Thursday, December 11, 2008

Chapter 12: Resistance to slavery.

Heroes and villains: some views on slave resistance.

Resistance in all its forms was a popular subject for academics in the last decades and most writers about slavery indulged in lengthy discussions about it. For many of them the thought that slaves meekly accepted their lowly condition was unbearable and when they could not find clear signs of rebelliousness, they practically invented them. Sometimes, all acts of slaves that purposely or accidentally harmed the interests of the masters were taken as proof that a heroic struggle for the Dignity of Man was going on. From this perspective, suicide, laziness and stupidity all had revolutionary virtue.

Experts on slavery in the United States were hard pressed to come up with evidence of a heroic zeal among the slaves. A mere three or four abortive uprisings in a slave population of millions over a period of nearly 200 years do not constitute a very impressive record. Especially not, when one compares this with the rebellious attitude of the Caribbean bondsmen. With the help of an imaginative definition, Herbert Aptheker could dredge up several hundreds of ‘rebellions’ in the Old South, but most of them were no more than unsuccessful schemes and mere rumors. The crux of the matter is that many modern authors, most emphatically those of Marxist hue, find it hard to believe that slaves would have been able to live under such degrading conditions without a constant struggle against their oppressors. Unfortunately for them, the revolutionary potential of subjected peoples tends to be greatly overstated.

Eugene Genovese therefore warned against too simplistic a view: “Unable to challenge the system as such, unable to resist it frontally except on desperate occasions and then with little hope of success –they accepted what could not be avoided. In its positive aspect this accommodation represented a commitment, shared by most peoples, however oppressed, to the belief that a harsh unjust social order is preferable to the insecurities of no social order at all.” People with such harrowing experiences as the slaves soon learn to distrust all “utopian nostrumy”. Sidney Mintz voiced a similar opinion: “That slavery is inherently degrading, that it degrades both master and slave, goes almost without saying. But this does not mean that men are incapable of living in degraded conditions, nor does it guarantee that they will wage an unremitting struggle against them.”

For most black writers, however, it is unthinkable that the slaves will not have resisted with all their might -if not with violence, then in some other way. Orlando Patterson, for example, warned not to underestimate the capacity for playacting in the slaves. They may have fooled the slaveholders of the Old South by their contented appearance, but the ancient Greeks knew better: “Never once did they commit the lamentable error of those modern bourgeois historians who confuse the aggressive duplicity of the oppressed with a psychology of servile conformity”. For George Rawick every slave contained a rebel, struggling to get out: “Man … do not move in their own behalf or make revolutions for light and transient reasons. Only when they no longer can stand the contradictions of their own personalities do they move in a sharp and decisive fashion. The victim is always in the process of becoming a rebel, because the contradictions demand this solution.”

Some slavery authors were so eager for displays of a revolutionary fervor by the slaves that they, in the words of Rice, were pushed into “a characteristically American double standard on the violence of the anti-slavery years into the assumption that violence was distasteful when used to defend slavery but excusable when used to attack it.” The most extreme representative of this position was C.L.R. James, who wrote about Haiti: “The massacre of the whites was a tragedy; not for the whites, for these old slave owners, those who burned a little powder in the arse of a Negro, who buried him alive for insects to eat, who were well treated by Toussaint, and who, as soon as they got the chance, began their old cruelties again: for these there is no need to waste one tear or one drop of ink. The tragedy was for the Blacks and the Mulattoes. It was not policy but revenge, and revenge has no place in politics.”

It is remarkable how blandly these authors condone the most vicious kinds of violence by black insurgents, even when aimed at their fellow slaves. Eugene Genovese, who in the beginning of the 1970’s warned the proponents of the ‘burn, baby, burn’ philosophy that it were the blacks who would be burned first and most, in his latest book on this subject not only defended the use of terror against whites, but also against blacks who were reluctant to revolt just because it was politically expedient.

One thing most slavery authors agreed on is the fact that the resistance of the slaves could hardly be called political. Eric Hobsbawn regarded slaves as “prepolitical beings in a prepolitical situation”. Their rebellions did not represent deliberate strategies to overthrow the system, according to Frederickson and Lash: ”They do not aim so much at changing the balance of power as at giving expression on the one hand to apocalyptic visions of retribution and on the other to an immediate thirst for vengeance directed more at particular individuals than at larger systems of authority.” This was even true for the Maroons. Genovese concluded that especially in the 18th century, when Africans predominated in the Maroon groups, their goals were ‘restorationalist’ in character (they wanted to recreate African communities) and only when Creoles gained more influence later in the century “the historical context of the slave revolts shifted decisively from attempts to secure freedom to attempts to overthrow slavery as a social system”. Only in Haiti, these attempts met with success.

Different groups had different ways of resisting. The Africans moved in a sudden and violent fashion: all or nothing, freedom or death. The Creoles chose an alternative approach: they knew the ropes, they could manipulate the rules and they could cleverly undermine the system by gnawing at its roots. This did not mean that they acted more ‘cowardly’: “the African predominance among the Maroons does not indict the Creoles for lack of militancy, but, rather, delineates different paths of struggle”, Genovese maintained.

In this context, some writers came to regard the whole way of life of the slaves as a constant, silent protest against their oppression. Consequently, the concept of culture as a form of resistance could develop. This view has some merit. If the ideal is that the slave is merely an extension of his master’s will, a working robot with no feelings, no ambitions, no pride, then the mere fact that slaves had a culture of their own contradicted this image and signified a manner of resisting the pervasive power of the master. Elkins disagreed with this view because of the pathology inherent in the culture of the slaves, which made clinging to this culture an unhealthy form of adaptation.

Some slavery authors opposed the unfavorable picture painted of slaves in the traditional literature so militantly, that they ended up too far on the other side of the fence. They created heroes where there were none. They claimed, for example, that just the ability to endure is a quality to admire -in a slave: “it is presumptuous in posterity to dismiss contemptuously the methods that enabled generations of slaves to endure their harsh lot in life and to snatch from it a few human satisfactions”, wrote Rose. Others bombarded common thugs and bloodthirsty maniacs into revolutionary heroes. “According to the myth, which does have a strong kernel of truth, every lower-class badman is a Robin Hood, avenging the poor and downtrodden and harassing the Man”, remarked Genovese. No doubt, when a slave killed a white or burned down his plantation (for whatever reason) he helped to undermine the system, but at the same time, these actions “strengthened the slaveholders’ self-esteem and sense of commanding a moral system”. Therefore, anarchistic violence was largely self-defeating.

The level of resistance encountered in the various slave societies largely depends on one's definition of resistance. However, overt slave resistance in the United States was slight by any definition. There were many obvious geographical, demographical and cultural reasons for this, but in the opinion of Stanley Elkins, they cannot explain this phenomenon satisfactorily. He pointed to the necessity of taking the influence of the slavery system on the psyche of the slaves into account. In the Old South this influence resulted in a certain degree of infantilization. Consequently, many of the American slaves displayed the traits of ‘Sambo’: “Sambo, the typical plantation slave, was docile but irresponsible, loyal but lazy, humble but chronically given to lying and stealing; his behavior was full of infantile silliness and his talk inflated with childish exaggeration. His relationship with his master was one of utter dependence and childlike attachment: it was indeed this childlike quality that was the very key to his being.”

On the whole, there was little sympathy for this theory, although some authors conceded that there might have been a few genuine Samboes around. Earl Thorpe wrote: “Any historian who denies that Sambo, often feigned, but sometimes genuine, was one side of the bondsman’s personality is probably guilty of being unrealistic. What is known about human behavior and totalitarian systems calls for a change in some aspects of the slave image which some Negro historians have favored. Since these were their immediate blood and cultural forbearers and in view of the overly narrow image of them which slavocracy projected, it is understandable that they sometimes have put great stress on the neater side of the bondsman’s personality and character. Thus, in reacting against one stereotype, they have been in danger of creating another one, equally false.”

