethnic (though not necessarily tribal) backgrounds were found all over the Caribbean, even in areas where one would not have expected them. Herbert Gutmann discovered such organizations among the slaves of New England, complete with chosen ‘governors’ and even ‘kings’. Bastide remarked that although their customs might continue to be based on the traditions of the homeland, the personnel of such a ‘nation’ was not always linked to the original by blood ties.
In Surinam, the whites also spoke of ‘nations’ among the slaves, although this concept usually did not just refer to voluntary associations with common rituals. When referring to the Jewish community, it carried connotations of a certain independence in the juridical sense and shared descent as well as shared traditions. Such enthnically based organizations were primarily active on the plantations and not in the city, as was the case in other regions. For example, in 1745 a Moravian missionary witnessed how at the funeral of a ‘Popo’ slave, the most important ‘nation’ (the Coromantees) took the lead. Governor Nepveu, astute observer as he was, described the different dancing styles of the various nations (and of the Creoles as well). The slave nations were no functioning political units, but the term presupposed a certain measure of solidarity and mutual support. The following nations were distinguished in Surinam: the Coromantees (Gold Coast Negroes), the Loangos (Bantus) and the Fidas (Dahomeans). All these groups have put their mark on the culture of the Surinam slaves, though of course not all in the same way, or with the same pervasiveness.
Many writers have pointed to the earth-shattering changes in the lives of the unfortunate Africans that were dragged to the New World. In some ways, they may have been less shocked than whites would have been in comparable circumstances, because as Orlando Patterson observed, “the institution of slavery was known to almost every West African: it was a culturally meaningful institution even if never actually experienced by the great majority of Africans”. In other ways, however, their world was turned upside down. Mintz has argued that “the relatively highly developed industrial character of the plantation system meant a curious sort of ‘modernization’ for the slaves –an aspect of their acculturation that has too often been missed because of the deceptively rural, agrarian and pseudo-manorial quality of slave-based plantation production”. Patterson concurred: “once we recognize the simple, stark truth that the typical African who ended up in the New Word came from a pre-literate, small, kin-based community and was then required, within a period of six months, sometimes less, to become a rural proletarian in an agro-industrial firm that was part of a world-wide socio-economic network, his enslavement ceases to be problematic”.
The drastic turn of events in their life made the slaves feel lonely and beleaguered. They needed comfort and protection, so they forged new social relations and a new culture to provide that. Robert Carneiro has described culture as “something which man interposes between himself and his environment in order to ensure his security and survival”. This may be an overly narrow view of culture, but with regard to the slaves and the crisis in which they found themselves it has much relevance. This is especially true when religion is concerned, because the need of the slaves to protect themselves against ‘bad magic’ was one of its most important features.
If the African captives interposed a newly forged culture between themselves and their masters to protect themselves from the onslaughts of the slavery system, it could be expected that the whites would do everything in their power to tear down these walls. In some regions, they indeed seemed to have tried, but in Surinam, they showed little interest. This was especially true with regard to language and religion, the two aspects of culture that have, as Harry Hoetink maintained, the most outspoken “boundary defining” character. The Spaniards and the Portuguese in particular (but also the French and in a hesitant way even the English) seemed to believe that in order to dominate a subjected group properly, one should force them to speak one’s language and adhere to one’s religion. Why this was different in Surinam, will become clear in the following parts.
Harry Hoyer has pointed out that “when a group undergoes rapid changes in its non-linguistic culture linguistic change may similarly increase in tempo”. Few human beings will have experienced such a profound change in their situation as the slaves of the New World. Many of them realized that their very survival depended on their ability to communicate with the strangers that fate had thrown in their way. In the barracks, a slave may have found fellows that spoke the same (or a similar) language, or were conversant in an African lingua franca, but it was often even more vital to be able to communicate with their (white) captors. They might be able to get away with only the most rudimentary knowledge of a lingua franca in the barracks and aboard the slave ships, but on the plantation it was a different matter. There is no proof that the slaves of Surinam were ever forced to learn Dutch, or were punished if they spoke an African tongue, but there was a ‘tataesque’ pressure on them to learn to communicate in the lingua franca of the plantation and the newcomers had little choice but to oblige.
In most places, the slave language was a ‘creolized’ version of the tongue of the master class and in Surinam, the first slaves indeed learned the rudiments of English. The English planters disappeared after 15 years, however, and it would not have been unreasonable to assume that the bondsmen would then have adopted the language of their new Dutch masters, who were to lord it over them for nearly two centuries. This has happened all over the Caribbean, because most islands changed hands a couple of times. Even in Trinidad, where a full-fledged French-based creole had developed, an English-based creole replaced it, even though this took some time and trouble. Not in Surinam: the English-based creole proved very tenacious, perhaps because it had already been refined far enough to make easy communication about all aspects of life possible. Had it only been a rudimentary pidgin, the linguistic evolution might have taken a different route, most likely resulting in the creation of a Dutch-based creole with only a few English words surviving. The Dutch, however, never put any pressure on their seasoned slaves to change their manner of discourse, which would not have been very difficult considering the large influx of fresh bondsmen. It would have taken a deliberate policy though, because, as DeCamp pointed out, “a mere change of official language probably has relatively little immediate effect on a pidgin or creole”.
Not only did the Dutch exhibit indifference towards teaching the slaves to use their language, they even expressly forbade it. Only in the 19th century, one could find a reasonable number of slaves who were able to understand Dutch and a few who were able to speak it. The reason for this reluctance, apart from the apparent need to distance themselves from their chattels as much as possible, might have been that “the Dutch have long been used to other peoples’ ignorance of their language and have themselves shown a great aptitude for learning foreign tongues”, as Taylor hypothesized. Practically all Surinam whites spoke the ‘slave language’ [formerly called Ningre (or Nengre), nowadays Sranan Tongo] fluently. Governor Nepveu remarked about this: “Most whites learn the Negro English Language very easily, being broken English, which since the English occupation has been preserved until now”. Even on board of their own ships, many Dutch slave traders employed an Afro-Portuguese pidgin as their ‘business language’. I therefore do not believe that the slave language changed as fast as Hoetink surmised it did, when he wrote: “It is not unthinkable that within a Portuguese port a Portuguese lingua franca, on a Dutch slave ship a Dutch pidgin, and in a British colony an English-based language, were all learned successively within perhaps a few years”.
What also may have contributed to the lack of influence of the Dutch language was the fact that Surinam did not display the usual colonial pattern, described by Mintz, ”the pattern of social encounter of a small, powerful, monolingual European minority with a large, powerless, multilingual African majority”. The white minority in Surinam was anything but monolingual. Dutch may have been the official language, but for many planters it was not their native tongue. The Jewish planters spoke Portuguese (sometimes Spanish), plus Yiddish or German; the Huguenots (and many upper-class Dutchmen) spoke French; there was a residue of English planters left and later in the 18th century many German and Scandinavian soldiers arrived, some of them ending up as plantation supervisors. So it is not strange that the Dutch did not push their language very vigorously. However, the Surinam planters did not go as far as to adopt the slave language as a lingua franca for their conversation with other whites, as happened in Curacao.
In the second half of the twentieth century, there was a raging controversy between those believing in the ‘polygenetic’ and those believing in the ‘monogenetic’ development of the creole languages in the Western Hemisphere. The first category believed in the (largely) independent origins of the various creole languages. The similarities between them were supposed to stem from the ‘psychical unity of Mankind’: when people speak to foreigners or babies, they all tend to simplify their utterances the same way. The latter category believed that these similarities (not only between the Caribbean creoles, but also between these and some creoles used in Africa and the Far East) are more profound than can be explained by any psychical unity. This theory, which is the most popular one nowadays, holds that the recorded parallelisms derive from the fact that these creoles have the same origin, namely a Portuguese trade pidgin that was widely spoken in West Africa and the Far East. This pidgin probably evolved from a Portuguese version of Sabir, the lingua franca of the Mediterranean. In those parts of the West-African coast that were later conquered by the English, an English pidgin developed out of the Portuguese predecessor and was later expanded into proper creoles, like Krio (spoken in Sierra Leone). The captives who landed together in a barracoon or on a slaver often spoke mutually unintelligible languages and by necessity they acquired a basic knowledge of the Afro-Portuguese trade pidgin quickly. From this common background, the Creoles of the Caribbean developed their own languages through relexification. They became more versatile this way and evolved into full-fletched creoles, without dramatic changes in the grammatical structure.
In the case of Surinam, there are theoretically two possible ways the English-based creole could have taken root: (a) the slaves brought along an English pidgin already created in Africa (alternatively, they ‘relexified’ the Portuguese trade pidgin); or (b) the slaves arrived without much inkling of an European language and learned their first foreign words from the experienced slaves on the plantations, who had acquired a passable knowledge of English in Barbados. The last hypothesis seems untenable: it is highly unlikely that captives would have spent so many months in the barracoons without having picked up some knowledge of a lingua franca.
It is difficult to establish whether the first slaves imported by the Dutch arrived with a Portuguese pidgin, or an already anglicized one. Jan Voorhoeve postulated that it was both the case, but in different periods. The fact that there are many Portuguese-based words present in modern day Sranan and presumably also in the slave language, points in his view to the conclusion that the first slaves arrived with some knowledge of the Portuguese trade pidgin. Later in the 18th century, the majority of the slaves were procured in parts of West Africa where the Portuguese pidgin had been replaced and these came with a luggage of English rather than Portuguese words. According to Voorhoeve, many of the forbearers of the Djuka Bush Negroes belonged to this category when they escaped and from this, he explained the differences between Ndjuka and Sranan.
Richard Price had some difficulties with this theory. Although he believed that some Portuguese words might have entered the slave language through the process described above, he assumed a more pervasive influence of the Portuguese speaking Jews. He pointed out that the language of the Saramaka Bush Negroes has a much larger percentage of Portuguese words than both Ndjuka and Sranan. According to him, the reason for this is the fact that the majority of the forbearers of the Saramaka came from plantations owned by Portuguese Jews and that they learned these words from them. He believed, in fact, that until far into the 18th century, there were two distinct slave languages: an English-based creole spoken by the slaves on the ‘Christian plantations’ and a Portuguese-based (and English-influenced) creole spoken by the slaves on the ‘Jewish plantations’. As proof for this theory, he cited a ‘German missionary’ (Brother Stoll), who reported in 1767: “The language of the Fort Negroes is somewhat different from that of the Plantation Negroes. They have many broken Portuguese words; many things they can name in 3 or 4 ways.”
