Lecture at conference ACWWS - Association of Caribbean Women Writers and Scholars, may 8 - 12, 2012, Paramaribo

by Rihana Jamaludin    May 8, 2012


Both the historical novel The Black Lord and the book the author is working on currently, are set against the background of 19th century Suriname. In that period, a new elite had risen and was determined to put a mark on society. An elite which was not based on the traditional social classes in Europe, but was created in the West by the descendants of white men and black (free or enslaved) women.

The coloured children were often freed and raised as whites and - if the father was a wealthy man - educated in Europe.

Returning to the colony, they formed a growing elite of free coloured, balancing between the heritages of their African and European ancestors, trying to find a way to live with both the oppressed and the suppressors. What made the situation even more complicated, was the fact that they were slave owners themselves.

Because the coloured elite generally saw themselves as whites, the image of history got distorted. All this has added to the myth that colonial history was just a matter of whites and blacks, with the coloured elite gradually, perhaps conveniently, fading away into history.

But denying their existence, resulted in the loss of knowledge about their contribution to culture and social development, their influence on modern Surinamese society.



Writing a historical novel
The idea was to write a nice story set against the historical background of 19th century Suriname. But as my research progressed, I learned a lot more about Surinamese history. When I was young, history lessons at school were mostly about Dutch history and when it was about Suriname, it was taught from a Dutch perspective.
Now my idea for a historical novel The Black Lord, about a young colored man who inherits a plantation from his white father and becomes a slave master himself, seemed not that crazy after all. It turned out that indeed there was a colored elite in the 19th century in Suriname, holding slaves themselves. For the general public however, matters on this subject were mostly unknown.

The myth
Despite the recent publication of several historical novels and studies by writers like Cynthia McLeod and John de Bye, the myth of colonial history being a matter of only white masters and black slaves, persisted.
This was due to the Dutch oriented education at schools, but was also caused by anti-Dutch sentiments following after the quest for a genuine Surinamese identity. In later years so-called revolutionary ideas helped to maintain the myth of white versus black.

The rise of the coloreds
Among the European settlers who came to the Wild Coast, there were few women. Being unmarried was also often required, when applying for a job in the colony. The result was that many men started relationships with local women, slaves or free colored women. If slavery was involved, such was not always voluntarily. But sometimes these encounters resulted in long term relationships and the woman and her children were manumitted. The European settler was usually only temporarily employed and left the country after several years, leaving behind concubine and children.
The colored children were called mulattoes. They settled in Paramaribo as free blacks and coloreds and worked as carpenters, shoemakers, locksmiths, barbers, vegetable vendors or washerwomen. However, if the father was a man of respect, he let his bastard children - usually the sons - study in Europe and after their return in the colony, made sure they got a good position.
After the stock market crashed in 1773 many planters went bankrupt and returned to Europe. The number of whites decreased further while the number of the free coloreds grew. As their number increased, they formed a group which the government had to take into consideration. After all they were the ones who would have to build the country. By the 19th century the authorities began to realize this.

Jewish ancestor
Long before this, since the 17th century, there was a group of settlers who did bring their wives with them, namely the Portugese Jews. These families, fleeing persecution and racism in Europe, took refuge in Surinam and established themselves as the first planters. For centuries, almost half of the white population in the colony was Jewish. They were allowed to have their own customs, but were not seen as equal by the other whites.
Thus this group lived for centuries with their slaves in the small community and between the Jewish settlers and their African slaves, a merging took place of culture, religion and blood. Many Surinamese have a Jewish ancestor in their family tree. The children – often born out of wedlock -  were raised as Jews and taken into the family.
Towards the end of the 18th century there are nearly a hundred free Jewish mulattoes, descending from the Portugese and Ashkenazi Jews, and having their own house of prayer. After the Jewish people of color had tried unsuccessfully to get their brotherhood Darhe Jesserim recognized by the Jewish and the Dutch authorities, the brotherhood was dissolved. Halfway through the 19th century, there are no more mulattoe Jews, the children born of mixed relationships are raised as Christians.