It cannot be denied, as Roy Bryce-Laporte stressed, that the circumstances on the plantations had an “intense mortifying and dehumanizing impact”, but if the slaves had “fully succumbed to those conditions they would have all been zombified or psychologically dead”. On the other hand, he did not believe in the continuous resistance of the slaves, because then “they would have all been physically dead or absent by way of escape, exodus, or revolution”. Neither was the case, so they must have found a workable compromise. Few slaves wholeheartedly accepted their lowly position as their proper station in life. Most of them showed some resistance, actively or passively, but as Genovese remarked: “The practical question facing the slaves was not whether slavery itself was a proper relation, but how to survive it with the greatest degree of self determination.”

Resistance in Surinam.

An uneasy balance.

In the eyes of many slavery authors with a comparative perspective, Surinam slaves wrote one of the most ‘heroic chapters’ in the history of slave resistance. In Surinam alone, Maroons not only created viable communities in the interior, but they forced the colonial government to acknowledge their freedom and independence and they managed to survive as distinct tribes until this moment. Thousands, of slaves escaped into the jungle over the years. Most remarkable, however, is not the fact that so many ran away, but the fact that so many stayed on. The slaves of Surinam did not flee at the slightest provocation. The ties that bound them to the plantations were hard to severe. Many slaves were willing to undergo manifold deprivations in order to remain in their cherished community.

Even if they did not resist their overlords actively, the slaves were not totally helpless. The masters wanted their subjection and unfailing obedience, but first of all, they wanted their labor and they were willing to compromise their principles for a higher production. Consequently, they often ‘negotiated’ with their chattels. Sometimes this resulted in decisions that undermined their very authority (not to punish erring slaves, for example). As early as 1670, the Political Councilors reported that it had come to their notice that “sometimes some planters have negroes who rise up and rebel against their masters, and from fear of losing them do not dare to punish them or bring them in for punishment; [and] that some negroes having received freedom from their patrons wander around lazy and idle and thereby give other negroes a pretext to run away from their masters”. Therefore, the councilors demanded that planters who had been opposed by their slaves would be obliged to turn them over to the authorities for punishment.

There was a perennial tug of war between slaves and masters and although the latter had the power of violence and law at their side, they had to be careful not to lose the battle at the very beginning. Blom warned that slaves tried out any new master. The first few days of an administration were decisive: “When the negroes have gotten a new master, be it Planter or Administrator, the most daring often will try to reach their goal; but having failed once, they keep quiet from then on, and everyone bows to the orders of the Director; all is quiet, in order, and the plantation fares well; but if they succeed, these will play the master over the innocent negroes; make them work for them and serve them, everything is upset, and the plantation fares badly.”

In the opinion of Blom, the slaves should never be given the chance to ‘divide and conquer’. It was vitally important that the owner/administrator and the director never quarreled about the management of the plantation in public. Also, the grootmeester should never allow the house servants to report on the behavior of the director: “not that sometimes when one has taken a man of bad comportment as his Director, it would not be expedient for the Planter; when he is informed of this; but for reason that one can never trust such reports; that if [a slave] has found such a way to get the ear of his master, they will only look up to such a favorite, lose the awe they should have for the Director, and consider him a man, in whom their master has no confidence himself. Once a Director has lost the respect of the negroes, he is not able to govern such a plantation well, but even when he was totally wrong, and the negroes were wholly justified to complain, a Planter should not show his displeasure in front of the negroes.” When a grootmeester had reason to be dissatisfied, he should make the director account for his actions in private and complaining slaves deserved to be “punished immediately and without mercy”. Sometimes, this was exactly what happened. Given the isolation of many plantations and the heavy losses owners could sustain when they left a sadistic director in charge, they often had no choice, however, but to lend an ear to the grievances of the bondsmen.

Surinam slaves clung to the principle that they had certain modest, but inalienable rights and that their masters ought to respect these. Especially when they ignored the rules laid down by the government, the slaves were encouraged to rebel. The authorities could not dismiss justified complaints without courting the danger of widespread unrest, so they often felt obliged to placate the slaves, as they did in the following instance. Councilor Hatterman was dispatched to the plantation La Paix in 1772, when trouble arose between the slaves and the new owner (and former director) Jean Rivière, who accused each other of wrongdoing. He tried to pacify the bondsmen by offering them a soopje but remarked: “if we were in different Circumstances of Time, it would have been very necessary that of two or three of those Cockerels the head was cut off, because [I] attest never to have seen such impertinent Slaves”. Hatterman prevailed upon Rivière to appoint another director, but he refused because he had to satisfy his creditors. The Court of Police summoned Rivière and persuaded him to turn over the government of the plantation to someone else. The slaves were admonished about their misbehavior, but ‘at the request of their owner’ they were not to be punished, provided they promised to obey their new director.

So, even when the slaves were clearly in the wrong in the eyes of the mediators, they sometimes felt obliged to give in to them. When a plantation was located in a sensitive area, the leverage of the slaves was even greater, especially when they threatened to run away en masse: Mr. Tribulon of Timotibo had to promise his slaves 30 acres of new provision grounds and the distribution of the crops from it among them, before they gave in.

At other times, the whites refused to be blackmailed. Two councilors were dispatched to deal with the slave Prince, who was accused of opposing and threatening his director. According to Prince, the director had kicked in the door of a house where his sister lay to recuperate from a bad miscarriage she had suffered three weeks before. He had beaten her with a stick, from which she had still not recovered. Prince claimed to have merely tried to dissuade him. It turned out that the slaves had ample reason to be dissatisfied with the director and the investigators had the impression that they planned to kill him and run off. The accused vehemently denied any such intention. The wise gentlemen thereupon decided to urge the bondsmen to work harder “in the hope that in the future, like on other Plantations, they will receive their distributions”.

Not rarely, the masters themselves appealed to the authorities for help. Some of them were not able to keep their slaves in line and asked for military support to teach them a lesson. The events on the plantation Maalstroom provide an example. This estate had been sold to a new owner and the slaves believed that they would be delivered from the strict government of the old director Ranitz. They let it be known that they preferred Mr. Tekenburg as their new master. A wise choice, because Tekenburg was the owner of a plantation himself and administered several others, so he would have little time to interfere in the affairs of Maalstroom. But alas for the slaves, Tekenburg was on the verge of returning to Europe. The resistance of the slave force had been animated by the old hand Quamina, who “has had the authority over the plantation before [and who tried] to mount the throne again”. Although Ranitz showed himself willing to compromise, the unrest continued and he was forced to ask for assistance. A sergeant and six privates were sent to his aid. When the slaves found out that he intended to put the main culprits behind bars, they took off. Most of them were apprehended soon, but forty fugitives managed to evade their pursuers. Very worried now, Ranitz asked the Court of Police to investigate his behavior and two members arrived to examine the captured slaves. They concluded that these had earned most of the blame themselves and had them soundly whipped. This intervention proved successful, because several days later most of the runaways returned and discipline was restored.