Price chided Voorhoeve for equating Dju-Tongo with Saramaccan: Dju-Tongo was merely the name for the language spoken by the slaves on Jewish owned plantations. Martin has described how this language slowly disappeared: “ningre and dju-tongo supplemented each other, since the negroes of the different, english and portuguese, plantations came into contact with each other, and ... with the impoverishment of the portuguese planters dju-tongo retracted more and more”.
Price was right to question Voorhoeve’s explanation for the provenance of the Portuguese words in Sranan, but he seems to have been overzealous in his conclusions, because (1) as Voorhoeve rightly argued “runaways were recruited mainly from freshly imported slaves, who had not had time to adapt themselves fully to the linguistic habits of the slaves on the plantations” and because (2) he suggested that the two slave languages, Ningre and Dju-Tongo, were entirely different, instead of two variations of a common base. Price drew conclusions that were much too far-reaching from the words of the missionary. The way the slave language evolved becomes clearer if we follow the suggestion of Ian Hancock and do not speak of relexification but of supralexification: words were not replaced right away by synonyms that derived from another language, but two synonyms might continue to exist side by side for a considerable period of time. [Contemporary English still has two words (a ‘posh’ one derived from French and a ‘plain’ one derived from Anglo-Saxon) for many objects.] I believe this is what the missionary meant: many plantation slaves (especially those of the Upper Suriname region) knew three or four synonyms for a multitude of things, probably words of both English and Portuguese origin, plus possibly words of Dutch and African (sometimes even Indian) origin. The ‘Christian’ and ‘Jewish’ slaves did not have different languages: although the vocabularies may not have overlapped wholly, the grammar and syntax were the same. This is also the reason that Dju-Tongo disappeared quietly and without a trace. Price conceded that his objections against the theory of Voorhoeve were “only about the extent to which differential New World experiences must be taken into account”.
Despite the fact that there were different percentages of Portuguese-derived words in the various plantation creoles, the slaves of Surinam formed one speech community: they could converse with each other without problems, even if they sometimes employed different designations for the same objects. The Portuguese contribution to the slave language was strictly limited to the vocabulary: Rens found very little influence on the grammar, syntax and phonology. He also pointed to the fact that Portuguese-derived words never referred to common articles of use, or to plantation activities, but mostly to delicacies -although more basic words from Portuguese origin were not entirely absent (for example: child/little is pikin, from the Portuguese pequeño).
Measuring the African influence on Ningre is even more difficult. Saramaccan has a larger percentage of African words than either Ndjuka or Sranan. [Although not for the most common items: if one employs the Swadesh 200 items list, it turns out that Sranan has 118 English, 25 Dutch, 7 Portuguese and 4 African derived words, while Saramaccan has 72 English, 6 Dutch, 50 Portuguese and 6 African derived words.] Price explained this by pointing to the fact that the ancestors of the Saramaka escaped in a much earlier stage of history (the end of the 17th and the beginning of the 18th century) than the ancestors of the Djuka (who only started to abscond around 1720, when the last substantial groups of runaways that amalgamated into the Saramaka were already safely ensconced in the forest). It is even more difficult to establish which African languages provided these words. A Belgian priest claimed to have found countless Congolese expressions in Saramaccan, but Price countered that many of those words (or very similar ones) were used all over West Africa. Therefore, it is rather useless to quarrel about the their provenance. The name Asase, for example, could be derived from an Ashanti god, from the Dahomean word for earth, from both, or from neither one. The more common the expression, the more chance it had to survive. Only esoteric cult languages are easily retraceable to a specific African tongue. For example, Kromanti (the language of the sky gods) is largely of Fanti-Ashanti origin (Herskovits even claimed that his Ashanti informants could understand most of it).
Nepveu concluded in 1770 that ‘Negro-English’ “is now mixed somewhat more with Dutch”. Slowly some words derived from the Dutch language had been incorporated into Ningre and some had even replaced former English-based words (for instance: hansom gave way to moy). Dutch words were also used to designate objects and ideas the slaves previously had no term for. However, because of the reluctance of the Dutch to let the slaves learn their language, most slaves could speak no Dutch at all and as a result, according to De Bruyn, “the slaves [were] debarred from the opportunity, to become acquainted even in the slightest with the mores, customs and thoughts of their masters”. Van der Smissen saw no problems: most slaves could understand sufficient Dutch to understand simple teaching. Hostmann was even more optimistic: he claimed that many slaves spoke some Dutch and all could understand it more or less.
Whatever the exact limits of the bondsmen’s knowledge of Dutch may have been, it was not sufficient to influence the development of the slave language substantially. Therefore, the Surinam Ningre changed much less than, for example, the Jamaican creole. In Jamaica, the slave language was based on the official language and through the centuries adapted itself more and more to its grammar and syntax -with the result that a ‘post-creole continuum’ (a fluid transition from the broadest creole to the most sophisticated English) has evolved. Each speaker commands a part of this spectrum, the breath of which is determined by his social status, his education and the variety of contacts he entertains. In Surinam, this did not happen, so the slave language survived in a much purer form.
The only thing that has ever threatened to mar its natural beauty was the construction of a special language for religious purposes by the Moravian Brothers. These realized that they could only reach the slaves if they addressed them in their own tongue, but Ningre had no words for many of the phenomena Christian theology tried to explain and some of the words used by the slaves were not considered proper enough by the missionaries. So they tried to uplift the vocabulary. In the opinion of Voorhoeve, their efforts amounted to little more than “institutionalized mispronunciation”, but they did help to make the slave language more respectable. The ‘church creole’ was mainly employed by blacks aspiring to acceptance by the whites and has become practically extinct in the 20th century. It has not made a lasting impression on the language used by the so-called Volkscreolen.
Brother Kersten voiced the opinion of many whites when he wrote in 1766: “The Negro language is terribly poor and has barely enough [words] for daily use, so that the people must speak almost just as much through signs … In the beginning I did not know myself, where exactly the problem was; now I would explain it thus, that with every three words of them one has to think ten words that they don’t have.” It was true that the number of words taken from the donor languages to stock the new vocabulary was rather limited. Nevertheless, Ningre was not lacking the means to designate less-used objects, or express abstract ideas. The vocabulary was expanded by weaving “a network of meanings around single terms”. This could be done by analogy: for example, bere originally meant ‘belly’ and later also came to mean ‘intestines’ and ‘clan’. It could also be done by linking components to form new meanings: for example (h)oso (house) and pikin (little) can mean little house, but also toilet.
Steinberg has listed some transformational principles whereby an English word became a Sranan word: (1) the s at the beginning of the word was dropped (story became tori); (2) the th changed into f (mouth became moffo) or s (cloth became klosi); (3) the l was replaced by an r, or the other way around (plank became pranga and river liba); (4) letters changed places (work became wroko). Nouns mostly ended with a vowel, often (but not always) repeating the one already present in the word. Phrases were often condensed into words (how do you do became hodi). Expressions were made more concrete: to comfort is tapu sari in Sranan, which literally means ‘to cover grief’. Some of the principles that have been mentioned above have also been unearthed in African languages, but Herskovits erred in the belief that Sranan has an African grammar and syntax. If there are similarities, they probably stem from the fact that the African languages concerned are basically creoles themselves, just as English is rooted in a creole (one of the reasons it is so easy to learn).
The Surinam slaves may have formed a speech community, but that is not to say that there were no regional differences, because the circumstances made it difficult for the slaves to travel. These regional varieties were mostly dialectical in nature. However, the differences in speech between the old (Suriname, Commewijne) and the new (Coronie, Nickerie) plantation areas were more profound than that. The latter had many English and Scottish inhabitants, which made the slave language much more authentically English than in the rest of the colony. Because of the freedom of movement inaugurated by emancipation, few of these varieties remain.
Religion was the most important focus of African life and in the New World, the need for support from the gods was even greater than in Africa. The slaves were assailed by crises that demanded ritual therapy. There were many rituals associated with death and burials, which had to be executed with a depressing regularity. The slaves also were desperate to ward off the witchcraft aimed against them (so they believed) by whites, especially the evil influence of their spirits. The slaves, seeking protection against the powers of darkness surrounding them, enlisted all the help they could get and they were not very particular about the origins of their saviors. Old beliefs were syncretized into new creeds. This way, religion became the first area of cultural cooperation. Religion proved to be an invaluable support for the slaves in their fight for dignity and a better future.
“In Surinam religious neglect and a standard of cruelty extreme even for the Caribbean contributed to strengthen African religious life and with it a state of constant agitation and rebellion”, Eugene Genovese claimed. As often, he is partly right. The Surinam planters indeed wanted to leave their slaves in the dark. They were, like most mainstream Protestants, not very eager to have them converted to Christianity. In the back of their minds, the uneasy belief reigned that it was not particularly charitable to keep fellow Christians in bondage. Since they had no desire to give up their costly property, they preferred their slaves to stay heathens. Furthermore, the Dutch, when it suited their purpose, generally displayed an unusual measure of religious tolerance, especially abroad. In Surinam, they did not actually accept the faith of their slaves, but neither did they oppose displays of paganism out of moral conviction. Their reasons for trying to stop large religious gatherings were purely pagmatic, namely (1) the fact that these brought together a considerable number of blacks and might evolve into a hotbed of rebellious and conspirational ideas; (2) the fact that many slaves got drunk at such occasions and disturbed the peace; (3) the fact that during religious ceremonies (pleys) the slaves often danced and feasted all night (sometimes even the whole weekend), so on Monday morning they were exhausted and not fit for work and (4) the fact that religious institutions might provide an organizational vehicle for uprisings.
That the whites were very much aware of these dangers is proved by their objections against the Watramama dance, which will be explored in more detail later. It goes too far, however, to conclude that the religious life of the slaves in itself created a state of ‘constant agitation and rebellion’. Often, it was the other way around: permitting the bondsmen a certain measure of freedom to practice their religion took pressure of the kettle and contributed to maintaining the status quo. This was the reason why many planters preferred to close their eyes to pagan manifestations, in spite of all the official prohibitions. Furthermore, it was not cruelty in itself that promoted religiousness (since genuine sadism kills all emotion) -although maltreatment contributed to high death rates, of course, which in turn stimulated the performance of religious ceremonies.
