Entry on the plantation.
Thousands of black people from all over West Africa were forced to congregate on the plantations of Surinam and had to get along one way or the other. They were mostly young males, a group that poses a problem in every society: eager to prove their manhood, yet often deemed not ready to take on adult responsibilities. Many societies solve this problem by turning them into soldiers and directing their youthful aggression outward. It goes without saying that these are not the easiest people to subject. Furthermore, the new slaves had been driven to the limit of endurance by the horrendous Middle Passage and they did not have much to lose anymore. Some of them were already broken in spirit and wasted away slowly -probably grateful if some illness swept them to an untimely grave. Some were willing to face up to their new challenges. Perhaps they already had been slaves in Africa and were used to being shoved around and making the best of it. Many, however, could not accept the humiliation of thralldom and only waited for the first opportunity to avenge themselves, or to get away, at any cost. To integrate the never-ending stream of newcomers was a daunting task indeed for the nascent slave communities.
Especially in the early days, plantations had to absorb large numbers of newcomers at a time. A colonist who started a new plantation usually had to make do with as many zoutwaternegers (saltwater Negroes) as he could buy at outrageous prices -unless he came from abroad with a full slave force. Preferably, he already owned some seasoned slaves, who were familiar with the work at hand, or he could purchase them. Otherwise, he had to whip a weakened and hostile crew into performing tasks that may have been familiar in principle, but were organized in a totally different way.
It was the official policy to separate slaves from the same area as much as possible, but in practice the planters had little option but to ignore this rule. The shortage of bondsmen was so severe that the planters usually took every slave they could lay their hands on, regardless of provenance. Furthermore, when they contracted a certain number of slaves on one ship, they could be pretty sure that these came from the same region, since most WIC-ships made only one or two stops. So on many plantations ‘clans’ of slaves with the same tribal background were formed. For example, in one case no less than 31 Coromantee slaves ended up on the same estate, although the dangers of this kind of concentration were well known. When a new plantation was established, a struggle for status ensued among the slaves and those belonging to an ethnic majority had a much better chance of success, although it was not unthinkable that a small but fierce minority gained the upper hand. Governor Van der Veen remarked about the Coromantees that they “oppress, yes sometimes poison, all the other nations of negroes, who come among them”.
The toll of death among zoutwaternegers was terribly high for the entire seasoning period. This was most apparent during the time the lowlands were cleared, when the slaves had to bear very trying conditions for years on end: yaws, bad drinking water, dampness, insect plagues, etc. An aspiring planter often had little desire and few possibilities to safeguard the health of his slaves carefully: the production of cash crops had to start as soon as possible regardless of the cost in human lives. Many of them were men of humble background, who grabbed the only chance to strike it rich they would get during their lifetime with both hands. They had no use for ‘sentimentality’. The heavy mortality that was the inevitable result of their drive wrought havoc in the developing slave communities.
Nevertheless, those bunches of slaves thrown together by fate did become communities. All bondsmen were in the same boat and they had to row together, or they would go under. Most realized that their only chance of survival lay in cooperation. The shipmate ties forged on board of the slave ships were the first stirrings of community formation. The shared ordeal made them almost unbreakable. Even today, the Saramaka Businengre (Bush Negroes) have a term, sippi, that preserves “the essential notion of fellow sufferers who have a special bond”, Mintz and Price discovered. The shipmates regarded each other as brothers and sisters and as they formed other (sexual, blood) ties, the (fictive) kin network grew. As Hoetink remarked, such familial reference terms will “generally emerge in small communities or groups, with little internal rank differentiation and with common goals and tasks and a common past”. According to Mintz and Price, the first relationships among zoutwaternegers will have been largely dyadic, same-sex relationships, but I think they underestimate the importance of ethnic background and sexual attraction. I believe it is likely that the newcomers, searching for the familiar in an anomalous situation, will have been drawn primarily to other slaves with the same ethnic background (if only because they could more easily communicate with each other). So the ‘clans’ of shipmates will also have grown through the ‘adoption’ of the odd landsman (compatriot) of its members. This was stimulated by the custom of placing a nieuwe neger in the care of an experienced companion (Tata). Since one of the main tasks of the Tata's (or more rarely Mama's) was to teach the slave language (Negro English, later called Sranan Tongo) to the newcomers, it follows that most of them will have been placed with a landsman and will have forged their initial close ties with them.
Blom described the seasoning procedure as follows: “Sometimes they are distributed among the experienced negroes, to live with them in their houses, to be thereby able to learn the habits of the country and the way of life all the sooner; but this must be done with great caution; as the old negroes not rarely treat them in a barbaric way, and not only let them do the housekeeping, but also make them wait upon him hand and foot like a King, and then often give them barely half enough to eat, and are they the least unwilling they get blows; with the threat, that if they don’t do better they will be treated even harsher: the new negro ignorant of the habits of the land; not knowing to what end he is placed with this negro; unable to speak the language of the country, gets depressed, life becomes a burden to him, he begins to eat charcoal, earth and other unsuitable food, whereby he falls into a languishing disease and finally dies”.
An example of this kind of maltreatment can be found in the story of Kees of the plantation Victoria, who told the Court of Police in 1780 that he had enjoyed very little contact with whites since his arrival. He had been placed under the supervision of another slave, who had “used him for everything”. One Sunday he was cooking tayers for himself, when his Tata came and took it away to give to his children. When he was out chopping wood with the other slaves, they did not tell him when they went to have brickvorst and when he wanted to fry some plantains for himself later, they did not give him enough time for that and sent him back to work. He had to help with squaring trees, but as he was not used to this work, he did not do it well. As punishment, the other slaves hit him so hard that he became deaf on the left side. He ran away, but was caught by Saramaka Maroons and turned over to the authorities.
Usually, nieuwe negers were left alone for two weeks to get settled, during which time they did not have to perform any labor. After that, they were put to light tasks around the house and at the end of another month, they were sent into the field. Three months later, they were just as accomplished as the other field slaves. Blom warned that nieuwe negers had to be treated with indulgence if one did not want to see them mired in melancholy. Especially important was an abundance of food “because not only when there is a lack of provisions, but also when these seem only scanty, they become despondent, suffer languishing and lingering diseases, and die, one after the other; for this reason one must never bring new slaves to a plantation unexpectedly, but the plantation must be prepared in advance to receive them”. When new slaves arrived on an estate, they were issued decent clothing: a shirt, a pair of trousers (a frock for the women), a coat and a hat and according to Bolingbroke “it is really laughable to see the grotesque appearance they make when dressed up in their new clothes”. It was often difficult to persuade them to keep these clothes on, they only appreciated the blankets.
Surinam slaves were officially divided into plantation slaves, who were registered in the name of the plantation and private slaves, who were registered in the name of the owner. The plantation slaves could not be individually sold away from the estate. Only if a plantation was abandoned, the whole slave force could be transferred to another one, but even then permission of the authorities was (in later times) necessary. Exceptions were made for criminals and slaves whose life would be in danger if they stayed, but such cases were rare. Private slaves could be sold apart, except for mothers and their children, who could never be separated. This custom was not the fruit of a deliberate policy, but rather the result of two mutually enforcing regulations. Firstly, the authorities, in their efforts to curb the waste of land, decided to force the planters to bind at least ten slaves forever to any new land warranted to them, in order to make sure that the soil would be cultivated properly. Secondly, it had always been an unwritten law in the colony not to separate families, including the fathers -which was quite unusual in the non-Latin colonies of the Caribbean. Therefore, as certain slaves were tied to a plantation permanently and the owner could not dispose of their relatives apart from them, soon very few plantation slaves could be sold away at all. Furthermore, the slaves fiercely resisted the removal of any member of their community, even in the early days, when the habit of keeping plantation slaves together had not yet taken root.