It is undeniable that some directors and administrators had serious problems establishing their authority. Sometimes a thunderous speech by the owner worked miracles, but just as often, the authorities had to lend a hand. These were often hesistent to sent in the troops for fear of escalation. Therefore, they not only ispatched envoys to mediate, but gratefully accepted the intercession of slaves of neighboring plantations. When unrest occurred on Wajampibo (because the slaves refused to accept the authority of the newly appointed administrator Rotarius), the slaves of the adjoining plantation Vossenburg, who evacuated the desperate man to Paramaribo, offered to reason with them. This diplomatic gesture was much appreciated. They were received by Governor Nepveu, who was greatly impressed by their loyalty. Before they could commence their mission, however, the slaves of Wajampibo proved that they did not reject the authority of a master out of principle. When Maroons attacked the plantation, the bondsmen did not join them, but instead tracked the culprits down and caught two of them. Nepveu thereupon concluded that “they hold themselves very well and work well, but do not want to be commanded by Mr. Rotarius”. In the end, the mediation of the slaves of Vossenburg was obviously successful, because their colleagues of Wajampibo were reconciled with Rotarius, who no doubt returned to the plantation and wiser and milder man.

Masters who failed to establish their authority were not always supported, though. When the director of the plantation Cortenduur, J. Snebbeling, asked for replacement because he feared a plot against him, the Court was not convinced that his accusations had any foundation and pointed out that he had run into had similar trouble on other plantations.

In some cases, the government contemplated interference not because planters were too cruel, but because they were too lenient and spoiled their slaves. Governor Texier, for example, was seriously worried about the situation on the plantation Goed Accoord, which was about to be sold. “There is a considerable force of the best Creole Slaves … who however are not used to work very hard, who have been left to do what they pleased, and who have had Whites on the plantation but only Pro Forma, and because this had to be according to the laws of the Land; The administrators have had to use all this Leniency, to avoid upsetting these Slaves, who have always been considered a security against the enterprises of the Runaways for upper Commewijne; If these Slaves upon Sale fall into the hands of someone who wants to Compel them to more Work and another Way of Life by force and severity, one runs the Danger that they become obstinate, and start the same Game as those of La Paix in Cottica, who were like these formerly the bulwark of that river, until having been sold to Rivière, and having been treated badly by him, they started those Extremities that have been so harmful for the whole Colony, and of which the after-effects are still felt”. He needed not to have worried, because the plantation was bought by a former blankofficier, a friendly man who was well known to the slaves.

Although the masters tried to prevent it, the slaves often got the advantage by playing them against each other. If there were several owners, the opportunities multiplied, as is proven by the following case. Abraham Cores jr., married to Susanna van Ortena, reported to the Court of Police that his wife had inherited the plantation Crispinapie, together with Jan van Vliet. When he and his wife wanted to take possession of their new domain, the slaves (encouraged in their obstinacy by Van Vliet, he claimed) refused to acknowledge him as their master and every time he showed his face, he was treated with the utmost insolence. The Court sent two members to investigate and these found that the slaves wanted Jan van Vliet as their sole master. They stated categorically that they would rather die than work for Cores, who was reputed to be very cruel. They promised to be faithful slaves to any other master, but as long as Cores kept coming to the plantation, they would continue to run away. Cores gave in and offered Jan van Vliet the opportunity to buy him out in 10 to 12 years, which Van Vliet declined. He also refused to rent Cores’ part of the plantation, or even to administrate it. Therefore, the representatives of the Court advised to appoint a neutral director who was acceptable to all parties.

These examples support the impression that slaves were sometimes listened to, if they had ‘reasonable complaints’ and that in these cases their resistance was tolerated and appropriate measures were taken -sometimes even to the point of allowing slaves sometimes to see a ‘difference of opinion’ between their superiors. An illustration of this was given by Bartelink. In the 1850’s, he worked on the plantation Onoribo, where corporal punishments had been abolished. Wrongdoers were locked up during the night and it was his duty to release them at four o’ clock in the morning. Once, he overslept and only let them out an hour later. By then “it was however too late for the people to cook their meal and be ready in time to go to the field; they refused to come out. [The director] turned to me and gave me such a reprimand that the ground trembled.” Going without food did not absolve the slaves from the duty to work, though.

The bondsmen considered themselves rightfully entitled to annual distributions, sufficient food and the usual holidays, but most of the time material deprivations were not enough to unite them in a common protest, as the following example shows. One day, the slaves of the plantation Berlijn attacked the bastiaan when he tried to punish one of them. Thereafter they threatened the director with machetes and knives. They warned him that they would bash in his head and retreat into the forest when he did not mend his ways. To show their resolve, they went on a strike and the director was powerless to break it. Instead of going into the fields, they tended their provision grounds. The authorities could end this protest easily because there were only 38 able-bodied men on the plantation. The rest of the 200 slaves were women, children and seniors. It quickly turned out that the bondsmen had every right to be annoyed. They had not received their usual distributions in years (“not even something to cover their humbleness”) and they had not bothered to clear land for provisions now because the director had told them that he would take them to Nickerie, so they considered it a “useless occupation”. They complained that they had always worked well (they even did more than the landsmerken proscribed), yet, if they needed clothes, they had to buy them from the director with timber.

These slaves had quietly suffered material deprivations for years and only when their master threatened to move them, they revolted. With success: the transfer to Nickerie was canceled. Faced with the prospect of being forced to leave their familiar surroundings, many slave communities rebelled. The majority of them elected to follow the safest route: disappearing into the jungle.


Nowhere in the Caribbean were the circumstances so ideal for escaping the plantations as in Surinam. The estates were all situated along the rivers and creeks and extended only a couple of kilometers into the hinterland. Behind them, the unspoilt forest beckoned. Runaways merely had to cross the back dam of the plantation and they were swallowed up by a jungle so impenetrable that they could hide for years without being detected, even when they stayed close to home. If they ventured deeper into the interior, the chances that their masters would ever find them again evaporated. Therefore, it is no wonder that many dissatisfied slaves took this course.

Several hundreds of bondsmen ran away each year. Roughly two thirds of them returned to their plantations eventually, mostly voluntary. Often, they had only been hiding in the cane fields or the coffee grounds because they feared punishments, or because their tasks were too heavy. When the air cleared (of which they were often informed by friends who knew their whereabouts), they generally ventured back, hoping to come off with a light penalty. Other runaways lived, sometimes permanently, in the kapoewerie behind the plantations (these were called schuylders). Most of them kept in touch with their relatives and when they received notice that it was safe to return (for example because a vindictive director had been replaced), many of them did. The weglopers with the most courage and the least ties burned their bridges behind them. They went deeper into the jungle, grew their own food, enticed other slaves to join them, or kidnapped women to establish a family. When a large group absconded, or some smaller groups amalgamated, the first Maroon communities were formed. For their very survival, these waged an unremitting war against the whites.

Often, slaves had to be severely provoked before they decided to leave their plantation and their companions forever. Many famous Maroon leaders had been model slaves before an inexcusable act of cruelty drove them away. Hartsinck told the story of Quakoe, a captain of the Aucaners, who had been the property of Sara de la Parra. He hated her because “she had plagued him many Years, even though he had brought her many benefits, [and] as reward she wanted to cut off his Nose and Ears; this he could not endure, as he understood, that his countenance would be disfigured by this more or less, therefore he did not want to suffer this, having seen the bad figure of his companions, of which one was still with him, and consequently felt obliged, to leave for the Bushnegroes”.

Not only the valued ties of kinship and religion withheld them from running away merely to escape economic exploitation, the forest harbored untold dangers as well. Few slaves dared to flee during the wet season, because then it was very hard to find food and to get about. But even under more favorable circumstances, the runaways often went hungry and had to steal food from the plantations –a hazardous undertaking because they might be captured, or even be shot on sight. Other runaways were forced to live on roots and cabbes for months. Not a few decided to return and face retribution for this reason. If runaways succeeded in establishing provision grounds, there was a good chance that these would be discovered by patrols. The Indians, at first allies, later became enthusiastic bounty hunters, who turned in many fugitives.