In spite of the difficult circumstances under which the slaves had to live, they could develop their ‘idolatry’ largely undisturbed, as long as they were not too obvious about it. The fact that they often kept their religious activities ‘secret’ makes it difficult to retrace the development of slave religion. Mintz and Price have tried to do just this. They believed that in Surinam the slave religion sprouted from inter-African syncretism with some Indian influences. The new creed started to be forged from the moment a slave from one culture gave ritual aid to a slave from another culture. They provided the example of the ‘twin-birth ritual’. The birth of twins was a crisis that urgently required ritual therapy in most African cultures. If the mother had no knowledge of such a ceremony herself, she would undoubtedly have asked the help of others. An older woman who had been a priestess of the twin cult, or who remembered seeing a relative perform the ritual, would have carried it out as best as she could. This may have meant a rather radical reinterpretation of the original ritual. She would thereafter have been recognized as the specialist in cases of twin births. Later, she may have expanded her activities and ultimately, she may have passed on her interpretation to others. This way, religious specialists with specific bodies of knowledge were created.
This is a plausible theory, although twin births were probably a rare occurrence in young slave colonies. More likely, the focus of religious activity will have lain in the rituals surrounding sickness and death. Moreover, the way they sketched it, the creation of the new religion was a private and rather ad-hoc affair, inevitably resulting in much religious variation -of which there is little proof.
African, especially West-African, religions have many characteristics in common, which gave the slaves a sturdy base for developing their syncretic version. E. Bolaji Idowu has listed some of the basic principles. Perhaps because he was a Christian himself, he resented the suggestion that Africans do not believe in ‘God’ (Deity): ”We find that in Africa, the real cohesive factor is the living God and that without this one factor, all things would fall to pieces. And it is on this ground especially –this identical concept- that we can speak of the religion of Africa in the singular”. Africans do not have a clear image of this Supreme Being though. He is generally believed not to involve himself in the ways of the world directly and sometimes he is so remote and the divinities are so powerful that polytheism seems to prevail, in which case Idowu prefers to speak of ‘diffused monotheism’. The concept of God is shaped by “the sociological structure and climate”. He is usually perceived as male, but some tribes speak of God as being female or androgynous in nature. God cannot be manipulated into granting his worshippers what they desire. Consequently, he is usually only worshipped through his divinities -although he has his own priests and shrines in some cultures. “With regard to the essential person, it is illuminating that the African concept is generally that it is only Deity who can put this into man and thus make him a person.” Apart from the belief in a supreme being, African religions share the following elements: “belief in the divinities, belief in spirits, belief in the ancestors, and the practice of magic and medicine, each with its own consequent, attendant cult”.
The divinities are more in the foreground than Deity. Especially in West Africa, they are extremely important, “but even here, we have variations from a very crowded pantheon to a very thinly populated one, and even to a situation where they appear to be scarcely in existence”. The divinities are “brought into being” by, or are thought to be “derivatives from” Deity. Each divinity has a local name in the local language “which is descriptive either of his allotted function or the natural phenomenon which is believed to be a manifestation or emblem of his being”. Nevertheless, divinities with similar names, similar traits and similar functions are found in widely seperated cultures. They are in essence “functionaries in the theocratic government of the universe”. They either administrate parts of Deity’s realm, or act as intermediaries between Deity and Man. They are governed by an arch-divinity (or two) “who is more closely related in attributes to Deity”.
The spirits are less personalized, they have no individual names and are only recognized as categories. A prime example are the ghosts, for “it is believed by Africans that a person whose dead body is not buried, that is, with due and correct rites, will not be admitted to the abode of the blessed departed ones, and therefore will become a wanderer, living an aimless, haunting existence”. This also happens to the unfortunates who suffered a ‘bad death’ by downing, hanging, or complications during childbirth. The Africans believe that witches can send out spirits to harm other people, but a potential victim can be protected by a guardian spirit, either the “essence of man’s personality”, which splits off and becomes a sort of double (spiritual counterpart), or a separate entity.
Ancestor worship is of vital importance as well, because all over Africa, parents are believed to have the power to “bless or curse an offspring effectively”, so everyone needs a parental blessing for every rite of passage. When they have entered the realm of death, their power is enhanced infinitely and so even more sought after. Thus, “while technically Africans do not put their ancestors, as ancestors, on the same footing with Deity or the divinities, there is no doubt that the ancestors receive veneration that may become so intense as to verge on worship or even become worship”. Africans generally believe that the dearly departed can only become ancestors after they have been mustered by Deity, or the “court of ancestors”. Depraved people will be denied a place in ‘heaven’ and will be cast into “a place of rubbish heap”, the “hell of midden”, or the “hell of potsherds”. In some instances, they become eternal wanderers in a place of “no abode”. Veneration of the ancestors is important for their offspring, not for themselves: their after-life is a reality, not dependent on the actions of their descendants.
In most African societies, belief in witchcraft plays a major role. The basic beliefs take on many shapes. Witchcraft can be seen as an expression of inherently evil powers, or as the result of the manipulation of ordinary materials. The kind of persons who are usually suspected of witchcraft and the kind of remedies sought against them vary from place to place. Most societies differentiate between good and evil practitioners of magic. The same powers can often be employed for curing or for destruction.
The pantheon of the Surinam slaves.
The process of syncretizing the various African creeds created a system of beliefs that was totally new in some respects, but reflected on the other hand the contributions of the ethnic groups that made up the slave population. Many writers have found a clear dominance of specific tribes in the various regions of the Caribbean, especially in the field of religion. Roger Bastide has been most active in searching for distinctions. Even within the tight confines of the Old South, he discovered two cultural cores: Gold Coast culture on the Gullah islands and in Virginia, and Dahomean culture in Louisiana. Yoruba culture was preeminent in Trinidad and Cuba and in northeastern and southern Brazil. Haiti and northern Brazil were dominated by Dahomean influence. In Jamaica, the religion and folklore of the Gold Coast shaped the slave culture and in Surinam and French Guyana we find, in his opinion “Fanti-Ashanti culture in its purest form”, particularly among the Bush Negroes. That, at least, was the impression he got from the work of Herskovits. Mintz and Price objected strongly to this kind of simplification. They certainly had a point, but they leaned too far to the other side and denied that one can distinguish the influence of any specific culture at all. No doubt one can find contributions of all the three main cultural congregates (Gold Coast, Dahomean, Bantu) everywhere, but in greatly varying proportions.
The Dahomean slaves seem to have set the tone in Surinam: Governor Nepveu claimed that it were the Papa, Nago, Arrada and others groups usually designated as ‘Fida Negroes’, who had introduced certain “devilish practices” during dances, which were adopted by the other slaves. When they played and sang in a special way, they got into trance and they later told him that their Winti had taken hold of them during this time. Dahomeans also dominated the pivotal snake cult. They were, however, later overshadowed by the Gold Coast Negroes. Their pantheon fitted in snugly with the hierarchy of the Dahomean gods and their conceptions of the Supreme Being and the soul became preeminent. The Bantu slaves seem to have been awed by the comprehensiveness of their competitors’ worldview. According to Bastide, their religion was less systematized than that of the Guineans and was based mainly on ancestor worship. Furthermore, they were predominantly field hands, so they had less bearing on religion (which was the domain of the higher placed slaves) than on folklore. We know that in Surinam, Loango slaves were oppressed by the others, so it is likely that they adapted themselves more to the Guineans than the other way around.
Like most Africans, the Surinam slaves believed in a supreme deity. According to Hartsinck, they called him Jan Compaan (a Dutch mispronunciation of the Ashanti name Nyankompon) -a name that still lives on in one of the names of the Djuka supreme god: Jankumpani. The Moravian missionary Zander wrote in 1745 that the slaves believed in a God na dapé (good God in Heaven) “with whom they do not have much communication, however” and a God na bron (devil), whom they held responsible for any bad luck. They claimed to be the ‘chickens’ of the good God, who butchered one when he felt like it. The Supreme Being did not play an important part in the daily life of the slaves.
Divinities were pivotal in the religion of the Surinam slaves, just as they were in West Africa. They were called Winti (wind). Some were thought to have come from Africa with the deported slaves and to have been prevented from returning because their worshippers had eaten salt in the New World. Others, like the Indji Winti, were indigenous to Surinam and had been ‘tamed’ by religious specialists. [Nowadays there are even Bakra (white), Chinese and Hindustani Winti.] The pantheon of the slaves could be divided into four different groups: the Sky Gods (Tapu Kromanti, especially fierce and powerful gods); the Water Gods (Watra Winti), the Earth Gods (Gron Winti) and the Bush Gods (Busi Winti). It is not clear whether the slaves distinguished arch-divinities. [The Djuka have two: Grantata and Gedeonsu. Most of these Winti are still worshipped by modern-day Creoles and Bush Negroes.]
The powerful Tapu Kromanti were largely of Gold Coast (Ashanti) origin. They were extremely aggressive and given to furious (and for the mediums sometimes dangerous) outbursts. They were associated with iron, weapons and invulnerability. Being ‘high’ Winti, they were not malicious by nature, but could harm people unintentionally and punished them (or had them punished by lower Winti) when they disobeyed the rules. The mediums of the Sky Gods spoke an esoteric language called Kromanti when in trance. This contained many original Ashanti words. They made their face white with clay and wore white (for the Thunder Gods), or blue (for the Kromanti) clothing. Important Sky Gods were Opete (the vulture) and Jaw Kromanti.
