In order to gain a deeper understanding into the Surinamese African culture it is important to know a little of the historical background, which I’m sure will sound familiar to many of you.
During the time of slavery it was forbidden for slaves to speak Dutch, to read or to wear shoes. The language all the slaves communicated in was Sranang Tongo aka taki taki, which is a mixture of mostly english, but also Portuguese, Dutch and African.
In Suriname the salves were allowed once per week, Saturday or Sunday, to participate in their own cultural activities such as singing, dancing, spiritual ceremonies. This is one of the main reasons that these dances songs and spiritual ceremonies remain to this day pretty much in tact the same way they were experienced for hundreds of years.
After slavery was abolished in 1863, the Dutch colonials made a drastic change.
Up until this time the official language of the colony was Sranang Tongo, an English based dialect. My great great grandmother’s baptismal certificate is 100% written in Sranang Tongo. It was basically the language of the day.
Now suddenly all the e slaves had to learn and speak Dutch, and had to be educated based on the same textbooks as the Dutch in the Netherlands were being educated in.
In order to promote this policy everything that was of African origin was being belittled as being uncivilized, crude and even rude. Speaking Sranang Tongo was strongly discouraged and was in fact forbidden at school.
Unfortunately many of the locals bought into this idea and also started to think like the Dutch colonials and started looking down on everything African as being uncivilized.
Now if the contradiction of this is not clear maybe the humor in this type of thinking is. Think about it for a second; the “civilized” culture for hundreds of years, enslaved and de-humanized an entire race… and now that race is uncivilized….
The sad part is that even today for some in Suriname it is still considered crude or rude to speak Sranang Tongo. The message of the Dutch colonials did take some root unfortunately.
Fortunately there were enough influential Surinamese who countered this colonial policy by purposefully releasing writings, newspapers, poem bundles and plays, completely in Sranang Tongo.
Some of the leaders of this anti colonial movement were, Tata Koenders(educator), Trefossa(poet) & Mr. Eddy Bruma(lawyer).
One of the main figures to really combat this type of colonial thinking though was Anton De Kom.
Adek as we call him in Suriname, wrote a book called, Wij Slaven Van Suriname(Us Slaves From Suriname). This book came out in the early 20th century. The theme of the book was to ridicule the notion that we were uncivilized and the colonials were civilized. He taught the nation not to cast away our culture which is something we should be proud of. This book is a must read for ALL Surinamese. Unfortunately I don’t think there is an english version.
Anton De Kom was also involved in successfully organizing strikes among the laborers which at this time included Indians(from India), Javanese, Chinese & former slaves, all who were being exploited and mistreated by the Dutch colonials. He is considered a hero by the entire Surinamese population. Some workers even defended him against the colonial police with their own lives!
He was eventually arrested sent to Holland and was banned from reentering Suriname. In spite of this he joined the Dutch underground resistance against the Germans during the WWII, but was betrayed by a Dutch citizen. He was arrested by the Germans and eventually died, in a Nazi concentration camp during WWII.
What didn’t die was his idea that we, as Surinamese should be proud of our African heritage.
And he is one of the reasons why in Suriname there is a strong awareness and appreciation of our heritage.
Rather Dead Than Slave
Another equally important factor to the preservation of the African culture were the slave rebellions, which started from day 1 of slavery in Suriname. Many slaves jumped overboard when they saw they were close enough to land and escaped into the interior, as early as mid 1600, and started forming rebel groups. Through various local revolts and single escapees, these groups grew in numbers and strength. The motto of these groups was and is “Rather dead than slave”.
They moved to strategic locations where it was difficult for the local army to try to apprehend them without being exposed to danger. For example they made camps beyond the rapids which made it impossible to reach them by boat. Thy build fortresses in the middle of swamp areas, which made the army soldiers sitting ducks basically.
They made frequent attacks on plantations, which usually resulted in the killing all the owners and overseers, burning down the entire plantation, taking guns, ammunition and freeing the slaves to be included in their ranks.
The colonials brought in many reinforcements from Europe but were never able to defeat them. They did manage to push them out further inland whereby the plantaition attacks became less frequent, but did not stop entirely.
The forced peace treaties.
Eventually the Dutch colonials were forced to enter peace treaties with the maroons.
By the 18th century there were 4 major maroon groups. Since the colonials could not defeat them they were forced to make peace treaties with them and actually had to pay tribute to them. They did this hoping that they would become allies and help the Dutch colonials fight the other maroon groups.
Please note that these peace treaties basically made them authonomous people who governed their own regions according to their own laws, rules & regulations.
These are the names of the main groups:
- Saamaka(saramaccaners, name of the river)
The first peace treaty was made with the Ndyuka in 1749, this didn’t last due to betrayal by the Dutch clolonials. They made a new more lasting peace treaty in 1760
The Saamaka peace treaty was made in 1762
The Matawai peace treaty was made in 1767
The first peace talks with the Aluku(Boni) was held in 1791, but the actual peace treaty didn’t happen till 1860 (The Aluku have migrated to St Laurent, French Guyana a border town, but still consider themselves partly Surinamese, and frequently move between both countries )
All these peace treaties were often amended at later dates, in part because the rebels knew how to get more concessions from the Dutch locals. They held powerful bargaining chips. They really negotiated from a position of strength. The threat of continued plantation attacks was always present and the Dutch colonials wanted the maroons to turn in runaway slaves. This rarely happened, but was a strong bargaining chip.
There were occasional conflicts between these groups because the Dutch colonials did their best to cause a rift between them.
Uninterrupted cultural survival.
You undoubtedly have a picture now that each of these groups were able to maintain their African culture. As a matter of fact until the mid 20th centuries they lived without much interaction with the city , Paramaribo.
For those first making trips to the maroon villages may look at them with pity. I can assure you that these people are fiercely independent, very proud and very intelligent!
What is important to know is that they do have their own languages which are different from Sranang Tongo. Even though we have many words in common, the dialect is different and is not easily understood by city people. However we all understand Sranang Tongo, which is the language the whole country speaks.
It is also important to know that the Ndyuka developed their own alphabet called Afaka and is the only new script in the New World!
The end result of this history is that our music, our dances & storytelling is more distinctly African than any other country in the New World.
However in Suriname we have a deep respect and admiration for music from the diaspora. We love Reggae, Salsa, Merengue, Zouk, Hip Hop, Soul, Calypso, Samba and you will certainly hear this music at any given party.
But of all these styles, Reggae, Zouk & Hip Hop are most often incorporated in our music.
Traversing the rapids in Suriname with marroon boats.