Often, other runaways proved to be the most dangerous adversaries. A fugitive could never be assured of hospitality or acceptance. In the 18th century, many Maroon communities, except when they were desperately short of manpower, were reluctant to accept male strangers, especially when they were of different ethnic stock. In the 19th century, most new Maroon groups consisted almost wholly of recently imported Africans and did not hesitate to kill any Creole who dared to show his face. Many runaways therefore preferred to stay on their own.

These factors limited the number of (permanent) escapees considerably, but there were still enough to worry the whites seriously. Innumerable measures were taken to stem the tide, but generally with little effect. For example, the Court of Police decreed that slaves needed written permission from their master to leave the plantation, but there was hardly any control. It was pure coincidence when slaves without a pass were caught and the chances were good that these were not fleeing at all, but were just innocently visiting an adjoining plantation. It was all but impossible to keep slaves from congregating. The planters could hardly lock all of them up during the night and only notorious deserters were treated to a ball and chain.

When slavery was abolished in the French and English territories, many Surinam slaves crossed the waters to the Promised Land. Some were caught, like Dicky and Askaan, who had sneaked onto the English schooner Lady of the Night, but were discovered and delivered to the authorities by the captain. Another slave, owned by Mr. Camijn, was picked up on open sea, put on board of a ship and send back. What he had in mind is not clear; perhaps he believed the emancipated islands were close. Some runaways were captured near the Moravian mission post Saron while building a ship with which they planned to return to Africa. A few lucky ones did manage to reach freedom by the sea: Phillip and his companions escaped in a stolen schooner, despite the fact that guards had been posted.

Masters could do little to retrieve an escaped slave. They had to warn the militia and if the fugitive had committed a crime, or if a group had fled, a commando (patrol) was dispatched. In the absence of tangible success, the patrol usually returned quickly and then the escapee(s) would usually only be found by pure chance, as happened in the following cases. (1) Three slaves of the plantation Marseille discovered a small path in the kapoewerie behind their plantation one day. They followed it and found a cabin, inhabited by a man, his wife and their child. During the ensuing fight, the man was killed and the woman and child were taken prisoner. They were brought to the director of Marseille. The irony of the matter was that these runaways had lived for three years at a distance of only 15 minutes from the military post Vredenburg, where members of the Vrijcorps patrolled daily. (2) The provision guard of Mon Affaire found some cut off plantains one day and discovered a path leading into the forest. He warned his master and three whites, accompanied by two slaves, went to investigate. After walking for two hours, they found a cabin with three schuylders. Two managed to escape, but the third was captured, wounded in several places. It turned out they had been living there for ten years (“which is unbelievable”). All the time, the captive had closely watched everything that happened on the plantation. He was clearly not very eager to return, because the director had to carry him from the forest hanging from a branch like a pig.

Sometimes the owner of a runaway placed an advertisement in the Surinaamse Courant, but this was only likely to have success if the culprit had chosen to stay in Paramaribo, hoping to disappear into the mass. Such advertisements went like these: (1) “The cooper negro with the name of Frederick, reddish of color and marked with G.K., belonging to the widow Rocheteau hiding himself in the city here and probably sometimes working on board of ships, a premium of fl. 50,- is promised to those who can give information on the aforementioned slave in the office of the undersigned so he can be apprehended”; (2) “For some time is absent from the plantation De Twee Kinderen a negress named PRINCESS, formerly belonging to the free ASTREA van SCHANTZENBACH, who catches her and delivers her to the undersigned or Mr. P.E. PEYREYRA in the Saramakka Street, will enjoy the premium of Hundred guilders: everyone being warned not to hide or keep the aforementioned negress.”

Surprisingly, not all masters were eager to reclaim their property. The Court of Police complained that many recaptured deserters incarcerated in Fort Zeelandia had not been retrieved by their owners. These were reluctant to pay the expenses of apprehension, detention and punishment, which could amount to more than the value of the slave. Therefore, it was decided that captives had to be reclaimed within six weeks, or they would be sent to Fort Nieuw Amsterdam to work in chains.

In some instances, a slave had been such a nuisance on the plantation that his owner was ambivalent about the advisability of getting him back, even if he was worth more than the costs. The director of De Eendracht, Mr. Jantzen, reported to his employer: “The Negro Toon is still with the posthouder [government representative with the Bush Negroes] on Sienaba who wants for him a Bounty of 23f & 4 jugs of dram, the Negro is outside danger for [I] have let the Negro Solieman already take out 1 Bullet and the other does not hurt him anymore, if Your Hon. desires that I pay the demanded Bounty for this, so [I] shall fetch the Negro, because if he comes to the fort it sometimes will cost more, and if he is fully recovered Your Hon. had better put him on a boat, that will be the best for the Villain because on the plantation the Negro will never do.”

Slaves who tried to win their freedom were often betrayed by their peers, out of spite or for gain. However, sometimes they would be aided and sheltered, most frequently by other slaves, but occasionally by a vrijneger (who often had an ulterior motive). For example, the free Negress Candace hid the runaway Quakoe (a plantation slave) for three months. He showed his appreciation by helping her husband, a mason, with his work. Candace pleaded for mercy in the Court, claiming poverty drove her to this deed.

The Moravian Brothers seemed to have a ‘good’ influence on slaves contemplating desertion. Convinced that they would receive a just reward for their loyal services in the afterlife and of course not wanting to lose their sheep to the forest, they urged the slaves to stay on the plantations and to try to better their circumstances peacefully. The planters greatly appreciated these sermons. Director Wohlfahrt of Breukelerwaard told a proud missionary that the EBG-influence had changed his slaves a lot, and for the better: “they were a very bad sort of Negroes, when I wanted to punish them in the past, they often ran into the forest in a whole group, now however, this does not happen anymore”.

The ease of escape may have kept the slavery system of Surinam from ruin, because it acted as a safety valve: the most rebellious elements, who might have become the leaders of an uprising, removed themselves from the premises. They also showed the other slaves that their situation was not hopeless, that there was always a way out when life in captivity became unbearable, as long as they were willing to take the risk. It was, however, not always the cream of the crop that made off. Undoubtedly, slaves will have been quite pleased to get rid of some of the worst troublemakers this way.

I have gathered information on about 500 slaves who had to appear before the Criminal Court for unwarranted absence. Most of them (86%) were males, as might be expected. However, contrary to what might be expected, only a minority (15%) could be classified as a nieuwe neger (they had been in the colony less than three years). Most of these did not know the slave language yet. Nearly a fifth of the recaptured slaves claimed to have been kidnapped by Maroons when they were in the forest and 8% (mostly females) said they had been dragged from their plantation by other slaves (males, of course) by force. These figures must be taken with a pinch of salt, since their life or limb depended on their desertion being classified as ‘involuntary’. Many of the absentees (17%) had not run into the forest, but had set forth in the direction of Paramaribo, trying to reach the Raad-Fiscaal, the Court of Police, or their grootmeester to complain about their situation. The majority absconded because of mistreatment. A considerable part (8%, usually nieuwe negers), claimed to have been mainly brutalized by fellow slaves, but with a share of 33%, whites certainly made up a major portion of the abusers. The rest of the slaves had been mistreated by black officers at the behest of the master. The grievances varied from stinginess (sometimes in an extreme degree: Prins of Mr. Ladesma received only two plantains a day) to tortures that shocked even the most hardened judges. Finally, 10% of the deserters had fled because they feared, or had been threatened with, punishment. In most of these cases, the slaves knew from bitter experience what they were running from, but Frinkie, a slave of the plantation Clifford Kockshoven, had never been beaten in his three years of thralldom and had immediately deserted when the director suggested it was time he got acquainted with the lash.