The Watra Winti were also high Winti, but stood below most Sky Gods. The most venerated one was Watramama, which was awarded the utmost respect by the slaves. Lammens noted: “when [the slaves] come in a creek or water they have not navigated for a long time or which is unknown to them, they take off their hat, baptize themselves and offer an egg, plantain or the like to the watramama”. The Watramama dance was feared very much by the whites, because it often brought trouble. ”Under the name of Watramama they have a Religious dance, in which she or he, who dances, persists, so long that he or she faints, or gets into trance, and what is then ordered, must happen: -as such practices are very dangerous, they are strictly forbidden, and are punished –the watramama is therefore as much as possible, danced in secret”. Not rarely, Watramama ordered through her mediums that the slaves killed certain whites, or incited a rebellion. Blom nevertheless did not take the danger of this dance very seriously “as [the slave force] usually consists of several nations, of which the one does not trust the other, thus there is, when they dance this dangerous dance (which does not happen but furtively) always only a part of the force present, and the other negroes who do not trust this presumed oracle of a God they do not worship as much, would not be so easily ready to support them; even on a well-run plantation surely the one or the other would warn the whites for the danger that threatened them; therefore one still has no examples, that they have dared to carry out such an intention as result of a so-called divine oracle”. The aboma (anaconda snake) was venerated because the slaves believed it was the locus of a Watra Winti. Of all the Indji Winti (particularly esteemed because they were at home in the country and could be used for divination), the Watra Indji was one of the most important.
The prime Gron Winti was the Earth Goddess (Mama Aisa/Asase). Her husband was Tata Loko. She was believed to live in a kankantrie (cotton wood tree) and could present herself in the shape of a deer, tiger, crocodile, dagowe or aboma snake. It was therefore forbidden to kill these animals. Each plantation had such a goddess, who was worshipped at every dance. She was a high Winti who protected the plantation slaves against harmful influences. Since she was bound to the land, the slaves could not take her with them (as they could other Winti) when they fled from a plantation.
The Busi Winti pantheon was very crowded. Most prominent divinities were the Snake Gods (Papa Winti, for example). He inhabited a so-called Papa sneki (or dagowe = boa constrictor). Consequently, the slaves did not dare to kill such a snake. Even when they did this unaware (while burning vegetation, for example), they would fall ill and die. The name Papa betrays that this cult originated in Dahomey. The Papa slaves often kept snakes as pets. Stedman revealed that they “are happy to see it enter their huts”. Some women were skilled in enticing a snake to come to them “by their voice” and managed to make them come down from a tree. If such a woman succeeded in tempting a snake “it is common to see this reptile twine and writhe about their arms, neck and breast as if the creature took delight in hearing her voice, while the woman strokes and caresses it with her hand”. Governor Nepveu claimed that some slaves kept a snake in a separate room in their house, or even in a special house with a verandah. Their worshippers lured them into the house by singing softly. They were pampered and fed copiously. The room in which the snake stayed could only be entered by the ‘mama’ and only in a kneeling posture. From time to time, the disciples brought sacrifices, always white in color, like a white chicken or pigeon. They wore white kerchiefs on their head.
Another well-known Busi Winti was Busimama. She looked like a human being, but her feet were turned around and she had a strangely formed head wit lots of hair. She knew all medicinal herbs and was not very friendly to people. Whenever she met one in the bush, she started a fight and nearly always won. This was the reason that someone who got lost in the jungle almost never returned. The Tigri Winti (Ajaini) was just as fierce as the Sky Gods. Benoit observed the ceremony: “When they celebrate the feast of Ajaini Winti, or the sacrifice to the tiger, one has to have forty to fifty birds. At a sign given by the sacrificer, whose clothes are white with spots like a tiger skin, these poor birds are torn apart by the assistants under convulsive movements and terrible cries. They are then prepared and served by the hands of the sacrificer, just like the drinks and the other spirits that have been deposited in advance at the foot of the tree by the most devoted and the most fanatical of them”.
Hostmann considered Ampuku the foremost Busi Winti. This was an anthropomorphic divinity, usually portrayed as tall and black skinned. He was a lower Winti, under the command of the higher gods, who could order him to torment erring men. He could also by ‘trained’ by a sorcerer and be made to harm people. Like most of his peers, he was somewhat malicious by nature and a clever imitator. He liked to impersonate other Winti during pleys given in their honor, thereby spoiling the whole show.
Leba, another of the Busi Winti, had clear Dahomean origins. Some believed that he was small in stature and dressed in rags. He served as a messenger for the higher Winti. He was not malicious, but easily insulted and liked to tease. Van Lier presented Leba in a different light: as being mean by nature and swathed in palm leaves that made the sound of a sakka sakka (rattle) when he moved. He was worshipped at crossroads and near sluices.
An equally humble Busi Winti was Akantamasi, who lived in a termite nest and was also at the beck and call of the higher Winti. He was very belligerent and if anyone urinated or defecated at close range, he punished the culprit with sickness and death: he could cause, among other things, the bloody flux.
The Bakru spirits resembled Ampuku in various respects. Their origins are not clear. They were probably not ‘brought along’ from Africa, but a later addition to the pantheon. Steinberg claimed that the Bakru cult “penetrated the colony in the beginning of the 50’s from the Forestland along the Para and Suriname and has raged, like an epidemic, on the plantations for about 30 years”. This occurrence gave rise to a new group of religious specialists: “When the cases of Bakru possession multiplied a sort of guild of bakru exorcists arose, who with their cures –mostly consisting of merciless canings- made a nice profit”. It was rumored that some people did not survive their ‘treatment’. Martin witnessed such a procedure with his own eyes. When visiting the former plantation Berg en Dal in the 1880’s, he was struck by the sight of a girl flashing past him crying, chased by two men who finally brought her back “coughing with nervously clenched hands”. They explained to him that “she was possessed by the devil (Bakru), an evil, which the negroes believe they can exorcise by whipping and which is set on them by a man”.
Vernon has studied about the belief in Bakru spirits among the Djuka. It seems they only got acquainted with them by the end of the 19th century, when the first gold prospectors entered their territory. They considered Bakrus to be the enslaved ghosts of evil persons that had attached themselves to visitors and had been sent to them as a kind of avenging spirits (kunu) in retaliation for theft. Contrary to other Winti, men could not only train Bakrus to do their bidding, but also mould them. According to Vernon, the Djuka believe that a Bakru is the “shade of an unknown (and probably evil) dead, which has been captured and tinkered with by a Creole or Chinese magician, and made to inhabit a mannekin. The little body is composed half of flesh, half of wood, its wooden half serving the Bakru as a shield to foil its assailants”. According to other sources, a Wintiman could form a Bakru out of the slime of plants. Then it was placed under a plantain tree and after the recitation of certain formulas, it was ready to fulfill his master’s wishes. Although it was thought to be small, with the statue of a three year old boy, it was enormously strong and could wrestle the most muscular men to the ground.
Steinberg claimed that the belief in Bakrus originated in the bush (probably the Saramacca region), but others held that it was a coastal invention. Vernon hypothesized: “it is possible then, that the Bakru belief was not part of the original cosmology elaborated on the plantations but that it evolved on the coast after the escapes and was not imported to the Maroon societies until the feverish years of rainforest fortune hunting”. It is a mystery why the fear of Bakru created such a hysteria in the second half of the 19th century. Although Bakrus share some traits with Ampuku, they are not ordinary Winti. Winti cannot be exorcised: they can be trained to a certain degree and be enticed to leave a person alone, but they can never be driven away by a whipping.
To recapitulate: the Winti formed a hierarchy in which the lower Winti had to obey the orders of the higher ones. The highest-placed Winti featured: the Kromanti, Aisa, Watra Mama, Papa Winti and Tigri Winti. Low on the scale were most of the Busi Winti. Many Winti were of Gold Coast origin, the Kromanti being the most prominent. The snake gods and Leba were of Dahomean stock. The Bantu made a modest contribution in the form of Loango Winti. Important were also the Inji Winti. The higher Winti, in particular the Kromanti, were often very fierce, making their mediums tear apart live chickens, run through fire or glass, etc. They were just, but indifferent towards humans. Lower Winti were often mean and petty, they could be bought with presents and be trained to terrorize people. The Winti that accompanied them on their horrible journey to the New World were a great comfort for the slaves during their ordeal and it must have been an enormous relief for them to find their new habitat teeming with Inji Winti, who helped them to adapt.
The spirits of the ancestors were called Jorkas (in the archives sometimes listed as Jurki). According to Van Lier, this name derives from the Indian word Yoroka, meaning devil. Van der Smissen mentioned that the word Yurka was used by the slaves for a “ghost or invisible transcendental being”. It was vital to appease the ancestors, because they could both protect and harm the living. When a descendant broke the rules, they could haunt him and his family as a kind of avenging spirit for generations. The most influential Jorkas were called Gran Jorkas. In order to prevent their evil ghosts from tormenting the living, suspected witches were burned alive by the Maroons. In 1777, for example, it was reported from the mission post Bambey that two “Götzenpriester” had been burned alive, because they had confessed that they had poisoned several children at the instigation of evil spirits.
Azema (a Dahomean word meaning vampire) was much feared by the slaves. Lammens described her as “a ghost who feeds itself with the flesh of men and animals”. She went out at night and sucked the blood of humans, women in particular. She usually inhabited the body of a person (mostly an old woman) who was called azeman. Engel wrote in 1916: “Not long ago any shriveled-up old woman, especially one leaning in a bent position on a cane, particularly if she had red-inflamed eyes, ran the danger to be reviled as Azéman and pelted with stones in the streets of Paramaribo”. Some people believed that the azeman could shed her skin at night (like European witches) and that one could prevent her from returning to her normal form by sprinkling pepper or salt on it. It was also believed that Azema, when flying, radiated a bluish light.
The concept of the soul was largely shaped by the beliefs of the Gods Coast Negroes: to denote it, the slaves used the Akan word (a)kra. The kra, constisting of a male and a female part, was sometimes also conceived as a kind of spiritual shadow, that could wander around and bring trouble to its owner. It had the task to protect the body from invasion by evil spirits and was aided by spiritual helpers (nowadays called djodjo). In the view of some authors, there were two djodjos, a male and a female one; others distinguised seven pairs (one pair for each day of the week) and perceived a close relationship between day names and spiritual helpers. The djodjos were usually believed to be powerful Winti (preferably an Inji Winti or a Kromanti), but it was not unthinkable for a (Gran) Jorka to perform the same functions. According to the Penard brothers, Creoles believe that a person who is robbed of his kra “speaks gibberish, becomes listless and often dies”. As long as the kra is strong, no harmful spirit can enter the body. So, when the kra had become weak, it had to be strengthened by a special meal: “The negroes, when they want to have a religious feast, put these beans [negerpesiën] in water an evening in advance and remove the pods the next morning, prepare the flour by pounding, and fry the well-kneaded dough in rapeseed oil to a kind of oilcakes, which they call akra (food for the gods)”, Teenstra reported. He was not entirely accurate: what probably happened was that the slaves made these cakes for a kra-tafra (special meal to strengthen the kra), or a pley in which the kra was celebrated.
