Conducts research and collects data on the global history of labour, workers, and labour relations

Colony of Suriname Mapped Out

Cartoon van Eppo Doeve van een Surinaamse vrouw met Nederlandse leeuw. 1951Each year, on behalf of the Dutch Parliament in The Hague, the colonial authorities in Suriname prepared a report on the ‘state of the nation’. In these annual reports, Suriname’s infrastructure was mapped out with meticulous care. Through a fortuitous antiquarian purchase, the IISH/NEHA archive was able to acquire these ‘Colonial Reports on Suriname’ covering the period 1863 to 1876. The acquisition is of particular interest since the reports are handwritten drafts, and many incoming letters and memos, from religious communities for example, are included. Together, these documents provide much more information than the final printed versions.

The first report (inventory number 1) gives chapter and verse on 1863, the year slavery was abolished. The same year witnessed the import of 8,694 books and 4,461 musical instruments. One hundred and sixty-seven children were born in wedlock, while 1,321 illegitimate children were born. In the Nickerie District, 683 cattle, 30 horses, and 21 donkeys were registered; in the district of Upper Commewijne not a single donkey was seen. The ethnic composition of Suriname was recorded with equal meticulousness. There were 1,000 Indians. One Indian woman, including her children, had been granted citizenship rights.

Jacqueline Ricket with her daughter LinaAfter the abolition of slavery in July 1863, former slaves were supposed to continue working on their plantation for a period of ten years, in return for a miserable wage. This arrangement, called ’State Supervision’, failed totally. Instead, Suriname experienced an acute labour shortage and its economy collapsed. It was in these circumstances that the Dutch Parliament in The Hague made a counterproductive decision when it consigned the recruitment of foreign workers to private enterprise, since port authorities in foreign countries were reluctant to clear labour migrants through customs and leave them to the whims of private contractors. Only in China were ‘some seaports prepared to give clearance’. From Barbados and the neighbouring Brazilian region Madeira ‘a few immigrants were imported’. In Curaçao and the Spanish and Portuguese colonies in the Caribbean, among the slaves freed in North America and the British West Indies there was no interest whatsoever in working in Suriname. The ‘Survey of plantations employing immigrants at the end of 1863’ mentions just four Chinese labourers working on the Nieuw Clarenbeek Plantation and one African working on the Lust en Rust Plantation. In the margin, someone has written ‘This survey is useless’.

Some years later, there was greater success in recruiting labour, as is apparent from the documents pertaining to the ‘Commissioner responsible for the supervision and control of all immigrants’ for 1869 (inventory number 10). This file includes an employment contract with a Chinese worker, passenger manifests bearing the names of hundreds of Chinese coolies, and a report concerning ‘one Demerarian’ and six Chinese runaways who had absconded from a plantation in order to avoid having to fulfil the terms of their contract.

This collection can be found in the Archives Section under Koloniale Verslagen; Printed annual reports for subsequent years are in the Library Section under Surinaamsch Verslag; Reports for 1900-1904 are available online on the website of Denie Kasan.
(text: Margreet Schrevel)

1 July 2015