Most of these slaves had fled alone or in small groups, often in the spur of the moment. Consequently, they were ill-prepared for their new freedom and were often very glad to return to the safety of the plantation. It was different when a large group of slaves made off together. Although this could also be the result of a sudden panic (for example when a slave had killed his master during a fight and incited his fellows to run off with him because they might be held responsible as well), most escapes of this kind were carefully planned, and occasionally even advertised in advance. If they were sensible, the plotting slaves made sure they had some food stowed away to tide them over and waited for an occasion when the director would not be able to follow them right away, so most traces would have been lost when a patrol was finally sent in pursuit. Only a few of such planned mass desertions took place during the rainy season, because of the logistic problems. When the flight was not primarily meant as a protest, or as a way to obtain leverage for bargaining with the masters, it was hard to capture these groups of slaves again. They might develop into stable Maroon communities that the whites would get to know much more intimately than was good for them.

Violence against whites.

Because the facility of desertion removed the most dissatisfied, obstinate and ruthless bondsmen from the scene of possible confrontations, actual physical violence of plantation slaves against their master was comparatively rare. It seldom happened that a slave killed or seriously wounded a planter, but (perhaps because of this) these events were etched into the minds of the white inhabitants. In their conflict with Governor Mauricius, for example, the members of the Cabale dredged up attacks on planters that had taken place 40 years earlier, in order to demonstrate the dangers of living in the colony. When a planter was murdered, it usually happened in the heat of the moment. In 1752, Willem van Gorcum of the plantation Cipibo was killed by a slave in the field, who made off immediately. The other slaves had been too far away to prevent it.

The authorities tried to limit the possibilities for violence as much as possible, for example by ordering to keep guns away from slaves, or by forbidding the presence of a blacksmith’s shop on the plantations. Governor Nepveu warned against issuing guns to slaves on many occasions because “they run away with them and thus turn these weapons against us”. The masters had their own reasons to sabotage these measures, however. Many privileged slaves were allowed to possess guns to hunt and others were trained as schutternegers (marksmen) to accompany their masters on patrol. Add to this the incalculable number of axes, machetes and hoes, and it follows that the armament of the slaves was not exactly inferior to that of their masters.

Although the usual rumors about uprisings and killings also circulated in Surinam, most whites do not seem to have been very paranoid. They had little reason to fear overt violence from their own slaves: most slain whites were the victims of outsiders, although occasionally these outsiders were their own former chattels, who had come back to settle scores. Even then, their anger was usually reserved for specific persons. Malouet reported for example: “I have seen the mistress of the celebrated Baron, captain of the enemy maroons, who received from her revolting slave the most touching signs of respect and attachment. This negro only wanted his master, who had treated him with cruelty: he has come ten times on the terrain with the plan to burn everything down; but the mistress and her children were for him a safeguard he respected. He threw himself at their feet, embraced his little masters, and went away without doing any harm, when he saw that the master was absent.”

In rare instances, the white victims were not only killed, but tortured as well. During an attack on the plantation Welgevonden, owned by Abraham Meyer, his son fell into the hands of the attackers and was cruelly slaughtered: “the hands were cut off first, and then the throat, then the Breast was split open and the Heart taken out”. The same fate befell Mr. Hartdegen and in addition, his body was roasted over a fire, reported the Surinaamse Almanak in 1796. Whether it was eaten as well, the story did not tell, but there have been documented cases in which the remains of a slain white disappeared into the stomachs of his murderers. Kappler recounted how in 1832 a patrol in the Upper Commewijne region was ordered to bring some papers from Post Willem Frederik to Post Oranje (which was done every month). The patrol consisted of three soldiers. One corporal stayed behind to defecate and his comrades lost sight of him. He was never seen again. A year later, a group of weglopers attacked an Indian village and kidnapped a girl. The Indians asked for a patrol, which was duly sent. During their search, the soldiers discovered a large village and occupied it. In the debris, they found a uniform, a gun and a golden watch that had all belonged to the missing corporal. Their captives confessed that they had butchered and eaten him.

Like their counterparts elsewhere, the Surinam colonists suspected that their slaves lusted after white women and would kidnap and rape them whenever they got the opportunity. Few deserters seems to have entertained this ambition in real life, although there was a group, inhabiting a kind of ‘robbers den’ near Paramaribo, whose leader liked to indulge in fantasies of this kind. There is no proof that he ever acted them out. In some instances, women were indeed molested, however. When Maroons attacked the plantation of Cornelis Fok in the Para region, they “stripped the Wife of Fok naked (and God knows what they did to her) finally cut her in the cheek with a machete, and let her go”, lamented Cabale member Salomon Duplessis. Since very few of the white women lived on plantations (most were safely tucked away in the capital), there was little chance that they would meet with a fate worse than death.


Although not many Surinam slave masters honestly feared that one of their slaves would pick up an axe and crush their skull, many were apprehensive about the possibility of being poisoned. “Such suspicious directors then took a child five or six years old from the most influential slave family in their home, as a kind of hostage. Of everything they eat or drink, the child had to taste first. This way they believed to be protected against secret attacks”, Bartelink reported. Not only slave masters felt threatened. Raad-Fiscaal Jacobus van Halewijn wrote to the Society in 1742: “I have said to be endangered by many things, of which not the least is [that] the use of poison by many of the slaves, on whites, as well as blacks, has much increased lately because of overindulgence, and this tolerance has brought the slaves to an unbearable temerity, indeed in such a degree, that one nowadays does not stand, go or eat without fear, and because the investigation of the commited evil, and the punishment following that is vested in my office as Fiscaal, I am exposed more, than others.” Gouvernor Mauricius had a similar observation in 1745: “One of the greatest unpleasantnesses of this Land is, the continuous Fear, one has to live in, for the poison of the Slaves, which is more prevalent then ever. The Lord Commander with his wife and the Lord Collector Couderc, who is lodged with him for the time being, having been unable to find a house yet, have been on the verge of losing their Lives by a plate of soup, which already had been ladled out. Those who are guilty of this, were the Commander’s best and old house slaves. However constant and generous one might be, I confess that these cases scare one. And what can one do, as this Rabble does not fear death, and endures the cruelest torments with a laughing face. Also neither goodness nor badness helps and there are Examples of the most magnanimous masters, who nevertheless have been poisoned.”

Kappler noted that the poisons were all of vegetable origin and left little or no trace. It is likely that many a hated slave master gradually weakened and finally died without anyone imagining that he had been poisoned. Sometimes slaves suspected of such a misdeed were caught. In 1748, a woman was executed for an attempt to kill Mrs. Pater, a daughter of former Governor Van de Schepper and the wife of one of the most prosperous planters of the colony, by putting poison in her coffee. In most cases, the slaves who employed poisons did not aim to kill their master or mistress, but to harm them indirectly by destroying their most valuable property –their slave force. Lans (who did not believe that poisoning was as prevalent as many masters and slaves thought) wrote: “it is terrible, when on a plantation a poisoner hides who, either because of hatred against the master, or, as sometimes seems to be the case, merely because of a desire to do evil, by a kind of monomania, practices his disgusting art on the children”. Stedman also acknowledged poisoning as a plague and he described how the culprits sometimes went about: “they carry it under their nails, and by only dipping their thumb into a tumbler of water, which they offer as a beverage to the object of their revenge, they infuse a slow but certain death. Whole estates, as well as private families, have become the victims of their fury, and experienced their fatal vengeance, even putting to death scores of their own friends and relations, with the double view of depriving their proprietors of their most valuable possessions.” The same phenomenon has been observed in other colonies: McCloy, for example, noted that in Saint-Domingue the slaves “rarely attempted to poison the whites but endeavored to destroy their master’s wealth by killing off his slaves”.

