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History of Suriname

    
Like all of the “Three Guianas” (see Guyana and French Guiana) these lands on the Wild Coast of South America that were to become Suriname were only sparsely inhabited in pre-Columbian times by various Amerindian tribes until European colonization set in around the 17th century. Largely ignored by the main South American colonizers Spain and Portugal, the Guianas were left to be scrambled over by the British, French and Dutch. The earliest stable European settlement was in fact a British one, Willoughbyland. In addition there was an early Jewish enclave called Torarica, settled by Sephardic Jews from Portugal and Brazil. Willoughbyland, founded by and named after Lord Francis Willoughby, who had been governor of Barbados, also brought the first plantations – and the first slaves. Seventeen years later, in 1667, the Dutch conquered Fort Willoughby, renaming it Fort Zeelandia, and in 1674 the territory was officially swapped under the Treaty of Westminster (which renewed the earlier Treaty of Breda from 1667 for good) for a patch of land in the northern part in the New World, then named New Amsterdam, which was to become New York!
   
The Dutch were arguably the most successful in their efforts to cultivate the swampy, difficult terrain of the Guianas, with their expertise in building drainage canals and sluices gained at home in the Netherlands now paying off here in the tropics too. Huge plantations were set up, mostly growing sugar cane but also cacao, coffee and other cash crops. The actual work was done entirely by slaves. While there were a few Amerindians enslaved too, the vast majority were bought and brought in via the Transatlantic Slave Trade from West and Central Africa. At least 300,000 African slaves were thus transplanted to Suriname for forced labour. They were the whites’ “property”, had no rights and were frequently mistreated brutally at the whim of their owners (or their owners’ wives, who were no less brutal, on the contrary). It was certainly the darkest chapter of the region’s history in the 17th to mid-19th centuries.
   
There were revolts too and quite a few slaves managed to escape into the interior, where they succeeded in establishing a distinctly African way of life in the Amazonian jungle. These groups, called Maroons, organized themselves and frequently launched attacks on the plantations, raiding them for supplies – and women. At times it was a proper war. The lasting conflict also put a strain on the plantation economy, and may also have spelled the beginning of the end for the inland Jewish communities of Torarica and the so-called Jodensavanne (see under Suriname).
   
There were also two brief periods of British occupation of the colony (in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars), from 1799 to 1802 and from 1804 to 1816. It was also in this time period that the slave trade was abolished, by Britain in 1807 and by the Dutch in 1814.
   
However, this did not mean the end of slavery as such. The already existing slaves in Suriname remained in slavery, and there was also still some degree of illicit slave trade. It wasn’t until 1863 that all slavery was formally abolished and the slaves freed (following abolition in the British colonies in 1835 and in the 1850s across South America, but just before abolition also reached the USA).
   
With no more slaves coming to do the dirty work for free, the plantations then imported so-called indentured labourers from other colonies, in particular from Dutch East India, today’s Indonesia, especially from Java, as well as from India proper. These workers, who became known as “coolies” (now a very derogatory designation), were only marginally better off than slaves, underpaid and mistreated and largely without rights. Anger amongst the labourers unsurprisingly also led to protests, even revolt. The worst incident was a revolt in 1902 that was brutally crushed by the authorities, and dozens of workers were shot dead or wounded – see under Mariënburg!
   
The influx of Asian indentured workers that followed the import of African slaves did its bit to forever change the ethnic make-up of Suriname, as most of them stayed on in the country after their work terms ended, and so about half of all Surinamese are of Javanese or of Indian descent, the latter are known in Suriname as Hindustani.
   
A very good insight into the life of the “coolies”, Mariënburg, the 1902 massacre and its aftermath and generally into Surinamese culture in the first half of the 20th century can be gained by reading a book by local author Cynthia McLeod whose English version is entitled “It Happened at Marienburg, Suriname” (Paramaribo: VACO Publishers, 2017) – the original has the title”Herinneringen aan Mariënburg”, for those who can read Dutch. Some good accounts of various stages of Suriname’s earlier history can also be found in “Wild Coast”.
   
Economically, plantations declined in importance from the mid-19th century onwards, but a whole new branch of industry developed in the early 20th century: mining – initially mostly gold, then rich bauxite deposits were discovered. The first bauxite mining town was Moengo, from 1920, followed by Paranam. Bauxite, the ore from which aluminium is made, became a commodity that truly changed the world. And it gave Suriname an unexpected boost in economic importance. As it was an American company (Alcoa) that operated the bauxite mining, the USA secured their supplies throughout WWII with a strong military presence (see Fort Nieuw Amsterdam). Indeed it is estimated that as much as 90% of the aluminium used in the construction of the planes for the US Air Force was made from Surinamese bauxite. So even though no shots were fired during the war here, Suriname’s importance, however indirect, for the outcome of WWII was of immense significance! It also helped that during WWII, while the motherland Holland was occupied by Nazi Germany, Suriname established a government-in-exile that sided with the Allies.
    
The road to post-colonial independence was for Suriname a gradual one of successive stages. While the territory had in 1922 been made part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (through which all Surinamese qualified for Dutch citizenship!), it was made an overseas territory in 1954 and granted self-government and free elections.
   