Witchcraft and possession.
Albert Raboteau claimed that Afro-American witchcraft beliefs are generally European in origin, but this was certainly not the case in Surinam. The similarities that exist rather point to the fact that the basic tenets of witchcraft in Europe and Africa were very much alike, as Herskovits has argued. The slaves of Surinam lived in mortal fear of witchcraft (wisi). They felt especially vulnerable to persecution by the ghosts of whites (while being convinced that it did not work the other way around). Benoit, for example, noticed that Negroes refused to sleep in a house where a white had died, “because they are persuaded that the dead will return during the night to torment them”. The slaves had more reason to dread the evil intentions of their fellows, though. Some were believed to posses a kind of ‘evil eye’ in the form of an Azema, which they easily fell prey to if they were consumed by jealousy. Others (the wisimans) intentionally used black magic. They trained potentially evil divinities and spirits (Ampuku, Bakrus, Jorkas) to haunt their enemies. Sometimes, they kept a snake in order to gain wealth and poison their fellows.
It was nearly impossible to root out this belief, even with Christian slaves. A black ‘sister’ on the plantation Fairfield told an EBG-missionary in 1798. “I do not believe in the sorcery of the Negroes, but when my daughter (a servant sister in Paramaribo) was still young, she got blind in both eyes. My husband, a white, sent her to a doctor, who however could not help her, just as little could another wise man do. When after that many donkeys on the plantation died, the master started to suspect a negro and had him put in chains. Soon after that a new director came, who asked the negro, why he had earned this punishment. Answer: Master, do you not see this Mulatto woman, who walks around with sore eyes? I have blinded her; but if you let me loose just long enough, so I can go to my house and take that, what I have buried for her eyes out of the ground again, she will get better. The director informed the administrator, who however ordered, not to let the negro loose. So they guided him tied-up to his house, where he dug several things out of the ground; to me he gave some herbs, which I should cook and wash the eyes of my daughter with, after which they were cured completely soon. He had gotten hold of the cloth with which my daughter had dried the sweat of her face, and with that performed his sorcery.”
If a slave died, it was necessary to determine the cause of death to make sure that no wisi was involved. To that end, the ceremony of ‘carrying the coffin’ was performed. This ritual was known all over West Africa and naturally, the slaves had hung on to it. During the performance, either the coffin with the body itself, or some hair and clothes of the deceased were carried around the compound and if the bearers were guided towards a house and the coffin touched it, this was considered sufficient proof that the inhabitant was guilty of witchcraft. Sometimes, the alleged culprits were handed over to the master in the hope that they would be put to death (preferably on the funeral pyre of their victims), but it also happened that they were horribly tortured and then burned alive by their fellow slaves. This was, for example, the horrible fate of Jean of the plantation L’ Esperance. He had been accused of wisi by the Jorka of the late slave Dikki of Mr. Penneux. Sometimes the masters handed the accused over to the authorities and during interrogation many of them confessed that they had practiced witchcraft. [This was a rather common phenomenon. Patterson wrote about Jamaica: “since the people accused of obeah were themselves the victims of the system and therefore usually maladjusted persons, we find that the accused invariably pleaded guilty to the preposterous charges made against them”.]
Even some whites feared black witches: in 1772 the widow Polak accused her slave woman of being an azaman. Although the Court of Criminal Justice dismissed the complaint as "frivolous", the raden were aware that she could not be returned to her mistress and ordered that she should be sold outside Paramaribo.
It is understandable that many blacks were terrified of being taken for a wisiman. Hostmann provided some examples. A Negro called Augussie had, by accident, shot a Bush Negro while hunting, mistaking him for a tigri. “Suspected as sorcerer, and therefore in constant mortal fear, Augussie succumbed, even before it had been decided whether or not he should be considered guilty of sorcery”. Another Negro stepped on a poisonous snake and was killed. His companions believed that a man who lived eight days of travel from the place of the accident had sent the snake. “The accused negro is from now on persecuted, his life is forfeited and if he does not dispose of it himself, he has to fear the funeral pyre.”
‘Black’ magic could by fought with objects fashioned with ‘white’ magic, often called obia (an Ashanti word). The practitioners were called obiaman or dresiman. There were two kinds of obias [amulets and other items (eggs, feathers, pipes, mirrors), often put in calabashes]: the opo was used to get something; the tapu was used to ward off something. Hartsinck informed us that the practitioners “make all kinds of enchanted Ropes with Knots, which are carried around the body or at the Hands and Feet; the one to ward off Poisoning, Diseases and Hardships; the other to be loved; to be strong in fighting; to be spared beatings etc, that are all generously paid for”. Brother Zander reported in 1745 that he had met a runaway who had hung living turles all over his body, because he felt so haunted by evil spirits that he did not find any rest anymore. The slaves and Bush Negroes firmly believed in the power of these obias, sometimes with tragic results. Lammens related the story of two Aukaners (Djuka) who disputed the strength of a certain obia, an iron ring of which the owner claimed it made him invincible. He taunted the other, a relative, to shoot him. After repeated refusals, the latter obliged and fired a shot of pellets at him. The proud obia owner was severely wounded at the head and died shortly after, but not before he had uttered a statement absolving his kinsman of all responsibility. This did not spare him arrest.
The dresiman (plantation ‘doctor’) mostly used herbs and other natural materials, but he might also perform miraculous feats with supernatural aid. Sometimes he was also a lukuman, a specialist who diagnosed ailments with the help of a Winti (generally an Indji Winti). The slaves believed that many illnesses were the result of bad relations, either with the supernatural world or with one’s fellows. It was the task of the lukuman to ‘look’ what was wrong with the patient and of the obia/winti/bonuman to cure him. These functions could be united in one person, but many specialists were only competent in one sphere –it depended on the Winti that possessed them. The most famous of these specialists were called Grantata (grandfather) in the case of a woman, or Granmama (grandmother) in the case of a man (“the reason for this [I] cannot fathom”, Nepveu remarked about this reversement). To the chagrin of many authors, these ‘quacks’ were even consulted by whites. Hostmann noted with disgust that the religious specialists were usually drunk when performing their miracles, yet their utterances during trance influenced their fellows with “the power of oracles, of divine messages”.
Black ‘doctors’ jealously guarded their secrets, especially from whites, even when they concerned harmless herbs and remedies. Fermin complained that he had “many times visited several black slaves, who are versed in the knowledge of a great number of these plants; but these people are so envious of their skills that I have not been able to learn anything from them, not for money, not for flattery, and [I] have never been able to persuade one, on any condition whatsoever, to give me any tutoring”. A specialist could command high fees from the believers in the form of money, goods and food items. A fee of 25 guilders for a cure (more than the monthly wage of a lower-class white) was not at all unusual. This could make them very rich, but they were also vulnerable, especially the lukumans: when they gave the wrong prediction and, for example, a supposedly succesful attack failed, it could cost them their head.
The religious specialists were not the only persons who could be possessed by a Winti. A considerable percentage of the slaves was a medium too, but only the specialists knew how to train and use their Winti. For the ordinary mediums, possession was often an ungrateful burden: they had to keep their Winti happy by giving them presents and organizing dances to honor them and this was rather costly. On the other hand, a powerful Winti could give them protection against an invasion of harmful spirits and the machinations of their fellows. Winti were often inherited by descendants and passed from father to son and from mother to daughter. The Moravian missionary Zander, who claimed that the slaves all had their own ‘god’, described the process whereby they got their Winti. When they were young, they were brought to a cemetery and placed on the grave of an ancestor. Water was poured over them and it was revealed what Winti they would have. They had to venerate him or her from that moment on. Some Winti preferred to choose their own medium and this way new divinities could present themselves to the slave population. This was the way the Indji Winti were incorporated into the pantheon. If a slave was able to persuade his peers to believe that he was possessed by a powerful, even though previously unknown, Winti, this could give him a lot of prestige. Such a scheme was not always successful: the claimant had to demonstrate the power of his Winti by miraculous deeds.
Possession by spirits is a well-known African phenomenon. Erika Bourguignon found in a sample of 144 sub-Saharan societies that “82% exhibited institutionalized forms of dissociational states, 81% some type of possession belief, and 66% possession trance”. Usually, possession is a normal, culturally determined phenomenon, but in some instances, it can show pathological traits. In slave colonies, the pathological component was perhaps larger than in ‘normal’ societies. Slaves were deprived of the possibility of achievement along normal channels and by possession they could at least gain some statue in the eyes of their peers, if not in the eyes of their masters. Women were especially prone to choose this venue, because their life offered them little opportunity to gain self-esteem through personal achievement and they had a lesser range of expression of various suppressed drives.
The sensitivity for ritual possession is partly conditioned by genetic factors, but cultural and environmental factors are important as well, as is (deprivation of) food, the use of drugs and the attitude towards such phenomena. Stimulating for reaching a state of possession are certain drum rhythms (that influence brain waves) and stress situations -like hyperventilation (for example through overexertion while dancing) and malnourishment. It is clear that such situations were very common in the life of the slaves. In the ideal state, possession is total and the medium does not remember what has happened during trance, because, as Sheila Walker observed: “To remember one’s behaviour would be tantamount to saying, given the context of the belief system, that the deities did not really have the power to possess their devotees, thus the gestures of the devotees would be mere drama, rather than religious ritual”.
In Surinam, some persons were clearly more prone to possession than others: some mediums were used by several Winti, who could present themselves in quick succession. The mediums were called asi (either derived from a Dahomean word meaning horse or from the English ass) and the Winti were described as riding their asi. A Winti that was connected with a group could manifest itself only in people that are closely related. Walker noted that “each individual acts out his deity in his own idiosyncratic way, thus expressing his own personal desires, yet the deity does have a basic personality recognizable across the individual variations”. In Surinam, the characteristic traits of the Winti were rather pronounced and often groups of Winti had the same basic personality.
