Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Chapter 9: The limits of expression.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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