The first manifestations of this sentiment were visible in the 1730s. By that time, many plantations that could not settle their debts with the WIC or the Society had so overextended their credit that part of their property had to be sold. ‘Liquidating’ some slaves was, of course, the easiest way out, but this soon led to serious trouble. The Governor and political councillors warned against the “manifold Executions” that took place for reason of small debts “as a result of which the Slaves of such persecuted persons were taken from their Plantations and sold, as a result of which not only the other Slaves became obstinate and ran into the forest (of which we to our regret have had experience) but also the estates were endangered and ruined”. It came to the point that “in the end the Slaves if they only got wind of the Exploiteur, started to run away into the forest together”. To avoid troubles like these, the Court of Police decided in 1738 that “from now on no Plantation that is under Execution may be sold off in parcels neither [is it allowed] to divide the slaves and sell them in lots”. Not only the slaves avoided the Exploiteur like the plague, some of their masters did too. Izak de Meeza and David Cardozo, for example, were so heavily in debt that they did not dare to show their face in Paramaribo anymore and that they sent their slaves into the bush themselves when they spotted the hated functionary. In the same vein, Mrs. Raye, the widow of several governors, revealed to the directors of the Society that when the Exploiteur appeared, “not only the Slaves but even the Masters flee into the forest”.
These problems certainly helped the masters to see their slave force as an undividable entity. From the end of the 18th century on, a process of concentration took place and slave forces were thrown together whether they wanted or not. This often led to serious troubles. Sometimes the slaves ran away together and refused to come back unless they were allowed to go on living on their old plantation. Sometimes the fusion was followed by an epidemic of problems: fights, sabotage of the work and poisonings. An example: in January 1778, the director of the plantation Killesteyn Nova asked help to transfer the slaves of that estate to Fauquembergue (of the same owner). The slaves opposed the move with all their might. Just two years earlier they had valiantly defended the plantation against an attack by Maroons, instead of joining them, and had 33 women stolen from them. They were especially dismayed since practically all of them had been born and bred on the plantation and, to add insult to injury, it had been runaways of Fauquembergue who had led the Maroons to Killesteyn Nova. Therefore, they insisted that they would never be able to live in harmony with the slaves there. Governor Nepveu realized that the transfer, although perfectly legal, would be “very difficult to execute” and after much deliberation the request was denied. It is clear that the slaves tolerated little interference with their community.
Men and women.
The proportion of women on the average plantation was low: usually less than 40%. In the early period, the imbalance was even worse. This made female slaves in some ways more valuable than their male counterparts. Hartsinck was convinced that the masters had absolute power over the distribution of women, for he wrote that every slave was given a wife by his master, “who can also dismiss them again, if they don’t agree, and marry [them] off to another”. This was correct as far as the ‘saltwater women’ were concerned, who were always received with open arms by their prospective Tata husbands, but the Creole women had more freedom of choice. The masters gave women as wives to their most loyal and hardest working hands and because of their power over the allocation of such a scarce and valuable ‘good’, they could command more obedience.
Sometimes masters let the slaves decide among themselves and then trouble could ensue, not in the least because influential male slaves sometimes treated women as if they were their slaves. When on the plantation Lust tot Rust (owned by ex-Governor Crommelin) a batch of new women arrived, Quakoe sought out a comely one and after “marking her with his mark”, he went to the director and asked him permission to take her for a wife. The director had no objections, but Martinus, who fancied the lady himself, did not concur. He forced a confrontation with Quakoe, who stuck him in the chest three times and threw him in a ditch, where he died. This rash deed cost Quakoe his head.
Scores of slaves could find no partner and clamored for wives. Most owners were keenly aware of the advisability of giving in to their demands and tried to buy additional women. A planter named Lourens Boudens, for example, complained in 1701 that “to add to his unhappiness his best and most loyal Slave being one of the best Sugar boilers of the whole Colony daily went away and to his neighbor’s negress only because he could not give a wife to him, that this caused much unrest on both plantations but that his neighbor however had had the goodness to offer him a negress”.
The Society of Surinam was in a much better position to procure female slaves than ordinary planters. For example, Governor Van der Veen could afford to buy three women from the incoming ship St. Jan “as wives for negroes who serve well”. The slave force of the Society was therefore probably the only group of slaves that had a reasonably balanced sex ratio in the early days. Still, the Governors continued to be pestered by their bachelor slaves. Governor Mauricius reported that “the man Slaves on the ground here outside Paramaribo have insisted with me very much on wives, who are very necessary there not only for the work, but also to forestall, that the man Negroes for want of them search on other grounds, yes even run away entirely”. The Society went through a great deal of trouble to keep families together. The director of the Society’s estate reported in 1704, for instance, that “harcules and tresa with 2 children [are] not sold since the man is in the Jaas huys to be cured”. They were to remain there as a burden to their owners for several years.
Not much thought was given to the feelings of the women who were used as pawns by their owners. They were purchased to labor and satisfy the lusts of the males and for the rest had to keep quiet. I know of only one case in which the shoe seemed to have been on the other foot: missionary Quandt of the Moravian Brothers reported in 1777 that his household had bought a Negro because their slave girl was pursued by Indians and that was not proper. Whether the girl was pleased with this generosity, the story does not reveal. The cynicism of the manipulations of many masters makes it unlikely that they practiced the allocation of women only as a “means of habituating [the women] to the local language and customs”, as Willem Buschkens wants us to believe.
Because of the scarcity of women and the quickly growing network of (quasi) family relationships, many slaves were not able to find a partner on their own estate and had to look elsewhere. Often, they found a ‘wife’ on a neighboring plantation. The planters did not like this, since they feared it would make them “restless and thievish”, but they usually accepted it as the lesser of two evils. If the woman lived nearby, the man could spend every night with her, but if she resided further away, he was only allowed to visit her during the weekends. In the 19th century, this kind of ‘visiting relationships’ became more and more the norm, because the proportion of plantation women a man could not ‘marry’ grew and the whites had less objections to nocturnal trysts as the danger of a massive slave uprising had subsided. Lans therefore claimed: “I have known places where seldom a child was born, whose father belonged to the plantation”.
The relationships between men and women more often had the characteristics of a Situationsehe than of a Neigungsehe. Procreation (shunned by many slaves) was only a secondary factor. According to Roger Bastide it is the rule in Afro-American cultures that “a couple pair off when the man’s sexual, and the woman’s economic, interests happen to coincide”. The economic interest of a slave woman in ‘marriage’ was often small: she had to earn her own living anyway and a man in the house only entailed more work. When the slaves had to grow their own food, the help of a man was handy, but the heavy work of clearing the grounds was often done by the males in unison and the rest of the work a woman could very well do on her own. Nevertheless, there was a sound economic reason to find a mate. Sidney Mintz noticed that in Jamaica there was “no evidence that land was ever awarded to other than male slaves”. I am not entirely sure about the customs in Surinam, but it seems likely that garden plots were only awarded to family groups and single men. So a woman either stayed dependant on her parental group, or was forced to 'wed'. When a master provided all the food the slaves consumed, he weakened the slave family, because the rations were dispensed on an individual basis. Women did need a ‘husband’ to protect them from the unwanted advances of other men, though.
Where women had a free choice, it often became apparent that they were not at all eager to ‘marry’. This was no surprise for Hostmann, who wrote: “with the slavery in prospect, that awaits them in this kind of marriage, it is no wonder that they prolong the time of freedom as long as they can”. The men, on the contrary, saw many advantages in wedlock, not in the least because then “they will be cared for and served by their House-wives, who prepare their food and drinks”, as Herlein observed. Hartsinck maintained that the women treated their husbands with the greatest respect, served them their food first and only ate after “the Man has finished and orders this”. The fact that they were assured of finding sexual release on a regular basis was not unimportant for the men either. Whatever the wishes of the women, they were put under so much pressure, both by their masters and by the male slaves, that was nearly impossible for them to refrain from (unwanted) sexual intercourse.
In spite of the shortage of women, some men managed to accumulate several wives. These were usually bastiaans or other senior slaves, who were rewarded by their master for faithful service this way, or who were sought out by the women themselves because of the privileges they could procure for them. At the very least, the men strove for 'serial polygamy': trading in one partner for another when they were tired of her. In this situation, the women were often promiscuous too, but when it was by their own choice, they tried to keep it a secret for the men involved. Often, slaves with more than one wife were not adverse of letting others enjoy their company too, in return for a small token of gratitude.
