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Suriname Of The Saramakas History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

This study critically examines important events and developments in the history of the Saramaka people of Suriname. While the Saramaka experience continues to evolve even today, the study is primarily concerned with the slave era. Analyzing and synthesizing a rich selection of primary and secondary sources, the study explores such matters as the arrival and early lives in Suriname of the Saramakas’ predecessors, the Saramakas’ long struggles to attain and maintain their freedoms, and their evolution of their material, social, and cultural lives. Throughout, the study explores how Saramaka life and culture diverged from that of the slaves and free Creoles in Suriname. The study develops and supports the thesis that the Saramaka experience is rather unique in the history of Atlantic slavery-and that this uniqueness is largely attributable to the indomitable spirit of the people, their cultural resilience, and their ability to exploit fleeting opportunities in forbidding social and natural environments. The Saramaka are descendants of African-born people who were captured and sold into slavery.[1] The largest numbers of Africans arrived in Suriname during the decades and centuries after the Dutch assumed control of the country from the British in 1679.[2] The Africans were from diverse and wide-ranging cultural groups from what are now the nations of Ghana, Togo, Benin, Zaire, Angola, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal, Dahomey, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Congo.[3] From Africa, they were stolen mainly to work on Suriname’s ruthlessly productive sugar plantations.[4] As distinguished from the free “Creole” populations of the slave eras-who were former slaves who were manumitted by their masters (and the descendants of such people), the Saramaka are descendants of slaves who escaped from bondage to develop independent communities apart from the mainstream society.[5] Even by the 1670s, Surinamese officials complained about the presence of fugitive slave communities in the rainforest interior.[6]

In order to better understand how Saramaka life diverged from slave life, one must begin by examining the harsh conditions of Surinam’s plantations. Though slavery was everywhere in the Americas a brutal institution, the treatment of slaves this country appears to have been especially heinous. This reality is reflected, among other things, in the shortened life expectancies, high death rates, and low birth rates that prevailed among the slaves.[7] Some sense of the severity of the situation may be attained by comparing Suriname with the American South, scarcely a place of benign and gentle slavery. Suriname comprises a total territory which is about the size of the State of Georgia.[8] Yet although slavery was concentrated only on Suriname’s coast, the country imported as many slaves, and within a similar time period, as all of the American South.[9]

Indeed, Suriname was internationally known for its grave mistreatment of slaves even before the Dutch took possession of the country. In 1688, the scandalous and controversial book Oroonoko; or, The Royal Slave was published, detailing in part the hideous mistreatment of slaves while Suriname was still held by the British.[10] Oroonoko is regarded by many as the first antislavery narrative, while its author is considered to be England’s first professional female writer.[11]

Oroonoko purports to be a fist-hand account of conditions witnessed in British-held Suriname and tells the story of an exceptionally regal and beautiful male slave.[12] Yet it is perhaps this majestic bearing, mind, and temperament which condemn the Royal Slave to a hideous end in an extraordinarily brutal slaveholding society.[13] Ms. Behn describes in lavish detail the heinous execution scene-presided over by the “inhuman” official “justices” and a “rude and wild … rabble.”[14] The scene opens with the Royal Slave’s sexual organs being sliced off and thrown into a fire.[15] Next, his ears and nose are similarly removed with an “ill-favored knife” and tossed into the flames.[16] Only with the dismemberment of his two arms did his head sink, although even when he “gave up the ghost” he let out not a groan or word of reproach.[17] The Royal Slave’s mangled body was then butchered into quarters and dispatched to “several of the chief plantations,” apparently so that the resident masters and oversees might use the parts to grieve and terrorize any slaves who might have admired the departed one.[18]

In the years which followed, no less luminary a figure than the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire took up the theme of the hideous mistreatment of slaves in Suriname, now under Dutch control. In a chapter in his widely read book, Candide, Voltaire describes how the title character’s elation over arriving in Suriname quickly turns to horror. As he approached a “town belonging to the Dutch,” Candide joyfully proclaims that: “We are now at the end of our troubles, and at the beginning of happiness.”[19] Yet he soon encounters “a negro stretched on the ground with only one half of his habit … for the poor man had lost his left leg and his right hand.”[20] When the travelers inquire about the causes of the man’s ill fate, the Negro responds that “it is the custom here” to leave slaves in such a condition.[21] Slaves were allowed only “a linen garment twice a year” as “all [their] covering.”[22] Worse, if a slave were to have a finger caught in the sugar works, the customary practice was to “instantly chop off” his entire hand.[23] For the slave who tries to run away, the punishment was to have a leg butchered off.[24] The badly mangled man had caught his finger in the sugar-processing machinery and, after having his hand removed, had attempted to escape but failed and had his leg removed.