It has never been proved conclusively that these mass poisonings really happened, let alone that they were solely done to hurt the masters in their wallets, but there can be no doubt that some planters suffered losses because their slaves poisoned others, usually because of private grievances. Some slavery writers would like to classify this kind of behavior as ‘resistance’. If one defines as resistance all actions that harm the interests of whites, this is accurate of course, but it is at the very least a sadistic and nihilistic kind of resistance. These same authors like to classify suicide, abortion and infanticide (as well as theft and arson) as forms of resistance as well. Sandew Hira modified this classification by calling these merely ‘defensive actions’, meant to end intolerable suffering. These kinds of ‘resistance’ were exclusively private and were never coordinated into a politically significant form of rebellion.

Destruction of property.

With so many possibilities for escape, suicide was relatively rare in Surinam. Most suicidal slaves killed themselves before reaching the colony: by jumping overboard, refusing to eat, or by swallowing their tongue. In Surinam, the suicides were mostly nieuwe negers, who often took their life only after an unsuccessful attempt to flee. Most Surinam victims died in an unspectacular way: by eating earth and rubbish. It is not even clear how many of them were genuine suicides and how many merely resorted to eating dirt because of a ravenous hunger. Sometimes, it took a year before they had wasted away. Serious suicides would have resorted to alternative measures long before that.

It was quite common that slaves committed suicide after a failed uprising. In Curacao, for example, most participants in the unsuccessful revolt of 1750 hurled themselves from the cliffs, or took their life in a cave nearby. In Surinam, however, this was relatively rare. The rebellious slaves of Bethlehem and Killestein Nova bravely faced their trial and subsequent execution. Only one, the mulatto Dirkje, took his own life. Even slaves caught after performing a capital crime (like murdering their master) seldom killed themselves, nor did most captured Maroons -even though they could expect a horrible execution and had ample opportunities to end their suffering before they fell into the hands of their pursuers. They preferred to show defiance. There were exceptions, of course: one runaway tried to kill himself with his rifle when he was about to be caught, but it blew up in his face and he was badly hurt. He was hung by the authorities.

Two groups of slaves were known for their propensity to commit suicide, but for very different reasons. The Ibo slaves (Calibaries) were easily discouraged, susceptible to depression and often killed themselves by hanging or eating dirt. They were notorious for this all over the Caribbean. For many planters, it was the main reason to avoid buying them. Coromantees killed themselves frequently also, but mostly because of hurt pride, for example when they were accused of a lowly crime, or were punished unfairly. The young slave Jacky of Katwijk, for example, was lashed because he had not rinsed the glasses properly. After this mortification, he went to his master’s room, put the muzzle of a hunting rifle in his mouth and pulled the trigger with his toe. From then on, no Negro dared to enter that room for fear of being haunted. In circumstances like these, Coromantees might just as well kill their master as themselves. When a punishment was deserved, however, they took it in stride.

Abortion was probably quite common in Surinam, but it took place in secrecy and it can hardly be called a form of resistance. Maybe some women aborted because they resented bringing another slave into the world, but most did it for purely private reasons and sometimes even at the instigation of their masters, who did not want to be burdened with rearing young slaves, or to be embarrassed by mulatto offspring. Infanticide was also a hidden phenomenon. It was nearly impossible to prove whether a baby died from natural causes, or because it had been deliberately neglected or killed. It is undeniable, however, that some mothers were suspected by their master, or by other slaves, of having practiced infanticide. Most of the time, the slaves did not take kindly to this. When a mother killed her baby out of desperation, both the master and the Court often proved to be remarkably forgiving –much more so than her peers.

Slaves usually revenged themselves by manhandling their master’s property in different ways. Theft (as defined by the masters) was epidemic in plantation colonies. Surinam was no exception. On the plantations, the stealing of food was most prevalent. When the master failed to provide the necessities, the slaves had no scruples at all to add to their diet on their own initiative. All plantations had provision guards, to keep not only runaways and slaves belonging to adjoining plantations from plundering the provision grounds, but also their own comrades. Since most of these guards were were old men, they were easily circumvented. When caught stealing on another plantation, a slave might be in peril of his life, but on his own estate, he usually got off with a few lashes. In the city, the temptations were much larger. Few slaves were tormented by hunger there, so food was not their main target. [Although there were exceptions: when the supplies in Colonel Fourgeoud’s warehouse continued to dwindle mysteriously, pilfering soldiers were suspected, but in the end, two Negro boys were caught red-handed.] Paramaribo thieves were mostly after money and valuables.

Genovese has argued that by stealing slaves proved that the masters’ low opinion of them (as being a lazy, thievish, untrustworthy bunch) was correct and that they diminished their self-esteem by performing an act they considered morally wrong themselves. As far as Surinam goes, he was mistaken. Undoubtedly, some slaves may have felt ashamed of being forced to steal, but mainly because they had failed to get what was due to them in another way. Blom concluded, accurately in my view, that “stealing is nothing to be ashamed of among them, neither is the punishment they receive for this, when their theft is discovered”.

It may seem that arson was the easiest way revengeful slaves could get even. However, the number of cases of arson is astonishingly low. Upon reflection, this outcome is not so strange. It was indeed easy for a slave to set fire to the cane fields, but only if he planned to run away, because his master would be deprived of (part of) his income and as a result might no longer have been able to provide for his slaves, so they suffered along with him. Consequently, most of the cases of arson on plantations were the work of schuylders or Maroons. These either torched the place to keep the whites occupied while they made off with slaves and goods, or they deliberately burned the buildings down out of revenge, which was usually instigated by a fugitive from the estate. Sometimes, the plantation slaves cooperated with the attackers. The bastiaan of Halifax in the Perica region was accused of conspiring with Maroons to set fire to the buildings and lead away the slaves. The fire was kindled according to plan, but discovered in time and extinguished. The bastiaan was arrested. Plantation supervisors were certainly not paranoid about the danger of being smoked out: when in 1770 an enormous fire laid waste a large part of western Surinam, they believed Maroons had ‘unintentionally’ kindled it.

The inhabitants of Paramaribo were equally vulnerable, but they seemed not to have been unduly worried either. It took the authorities decades to ban the use of tras as roofing for houses and in later years they tried to abolish the use of shingles in vain. In 1832, a devastating fire destroyed a large part of the houses in the Jodenbreestraat, Heiligenweg, Steenbakkerijstraat and along the Waterkant, but even then the whites at first did not suspect foul play. One of the accomplices of the arsonists was later picked up on another charge and he revealed that the fire had been laid by Cojo (alias Andries), Mentor and Present, three young schuylders who hid in the Picorna forest near the capital and lived from theft. They had planned to use the chaos resulting from the fire to plunder to their heart’s content. The damage amounted to 800,000 guilders, so the culprits could expect little mercy: they were burned at the stake on the spot where they had started the fire (even though such vicious punishments had been formally abolished by this time).

Sabotage of work and utensils has been hailed as the most widespread form of resistance. It is, however, difficult to ascertain how much of this was deliberate and how much was the result of indifference, laziness, or ineptitude. The whites sometimes suspected sabotage. When Governor Van de Schepper complained about the dismal quality of the wheelbarrows sent over, the suppliers suggested that the slaves wrecked them on purpose, so they would not have to work so hard. Mostly, however, the masters meekly accepted these problems as the inevitable consequence of employing Negroes. The slaves had every reason not to exert themselves too much and since the masters often had no yardstick to measure their performance by, they usually got away with it. Only when whites engaged in the same job, it became apparent that the performance of the bondsmen was clearly substandard. Also, the slovenly work habits necessitated constant supervision, which the planters often found difficult to provide.