Pimping in a less disguised form was also rife, especially among the Free Negroes. Some men did not mind supplying a woman for a white customer and some mothers did not hesitate to sell the charms of their offspring. Kuhn was incensed about this “scandalous sale of their daughters to satyrs, a well-known custom among them”. However, these mothers generally had the best interest of their (light-colored) daughters in mind and tried to give them a good start in a life that left them few choices. Lammens was therefore noticeably less shocked: “the daughter remains under the authority and control of the mother, until marriageable age: - she will without the knowledge and approval of the mother, not easily dispose over her person … thus one is obliged to buy the first favor of the young virgin, for certain gifts or money, to which the mother must concur: - sometimes the favor costs no less than a thousand guilders, of which she gets the bed, sheets, clothes and finery: -this so having been agreed and given, the man gets the right to live with her: - this however does not forge a lasting relationship, and they are, afterwards, totally free from each other: - she thereafter enters into other relationships, without further consulting her mother, she is then regarded as her own master, as an adult”.
Some women had a respectable number of lovers. The slave woman Lucretia (owned by Mr. Bliek), for example, complained that her sister Catharina (who had been accused of theft) "walks everywhere and also has men everywhere". Blom remarked that “with some nations among the saltwater negroes there exists a superstition that when a woman is in labor, and she does not mention the name of the father of the child, she can have no happy delivery, and I have witnessed the case, that on such an occasion a negress named sixteen negroes and two whites”.
With such a scarcity of faithfulness, it is no wonder that there was a lot of sexual jealousy, although Governor Nepveu claimed that this was limited to situations in which the partners stayed together out of love, not out of habit. In the opinion of Fermin, jealousy could even lead to murder: “their jealousy with regard to their wives is greater than that of the Italians; because as soon as they discover the least intimacy, be it with a Negro or Indian, they kill her by poison; but it is something special, that they think differently, if this happens with a white, over which they do not show the least sensibility, and even take pride in it”. As far as the latter claim goes, one should remember that Fermin liked to exaggerate a bit. In the 19th century, the 'green monster' even became a pest: “even adultery is now already very rare with the slave: as long as a temporary tie binds him to a spouse there is jealousy in the male”, Van der Smissen observed.
Fights over women were very common on the plantations and could have serious consequences. Kees of Frederickshoop, for example, was accused by the slaves of that plantation of having poisoned a slave girl named Madelon. He confessed to the Court of Police that he had courted her, but added that she had repulsed him because she considered herself too young for marriage. He had then taken two other wives. When the girl was old enough, she wanted him as her husband, but he told her that she had wasted her chance. She started a relationship with the blankofficier, that lasted three years. According to Kees, the bastiaan was jealous of him because he was such a marvelous mason, carpenter and cooper and would no doubt soon be elevated to the position of officer himself, in which case his rival would ‘loose his whip’. Therefore, the envious driver had used the sudden death of Madelon to blacken Kees in the eyes of his fellows. They had tied him up, but a small boy had burned off his ropes and he had managed to escape. Despite being hung from the rafters and whipped, he persisted in his innocence.
The conflict between the bastiaans Hercules and Neptunes of the plantation Libanon resulted in tragedy as well. One day Neptunes had risen early in the morning to get some wood and when he came back, he found his wife Brandina in the company of Hercules. He complained about this to the director, who gave Hercules a couple of blows with a stick and promised him a worse beating after he had conferred with his patron. Before he could make good on his threat, however, the director and the blankofficier were fired. Hercules was encouraged by this turn of fate to swear to Neptunes that he would get even, which he promptly did by denouncing him to the new director as the brain behind an imaginary conspiracy.
Often, a woman had to bear the brunt of her man’s jealousy, whether it was justified or not. Politicq of the plantation ‘t Vertrouwen stabbed his wife in the back and the abdomen and cut her throat because she “had a man in another place” and refused to take care of him anymore. Marquis of Monsort shot Elizabeth after spending the night with her (although he had a wife and three children). Out of remorse, he shot himself in the chest, but the bullet came out through the shoulder without doing much damage. He managed to escape in spite of his wounds, but hunger drove him back to the plantation, where he was caught. April of Mon Affaire shot Jacoba (Acouba) while she was working in a trench. He claimed that it had been an accident: he had put his riffle against a plantain trunk and it fell, went off and unfortunately the bullet hit Jacoba. Other slaves testified, however, that they had quarreled more than once and the victim stated before expiring from gangrene in the bowel that he had shot her because she had been his wife and had left him.
Women might be overcome with jealousy too, but they rarely retaliated with aggression against the errant men. Mostly, they either fought with their rivals, or took it out on their children, as Constantia of Clarenbeek may have done. She was accused of having strangled her baby daughter Zenobia while feeding her, even though her mistress, who suspected that she neglected the child, had watched her like a hawk and had even proposed to give Zenobia to another woman to raise. The reason for this horrible deed was probably the faithlessness of the father, a bastiaan, who had taken a new wife. The slaves of Clarenbeek did not take this murder lightly: “the whole force would have beaten her with sticks & cudgels, had I not prevented this”, her mistress declared. They threatened to kill her and wanted her to be broken on the cross –as had been the punishment in a similar case. Raad-Fiscaal Texier, however, did not see enough evidence that she killed her baby on purpose and refrained from asking the death penalty. According to Lammens, most women did not mind competition as such: “the only [thing], that the woman would not tolerate is, that another slept in her bed, that is her sanctuary”. In his eyes, men had at least one good reason to curb their promiscuity, because it “is not a little expensive and often helps to ruin the man”.
For many males it was difficult to find a steady sexual partner. Little is known about the sexual outlets of slave men in such a situation. Robert Ross described cases of homosexuality and bestiality among the slaves of South Africa, but I have never found any proof of this in Surinam. It is quite possible, however, that this kind of behavior was not recorded because the planters did not care one bit how their slaves got their sexual release (as long as they were not bothered by it), while their South African counterparts, being fanatical Calvinists, dragged them into court for every deviation from the missionary position. Ironically, whites in Surinam were mercilessly punished and even condemned to death for exactly the same ‘perversities’.
In Surinam, like everywhere else in the Caribbean, the slaves were denied official wedlock. If they wanted to give their relationship the appearance of respectability, the prospective husband went to the mistress or master of his beloved to ask for permission and to promise that he would take good care of her. Then the partners took each other by the hand and the ‘marriage’ was considered a fact. There was no other ceremony, not even a mock one, like jumping the broom (a treasured custom in the United States). If the man had a certain standing in the community, he gave a feast (du) to which all his relatives and friends were invited.
Legal marriage never became possible for slaves, but during the 19th century the EBG instigated so-called verbonden (covenants), in which a man and a woman promised to be faithful to each other and to raise their children in the Christian faith. Although many (male) slaves valued such a formal declaration, they had some reservations about the monogamy part. From 1850 on, these covenants had a legal status: they did not count as real marriages, but the spouses could not be sold separately. The Roman Catholic Curch acknowledged church weddings. People who did not have this rite performed lived in sin and could not partake in the Eucharist. The children born from these unsanctified relationships were discriminated against: they had to be baptized behind the pulpit, or this could only be done on Thursdays.
The masters usually did not bother to interfere in conjugal quarrels, unless they erupted into open strife. In the same vein, most slaves refrained from running to the master for help, unless life or limb was endangered by an irate spouse. There were exceptions, of course. When Isaac, the bastiaan of the plantation De Vreede, beat up his wife Lourenza one day, she immediately sought refuge with director Lutz (who happened to cohabit with her daughter L’Esperance). When Isaac came to get her, a fight between him and his ‘son-in-law’ ensued. Isaac beat him to his knees, but in the end inevitably got the short end of the stick.