Even the British-born John Gabriel Stedman, who spent five years in Dutch-held Suriname as a mercenary in a major multi-national expedition against fugitive slaves felt moved to detail the hideous cruelties inflicted on the slaves. To justify for readers his work as a hunter of fugitive slaves, Stedman felt compelled to suggest that slave families lived in a “state of tranquil happiness” provided they had “a humane and indulgent master.”[25] Yet in spite of his work against people attempting to flee slavery, Stedman was repeatedly moved to describe in graphic detail the abusive mistreatments inflicted upon the slaves by inhumane and abusive masters and mistresses.[26]

The above and various other eyewitness and secondary accounts demonstrate that the main reason why the Saramaka sought to escape slavery was simply to find a more bearable existence away from the cruel and grueling plantations. Running away from the plantations was associated with life-threatening risks for those who might be recaptured.[27] Even for those who successfully escaped, immense challenges of survival awaited in the forests.[28] Yet the sheer hardships of slave life and the dream of a better life away from the plantations propelled the Saramaka to dedicate their skills and energies to escape.

The patterns of escape, the routes by which Saramaka and slave life first began to diverge, varied considerably from one case to the next. In some instances, individual slaves ran away on their own, while in other cases small groups planned and executed their escapes together.[29] Yet In many instances, larger rebellions were collaborative efforts between slaves and Maroons who had previously escaped from the same plantations.[30] The enslaved predecessors of the Saramaka also wisely capitalized on the confusion that prevailed during political and social disturbances as opportunities to escape. Such was the case, for instance, when raiders from French Guiana invaded eastern portions of Suriname in 1712-1713.[31] Planters in the area sought refugee in the capital, leaving their slaves behind to fend for themselves on the plantations.[32] Seizing upon a rare chance, slaves in the district joined the French raiders in the plunder of abandoned estates, confiscated whatever seemed desirable and useful, and escaped “for ever the hated scenes of their vast miseries and wrongs.”[33] The fugitives then established themselves as the center of a committed revolt, their numbers steadily increasing as more runaways followed their example.[34]

Even after their escape from the plantations, however, the Saramaka were still not free from the threats of harassment and recapture. Facing such barriers to their freedom, the self-liberated Saramaka rebelled against slaveholding society raged from many years.[35] A series of all-out “Bush Negro” wars against the prevailing system erupted in the mid-eighteenth century, to which the Dutch authorities responded by marshaling large numbers of colonial troops and mercenary forces.[36] Yet although the slaveholders possessed major advantages in terms of military, financial, manpower, and other resources, they were never able to permanently subjugate the Saramaka.[37]

Given the powerful variables pushing and pulling slaves to escape from Suriname’s plantations, the Saramaka and other “Bush Negro” populations steadily expanded over time. When the Dutch assumed control in 1679 after 12 years of British domination, there were already somewhere between 700 and 800 Maroons living in the Surinamese rainforests.[38] By the close of the eighteenth century, there were already about 7,000 “Bush Negroes” with official guarantees of liberty living in the jungles-compared with a population of some 45,000 slaves in all of Suriname.[39]

The brutal harassment of Saramaka communities by slaveholding society finally ended in 1762, a full century before the general emancipation of slaves in Suriname, when the Saramaka were officially granted freedom.[40] The basis of that freedom was a treaty with the White society which guaranteed that the Saramaka would have autonomy within their forest communities.[41] In return, the Saramaka promised to refrain from accepting more fugitives into their communities.[42] They also promised not to accept into their midst fugitive slaves who might escape from the plantations of their own volition.[43] Even with the treaty, slaves in Suriname continued to rebel and the late eighteenth century witnessed the return of hostilities between the Saramaka and “White” plantation society.[44] Fortunately, for much of the nineteenth century mainstream Suriname permitted the Saramaka to live in relative isolation.[45] Left in relative peace, the Saramaka could finally focus on creating the better lives and the autonomous communities of which they had long dreamed.

Much of the work in the mainly subsistence-level Saramaka communities focused on the production and acquisition of food and other essential resources and goods. After their peace treaty, the Saramaka maintained some direct and indirect contact with coastal society-upon which they depended for certain basic manufactured goods, including cloth, cooking ware, various tools, and firearms.[46] The treaty allowed the Saramaka to travel to the coast occasionally for brief trading visits.[47] As work was divided along gender lines within the society, it was primarily men who left on these journeys to acquire goods on the coast.[48]