The creation of a new elite
The coloreds are descendants of all Europeans who had lived in the colony like Jews, French, Dutch, English, Germans. In 1830 the free coloreds and free blacks outnumber the whites. The difference between freemen and slaves is no longer clearly based on color. To avoid turmoil among the slaves about the unequal situation, the difference must be made clear through various rules and regulations. For example, marriage between free coloreds or free blacks and slaves, is forbidden. Slaves are not allowed to wear shoes, and there is a curfew for slaves.

The authority of the colony was white. That and the reigning ideas of racial discrimination or racism, gave light colored skin status. The lighter the better. There were many names for the various degrees of mixture of white blood, up to the fourth generation. Marrying a partner of fair complexion was the ideal.

The coloreds were proud of their white descendance and lived as whites. They were raised and educated as whites. The whites however, saw them as second-rate. Schools, parties and clubs were separated.

Gradually, the authorities became aware that the large group of coloreds and free blacks, many of them highly educated, could no longer be excluded. So in 1828 it was declared that: ´To all free people, citizens of the colony, no matter what religion or color, must be granted equal civil rights.` Thus, Jews and coloreds finally got the chance to be higher civil servants and occupy important positions.

In Surinamese history Jews and free coloreds are often mentioned together. Indeed both groups had much in common, they found themselves in an inferior position towards whites, were viewed with suspicion by both blacks and whites. Through time they had increasingly become mixed, many colored people had Jewish names (although not always because of kinship, sometimes freed slaves chose their former masters’ surname as a token of appreciation.)
It was therefore logical that they joined hands and decided to work together. In 1827 physician Coupijn and lawyer Vlier (both coloreds) founded the Surinamese Benevolent Society. Jews also joined. This Society’s  aim was to support the needy and provide education for the children of the poor. After completing school, the children could be trained to some trade or profession.

In my historical novel The Black Lord, the narrator, Dutch governess Regina Winter, is invited to a party at the Society of Benevolence.

´On the evening itself, I expected to see many blacks but to my surprise the room was again dominated by people with light skin. Some I had even already met at the Governor´s party, without realizing they were coloreds.
It was a very distinguished party, people moved with dignity and not a rude word was heard.
At Walthers side I was introduced to several prominent citizens; lawyers, teachers, pastors and was treated warmly by everyone

Culturally too, the Colored Elite left its mark. The Society for Public Welfare (goal: elevation of the common and the improvement of civic and school affairs) regularly organised lectures and the speakers were notables including the Governor General, but also the (colored) lawyer and culture connaisseur H.C. Focke was an appreciated lecturer.
The first Surinamese teacher was Johannes Vrolik who had studied in Holland and in 1809 received permission to open a school.
The Thalia theatre company had mainly Jewish members, most of whom had an important position in the community. Among the founders, who acted on stage as well, the names of Wesenhagen and Vlier stand out. Names that are found too, among the colored people in high positions.
Thalia, however, was known as a ´white party`.  Were these two men light coloreds or white family of mulattoes? History states that only after World War II, other than Jewish and white actors played on stage. But could the traveling writers who were only briefly in Suriname (Teenstra, Kappler) or in some cases had not at all been in Suriname (Wolbers) see the difference between a light mulatto and a white man?

However, as the counterpart of Thalia, the mulattoes formed their own association, called Polyhymnia. But the report of the show is of such mocking nature, that it is hard to believe that the crude scene really concerns the Colored Elite. Presumably this involves the middle-class. Despite great success with the colored public, Polyhymnia was soon dissolved.