Sometimes masters did punish an ‘adulterous’ slave. When Januari of the plantation Berlijn was away to Paramaribo for a while, his wife Bellona sought comfort with Schipion. On his return, Januari was informed of this affair by Trobel. He gave Bellona several blows with a stick and she complained about this mistreatment to the director. She encountered little sympathy. He treated both Bellona and Schipion to a whipping and warned them that they had better stop their involvement. Love was stronger than fear of punishment, however: they decided to run away, were caught stealing a canoe from some Maroons and paid dearly for their indiscretions.
The slaves preferred a partnership with someone of their own tribal background, but only members of the larger groups had a reasonable chance of finding an ethnically suitable partner. Women could afford to be more selective than men, and consequently ended up more often with a partner from their own tribe. Mixed marriages nevertheless contributed much to cultural integration. Most men longed for a younger wife, but the scarcity of women had its adavantages for the fairer sex: Lans claimed to have seen more older women with a young husband than the opposite.
Color was an important factor as well. Women strove to ‘marry’ men lighter than themselves. It was, for example, regarded as extremely demeaning for a Mulatto woman to keep company with a Negro man. Lammens maintained that “the colored women consider the colored men as an inferior Caste, which in the end, creates nothing but envy, and widens the gap”. He added, “the prejudice says that the woman gains esteem because of her man, and that by uniting herself with a man of lower status she loses esteem”. These sentiments left the colored men in a bit of a fix, because they too wanted a lighter partner, but were forced to content themselves with someone of darker hue. White men were the greatest competitors of ambitious slave men. They had so much more to offer to a slave woman, that many could not resist the temptation; moreover, they could forcibly take any slave woman under their command. This was even true for the men on the lowest rungs of the colonial ladder, although these often had to make do with women who had been written off by their superiors. The tragedy for many upwardly mobile colored women was that they lost their attractiveness as they grew older, were abandoned by their former lovers and had to turn to lowly soldiers or colored men.
Much ink has been wasted on the quality of the relationships between women and men during slavery. Countless authors (for the most part of the male persuasion) have spent many pages lamenting the emasculating effect the slave system was supposed to have on the male slaves. Stanley Elkins, for instance, wrote: “the process whereby all the true attributes of manhood were systematically isolated and placed well beyond reach truly bears the marks of great subtlety”. With ‘the true attributes of manhood’ he meant of course primarily the possibility to dominate women. Others castigated whites for depriving the slave men of easy and regular sexual release. Franklin Knight, for example, remarked sourly that in Cuba “the white master class could not even provide sufficient women for the adequate sexual satisfaction of the males” –as if that was their prime duty. David Brion Davis has qualified as the champion of male chauvinism: he managed to get into print that the rape of slave women was an acknowledgement of their humanity. With all their worrying about the emasculation and the sexual deprivation of the slave men, they totally lost track of the sexual degradation of the slave women, except of course when white men were the culprits. That the slave women may have been exploited just as cynically by their fellow sufferers, did not enter their mind.
Even writers who do not exhibit such blatant sexism sometimes reached strange conclusions. Eugene Genovese worked hard to destroy the image of the emasculated male and the domineering female, but since even he had trouble uplifting men without degrading women, he suggested that they wholeheartedly cooperated in the efforts to save the pride of the male slaves by stepping back voluntarily and leaving the men in charge. To bolster the male ego (notoriously fragile as we know) “a remarkable number of women did everything possible to strengthen their men’s self-esteem and to defer to their leadership”. He applauded the women for ‘standing by their men’, thereby yielding “their own prerogatives”. The masters had no reason to fear such touching examples of conjugal harmony, because “a strong man who kept his wife and children in line contributed to social peace and good order”. Apart from the fact that in order to be strong, a man had to rebel against social peace, which would not have pleased his master much despite his ability to keep his wife and children in line, it was not the women and children who had to be kept in line in the first place.
It is true that promoting slave families was beneficial for the master, but not for this reason. Having a family tended to calm men down and make them less eager to risk their neck in a futile uprising. Even more important: it gave them an acceptable channel for venting their frustration. In the eyes of the masters, it was much better that a slave beat up his wife and children than that he picked a fight with another male slave, or even with a white man. As George Frederickson formulated it, slavery was “an effective means of social control, partly because the satisfactions of kinship and quasi-kinship took the edge off black discontent and gave the owners a kind of leverage that could work against the growth of revolutionary attitudes and actions”.
As for Surinam, the abovementioned authors had no reason to worry. Here the women never became the domineering matrons that irritated them so much. All positions of power and prestige were reserved for men, as was the most valued work. This was reflected in the rewards women received for their exertions: less food, less privileges, less chances to get away from the plantation for a while. The main problem in Surinam was not the emasculation of the men, but the opression of the women.
It is no wonder that there is still a strong undercurrent of hostility between men and women in Surinam today. Benjamin Pierce found that lower class Creole women view men as “being morally weak, undependable, deceitful and intransigent, and as being aggressors who trick innocent females into engaging in sexual activity”. Women have learned not to become dependant on one man, especially not on their current sexual partner. Although physical aggression by women is frowned upon, this does not apply to fights with their men, who themselves use their fists at the slightest provocation. Jean-Marcel Hurault discovered that the Boni Bush Negroes consider women as a “strange and almost hostile nation” and as “half-irresponsibles”. It is not clear whether these opinions stem from slavery times, but it is certain that there were few fundamental changes since then: “Whether we contemplate the family system of the Negroid population in the period of slavery, in the post-Emancipation period after 1863, or the contemporary, post-colonial society of Surinam, we cannot fail to be struck by the unchanging uniformity of the characteristics preserved by it in all these periods, and by the fact that only a small number of insignificant elements of this system have altered over the years”, Willem Buschkens concluded.
The slave family.
John Blassingame was right when he wrote that the slave family was an “important survival mechanism” for the slaves. The family provided the cozy nest in which the slaves could gain the strength necessary for facing the difficulties of the outside world. If one regards the obstacles amorous slaves had to surmount, it is a miracle that so many of them were able to forge a stable family life. The slave family flourished particularly in the American South. There a modest level of slave imports was combined with a comparatively healthy climate and (especially in the Upper South) planters eager to stimulate procreation. At the same time, they often separated men from their wives and mothers from their children. That the danger of separation did not destroy the commitment of the slaves to family ideals and even encouraged them to extend their closest relationships far beyond the nuclear family, has been described in detail by Herbert Gutman. In Surinam, the climate may have been insalubrious, the balance between the sexes disturbed and the planters indifferent, but partners had a far better chance of staying together.
As we have seen, a large part of the women, perhaps as much as half of them, had no children at all. For those who did produce offspring, pregnancy was often an ordeal. According to Benoit, the belly of a many a pregnant woman “takes such an enormous largesse and volume, that you nearly expect her to put two or three infants into the world”. Not rarely, the expectant mother had to continue working right up to the moment of delivery and her workload was not significantly lightened. In the 19th century, the government tried to remedy this and ordered that pregnant women should only have to execute half of their usual merk after the fifth month. By the end of the slave era, the burdens were lessened even more. Bartelink was surprised to find that the planters obeyed these government regulations to the letter. After delivery, the women did not have to work at all for about four months and during the next eight months, they only had to do half their usual merk. After a year, they resumed their full workload. Once the import of African slaves had been outlawed, the planters proved more willing to give medical attention to women in labor. Some sent their pregnant slaves to a special clinic in Paramaribo, or they ordered them to stay in their town residence, so they could keep an eye on them. Several days after delivering her baby, the mother presented it to her master (if it was a boy), or to her mistress if (it was a girl), who chose a name for the baby. The parents celebrated by preparing cakes and serving them to their friends.
It was generally believed, also by the masters, that slave women made good mothers, just like their African counterparts. Therefore, observers were understandably shocked if it turned out that some of them seemed to resent their children. Several cases of mothers smothering their babies have come to light. There were probably many children who expired because of neglect or mistreatment without this arousing any suspicion. Lammens, for one, would not have been surprised by such maternal callousness, for he wrote: “it is not rare that the mother does not want to nourish her Child, The owner is then practically obliged, in his own interest, to hire a wet-nurse”. On the whole, however, mothers tried to take care of their children as best as they could. Many were outright indulgent, though at the same time they were convinced that sparing the rod spoiled the child.