Apart from the work of trading involved in the acquisition of manufactured goods from mainstream society, slave-era Saramaka communities developed patterns of work which ensured a remarkable degree of economic self-sufficiency. Members of the communities worked together to produce a remarkably diverse array of food crops, including rice, cassava, plantains, bananas, sugar cane, peanuts, corn, sweet potatoes, melons, and okra.[49] Major work-related duties involved in food production were divided along gender lines and according to the climatic cycles of the rainforest. During drier months, small groups of Saramaka men worked together to identify and prepare desirable areas for crop production.[50] After several weeks of toil, the men paddled back to their villages, leaving the cleared fields to dry.[51] Several weeks later, they would return to set the fields on fire in preparation for the coming rainy season.[52] Thereafter, women assumed greater responsibility for food production, including the sowing, tending, and harvesting of crops.[53]

Visitors to Saramaka communities were impressed by the wide array of foods produced and consumed there. Stedman, for instance, reported that the Maroons’ fields were “over-stocked” with crops such as rice, cassava, plantains, and yams.[54] The Saramaka also worked to acquire a rich variety of foods and other products from the rainforests. Fish and game were trapped in “great abundance” using springs and traps, while a type of salt was made from the ashes of palm trees, wild bees supplied “excellent” honey, and stocks of palm-tree wine were held “always in plenty.”[55] A type of butter “even more delicious [than the European alternative]” was made by melting and clarifying the fat of palm-tree worms.[56] Various forest trees also provided materials for construction, fuel, and tinder, and for making hammocks, brooms, rope, and kitchen utensils.[57] With such an abundance of resources at their disposal, the Maroons seemed to live in the forests “in a state of tranquility” and, “want[ing] for nothing,” were contentedly “plump and fat.”[58]

Saramaka men were highly accomplished especially in the arts of woodworking.[59] Over the course of his lifetime, every Saramaka man was expected to produce a broad array of wooden objects for himself, his female partners, and his unmarried kinswomen.[60] The sharing and gift giving of such artistic workers in turn served economic cornerstones of Saramaka society, since throughout its history the society was one in which neither currency nor market forces played significant roles in daily life.[61] The Saramaka valued artistic and other material objects, not only for their innate economic worth, but also for the relationship with others that these objects represented. [62]

Some observers have concluded that Saramaka women play more influential roles and occupy superior positions relative to their White, free Creole, and enslaved counterparts in main-stream Surinamese society. Yet the reality is rather more complex than initial impressions often suggest. During the slave era, Saramaka kinship patterns were strongly matrilineal in their design.[63] Saramaka society is organized around “matri-lineal clans” in which ancestry is, by definition, traced through women.[64] As such, women were the centers and foundations of Saramaka social organization and social activities.[65] In fact, matrilineal ideology pervaded all facets of daily Saramaka life and shaped such diverse aspects of cultural life as inheritance patterns, arts, and even spiritual beliefs.[66] It is said that Saramaka Maroons of both genders prayed to their gods for female children so that their lineages would continue into future generations.[67] Some visitors concluded that Saramaka women ruled their entire society because they appeared to be the ones who primarily interacted with the gods and were possessed by them.[68]

Yet it must be noted that, although slave-era Saramaka communities were matrilineal, they were scarcely matriarchal or even particularly egalitarian in gender terms. For one thing, it was men who presided over the management of the clans and who administered various other social and cultural activities.[69] In addition, polygyny was widely practiced within Saramaka society.[70] Polygyny was perhaps in large part a legacy of slavery. The Dutch authorities did not permit the marriage of slaves on the plantations.[71] Probably because of these prohibitions, many slaves in turn evinced a preference for transient and promiscuous relationships.[72] These precedents then seemed to have fostered among free Creoles a general tolerance for co-residency, with couples testing their longer-term compatibility by cohabitating for some period before deciding whether or not to progress towards a constrictive marriage.[73] As was the case among the slaves, promiscuity and short-lived relationships were also commonplace among Surinamese Creoles.[74]

The Saramaka emerged as the largest of six “Bush Negro” tribes in Suriname.[75] The tribes include the Djuka, the Matawai, the Aluku, the Paramaka, and (the smallest of the tribes,) the Kwinti.[76] Though these societies were formed under similar historical and ecological circumstances, they evince some minor but nonetheless important cultural distinctions.[77] Culturally, the Saramaka are said to have more in common with the Matawi, and to be more distinct from the Aluku, Djuka, and Paramaka.[78]

Leading scholars of the Saramaka and other African-descended peoples in the Americas have argued that, because slaves arrived from various and diverse African societies, they were a culturally incoherent group.[79] It has been further argued that culturally incoherency among the slaves fostered rather rapid Creolization processes as Blacks in the “New World” sought a common language and cultural and social identity by embracing the norms and practices of the dominant culture.[80] The Saramaka experience in relation to that of other “Bush Negroes,” Black slaves, and free Creoles in Suriname seems to provide evidence that both reinforces and questions such notions.