Ridicule and suspicion
Ridicule was something the coloreds regularly encountered. Ridicule and distrust. Whites mocked them because they were not like the whites. Blacks distrusted them because they behaved like white masters. Even if it concerned a distinguished member of the elite, distrust came into the picture. For example, when the colored lawyer and president of the Colonial Court, Mr.J.C.Palthe Wesenhagen, was applying for the position of Attorney General, the Governor General Schimpf (1855 - 1859 governor) sent a secret letter to the Minister of Colonies asking whether the man would compel respect and awe with slaves and whites. After all he still had family of common coloreds in the background. And on top of that, some years earlier he had written a pamphlet in which he spoke quite positively about the nature of the Negro. Therefore Mr. Palthe Wesenhagen was denied the nomination.

Colored slave masters
It must not have been easy for the Colored Elite, having to balance between the legacies of their African and European ancestors, struggling with the prejudices against blacks and coloreds, living in a society where they still could have family who were slaves, while they themselves had slaves to work for them. In a society that was so openly racist, one had to make clear what one´s position was. Behaving as white as possible, was in fact a survival strategy.
Hence poor market women went about the streets in uncomfortable shoes rather than barefoot, just so they could indicate they were free women. This turned them into objects of ridicule, poor but still vain creatures.
Therefore the Colored Elite presented themselves proudly as whites.
Hence some of them tried to underline their privileges by being cruel masters for their slaves.
That is why mulattoes sometimes armed themselves against the ridicule of the whites with an arrogant attitude. Resulting in yet more blaming, of the coloreds being vain, arrogant, lazy and cruel.

Still, the fact that they didn´t entirely forsake their African roots, is proven by their interest and studies about the language, music and culture of the Negroes. For example Master of Law Hendrik Charles Focke (mulatto, 1802 - 1856) was a lawyer and member of the Court of Justice. He was an expert in Negro language and music. Also there is the earlier mentioned Mr. Palthe Wesenhagen who dared to write about negroes in a lesser position, regarding  them in a positive way.
And according to Teenstra (writer, traveler 1842), attorney N.G. Vlier who was the son of a negress and almost black, told him that he would rather be poor and free, than have food and shelter but be the slave and property of a master. Vlier added that he had the misfortune of becoming a slave owner himself (probably by inheritance).

Social differences among slaves
Among the slaves there were social differences. The field slaves did the hardest work. They worked at plantations and were supervised by overseers armed with whips.
The slave artisans were bricklayers or carpenters and could work independently to a certain degree, so they enjoyed more freedom.
The house slaves worked in the house of the master and had relatively the best life. Being regarded as a status symbol, there were often too many of them and so they had little to do.
After the abolition of slavery, these social differences continued. Amongst the now free creole population, there was still a small elite of mulattoes, also a middle class of former house slaves and artisans, and a lower class of former field slaves.

The artisans were working independently as  blacksmith, shoemaker, tailor or carpenter. In 1876 the Compulsory Education Act was introduced and so their children got the chance to move on to higher ranks in the police, army and government.
The former house slaves became laundress, maid or market vendor. Not always did artisans succeed in making a living with their own business and they descended on the social ladder to the lower class.

The Colored Elite becomes the Creole Elite
The Colored Elite who now mostly consisted of light colored Creoles, was destined to be the successor of the white elite and held the leading positions in the country. Still, they saw themselves as Europeans and mainly lived according to the Dutch values and culture.
Meanwhile Asian immigrants were added to the population. Already accustomed to mixing, the coloreds handled this change rather smoothly. Mingling took place with the Chinese, the Hindustani and so on.

It was also the Creole Elite that took it upon themselves to educate the new immigrants. Historian André Loor stated that the Teachers College (kweekschool) has had a major role in the emancipation of Hindustani farmers children who came to town for further education.
How this began, one can read also in the novel Farewell Merodia by Cynthia McLeod, in a scene in which the elite has to deal with Asian immigrants ànd with new ideals.