In later times, the masters were obliged to take an interest in the well-being of the children too. Many of them had the youngsters brought to the Big House every day to inspect if they were clean, well fed and healthy. They were, however, not interested enough to allow the mothers to nurture their children themselves. After a woman had resumed her work in the field, she would only see her offspring in the evenings and during the weekends. The rest of the time, they were cared for by an old slave woman called crioromama.
Often, a relaxed atmosphere developed between the owners and the young slaves. Lammens noticed that “it is not strange, to see one or more children of the slave women sleeping in the room, behind the chair of the mistress of the house, just before the evening falls, when one makes a visit, so uninhibited the slave children behave in the house of their master”. In spite of the high mortality and the sometimes rough treatment, most children seemed to thrive: according to Governor Nepveu they were “sleek and fat like eels”. Although the rod was certainly not spared, ridicule was a more important mechanism for socialization. Lammens relayed that “when a Boy or Girl is guilty of soiling his or her bed, then he or she is paraded around with a long tapering hive, called Koerekoere, on which long feathers are stuck, on the Head, - furthermore one hangs a number of live toads from the body of the Guilty, fastens a water pot on the back, and amidst the drumming on this, and the hooting of the children, he or she is led through several Streets”.
Even in the opinion of the planters, mother and child formed an inseparable unit. According to an unwritten rule, they could not be sold apart, at least not while they both were slaves. In January 1743, for example, Governor Mauricius noted in his journal, that the raden had complained to him about the habit of some slave traders to “sell separately in an indecent way, the mothers or fathers from their children & the men from their wives, to thereby force someone who has bought one of those, to buy the others most expensively, in order not run the risk to lose the one [he] has already bought”. He was aware that it “has always been the custom in this Colony to sell families together” and therefore he ordered that sellers at an auction had to reveal whether “a man has wife or child”. Should it turn out later he had, the sale was null and void.
This changed after the economic crisis of the 1770’s. For planters in financial need humanity did not count for much anymore, so in 1782 a formal regulation had to be enacted to prevent them from separating mothers and children with impunity. There was an easy way out though: if a planter freed the mother (not much of a sacrifice when she was old and useless), he could sell her children without any problem. The authorities countered by making this an expensive indulgence: they decreed that owners who manumitted a slave had to deposit a caution (eventually rising to 500 guilders) to make sure that he or she would not become a burden on society. The Dutch government was vehemently opposed to splitting families and in the 19th century imposed even stricter rules. Mother and child could only be sold apart in special circumstances: for example, if one of them was to be freed within three years, or if the child was over 12 years old and the general interest demanded it. The only other acceptable reason was the fact that the child had committed a crime: so was Adam sold away from his mother Josina (with her permission), because he had been condemned for a felony repeatedly. Kappler could therefore conclude that “single, especially young Negroes are seldom offered and then always expensively”.
In Roman law, children inherited the slave status from their father and this was also the rule in several American states (like Maryland) in the beginning of the colonial era. This law was soon abandoned for the following reasons: (1) it was difficult to determine who was the father of a child and whether he was a slave (not all blacks were slaves); (2) all the mulatto children of black women would automatically be free and one could hardly expect a master to raise a child that would bring him no profit; (3) the colored children of white women (rare though they might be) could conceivably be enslaved by inhabitants claiming to be their father’s owner. So it became the custom all over the Caribbean that children inherited the status of their mother (in accordance with the maxim: partus frequitur ventrem).
The relation between father and child was tenuous. According to Lammens “there is no regard for the fathers, the mothers only are regarded as heads of the family”. This was a universal phenomenon in the Caribbean and in the eyes of Mintz “in fact, consistent with the western view”. It was, however, only true when ‘bastards’ were concerned –which slave children were by definition. The formal tie between a father and his legitimate children was crucial in western society, particularly during this era: they took his name, he had the final say with regard to their place of residence or their education and in case of a divorce the children stayed with their father.
Sincea slave father was not obliged to support his children and had only limited authority over them, the relation between them (if it existed at all) was largely based on genuine affection, although ritual factors played a role as well. It was of vital importance that a child knew who his father was, because it inherited his treefs (taboos that listed the foods they were not allowed to eat, the objects they were not allowed to touch, etc). If they did not comply with these treefs, they would fall ill. [Modern Creoles and Bush Negroes still believe that they are related to their mother (and her family) through the womb (bere), so they inherit her clan membership, and to their father through the blood (brudu), so they inherit his taboos.] Though many children did not live with their father, there is ample proof of close and intimate relations between them. It was a fortunate circumstance that neither of them could be sold away from their respective plantations, so they could stay in touch when the father chose a different partner -not a rare occurrence, although Governor Nepveu noted that slave couples were much less likely to separate when there were children. [In modern Creole society, the father often moves away after a separation and loses contact with his children.]
The importance of the father-child (son) bond became apparent in cases of conflict, when they usually supported each other loyally. There were also other touching tokens of affection. When interrogated by the Court of Police, Avantuur of the plantation Cornelis’ Vriendschap declared that he had decided to run away because his master did not give him enough time to care for his child. The kidnapped woman Baba reported that one of the Maroons that grabbed her was a runaway “who wanted to attack the Plantation of Castilho with force: and incited the others to do so: because he still has a child on that Plantation: and wanted to get it”.
In other cases, fugitive fathers stayed in the neighborhood of their former plantation, thereby seriously endangering themselves, and brought their children fish and venison. Slave men were often very distraught by the loss of their families. The process of concentration that took place during the 19th century caused much suffering. “Separated from wife and children (who usually lived on a neighboring plantation) and from acquaintances and ‘heimat’, many of them are affected by a deep and almost incurable dejection, and generally not of few of these transplanted slaves die. Some try to forget their sorrow with strong liquor and the plantation owner sometimes offers a helping hand by distributing liquor. But mostly this comfort is scorned, and they sit crying in front of their cabins. But all the deeper becomes the rancor against the whites in their heart”, stated a report about the situation on the plantation Anna’s Zorg in 1861.
The African slaves were more likely to have nuclear families, with an auxiliary network of shipmate ‘uncles’ and ‘aunts’, while the Creole slaves often had larger extended families. The following process of family formation was typical. First a ‘saltwater’ woman and her partner, often the man who had introduced her to plantation life, lived alone. After children were born, they stayed with the mother, even if the father changed partners. The next partner(s) of the mother came to live with her, or just made regular visits. When the new lover belonged to another plantation, this was the only possibility, but even when he resided on the same estate, he did not always move in. When the children grew up, they often continued to live with their mother, even after the daughters started to reproduce. After the death of the matriarch, the siblings sometimes continued to live together until one of the daughters became a grandmother. In cases where men were found to be living with children, these were just as often the offspring of their sister(s) than their own. The family could be ‘extended’ with uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, etc. The span of the extended family varied. The average family in the Para region, for example, was significantly larger than the average family in the Commewijne region, where the nuclear unit of mother and children was the most common one. The reasons for this difference cannot be pinpointed exactly, but the greater freedom and affluence of the Para slaves no doubt contributed to it.
The extended families were part of more comprehensive kin groups. Mintz and Price claimed that the Surinam plantations housed large descent-groups, bilaterally extended and with strong ritual ties to their locality, that consisted of all the descendents of one specific slave brought from Africa. These groups overlapped extensively, of course, and had (limited) ritual functions. They have retained their influence in the Para region to this day. Pierce encountered the same phenomenon among the modern Paramaribo Creoles: they all belong to an “exogamous, kindred-type network, the members of which are tied to ego by reciprocal rights and obligations”. In essence, such a group is a “cognatic descent group of four generations which consists of all the descendents of a great grand-parent”. They have ritual significance because “they are the groups within which the possessing spirits [winti] and ancestral ghosts are inherited and worshipped”.