The religious rituals provided an important catharsis for the slaves. In the words of Walker, they were “ethno-dramas dealing with the realities of daily social life”. In the traditional Dahomean cults, only one deity could be served by a devotee and this person was not allowed the expression of personal idiosyncrasies: “The benefit to the devotee was mainly the opportunity to be appreciated by others in such an exalted position”. The mediums in Surinam had much more leeway. The possession trance was not tied to official rituals reserved for specific cults: a person could get into trance at ordinary parties and sometimes even during his normal tasks. Bystanders sometimes hardly took notice of it.
To please the deities, each slave had to keep certain food taboos, called treefs (from the Hebrew word tarefa = forbidden food, in the Amsterdam Jewish dialect pronounced as treife). Stedman wrote about this habit: “there is a direct prohibition in every family, handed down from father to son, against the eating of some one kind of animal food, which they call treff; this may be either fowl, fish or quadruped, but whatever it is, no negro will touch it”. Lammens also mentioned the treefs (“that is something forbidden”) and claimed that the slaves refrained from eating such animals as the turtle, deer, pingo, etc., but also plants like the bacove (plantain) because of it.
The slaves believed that the Winti could have their locus in an inanimate object (a stone or a pipe) or an animal (especially a snake), but they seemed to be particularly partial to inhabiting a kankantri(e) (cottonwood tree). Brother Westphal, when visiting a ‘well-known timber estate’, saw a crowd of slaves come out of the forest one Sunday morning around 9 o’ clock and he asked the director if they had been working. The latter answered “that it was Sunday morning and that the Slave had no work, and that it was the habit of the Slave to hold his Religious Service on Sunday morning in the forest where an old Kankantrie-tree stood, around this tree the Slaves Danced and brought their Obia, or sacrificial service to their Pagan Gods, in the hope that their prayers will be answered”.
The veneration of this tree was widespread and originated in Guinea. Beckwith wrote about the Jamaican slaves: “The cult of the death is strongly imposed upon the worship of cottonwood, and the animistic idea of the tree spirit is less defined than that of a ghost of the dead harboring in its branches … Jamaican Negroes fear any cottonwood tree and will not cut it without a propriatory offering of rum.” In Surinam, the slaves were even more reluctant to chop down a kankantrie if they believed it was inhabited by a Winti. Blom reported that the ‘kattentrie’ “is venerated as a great GOD by all; at certain times they make offerings to it; they prepare a lot of foods then, which they place around the tree with much ceremony: if such a tree stands in the way, it takes a lot of work and trouble to get it felled; if it is still young, and not very large, one can still arrange it, but if it is old and large, then they don’t want to cut it; and to force their conscience would be no less dangerous, than it would be among Christians; meanwhile it is strange that, be there twenty Kattentrie-trees on a plantation, they have no trouble rooting out the others.” Stedman gave the impression that the slaves refused to damage any kankantrie. When he asked a Negro why they put offerings around a certain tree, the man explained: “This proceeds ... massera, from the following cause: having no churches nor places built for public worship (as you have) on the Coast of Guinea, and this tree being the largest and most beautiful growing there, our people, assembling under its branches when they are going to be instructed, are defended by it from the heavy rains and the scorching sun. Under this tree our gadoman, or priest, delivers his lectures; and for this reason our common people have so much veneration for it, that they will not cut it down upon any account whatever”.
It was dangerous to force the slaves to go against their beliefs. Benoit recorded a case in which a planters was severely punished for his stubbornness in this regard: “One day, a planter mocking this veneration of the negroes for their God and not fearing to offend their prejudices, resolved to have one of these trees, a venerable Nestor, who stood in the middle of one of his fields, cut down. He gave the order for this to his bastiaan; but this prudent negro tried to make his master see, that by cutting the tree, he could irritate the slaves, and ran the risk to compromise his life. The master persisted in his decision. He forced the bastiaan to obey the order that he had given him, and the tree was cut down. Eight to ten days afterwards, the master was seized by a trembling in all his members. He had himself brought to the city, where he lost the use of his limbs entirely. He continued to live for several more years in a completely paralyzed state, and returned to Europe, where he succumbed quickly. This was the effect of the revenge of the negroes.”
Sometimes, a master could persuade his slaves to comply with his desire to remove (a part of) a kankantrie, but such a dangerous deed was surrounded by much ceremony. Voorduin described an occasion on Jagtlust where “the whole slave force of the plantation was needed; - men, women and children brought the broken branch to the riverside; - each kept a hold on it, till the last moment, even only by a mere leaf”.
Many writers (particularly the pious Christians among them) were put on the wrong track by the fact that the slaves seemed to worship trees, stones and other objects, while in reality the rituals were meant to honor the Winti inhabiting them. The Moravian missionary Steinberg, for example, remarked that on the plantation Victoria ‘bushes’ were worshipped and on Worsteling Jacobs a large rock on the riverbed (or rather, the tree that clung to that rock by its roots). The slaves also ‘worshipped’ statues: Victoria housed an almost life-sized wooden idol called Adangra (the secretive or terrifying). On Frederickslust, the slaves had, according to Steinberg, two such ‘fetishes’, which they used to good effect: “Was a new director or administrator expected, then one of the statues was hidden beside the landing place and the other under a bridge, where the new lord had to pass. The intention was that his heart would become soft and friendly”. Sometimes small ‘temples’ would be built and rebuilt in certain holy places and several of these had a remarkably long history: a missionary in the Para region destroyed one that had stood for 150 years.
Steinberg also noted that “everywhere where the missionaries have laid their hands on 'idolatrous gear', the jars and ... glass bottles and plates, which are filled with water for the spirits, play the major role”. Lammens recollected than on the plantation Berg en Dal the ‘altar’ was the trunk of a large tree, around which all kinds of bottles were arranged. A missionary recorded in 1850: “On Waterland I found a small earthen hill as place of sacrifice; four pots standing face down on top of it, and on each one an egg”. A colleague of his noted: “Besides the large stone, which the heathens of 'Worsteling Jacobs' worshipped as their god, one still sees bottles, jars and pots lying, in which they brought him food”.
The slaves had many superstitions. They considered the hooting of geese flying over them a bad omen. Killing a spider would cause glass to break. One was not allowed to ask the name of a plantation when passing it, or one would get ‘uneasy water’. To protect their belongings, they placed calabashes decorated with feathers and other trinkets, which they had received from a lukuman, outside their houses and in the fields. They were always afraid of offending a Winti or spirit unwittingly: “The Negro has an unconquerable reluctance, to try something new or to venture, where he has never been; - he always imagines orges; - a Watramama, Jorkas (Ghosts) or any chimerical being that will harm him”.
For different reasons, many whites were not happy with the religions expressions of their slaves. The authorities tried to suppress the large-scale gatherings through the issuing of laws, but these went on just the same and often not very secretive either. Devout Christians hated all forms of heathenism, but during the later part of the slave era, the whites seem to have given up the fight against ‘pagan rituals’. Hostmann complained that ‘idolatry’ “is openly practiced in the streets of Paramaribo in full daylight and under the eyes of the police”. However, there were rituals the slaves themselves preferred to keep under cover. Penard related that when slaves wanted to hold a wintidansi, they often warned the director not to interfere by sticking a sharp knife (lengi nefi) into the door of the bakra oso (‘house of the whites’). During religious services the slaves sometimes vented their hostility towards their masters openly and according to Benoit “the fear that one will feel the consequences of this hatred often entices rich planters to have refreshments carried to [the kankantrie], and even often to profess respect towards the tree.”
Junker claimed that only after “the runaway slaves enjoyed a reasonable peace in the jungles of Surinam, thoughts regarding the religion could get full scope”. The truth is that many ‘runaways’ (especially the ones that had fled from a plantation with the whole force and the ones that had been forcibly taken from their home) took along an already fairly integrated faith, although they could not always take along their favorite Winti. The religious beliefs of the Maroons departed somewhat from those of the plantation slaves as time passed by, but the two groups never lost touch and continued to influence each other. The slaves feared the greater magical powers of the Maroons and when given the chance (for example when living among them after having been kidnapped) they would eagerly learn all they could. If they managed to return to their plantation, they could impress their fellows with their newfound knowledge. When possible, slaves and ‘pacified Maroons’ gathered for a common pley. In 1772, for example, several hundred slaves and Bush Negroes were caught red-handed on the Joden Savanne. The Bush Negroes were sent away with only a warning, as were most of the slaves. The organizers were punished with lashes.
A case brought before the Court of Police and Criminal Justice in 1798 revealed the variety of the magic Surinam blacks performed to further their ends. The ‘free Negress’ Elizabeth (Betje) was the housekeeper of Frans Saffin, who was blessed with a considerable fortune, but to his chagrin had no children. Their only child had died and Betje was desperate to conceive again. She asked Avans of Dr. Emanuels to perform a Watramama dance to help her become pregnant. She also enlisted the help of Datra of Governor De Frederici. He advised her to go to her brother and sister, prepare some food and pour water on the grave of her mother. Furthermore, she had to give a golden chain to her sister. He promised that she then would become pregnant the next year. When Frans Saffin fell ill, Betje asked Avans, who had been a lukuman in Africa, to give him some medicine. Avans refused, because if he did not administer anything to Frans, he could not be accused of any malfeasance if he died. He only gave Betje a powder to rub on his swollen legs. Datra agreed to perform his magic, but to no avail. Frans eventually died and Betje accused his brother Volkert of having poisoned him. She tried to seduce his slave Carel (a runaway she got to know because as a punishment he had been nailed in a block in the garden of Frans Saffin) to beget a child with her. Carel refused to have relations with her (the first time his excuse was that he could not have sex on his name day, at the next occasion he claimed that he suffered from a venereal disease). Betje also enlisted the help of Carel, Datra and Avans to kill Volkert Saffin. They all had their ways to bring this about. Avans did the Watramama dance again. He also buried a box with a dead black bird in the Oranjetuin and implored the ‘Jurka’ of Frans Saffin not to warn his brother. He took along a snail-shell, filled it with food and put it in Frans’ hammock. He received five guilders for his exertions. Datra buried a cloth with some small bells, coals and mud on a spot near Frans Saffin’s house that his brother had to pass, so he would step on it, fall ill and die. He also persuaded Carel to throw a basket with meat, beer, wine, a jug of genever, 2 paantjes, 10 driestuiver coins, 2 mirrors, 2 combs and 2 new razors in the Suriname River, near the flagpole of Fort Zeelandia, so Volkert would drown in the river. To pay for all this wisi, Betje collected money from Frans Saffin’s slaves. Despite their evil intentions, the Court could find no proof that the trio had actually harmed Volkert. Therefore, they were only condemned to a Spaanse Bok for “Divination, Sortilege and Malfeasance” and were later sold out of the colony. Betje seems to have escaped punishment.