Emmeline (daughter of a white mother and mulatto father) has obtained her teacher’s certificate and out of idealism, she wants to work on a distant plantation, where the children of new immigrants from India are deprived of education. The family interferes:

´My daughter just wants things that are simply impossible.`

´…(Emmeline) … thinks she should teach Coolie children to read and write. And how will you do that, dear niece? They don´t know the Dutch language yet. Will you be learning Hindi?`

The 20th century
In the early twentieth century the Creole elite goes on with her predestined serving and civilizing mission, according to Dutch model. Well known example is the scientist and superintendent of education Dr. H.P.Benjamins (1850 -1933).
His contemporary Johannes Nicolaas Helstone (1853 - 1927) composer and conductor, studied at the conservatory in Leipzig, Germany, where he passed cum laude. Unfortunately part of his work was lost in a fire in Paramaribo.
Albert Helman (1903 - 1996) writer and politician, ensured that Suriname received secondary education. He also dedicated himself to many cultural studies regarding Suriname.

After World War II, the leaders of major ethnic groups in Suriname gained more influence and the Creole elite drifted to the background. Most turned to their European roots and decided to seek their luck in Holland.
As writer Don Walther expressed in his memoirs Swietie Sranang:

´The political struggle of the fifties and sixties was no more than a struggle for power between the mulattoes, who until then had formed the social and economic elite, and the blacks. The mulattoes lost, thanks to universal suffrage, because the blacks were the majority and they were also supported by the Hindustani`

Looking back at Surinamese history as a matter of just white and black, the blame lies partly on the coloured elite too. Because they saw themselves as white, adopting the ways of the Europeans, their manners and culture and history. They described themselves as ´creoles` which originally meant ´whites born in the Caribbean`.
Of course they had good reason to ignore their African heritage. The white European dominance was evident and society was ranked more by color than it was by lineage. The disadvantages of being black were obvious, let alone of being a slave. So they had to make sure there was a clear distance between the elite of the coloured and the lower class of dark skinned working people.
The existence of a coloured elite was conveniently forgotten. Which is a pity, because this elite too, contributed to the development of the Surinamese society. Although it is considered despicable that they were slave-owners, the contribution of the coloured elite must not be dismissed. Occupying high positions as lawyers, scientists, teachers, they had a significant part in cultural and social life. Not in the least, they lay the foundation for a tolerant, multicultural society in Suriname.


* Encyclopaedie van Nederlandsch West Indië - (Red. Dr. H.D. Benjamins en Joh.F. Snelleman, Amsterdam, 1981) (oorspronkelijk 1916)

*Samenleving in een grensgebied; een sociaal-historische studie van Suriname - R. Van Lier , 3e herz. druk, Amsterdam 1977

* De Joodse ervaring in Suriname - Wieke Vink, Oso tijdschrift voor Surinamistiek
jaargang 21 nr. 1

* De negerslaven in de kolonie Suriname, DBNL - Marten Douwes Teenstra -  Dordrecht 1842

* DBNL - André Loor in - Sranan Cultuur in Suriname, van Chandra van Binnendijk en Paul Faber, Amsterdam/Rotterdam/Paramaribo 1992

* BWSA Biografisch Woordenboek van het Socialisme en de Arbeidersbeweging in Nederland

* Emancipatie 1863 - 1963 Biografieën - Surinaamse Historische Kring, Paramaribo 1964

* Cultureel mozaïek van Suriname - Albert Helman, Zutphen 1977

* De geschiedenis van Suriname - Hans Buddingh, 1999

* De Zwarte Lord - Rihana Jamaludin, Amsterdam 2009

* Vaarwel Merodia - kroniek van een Surinaamse familie 1820 - 1890
door Cynthia MCLeod, Paramaribo 1993

* DBNL - Swietie Sranang - Don Walther, Rotterdam z.j. (1993)

* Historische schetsen uit het Surinaamse Jodendom - John H. de Bye 2002

* Joden in Suriname - Carl Haarnack, Buku - Bibliotheca Surinamica

* Suriname webquest.nl