The family life of the slaves could be easily disrupted by the actions of the whites, but recent studies have shown that these disruptions might have been less widespread than was formerly assumed. The planters were too much aware of the advantages of a stable family life to interfere without good reason. Many planters forbade their directors to tamper with any ‘married’ woman and sometimes preferred that they engaged a free colored woman as a housekeeper. Higman pointed out that in Jamaica, where the whites were not at all reticent in their pursuit of slave women, it was extremely rare that a woman bore a black child first and colored children later (indicating that a callous white had destroyed her marriage to a fellow slave), but that the opposite was pretty common. After a white paramour had left her, a woman often had no choice but to settle with a slave partner. In Surinam, the same pattern prevailed, but the were exceptions: the mother of the albino Jan Wit (born in 1738) of the plantation Vossenburg, brought eight children into the world: (1) a mulatto; (2) a black; (3) a “white negress”, who had been sent to Paris as a curiosity; (4) a mulatto; (5) Jan Wit; (6,7,8) three blacks.
It was in all probability also not true that most slave women bore children from several men. One does not have to go as far as Robert Fogel and Stanley Engerman, who in their controversial book Time on the Cross attributed to American slaves an almost puritanical sexual ethic, but neither did they abandon themselves to loose morals. Gutman discovered that in the Old South many slave women engaged in pre-nuptial intercourse and had their first child out of wedlock, but would then settle down with one man. In Surinam, the situation will have been largely similar.
Internal and external conflicts.
During the latter part of the slavery era, many (if not most) slaves by necessity had to find a sexual partner outside their own plantation. This not only created relationships between the men and the women involved, but between many other bondsmen as well. A suitor did not only have to get along with the relatives of his prospective partner, but also with the other slaves, because if he got into trouble with them, further visits would be forbidden (if not by the planter, then by his adversaries). Apart from maintaining their sexual and familial ties, slaves also appreciated the distraction. Especially during the weekends, visitors came and went continuously and if the slaves of one plantation organized a dance (pley), it was practically impossible to keep the neighbors away. The masters hated the drunken brawls that sometimes followed, but were powerless to prevent them. The slaves did not mind rowing for a couple of hours to participate in a such dance, but the planters considered this too risky. They might run into a group of Maroons, be taken for runaways themselves, or decide not to come back. Consequently, most of the time they refused to give their bondsmen the written permit they needed (many sneaked away anyway). [Such a pass could read as follows: “Let pass and repass this my vessel with four negroes going to Commewijne. ... This has to return [in] 4 days.” Signed Janva Abini (an ostagier = Bush Negro hostage living with the whites).]
The slaves of the Jews had the great disadvantage that they had to work on Sundays: for the others Sunday was the ‘big time’. It “not only gives them the possibility to rest from their labors but also to visit their friends and acquaintances on neighboring Plantations, which pleasure they by necessity cannot enjoy, when they have to celebrate Sunday on another day than the first day of the week”, remarked the Raad-Fiscaal in 1784. Therefore, the slaves of Jewish planters in regions where Jews were scarce were obliged to “isolate themselves on their Plantations”. In the early period, the authorities tried to force the Jews to honor the Christian Sabbath as well as their own. This certainly pleased their slaves, but angered the bondsmen of the Christians so much that they “would be drawn from their Master’s affairs, seeking relief, which innovation, without correction, will not work out well”, as Governor Van Aerssen explained to his superiors. So it was soon abandoned.
The planters were a bit ambivalent about the advisability of letting their slaves run around to visit each other. On the one hand, they could prevent it only with the greatest difficulty and it made the slaves more contented, possibly more productive and certainly less eager to run away. On the other hand, it could also lead to serious conflicts between the slaves of different plantations and this was the last thing directors wanted, because they were likely to get involved in sordid quarrels with their colleagues as a result.
The plantation was no idyllic community, where all slaves lived in perfect harmony with each other and acted in unison to oppose their cruel master. As Kuhn remarked: “The Negroes themselves, if they do not belong to one family, trust each other little or not at all”. Hartsinck concurred: “the Negroes, being a thievish people, distrust one another, and always close their Huts with a kind of Lock, which they nicely fashion from Wood”. The slave community was split by all kinds of feuds, with sometimes fatal consequences. Who got involved depended on the nature of the conflict. If it was a purely personal quarrel between two individuals, only their closest relatives were recruted, but in more serious cases shipmates, compatriots and other friends were appealed to.
Herlein’s opinion of the harmony among slaves was not very favorable: “The Blacks are more malicious than good by nature, revengeful and stubborn, therefore they must often have blows before they relent, they are also very quarrelsome among each other, and the Wenches tussle sometimes too”. He believed that the slaves were not much beset by jealousy, but most other authors disagreed. One of the main reasons for jealousy was the suspicion that the master favored other slaves. Blom warned strongly against a lack of evenhandedness: if one let a slave believe he had “any favor with his master”, this was bound to make him act haughtily towards other slaves and if he was punished for a failure later, he felt much wronged. Moreover, the ones so slighted might retaliate violently. Slaves earned privileges when they proved to be excellent workers, trustworthy drivers, or especially useful in other ways, in which case they might be rewarded with additional rations, nice clothes and sometimes even with a wife. By dispensing favors wisely, they could gain such influence over the other slaves that they could exploit them almost with impunity. Sometimes, the privileges were based on the ethnic background of the slaves, as happened with the Coromantees. At other times, special circumstances were taken into account. Herlein mentioned a Loango woman who was the daughter of an important chief. She was employed as a house servant in Surinam (rare for a Loango) and was treated “more reasonable than other Slaves”.
A full-proof way of gaining favor with the master (and of earning the enmity of the other slaves) was acting as an informant. This was a risky business, however. In one case, a slave named Juny had spied on behalf of his master and had kept him informed about the “konkelarijen” in the slave quarters. He denounced Carl for having contacts with the Maroons and in revenge, Carl shot him in the back when he was standing guard.
Material welfare counted heavily among the slaves and the ones who were most blessed in this regard had to endure the envy of their fellows. Out of fear that they would become the victims of witchcraft, many slaves chose to stay as inconspicuous as possible. [This attitude has lingered on in the Para region for a long time. After emancipation, no one dared to paint his house out of fear of being cursed. In the beginning of the 20th century, one man finally braved public opinion and painted his house. Only when nothing bad happened to him, others dared to follow suit.]
Many disturbances on the plantations were caused by the consumption of alcohol. Drunken brawls were frequent occurrences during the weekends, which was one of the reasons many whites were not in favor of allowing their slaves to have a pley regularly. The following incident is more or less representative: Quakoe, the bastiaan of the plantation Ouderzorg en Vriendsbeleid was presented with a bottle of dram by the director, in gratitude of his exemplary service. He shared it with a man named Champagne and a woman. He became intoxicated and picked an argument with Champagne. The director interfered and sent him away to sleep it off. Champagne went home while Quakoe stayed behind cursing. Working himself up to a frenzy, he took his gun and went to lie in ambush, waiting for the whites (who had gone on a visit) to return. Getting impatient when did they not arrive, he wrecked the garden of a woman named Callista and shot through the fence into her house, fortunately hitting no one. Hendrik and Geluk managed to overpower him and brought him to the director, demanding that he would be put in irons. The director had him nailed in a schandblok and later brought him to the Court of Police. After a Spaanse Bok (severe beating) he was sent back to the plantation.
Conflict did not always end without bloodshed: Valentijn of the plantation De Zuynigheid went to a pley, given by the director for his slaves, one Saturday evening and was merry until dawn. Afterwards he retired to the cabin he shared with his brother Hendrik, with whom he professed to have had an amicable relation. Nevertheless, he came to his senses the next morning with a knife in his hand, which he had used to cut Hendrik’s throat. Valentijn denied that he had been drunk (in fact that he had ever been drunk) and claimed that ‘his head had turned’ and that he had not been aware of what he was doing. Something similar had occurred once before, when he had been rowing a corjear. He had jumped overboard and would have drowned if the fisherman of the plantation Mon Bijou had not pulled him out of the water. [After doing something strange or violent, slaves often claimed that ‘their head had turned’. It is not sure whether this was the result of the excessive consumption of liquor, or of possession, but it often happened after partying.]