The inroads of Christianity.
As has already been noted, Surinam planters had not much desire to convert their slaves to the Christian faith. In this respect, they were no different from their Protestant counterparts elsewhere. Only some tiny, dissident and sometimes persecuted sects showed any interest in proselytizing the slave population. In the English territories, for example, the Anglican Church remained aloof, while the Methodists, Baptists, Wesleyans, Pentecostals, Shakers, etc. were busy spreading the faith. In Catholic areas, it was another matter. There the Church considered converting the slaves a holy duty and the planters complied, at least outwardly. The conversion was often only superficial: slaves were hastily baptized aboard the slave ships after hearing some sermons by priests who were probably largely ignorant of their language. Some authors believed that Catholicism was more conductive to the survival of the slave religions than Evangelical Protestantism, but that was not entirely true. The kind of syncretism that occurred was different: the Catholic view on sacred objects and popular devotion were so flexible that they could easily absorb foreign influences. The old African gods could hide under the names of Catholic saints. So with regard to form (the retention of Africanisms), the Catholic Church was a better match, but with regard to expression, some Protestant sects, especially those of the ‘shouting’ and ‘shaking’ kind, came closer. In Surinam, the gap between the Christian faith and the religion of the slaves was so wide that there was practically no interplay at all. This often led to a somewhat schizophrenic situation for the converted, but at the same time, it was favorable for the untainted survival of African beliefs.
The official church in Surinam was the Dutch Reformed Church. Its ministers were paid out of public funds. The first one to arrive was Abramus van Westhuysen, who came in 1667 with Crijnssen. He was followed by Johannes Basseliers, who set foot in Surinam a year later and died after a stay of 16 years as a prosperous planter and a member of the Court of Police, both remarkable feats. Most clergymen did not last longer than five years in the cruel climate, so Surinam used up quite a few reverends and had to go without spiritual leaders for considerable periods of time. A stately church was built in Paramaribo and parts of the countryside were dotted by small chapels. The oldest was situated on the so-called Hoek van Calis in Commewijne and was split up in 1687 into two chapels: one on the plantation of Jan de Backer (Curcabo) and the other on the plantation of Cornelis Snelleman (Cannewapibo). The first survived until 1721, the latter was still in use in 1789. It was an important meeting point with a market behind it. The Cottica/Perica region also boasted two modest chapels. In the beginning of the 18th century, one stood near Bel Air, but did not survive long. The other (Hulshof's church) was in use until 1797. Not even the planters were much influenced by their existence, let alone the slaves.
As the whites had little use for Christian chattels, they allowed only a few of their most favorite slaves to be formally accepted into the church. The offspring of a white man and a slave woman could be baptized in front of witnesses if the Christian father was present and the master of the mother had given permission. In many cases, these children were promised their freedom. The Dutch Reformed Church only occasionally accepted adult converts: in 1721 Isabella, a “Negress on the Plantation of Mr. Wobma”, was the first one allowed to partake in the Lord’s Supper. Governor Joan Raye was very fond of the government slave Koffie and permitted him to be baptized, take the name Jan van Breukelerwaard (Raye was Lord of Breukelerwaard) and go to Holland to thank the directors of the Society personally for the goodness he had experienced. The slaves of the Society were in a privileged position to become acquainted with the faith of their masters and when they converted, they were often awarded special privileges. For example, when Alberta Maria was baptized in 1759, her mulatto son Albertus was made a godchild of the directors of the Society. Governor Crommelin took it upon him to supervise his education in the Christian faith and urged his successors to do the same. Often, these slaves were freed, or permitted to buy their freedom. When choosing a name, they favored the surname Van Paramaribo.
Christians were of course delighted when a slave owned by a Jew wanted to convert to the ‘true faith’ and were noticeably less reluctant to receive them in the Reformed Church. When the mulatto slave Keyzer went to Holland without the permission of his master Baena, he was welcomed with open arms there. He returned with the recommendation of two Amsterdam clergymen that he should be taught more about Christianity and be allowed to become a member of the Reformed Church -regardless of the objections of his master, who was, understandably, not amused. On the other hand, Jews were not barred from converting their bondsmen to the Jewish faith.
The other Protestant denominations (Walloon Church, Lutherans, Labadists) were not very eager to do the work of the Lord either, as far as the slaves were concerned. Things changed when the Moravians Brothers arrived. In a letter dating from November 1740, Governor Van de Schepper warned the Society about the activities of the first missionaries. He wanted to forbid their gatherings, because the council of the Dutch Reformed Church had complained about their behavior and he himself believed that the people who frequented their services were ‘scum’: the women lived scandalously and the men were drunkards and smugglers. The Moravians (also called Hernhutters and in later times the Evangelische Broeder Gemeente) had friends in high places, though, and they were allowed to stay in the colony and evangelize among the Indians and Bush Negroes. They also tried to gain entry to the plantations by working there as a blankofficier or an artisan. They were so eager to get such a job that they were willing to work for their keep alone. The planters ridiculed them for that, saying that even the slaves received goods worth at least 100 guilders a year in addition to their keep. The life of the missionaries in Surinam was hard and most of them died in a short while. Therefore, the maximum age for female missionaries was set at 30 years, while for men 50 years was the limit.
The Hernhutters decided in the beginning that it was better not to waste too much attention on the slaves. “According to the then prevailing prejudices, no Owner would have allowed his Slave to hear any Christian teaching, or to receive baptism, since one was deluded by the opinion that a Christian could not be a Slave and a Slave could not be a Christian”, revealed the Surinaamse Almanak in 1839. The pioneers were supported by their fellows from the profits of a bakery and a tailor shop. In 1738, a first mission center was built on the Wironje Creek and named Pilgerhut, but it took ten more years before the first convert, an Arawak woman, was baptized. In 1756, there were several hundred inhabitants (not all baptized). A year later, the undauntable missionaries founded a second mission post on the Saramacca, which was called Saron. The third establishment, Ephraim, on the Corantijn was inaugurated in 1759. It was left by the inhabitants in 1763 out of fear for insurgents from Berbice, who had already burned Pilgerhut to the ground.
In 1765, the Hernhutters turned their attention to the Bush Negroes. Six years later, the first convert was baptized: Johannes Arabi, the Granman (chief) of the Saramaka. There were four successive mission posts in this area, located from 1765 to 1786 on the Senthea Creek, from 1768 to 1773 in Quama on the Sebona Creek, from 1773 to 1786 in Bambey on the Quaffoe Creek and from 1786 to 1813 in New Bambey on the Awara Creek. Although several hundreds of Bush Negroes claimed to have seen the light, many of them reverted to their old habits soon and the missionaries finally gave up in despair, only reviving their old zeal decades later.
The missionaries were careful in their dealings with the slaves at first, but after they had gained the sympathy of Governor Jan Nepveu (and later of his successors Wichers and Friderici and the influential Raad-Fiscaal Wohlfahrt), they became bolder. In 1773, the number of slaves interested in hearing the gospel had already grown so much that they established a small church for the Negroes in their garden, which was enlarged several times to accommodate the crowds of listeners. Soon, the first slave, who happened to be in their service, was baptized. In 1776, they gained entrance on a plantation for the first time: Fairfield, owned by the Englishman Palmer. Less than ten years later, they decided to establish a mission post at the place where formerly Fort Sommelsdijck had been located, so they could visit the slaves of the nearby plantations regularly. It was sold a few years hence because most planters chased them off their grounds, a couple of former footholds had been lost and the costs had become prohibitive. Their Paramaribo flock kept growing, however, especially during the 1820’s. In 1827, the old church was torn down and replaced by a larger, official building.
In 1828, several prominent inhabitants of the colony formed the Society for the Furtherance of the Religious Education among the Slaves and the rest of the Pagan Population in the Colony of Surinam and set out to raise money in Surinam and Holland, with the objective to enable the Hernhutters to buy 3 boats (plus the slaves to row them) for visiting the plantations. In their first campaign, they managed to scrape together 550 guilders in Surinam and 4000 guilders in Holland. From 1828 to 1853, the Hernhutters raised a total of 80.000 guilders in Holland and 20.000 guilders in Surinam for spreading the gospel among the black population. During this period, they were welcome on an increasing number of plantations and sometimes planters even sent their own boats to fetch them. In 1831, they founded a new post at the Government plantation Voorzorg on the Saramacca, but it was relinquished when the plantation was deserted shortly afterwards. In this period, they were also granted entrance on Fort Nieuw Amsterdam and the spiritual guidance of the so-called Lands-slaven was turned over to them.
The missionaries realized that they could never really reach the slaves as long as the language barrier stood between them. So they not only preached in the vernacular, but they also translated texts into Ningre. In 1777, they debuted with a dictionary, followed by a catechism and a passion. Four years later, they were already using scores of psalms and liturgies in the slave language. In 1784, they finished the translation of the New Testament. The confessional Idea Fidei Fratrum, large sections of the Old Testament and a hymnbook with 300 songs were presented in 1800. The simple vocabulary of Ningre was not sufficiently developed to phrase complex abstract ideas, so the Hernhutters developed the formal Church Creole.
Almost until the last decades of the slave era, the Hernhutters refrained from getting involved in any dispute concerning the treatment of the slaves. According to Brother Kersten (who established the -still florishing- warehouse of the same name) conversion and baptism was “a matter of the heart that does not touch the external relationship between master and slave directly”. They were afraid that the aversion against them would boil over when they unequivocally chose the side of the weak and that their work would obstructed even more. Therefore, they preached that the slaves should not only accept the Faith, but also their Fate. At the same time, however, they were shocked by the aberrations of some whites and tried to help the slaves as best as they could. They were especially repulsed by the ruthlessness of some men who proffered to be pious Christians.