A special form of sabotage was the abuse of animals. Most of this was probably a form of venting frustrations, but sometimes there seems to have been a deliberate ploy to rob the master of valuable property -with a slim chance of being caught. The high mortality among the draught animals of the sugar mills may even have been primarily the result of neglect and abuse by the slaves, who knew very well that they were hard to replace. Slaves also regularly mistreated the animals grazing in the Gemeene Weide, because these wandered into their provision grounds. The Court of Police threatened them with heavy penalties, but also reminded the owners of their duty to fence their gardens properly.

Most sabotage took the form of foot-dragging, feigning illness (a route that did not hold much promise in Surinam though: often, a slave had to be near death before he was allowed entrance to the jaashuis), feigning excessive stupidity, etc. The masters were frequently at a loss and they either resolved to punish anyone they suspected of shirking work (with the result that they sometimes caused the death of a slave who was genuinely ill), or they resigned themselves to a less than optimal level of production.

Plantation uprisings.

Genuine plantation revolts were exceedingly rare in Surinam, considering the circumstances. In most cases, they were limited to one plantation and the rebels made little effort to enlist the help of the slaves of adjoining estates. This was caused by the fact that most of these uprisings were sudden outbursts of frustration and not bold, well-planned bids for freedom.

An example is the unrest on Palmeniribo in 1707. The slaves of this plantation rebelled against director Christiaan Westphal, who, according to their testimony, harassed them continuously. He had shot their pigs and goats (because these damaged the crops), destroyed their boats (because they used them without permission) and had even fired at them when they protested, hurting Charl. Finally, the slaves decided that enough was enough. They took their sabres, lances and guns and went to the director’s house, threatening to kill him. The intended victim was saved by other whites and the leaders of the rebellion were cruelly punished. Whether their complaints were justified did not interest the Court. Waly, Baratham, Mingo (three Creole brothers), Charl and Joseph were condemned to be “burned alive and during the burning, be pinched with glowing tongs, and so be killed in the most painful and prolonged manner”.

The severity of this penalty was brought on by three considerations. Firstly, the white officers of Palmeniribo had repeatedly complained about the insolent behavior of the slaves. Mingo had made a real spectacle of himself after he found his corjaer broken: “seeing this [he] trampled and stamped with his legs against the ground, and pressed his hat against his eyes with both hands, beating against his head with his fists repeatedly”. Charl had wanted the partner of another slave for a second wife, because his own wife was ill (which the director did not condone) and had beaten her and stolen her possessions out of jealousy. Secondly, the day before the aborted rebellion, twelve slaves had run away (eleven were caught again with considerable effort and one died). Thirdly, about the same time, all the slaves of the plantation of David Montesinos had absconded because of his strict government and they had taken everything belonging to the plantation with them. They had offered to come back on the condition that an honest man would be appointed as director, which the owner had been forced to concede to. In this tense situation, the slaves of Palmeniribo had overstepped the boundaries a bit too far and the Court decided to make an example of them.

Most conspiracies floundered. Especially when slaves of several plantations schemed together, they would often be found out long before the plot had matured, usually because they were betrayed by fellow slaves. An example is the failure, in 1771, of the conspiracy led by the bastiaan Frater of the plantation Driesveld, owned by the later Governor Bernard Texier. Frater gathered a group of slaves around him and made them swear a solemn oath to keep silent about his plans. He then proposed to kill the director, steal guns and and gunpowder and run away. One of the initiated, George, went directly to the carpenter David and revealed the plot. David warned the director, who put two of the conspirators in chains. Frater managed to escape, but was later apprehended at the Motkreek. Texier acknowledged that this could have ended badly “had it not been for the Loyalty of the Negro George who notwithstanding the Oath he had sworn with them, had made this known to the Whites at the first opportunity”. He considered Frater especially devious because “he will surely have used his Authority to seduce the others, particularly with regard to the Negro Pierrot, who has always been a good & loyal, but simple and very timid Negro”. While the other conspirators were executed, Pierrot only got a Spaanse Bok.

In many cases, personal grievances caused slaves to betray their fellows. Venus, for example, confessed to the Court of Criminal Justice that her husband Quamie had suggested to her and some others to run away. She claimed she had refused this because she did not want her child to be subjected to danger and she had little reason to complain about her master. She warned her shipmate and landsman Tromp, who informed their master of the plot. Together they went to the governor, who advised Tromp to invite Quamie and his accomplice Coffy for a drink behind the Government Palace. The governor had Quamie arrested there. It became clear during the investigation that Venus had been annoyed about the fact that her mate courted the new slave girl Truy. His intended already had a white lover, who showered her with presents, but she was not adverse to Quamie’s advances if he would buy her some skirts and other pieces of clothing. Quamie and Coffy paid with their life for Venus’ jealousy.

Bethlehem & Tempati.

Even when no betrayal was involved, an uprising might still fail, as is proven by occurrences in the Commewijne district in 1750. In this revolt, conspiritors from four plantations (Bethlehem, Killesteyn Nova, Hazard and Concordia) participated. The ‘brain’ behind the plot was a mulatto named Dirkje, owned by Killesteyn Nova, where chaos had reigned for a while. Dirkje was inspired by lofty visions, though he remained rather vague about the way to realize them. It appears he wanted to get control of the whole Commewijne district, kill all the whites who were guilty of mistreating slaves or resisted his authority and search for a ‘new land’ where he and his companions could live in peace. He did not manage to attract sufficient followers, so he sought the support of slaves from adjoining plantations. In Coridon of Bethlehem he found a willing ally.

Coridon was described by witnesses as the most influential slave on Bethlehem and he was undoubtedly someone with great capabilities. He had enjoyed the favor of his master Amand Thoma for a long time. Thoma had, for example, permitted him to have two wives and had even given him a recent addition to the slave force, the beautiful Bellona, for a spouse. Unfortunately, Thoma fell for her charms himself. Coridon’s two wives did not get along, so this was a good excuse for Thoma to take Bellona into his own bed. He also donated Coridon’s other wife to his rival Hector. Coridon would later maintain that he had not been jealous on account of Bellona and that “he had always brought her to his Master himself at night”. The fact that Thoma had given his other wife Bessolina to a fellow slave was a humiliation that was hard to swallow though. Furthermore, Coridon detested the woman Thoma had given him in exchange. Probably out of revenge, he got involved with his master’s favorite, the Bokkin (Indian woman) Eva.

Because of all this male attention, Eva soon found herself in a blessed condition and (according to the testimony of other slaves -which was however disputed by Eva) she was not sure who the father was. Coridon, fearing that he would be in grave danger if Eva bore a karboeger child, decided to get rid of his master. Faithful slaves warned Thoma repeatedly that Coridon plotted his demise, but he does not seem to have taken these ominous signs seriously until it was too late. By the time he resolved “to do away with him, which the negro shall have noticed”, Coridon was already deeply involved in the plot hatched by Dirkje. They had been able to brood out their plans undisturbed for about three months and were ready for action.

One evening, when Thoma was contentedly smoking a pipe in his living room, Coridon entered with a sledgehammer in his hands and bashed in his skull. Another slave, Gallien, killed the bookkeeper, who had been immersed in his work elsewhere. Thoma had not been a particularly humane master (he was bad-tempered and drank a lot) and most slaves were glad to be delivered of his tyranny. They dragged his lifeless body outside and vented all their pent-up frustrations on it. The corps was mauled with a whip and some slaves pushed it repeatedly into the dead mouth, saying “eat the whip now”.