Funeral rites potentially provide at least some evidence of cultural continuity, as opposed to Creolization between slaves and Saramakas. Both groups seem to have approach death and funerals as rather positive and even celebratory occasions. One first-hand observer of funeral rites among the slaves reported, among other things, that “mourners” spared little expense to inter their loved ones “in a coffin of the very best wood and workmanship.”[81] Choice foods and other items were also placed in the grave “as a testimony of that regard which they have” for the dearly departed.[82] Having prayed that they will all one day meet “in that better place” that lies beyond death, the slaves would depart for “a general feast” in which “a fat hog” and various other animals were presented to the surviving relations and friends of the deceased.[83] Following an extended mourning period, the slaves would again return to the grave to offer their final farewell before departing for another feast of various meats, followed by “joyful” dancing and singing in memory and praise of the departed soul.[84]

Among the Saramaka, funeral rites were similarly quite celebratory in nature. The immediate objective of the Saramaka funeral was to inter the recently deceased in a grand celebration, with the ultimate goal of ushering her/him into the world of the ancestors.[85] As such, the burial was surrounded by frenzied weeks of feasting, drumming, singing, and dancing.[86] The telling of folktales in intimate gatherings was another key element of the Saramaka funeral rites.[87] These folktales generally featured the inversion of the prevailing social order and the triumph of the meek but clever over the strong but arrogant.[88]

However, it is believed that the African languages ultimately made only minor contributions to Saramaccan.[89] Instead, greater elements of Saramaccan are derived from the languages of the early English settlers in Suriname and of the subsequent Dutch colonists, with minor contributions coming from various Native American languages spoken by the indigenous Carib and Arawak groups.[90] Somewhat unexpectedly, Saramaccan also has a major Portuguese component that is largely attributable to the influence of Jews who fled religious persecution in Brazil to establish themselves among the leading owners of the plantations from which the Saramaka escaped.[91] There appears to be some disagreement about the degrees to which various parent languages contributed to the formation of Saramaccan. The nineteenth-century visitor Palgrave characterized the language of the “Bush Negroes” as “a curious and uncouth mixture” which analysis shows to be primarily English in origin, with Portuguese making the second-largest contributions, followed by Dutch, and with a “sprinkling of genuine African words thrown in at random” and everything pronounced in the “thick, soft African” manner.[92] Some present-day linguists concur with Palgrave that English is the biggest contributor to Saramaccan, accounting for some 50 percent of its basic vocabulary.

Analyses of Saramaccan language history indicate that some Surinamese “Whites” were familiar with the distinctive emerging language of the Saramaka as early as the 1690s.[93] This early emergence of a distinct language among the Saramaka differed markedly from the situation among the slaves. Among other things, African-born slaves rapidly embraced a Creole linguistic identity for themselves and for their Surinamese-born children.[94] The reason for such swift Creolization was that there was no shared plantation language which the slaves might have used to the exclusion of Whites.[95] By contrast, by the 1760s and perhaps earlier, Saramaccan dominated all daily interactions among the Saramakan, and was even used for addressing spirits and deities.[96] Overall, because of more direct colonial and European control over the slaves and free Creoles, the language of these “Blacks” was significantly more prone to Creolizing influences and steadily converged with the language of the dominant Surinamese society.[97] On the other hand, the greater autonomy of the Saramaka and their early separation from European control meant that their unique language preserved considerably more of its original forms, including those elements derived from early English and Portuguese-speaking plantation owners.[98]

The survival of the Saramaka and other Maroon communities during the slave era and beyond in Suriname is quite exceptional within the entire history of slavery in the Americas.[99] Slaves escaped and attempted to establish settlements of their own wherever the institution of slavery existed.[101] Yet across the rest of the Americas even formidable maroon communities were demolished by the overwhelming military forces amassed in favor of the slaveholders.[102] Thus, almost uniquely within the Western Hemisphere it is Suriname which boasted the largest maroon communities to endure through the slave era and until the present.[103] Indeed, even in neighboring British Guiana and French Guiana similar maroon communities had been for the most part obliterated by the end of the eighteenth century.[104]

Moreover, with the potential exception of Haiti, the Saramaka and other Surinamese Maroons also developed the most highly autonomous societies and cultures in the history of African peoples in America.[105] Elsewhere across the Hemisphere unabated harassment and/or powerful forces of assimilation gradually eroded the distinctiveness and apartness of maroon communities and led to their steady disappearance with the passage of time.[106] Only the Saramaka and their “Bush Negro” fellows in Suriname persisted, not as decadent and steadily vanishing relics of the past, but as resilient, vibrant, and thriving social and cultural entities, as veritable states within the state of Suriname. The story of how they survived, kept cultural traditions alive, and developed a life entirely different from that of their enslaved and free Creole brethren is truly a remarkable one.


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