Full independence didn’t come until 1975, though, and the first post-colonial elections were held in 1977. It was a complicated and troubled time though, and many Surinamese emigrated to the Netherlands (taking advantage of their right to Dutch citizenship).
   
Incidentally, this also led to the strange fact the most famous (or even the ONLY famous) Surinamese-born people ever all attained their fame in Holland, and all of them are/were footballers; the most prominent names amongst them being Clarence Seedorf, Edgar Davids, Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, Aron Winter, and more indirectly also superstars and Euro ‘88 winners Ruud Gullit and Frank Rijkaard, whose fathers were Surinamese (but who were born in Amsterdam).
   
It didn’t take long, only until 1980 that Suriname then saw what practically every self-respecting South American country has experienced in their history: a coup d’etat followed by a military dictatorship. The overthrow of the democratically elected government has been called the Sergeants’ Coup, as the plotters were all in the military, and were led by then sergeant Dési Bouterse.
   
Bouterse then proceeded to impose a brutal regime of curfews, outlawing political parties and suppressing free speech, as well as arrests, torture and executions of opponents of the regime. The worst incident of these were the so-called December Murders of 1982 at Fort Zeelandia, where Bouterse had 15 journalists, lawyers and academics shot dead – he may even have taken part in the shootings himself.
   
As the outside world, and especially the Netherlands, reacted by suspending most aid to Suriname, the economy took a tumble, or at least the regular economy did – and so Bouterse took to the “irregular” economy of drug trafficking. For this (more precisely for shifting one consignment of almost half a tonne of cocaine) he was actually tried and sentenced ‘in absentia’ in the Netherlands, but since he never set foot in that country he never served a day of his ten-year prison term.
   
By the mid-1980s, Bouterse and Suriname had lost almost all outside support – except for Cuba’s, on the basis that Bouterse nominally declared himself a Marxist, but that obviously didn’t help the economy much.
   
Moreover, the “Hinterland War” broke out at home in eastern parts of Suriname. A former bodyguard of Bouterse’s, called Ronnie Brunswijk, who had fallen out with his former boss over money, started his rebellion, single-handedly at first, in the mining town of Moengo. He robbed a bank and started wearing outfits fit for a guerrilla leader, and gradually gathered a force of a few hundred fighters who called themselves the “Jungle Commandos”, mostly made up of maroons (with Brunswijk himself being of African descent, they could relate to him). The National Army, on the other hand, had to rely mostly on Creoles, who feared and despised the maroons. The effect on the eastern part of the country was profound – thousands fled to French Guiana, and the local economy all but collapsed, while the Jungle Commandos and the army fought a veritable civil war against each other, often with unimaginable brutality, partly fuelled by drugs.
   
The very worst of the atrocities perpetrated during those times was the Moiwana massacre of November 1986, when a whole village was razed and everybody murdered – simply because Brunswijk had a house there.
   
But the war was going nowhere, it was in effect a stalemate and could not go on indefinitely. Eventually Brunswijk and Bouterse found an agreement, a way of compromise and co-operation even, if perhaps not full reconciliation, but for the benefit of both men, including, again, drugs and other shady “businesses”. Both got pretty rich in the end.
   
In late 1987 Bouterse announced a return to democracy, with a new constitution and an election was held in November. It was won by a pro-democratic alliance while Bouterse’s party gained a mere three seats. And so Bouterse used his accumulated power within the country to see to a second coup, eventually sacking the president and his government over the phone (hence the designation “telephone coup”) and installing another de facto military government instead.
   
Yet the next elections in 1991 meant an end of dictatorship; although Bouterse’s party held only 12 of the 51 seats in the National Assembly, this time he accepted the new government led by the New Front for Democracy and Development (NFDD). The 1996 elections ended in a compromise, but the next two terms were dominated by the NFDD.
   
But Bouterse stayed active in politics (and shady parts of the economy) and still wielded a lot of behind-the-scenes power. And in 2010 it so happened that the former dictator managed to get himself elected democratically, and he was even re-elected president in 2015! Imagine that!? A country voluntarily (twice!) electing an ex-dictator who’d committed endless crimes, isolated and divided the country and brought its economy to its knees. How short-lived an electorate’s memory can be ....
   
On the other hand, it has to be conceded that Bouterse changed his ways and no longer ruled with the iron fist of the 1980s. In fact Suriname has been transformed from the earlier chaos since independence to currently one of the most stable countries in the region, both economically and in terms of overall safety. Yet Bouterse (ab)used his power to pass an amnesty law for himself and his collaborators to give him immunity in case of any legal fallout from his earlier crimes.
   
But that did not ultimately work. At the end of 2019 a Surinamese high court sentenced Bouterse to 20 years in prison for the December murders (see above)!! Bouterse was out of the country at the time (in China), but to my initial surprise he did return to Suriname and in January 2020 actually appeared in court to appeal – dressed pompously in military fatigues. The trial is, at the time of writing, still ongoing ...
   
   
A good account of Suriname’s history, especially details about the earlier phases during colonial times, as well as the Maroons, can also be gleaned from reading the relevant chapters of “Wild Coast” by John Gimlette. But it only goes up to the year 2010, so doesn’t cover the most recent events.
    
  
  
  
  
  
  

© dark-tourism.com, Peter Hohenhaus 2009-2020

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