The differences in the ethnic backgrounds of the slaves led to conflicts as well. Some groups, like the Coromantees, clearly felt superior to the rest and other, like the Loangos, were not only despised by their fellow slaves, but by their masters as well -which made it a lot easier for their enemies to persecute them with impunity. Governor Van der Veen claimed that it was “considered a pest, especially for a new plantation, to leave so many  new negroes from one ship together, considering the conspiracies that are plotted by [slaves of] one nation and especially when they come over with the same ship”, but this could not always be avoided. The planters rightly feared that slaves from the same nation might cooperate in a conspiracy against their masters, but the chance that they would cooperate to oppress their fellow slaves was much larger. There was also a lot of friction between the African and the Creole slaves. The Creoles were favored by the masters because of the widely held conviction, already voiced in 1700, that “Creole or native Negroes are [a] great certainty for the Plantations and for the Country”. The Creoles were suspicious of Africans because of their supposedly greater magical powers, particularly their knowledge of ‘poisons’.
On most Surinam plantations, there were mysterious deaths that could not be explained with the medical knowledge of the time. Often, the suspicion arose that the victims had been ‘poisoned’. Sometimes there was an epidemic of accusations on a plantation. This was the clearest sign that there was something seriously amiss with the relations among the slaves. In the eyes of the whites, unexplained deaths were most likely caused by real poison. The slaves believed this to be true in some cases, but more often they feared black magic. Since it was hard to convince their white superiors of this, they adopted their terminology when denouncing the suspects. Because some slaves had a thorough knowledge of the uses of herbs and could easily concoct deadly potions, genuine cases of poisoning no doubt did occur, but it is difficult to ascertain how frequent they were.
In the early years, many whites seemed eager to believe slaves who denounced their fellows on their word. They had no scruples about torturing suspects to extract a confession, because they were convinced that it was impossible to compel a slave to confess to something he was innocent of. In addition, some slaves were certain that they had the magical power to harm others, so they freely confessed their misdeeds, imaginary as they might be. Francina of the plantation Mislukt Bedrog, for example, confessed to have poisoned several children, because her AZEE (witch-like spirit) had made her vengeful. She also employed an herb that she buried in a path regularly used by slaves. She believed that if a woman walked over it, her menstrual periods ceased (making her sterile). Francina claimed to have learned about the AZEE and the poison from Esperance of the plantation L’ Assistance, who came to her to suck blood, which they put in a calabash and drank together.
Many whites were convinced that genuine cases of poisoning were a regular occurrence on plantations. Even well informed men like Governor Nepveu believed that slaves, once they had resorted to this kind of criminal behavior to avenge themselves for a real or perceived injustice, would continue even without good reason. Moreover, they might start to poison their fellow slaves to harm their masters –in order to make sure that he would not become wealthy enough to return to Europe, for example.
The suspicion of poisoning grew when a slave died from a mysterious illness shortly after a quarrel with a fellow slave –and of course this could indeed have happened. Apollo and Quassi of the plantation Vossenburg, for example, were turned over to the Court of Police on suspicion of murder. During the interrogations the following events came to light. Apollo had quarreled with Alida, the driver of the Creole slaves, because she had hit his son Quakoe when he was slow putting cane into the press. Shortly afterwards, Ciska, the daughter of her sister Rebecca, died and a few days later her brother Willem became so ill that he was no longer able to sit up. Several days after that Louisa (Jaba), another daughter of Rebecca and the ‘wife’ of the director, told the latter that she had drunk some coffee that had been left on the verandah and had felt sick right away. She died eight days later. Shortly after her death, the mother of Rebecca informed the director that Quassi, a friend of Apollo, had come to her earlier and had offered to cure Louisa. When she refused, he had taken a crab in his hands, broke off the legs and said: “look as I break off all the feet of this Crab so your Hon.’s whole Family will be broken off from you with the one who shields your Hon., and you alone will be left to your sorrow”. Sometime later, a slave told the director that Apollo had tried to hang himself in his cabin, but the rope had broken (or had been cut loose by Quassi) and Apollo had disappeared. The daughters of Apollo revealed that Quassi had come to him and had warned him that he had been stupid and that he would surely be found out. He threw something on the floor of the cabin, saying that now Apollo would not be betrayed. This was corroberated by an old slave called Dia, who testified that Quassi had visited him and had asked: “can you not make something so the coffin of the negress Louisa will not touch the house of Apollo, in order that he will not be betrayed”. He wanted to see the bastiaan Jemmes incriminated instead. Dia insisted that he did not know such magic. Quassi retorted that he could make something himself, if he had some dram. Apparently, Apollo provided the dram and Dia witnessed how Quassi sprinkled some liquid in his cabin. Quassi was apprehended and put in irons. He acknowledged that Apollo and his wife Dorothea had put poison in the coffee of Louisa. [The habit of carrying the coffin around the village when someone has died from unknown causes, in order to determine who is to blame, is found among the Surinam Businengre up to this day.]
In the 17th and early 18th century, slaves accused of poisoning were often sentenced on the slightest proof. For example: Bienvenue confessed, after a sound whipping by his master, that he had poisoned two slave women. He withdrew his confession in court, but was nevertheless, without further inquiry, condemned to be burned alive while being pinched with glowing tongs. Swart Jan, the bastiaan of the plantation Jagtlust, and his wife were accused of being ‘poisoners’ by their fellows. His wife, a Coromantee, fled into the forest and hung herself. Swart Jan claimed that the other slaves hated him because of his strictness and that even the director would rather be rid of him, because he had stolen 400 guilders(!) from him and he had pressed him for restitution. The administrator of the plantation, Gerrit Versteeg, testified that he considered Swart Jan perfectly capable of committing the crimes he had been accused off. Swart Jan had come to him with the request to be permitted to take Cato for a wife. Versteeg had answered that “he could have the Wench for A Wife if the wench allows it or will have You but not with force”. Cato had refused him and the angry Swart Jan had threatened that she would never be cured of the jaas she was suffering from and that she would die from it. This was considered sufficient proof of his evil intentions and he was sentenced to be put on a cross, have his limbs broken and be left this way until he died (a way of execution called radbraken).
Later in the 18th century, the authorities were less gullible. Crucial in this respect was the attitude of Raad-Fiscaal Wichers, who was not ready to believe the ‘voluntary’ confessions of accused slaves without further investigation. In the case of the aforementioned Francina, for example, he believed that the children had died from natural causes and explained: “the Prejudices, planted by ignorance and superstition, have conquered the minds of the Slaves too much, so they not only believe in [witchcraft] but consider it something evident … It would thus [be] very careless of us to keep such Slaves (themselves convinced that they have more Knowledge than they possibly can have) on the plantations any longer”. In the 19th century, superstition lost even more terrain. Hostmann realized that the epidemic of mysterious deaths after the fusion of two slave forces was not caused by poisoning, as many people believed: “The deaths, that have been witnessed at the joining of the populations of several plantations and that have usually been ascribed to poisoning, which in the meantime has been proved seldom or never, are rather based on mutual fear exclusively. People in this condition, imagine themselves constantly persecuted by others, to which they ascribe supernatural properties; [they] become indifferent to life, and try to shorten it.”
Slaves were also no longer condemned on mere testimony in later times. Raad-Fiscaal Wichers introduced the custom of having a chirurgijn test suspected materials on chickens and dogs and in most cases, they turned out to be perfectly harmless. The slaves and many of the planters, however, had less faith in the blessings of science and rather trusted the opinion of the famous bonuman Quassi. On request of the planters, he made the rounds of the plantations and like a kind of modern inquisitioner he ferreted out the culprits, employing a winning combination of western interrogation techniques (stringing up and whipping the stubborn) and African spiritualism (manipulating the superstitious). Hartsinck has described his preferred method in detail: “If one brings him on a Plantation where poison is suspected, he does not go there unless he has spied it out in advance, while no Slave or Slave woman dares to hide anything from him, thus knowing who is suspected; if he then usually after much delay comes there, and has spent the night, he proceeds by letting all the Slaves, one by one, pass before him, while he whirls around a bunch of Bird feathers in a Glass; as every slave stands still before him, and is looked over by him; and if the Man who is the one comes, then it does not miss or such a person’s Heart Races visibly, and he confesses it too as soon as [Quassi] looking him in the eyes only speaks to him; but it also fails sometimes with stout Fellows who know the trick; then it is said, the one who knows the art does not shame his master.”