Brother Riemer, for example, noted in 1788: “On may 2 was the funeral of the old Tobias. He had been baptized in 1784 and never missed the services. Three years ago his master died, then he was sold with his family at an auction. The Dutch Reformed Minister, who had taken his daughter as a wife, bought his wife and children at this auction: the old blind father-in-law he refused to buy. Then [Tobias] paid fl. 15,- himself and was now free, but a beggar. An old free negress took him in.”
In reality, it seems that they were often shocked more by the spiritual than by the physical neglect of the Negroes, especially when their charges were prevented from coming to the services. The slave Kwamino, for example, “had applied for baptism as a young man in Paramaribo in 1780 and had also received instruction. Then, however, he was moved to the plantation Rees en Crop and only after 50 years he came as a blind old man of 70 back to the city, where the baptismal instruction continued and ended with his baptism at the age of 74”.
The missionaries complained ceaselessly about the attitude of the plantation directors: “According to their opinion the slaves must abide in blindness and continue to let themselves to be used by their superiors for the service of sin and injustice. At the least one is not permitted to put an example before their eyes, of how the Christian conduct must be. And they are überhaupt not permitted to share the honor of being called Christians with them”. The directors would use any excuse to keep those ‘busybodies’ of their estate: “Many maintain ..., that one cannot do anything with the negroes: they are too malicious; others give [them] freedom to be sure, to talk to the negroes, [but] burden these with labor so much, that no time or opportunity is left. Others again refer to their patrons, who have told them nothing about this.” Brother Wietz noted in 1787 that some directors were unwilling to let their slaves go to the services because, as one of them explained, if a director sent a slave off the plantation without a good reason, or allowed him to go someplace and the one so privileged got an accident or ran away, he had to pay for the damage out of his own pocket.
The Hernhutters were convinced that conversion to Christianity had such a good influence on the slaves that the masters were fools not to profit from it. One of the most important benefits was that the slaves renounced sorcery. As the Diarium of the Paramaribo branch reported: “A negress, who had spent her whole life with nothing else than sorcery and delusion and who shortly before had been touched and awakened by the story of the great sinner, came and told that on the same evening, she had thrown all the things, she had needed for her devilish practices in the water; then she had sunk to her knees, and had prayed to our dear Savior, that he would have mercy upon her, great sinner”. Even the bad influences of depraved whites could not persuade them to sin anymore, although it was noted that they were tempted mightily by the fact that “many whites believe in magic just as much as the negroes and turn to this at every occasion and want to goad our negroes into performing it”. The Diarium of Paramaribo relayed in 1784 that two black sisters, slaves of the same woman, had confessed that their mistress had ordered them to cure her two sick children by magic. They had refused resolutely and had said that only God could help the children. They were threatened with punishment, but they swore to each other that they would rather die than ever do such evil things again.
Some whites tried to force slave women to perform another sinful act: prostitution. After conversion, they refused to participate in this despicable trade any longer and their newfound purity did not please their masters, who lost a source of easy profit. One baptismal candidate arrived at the congregation in tears and revealed that her master had given her the choice between working on a plantation and earning five and a half guilders a week by sinning, of which she was no longer capable. Many “Kirchkindern” were sent to a plantation for reasons like this and were never heard of again. Converted women also refused to become the mistress of a director, what before might have been a coveted position. One black sister was deeply dismayed when her callous owner gave her only daughter to his director as a concubine. Not all Hernhutters had scruples about concubinage though. One of them noted with satisfaction that the director of Fairfield had become much friendlier “since he has a sister for a wife”.
Christian slaves had to give up many pleasures. Dancing was, perhaps, the one they missed most. Their determination not to participate in dances any longer, even indirectly, amazed the whites. When Governor Bernard Texier gave a party on one occasion, he chose baptized slaves to serve at the table. The next Sunday he offered the slaves of the Society a meal and a dance and “it caused a great surprise among the white people, that the young gay negroes and negresses, who were masters in dancing otherwise, are not even allowed to look anymore, since they have been baptized”. Texier tried to seduce one of the women to dance by offering her presents, but she refused steadfastly.
The converted slaves could not find much compensation in the church services, which were stark and simple. Bolingbroke witnessed an EBG-celebration in Paramaribo (where there were three services on Sunday, one on Thursday and one on Friday evening): “I went one evening - the place was elegantly lighted up. There is an organ, and the rites began by music. Two lines of a hymn were read distinctly by the priest, which the whole congregation repeated immediately after in full chorus to a prepared tune; then two lines more; and so on till the poem was finished. Next followed lessons from the bible; another hymn; a prayer; a third hymn; and finally a sermon, which terminated in some devotional ejaculation, during which all the people kneeled. The audience, which was very numerous and very orderly, was dismissed by the organ’s sounding unaccompanied.”
The Hernhutters also tried to suppress the promiscuous habits of the slaves. The baptized men had to give up all their auxiliary ‘wives’ and the women were obliged to be faithful and obedient to their ‘husbands’. This was a rather difficult task for most of them. Many succumbed to temptation and were then barred from the Holy Supper until they mended their wicked ways.
The missionaries liked to believe that the prospect of having sober, monogamous and diligent slaves would bring the planters to a greater tolerance of their activities, but it lasted until far into the 19th century before they, with a little help of the Dutch authorities, started to appreciate this kind of sobriety. After 1830, several measures were taken to make conversion more appealing to blacks: “heathens were not allowed to prosecute an independent craft or trade; heathens were not allowed to keep slaves themselves; slaves could only be manumitted or buy their own freedom if they joined a Christian or Jewish congregation; only Christian or Jewish slaves were entitled to a solemn funeral”. The government also exerted herself to make sure that the slaves did not have to work on Sundays, so they would be able to attend a church gathering. Unfortunately, the bondsmen were quite willing to go to services during working hours, but not on their free day. Often, slaves had finish their tasks on the Sabbath despite the regulations forbidding it. Even on the plantation Fairfield, where the owner and director were sympathetic, the slaves sometimes could not attend the celebrations for two or three months in a row during busy periods, and the sick and old were never able to participate.
In the years following 1835, the Hernhutters gained a foothold on many plantations: in Cottica (Charlottenburg), Coronie (Salem), Lower Commewijne (Rust en Werk, Leliendaal, Heerendijk), Nickerie (Waterloo), Upper Suriname (Berg en Dal), Para (Bersaba) and on the Warappa Creek (Anna’s Zorg). By the end of the slavery era, most of the bondsmen in Paramaribo as well as many on the plantations belonged to the EBG, though one missionary was still not satisfied and complained: “on many plantations we never get to see the children and young people”.
In the end, many slaveholders would have agreed that it had been the good offices of the Hernhutters that had helped to keep the peace on the plantations after the emancipation proclamation had been delayed. The Governor recorded in January 1863 that a missionary on the plantation Hooyland had informed the government that a slave of the plantation, after a religious service, asked him to transmit the gratitude they felt towards King Willem III for the emancipation law. The Governor sent a transcription to the Minister of the Colonies and added “while I readily suppose that words of gratitude have been uttered by the aforementioned bastiaan, I would nevertheless not dare to assure that this address has been as graceful as has been suggested by the missionaries, in their always laudable zeal for the good cause; and neither that his fellow slaves in whose name he was supposed to speak, shared wholly the feelings expressed by him. Nor do I have such favorable expectations regarding the desire to labor among the freed, that, as it seems to me, is entertained by the missionaries. It is however certain, that these diligent men make no small contribution to the until now despite some exceptions good spirit [that is] prevalent among the slaves.”
Roman Catholics, who were put on the same footing with the Dutch Reformed in 1803, were no more welcome on the plantations than the Hernhutters. It took until 1816 before the Catholic Church received permission for the first time to work among the slaves of private plantations. Some planters were Catholic themselves, but even their Protestant colleagues did not mind much whether their slaves adhered to the EBG or to the Catholic Church. In 1822, the Catholics went to work among the slaves of the leprosarium Batavia and in 1840, they were permitted to teach the government slaves. They made quite a few converts, especially in Paramaribo (in 1863 there were 12.000 baptized Catholics) and are still the second largest Christian denomination among the Creoles today. Just as the Dutch Reformed, the Lutherans never had much interest in proselytizing the black population. The Jews were another matter. In the 17th and 18th centuries, they usually raised their mulatto children in the Jewish faith and they maintained a close relationship with religious society of the Jewish coloreds. This attitude changed in later times: they became quite unconcerned about letting their colored offspring be converted by Hernhutters and be raised as Christians. Bastide believed that there were practicing Muslims among the Surinam slaves [but then, he also believed that (Johannes) Arabi was probably a Muslim by origin]. I have never found any proof of this, though it is not unthinkable that some Muslim slaves from Senegambia entered Surinam. They must have been such a small minority, however, that it will have been nearly impossible for them to remain true to their faith and they certainly never made any converts.
The impact of Christianity went seldom more than skin-deep by the slaves. The demands made on them, especially by the EBG, were hard to comply with and many of them continuously vacillated between new and old beliefs. There has been no genuine syncretism of the Christian and Afro-Surinamese religions; they existed side by side without much reciprocal influence. Only ‘Jan Compaan’ was replaced by the Christian God and Jesus Christ was incorporated into the pantheon as a kind of arch-divinity. There were, of course, devout Christians who professed not to believe in Winti anymore and who refrained from openly worshipping them. However, they could not help that there was lingering doubt in the back of their minds. Therefore, they tried to avoid situations where a Winti could seize them. When they got ill, they were really put to the test, because they were not convinced that the medicines of the whites were always effective. The intolerance of the missionaries for any expression of the native religion made their dilemma worse, because no compromise was possible. Although modern Creoles are almost all nominal Christians, the worship of Winti goes on as before and the people have separated these irreconcilable creeds neatly in their minds.
For the slaves of the Old South, the Christian faith in itself had revolutionary potential. In Surinam, this was not the case, but the words of Eugene Genovese rang true for the slaves there as well: “Religion proved a two-edged sword for the enslaved. It enabled them to accommodate with some measure of cultural autonomy and personal dignity, and more rarely but ominously, it provided the war cry for the determined insurgents”.