After these murders, the slaves had no option but to run away. Not all of them were enthusiastic about the prospect of trading in the unpleasant but secure existence on the plantation for the uncertainties of living in the jungle. Slaves of Killesteyn Nova, armed with guns, had to change their minds for them. Eva steadfastly refused to come along, though. Coridon reluctantly speared her life, because he did not want to risk killing his own child. Some malinkers, who would be of no use in the jungle, were left behind as well. The other slaves made off with the spoils, consisting, among other goods, of 30 rifles and some casks of gunpowder. Brashly, they placed the cannon of the plantation on the riverbank to shoot at the vessels passing by.

The sounds of the cannon and the gunshots alarmed the neighbors, who hurried to the scene of the rebellion and immediately realized the danger of the situation. In all haste, a Christian and a Jewish patrol were assembled and started to track down the rebels. These were forced to leave behind their women and children in the kapoewerie behind Bethlehem, where they soon fell into the hands of the militia. Probably in an attempt to get food, the remaining rebels attacked the plantation Wederhoop on the Cassiwinica Creek, but they were repulsed and suffered several casualties.

The militia meanwhile reestablished order on the plantations. Contrary to the plan, most of the slaves of the other estates that were involved in the conspiracy did not join the rebels, but on suspicion of aiding and abetting them, eight slaves of Killesteyn Nova and six of Concordia were taken into custody. The commandoes soon tracked down the fugitives and during the first skirmish with the Christian patrol, the rebels suffered 15 casualties, while 31 were taken prisoner. The Jewish patrol was successful as well: first catching 12 rebels, some days later 15 more and finally another 12. One runaway was killed. The situation of the remaining rebels soon became hopeless: they were threatened from all directions, their best warriors were dead and they had no provisions. They tried to find refuge on other plantations, but were repulsed by the slaves there. In the end, 10 of them were captured on Onobo and 6 on Wajampibo. It was rumored that Coridon was among them, but this turned out to be premature: he was taken prisoner a few weeks later by slaves of Hazard.

At the trial, the arrested slaves were grouped into four categories: (1) those who “actually did the murder”; (2) those “who have known in advance”; (3) those who “have resisted in the forest”; and (4) those who “have been carried along out of fear”. For the accused that fell into the first three categories the death penalty was obligatory and it was executed with the usual ruthlessness. A total of 28 offenders paid with their lives: three were hung from a hook, among them Gallien and Pensé (who had helped to kill Thoma); two were burned to death over a slow fire, while being nipped with glowing tongs; three were broken on the wheel; the remaining were hung. Most executions took place a few days after the culprits had been caught. The trial of Coridon took months, however. He was interrogated at length, because the judges really wanted to know what had driven him. His execution was exemplary: after having been tortured in every “ordinary and extraordinary way” for hours, he was “torn apart alive by four Horses”. His head was cut off and displayed on a stake and the four parts of his body were hung at several places in the savanna to rot there as a warning for the other slaves. Dirkje did not await his fate: he hung himself in his cell a day before his execution. His body was hauled to the gallows and burned there. Thoma's son-in-law Isaac Godefroy received 5600 guilders compensation for the 28 executed slaves -half of what they were worth.

Most slaves belonging to the fourth category got off better. The Court merely tried to infuse them with a ”deadly fear”: they were decimated after a lottery. One of the losers was pardoned because of his youth. After the first execution, Governor Mauricius wrote that “it would be a good policy to be satisfied with the terror inspired by the first public execution here in Paramaribo, and to expedite the other condemned quietly in the river, or have them punished on the plantation: but the anger is too great”.

Eva, the causa proxima of all this trouble, escaped punishment. Soon afterwards she bore a light-colored child, “which is very conductive for her pardon”. She was a real enigma for Mauricius: “I have seen this Helena, who caused all this misfortune. A terribly ugly creature!” The real reason for this drama was not a mystery to him, though: the “detestable mingling of the Master with the loathsome refuse of his Black Slave”.

The aftermath of this tragedy was not devoid of hilarious events. Some months later, it came to light that a slave woman of Thoma, though cleared of guilt by the Court, had been whipped and branded because of an administrative error. This would have hardly been worth mentioning, if Governor Mauricius had not noticed something strange about her sentence: “the most absurd thing is that in the aforementioned Sentence the condemned is banished from the colony, on penalty of being broken on the wheel, and afterwards being sold to the English or others”.

The Commewijne uprising failed because of the inherent weaknesses of the plot and the strong opposition of the whites. Firstly, it had been planned carelessly: the rebels did not make sure that they had enough provisions, nor did they take care that the women and children were evacuated properly. Secondly, they could not depend on the other slaves. Even those who had been involved in the conspiracy did not deliver enough accomplices. Only a few slaves of Killesteyn Nova supported the rebels. Although almost all of the slaves of Bethlehem participated in the uprising, the majority of them did so reluctantly and only because they feared they would be blamed for Thoma’s death just as much as the killers. The slaves of Hazard and Concordia and most of those of Killesteyn Nova not only failed to participate, but in the end they also turned against Coridon and his men. Finally, it was remarkable that the militia acted so swiftly and decisively.

Perhaps the most fatal flaw in the plot was the fact that there was no common vision behind it. Dirkje had megalomanical plans that were shared by few and he was not a charismatic personality. Coridon was involved because of private grievances and his predicament elicited little sympathy with the other slaves. Like most would-be revolutionaries, Coridon did not hesitate to warn his companions that their only option was to fight to the end, but most of them were obviously not very motivated to risk their lives in battle.

The Tempati uprising of 1757 was more successful. It was an unplanned revolt that shook the colony in its vestiges and freed several hundreds of slaves. The Tempati area was dominated by timber grounds, whose slaves had gained extensive privileges because they had resisted Maroon attacks in the past. These included ample provision grounds and large flocks of fowl. They were also allowed to sell the remaining pieces of timber in Paramaribo for their own profit. One of the plantation owners, the Political Councilor Martin, made the fateful decision to move a few of his slaves to his sugar estate in the lowlands. The affected bondsmen begged him not to separate them from their loved ones, but Martin was adamant. On the advice of his director Bruyère, he even sent soldiers to take them away by force. When the slaves got wind of this, they rebelled. They attacked Bruyère, cut off his hand and wounded two soldiers. Joined by slaves from other plantations, they retired into the forest with an army of 150 warriors, accompanied by many women and children. The pursuing whites were overpowered and lost many casualties. These rebels, with some survivors of the Bethlehem uprising and other groups of runaways, later formed the Djuka.


The slaves of Surinam did not accept their subjection meekly. They were conscious of their rights and when these were trampled upon, they were quick to retaliate. The most effective way was to flee into the jungle, either as a way of putting pressure on the planters, or as a bold move towards freedom. Although most of the runaways eventually returned to their plantation, hundreds of Maroons kept endangering the stability of the colony.

The slaves expressed their dissatisfaction in various ways -mostly by more or less individual protests, like malingering, feigning illness, sabotaging tools, abusing animals, etc. Though these could harm the interests of the planters considerably, they were not a menace to the slavery system as such. Even most plantation uprisings, who were rare anyway, did not present a real threat. Rebellious slaves could always retreat into the forest, so they were never obliged to make a ‘last stand’ against the militia that might have roused the other bondsmen to come to their aid. Consequently, the slave revolts always remained localized. Once swallowed up by the jungle, runaways might continue to harass the whites, but, with the exception of would-be dictators like Dirkje of Killesteyn Nova, it was not their objective to overthrow the Surinam slavery system by force.