Manuel of Nieuw Altona en Lafleur of Poelwijk were delivered to the authorities with the message that they had confessed (after having been hung and whipped by their master) to the killing of several slaves. Manuel had even revealed that he had poisoned his own child. They were examined anew by Raad-Fiscaal Wichers, who concluded that they were innocent. Coton, the bastiaan of La Paix, who, after having been away on patrol, had been accused by slaves of his plantation of being a poisoner, was also interrogated, found blameless and “granted his Freedom to go against the Runaways”.
No doubt, the worst kind of abuse that could be committed by one slave against another was cannibalism. Accusations that this happened on plantations were rare indeed, but the slaves believed that the members of several tribes, particularly the Guango and the Demakoekoe, indulged in it whenever they got the chance. Obviously, they only got a real opportunity after running away. Hartsinck claimed that during the destruction of the houses and provision grounds of a group of Guango runaways in Berbice “countless Bones, and several Pots with Negro flesh [were] found in the fire”. Stedman, who was in an even better position to know, relayed a similar story: “After the conquest of Boucou, pots full of human flesh, still standing in the fire, were found in the houses of the mutineers of this tribe”.
According to the following story from the Surinaamse Courant, even plantation slaves were sometimes guilty of this aberration: On Monday 15 May 1837, Semire of the plantation Nieuwstar lured a girl named Davina, about six years old, into her cabin, laid her on her knees and strangled her. She cut the body into pieces that she put in a basket next to her sleeping cot. The next morning she hid different parts of the carcass in two places under the floorboards and the head and some other parts in a deep hole under the floor. The two following evenings she fed pieces of the flesh, cooked with bananas, to her housemate Toetoeba. According to her own confession, they consumed a part of the loins, the heart, the liver and the lungs, without Toetoeba noticing anything out of order. Davina’s brother Prince (with whom she lived after the death of their mother) went out to look for her on the evening of her disappearance and asked Semire if she had seen her. She denied any knowledge of the girl’s whereabouts. The next day, the administrator of Nieuwstar sent out people to search the premises. Semire had to go to the hospital along with some other slaves to have their ulcers examined. As result of a misunderstanding, she was left behind after the other slaves had gone home and under the impression that she was to stay for several days, she asked Toetoeba to fetch her sleeping cushion. While looking for it, Toetoeba became aware of a smell of putrefaction the cabin and when she came back from her work in the mill that evening, she decided to try to find out where it came from. To her horror, she discovered a hand and other human parts under the floor. She realized at once that these were the remains of the vanished Davina and that Semire, a Demakoekoe, “who more often are guilty of eating human flesh”, had killed her. She warned the bastiaan, who informed the director. The latter called some slaves and they searched under the floor of Semire’s cabin, where they found two arms, two pieces of the ribs, two parts of the thighs and a part of the spine, all colored somewhat whitish, as if they held been held over a fire. During a second visitation, that was witnessed by the director of the neighboring plantation De Goede Vrede, they found the other hand under a plantain tree near the cabin. They warned the administrator, who had Semire questioned. She feigned an inability to speak, but made a confession by way of sounds and gestures and showed them a hole in which she had hidden some intestines, a part of the buttocks and the head of the child. At the trial, she gave as the reason for her atrocious behavior the feelings of frustration and anger brought about by her sickly condition (she had been plagued by incurable ulcers for years) and the desire to satisfy her craving for switi moffo.
Semire, who had been born in Africa and was about 30 years old, was condemned to be strapped to a stake and strangled with a rope. Her head was to be cut off and displayed as a warning. The article ended with the following statement: “And, so the population of Paramaribo, with regret indeed has beheld yesterday morning the execution of a Sentence that has filled any decentminded [citizen] with sadness, as he can find no pleasure in the humiliating death of his fellow man; - but also on the other hand feels the privilege and appreciates that those to whom the sword of justice is entrusted, in their interest manage to keep it pure and undefiled”.
Apart from the quarrels between slaves of the same plantation, there were frequent conflicts between slaves of neighboring plantations, which by their nature were much more dangerous. These were often the result of pleys in which slaves of different estates participated. The alcohol heated the minds and caused the slaves to remember old grudges. A contributing factor was the fact that irresponsible directors sometimes promised their slaves a reward if they caught provision thieves, even if they had to trespass on other people’s property to grab them. This made some greedy slaves overzealous, with occasionally tragic results.
Maintenu and Harlequin of Edenburg, for instance, were sent on patrol by their master to catch a thief that had been sighted steeling corn. They arrived at Berkshoven, sneaked past the provision guard Fripon and stumbled upon Codjo, who was washing himself in a trench. Since they had heard from Brankie of Berkshoven (who had a wife at Edenburg), that Codjo had been locked in irons because he had been caught stealing before, but had managed to escape, they ordered him to stand still and when he refused to do so, Maintenu shot him. At his trial, the director of Edenburg declared that Maintenu was a virtuous and loyal slave and that he never had any reason to punish him, neither for sloppy work, nor for bad conduct. This could not save his life: Maintenu was beheaded for murder. [It should not be thought that he was excecuted for taking a life, he was executed for destroying valuable property.]
The troubles between the slaves of Breda and Crommelins Gift ended in the death of three slaves. It all began when two slaves of Breda were caught stealing provisions from Crommelins Gift. They were beaten up badly by the slaves of this estate and later died in hospital. This made the slaves of Breda so furious that they threatened to kill anyone from Crommelins Gift who set one foot on their plantation. They made good on their word when the voetebooy Willem shot the bastiaan Bienvenue of Crommelins Gift, allegedly because the victim had tried to take away his gun and had set his dog on him. Willem did not confess to any misdeed in court (he claimed the gun had gone off by accident), not even after he had been hanged from the rafters and whipped, but director Hieronymie of Crommelins Gift was not convinced of his innocence and claimed that “his master has had time enough to inform him before he sent him to the Fort” (probably believing that he could not be sentenced without a confession –which was not the case).
When whites got involved in disputes like this, they often escalated. A conflict between the slaves of Zoelen and A la Bonheur dragged on mainly because their masters stoked the fire. [Not rarely, it was in fact the other way around: planters who had a feud with their neighbors enlisted the aid of their slaves, to the detriment of the latter.] Also, if a white interfered in a fight between slaves, he might get hurt himself. When, in 1757, the slaves of Alkmaar attacked those of Zorgvliet (who were fewer in numbers), for example, director Phaff (who was alarmed by the noise) was severely mistreated and his brother might have lost his life if he had not been saved by an old woman. If this had been the case, the slaves would have had no choice but to run away into the forest to save their own hides and a genuine uprising might have been unavoidable.
The plantation slaves strove to create a warm and close community out of people with many different kinds of ties: the bonds of blood and fictive kinship, shipmate ties, landsman ties, etc. To become a real community was a difficult task during the first part of the colonial era. The population of a plantation changed all the time because of the high mortality among the slaves and the fact that the planters could only buy replacements intermittently, so a slave force might first dwindle to a fraction of its former size and would then suddenly be reinforced by a large number of newcomers. Under such conditions, continuity was hard to attain, although the oldtimers taught them the ropes. Groups of slaves with different ethnic backgrounds might interact peacefully for a long time, but then start to oppose each other violently as a result of misunderstandings or private grudges. Since opponents were forced to continue to live and work together, this could lead to accusations of ‘poisoning’. Still, most slaves valued their community highly and would resist any attempt either to split it up or to fuse it with another one.