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Debunking Debts Image and Reality of a Colonial Crisis: Suriname at the End of the 18th Century*

  • Alex van Stipriaan (a1)


The historical image of Suriname – and maybe of colonies in general – is dominated by stereotypes, as well as by assumptions which are far too facile. That at least is the impression left after comparing a variety of primary sources on Suriname with the historiography of this colony. One small example will suffice. Almost every time slavery is introduced in literature on the history of Suriname, emphasis is placed on the fact that it was one of the hardest or cruellest slave systems in the entire Americas. The implication is that Suriname slavery is invariably considered to have been a system which remained static for more than two centuries. Something it certainly was not. Moreover, it shows that not one of the authors has ever troubled to take a look at the available demographic sources. Had they done so, they would have noticed there are no indications that Suriname deviated in this respect from the average Caribbean pattern.



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1 Gert Oostindie published an enlightening article on the history of this phenomenon:Voltaire, Stedman and Suriname Slavery’, Slavery & Abolition 14:2 (1993) 134.

2 See for instanceStipriaan, Alex van, ‘Het dilemma van plantageslaven: weglopen of blijven?’, OSO 11:2 (1992) 122141. In this article I try to show how slaves developed from Africans who sometimes ran away in desperation and became Maroons into relatively independent Afro-Suriname proto-peasants who were deeply rooted in plantation society. This development interacted in the nineteenth century with an amelioration policy concerning the treatment of slaves by planters as well as by the colonial authorities.

3 SeeVan Stipriaan, , Surinaams contrast, 337340.

4 See for exampleRostow, Walter W., Stages of Economic. Growth (London 1962); orLewis, Arthur W., ‘Economic Development with Unlimited Supplies of Labour’, Manchester School 24 (1954) 131191.

5 See for exampleFrank, André Gunder, Dependent Accumulation and Underdevelopment (New York and London 1979).

6 Wallerstein, Immanuel, The Modern World System I-III (New York 1974-1988).

7 For exampleBest, Lloyd, ‘The Mechanisms of Plantation-Type Economies. Oudine of a Model of Pure Plantation Economy’, Social and Economic Studies 17 (1968) 283323; orBeckford, George L., Persistent Poverty. Underdevelopment in Plantation Economies ofthe Third World (Oxford 1972).

8 Of course, the models described as well as the authors are actually a lot more sophisticated, and have been criticized and elaborated in more detail by such authors asTrouillot, Michel-Rolph (‘Motion in the System. Coffee, Color and Slavery in Eighteenth-Century Saint-Domingue’, Review 5 (1982) 331388); orDupuy, Alex (Haiti in World Economy. Class, Race and Underdevelopment since 1700 (Boulder and London 1989)). Representatives of the Dependencia/plantation-economyapproach in the case of Suriname areHeilbron, Waldo, Colonial Transformations and theDecomposition of Dutch Plantation Slavery in Surinam (Amsterdam 1992); andWillemsen, Glenn, Kolonialepolitiek en transformalieprocessen in eenplantage-eamomie: Suriname 1873–1914 (Amsterdam 1980).

9 In 1770 the Van Aerssen van Sommelsdijck family sold its share to the other two partners for/700,000.

10 From 1948 Suriname had local autonomy, which was formalized in the Covenant of the Kingdom of 1954.

11 Emmer, P.C., ‘Suiker, goud en slaven. De Republiek in West-Afrika en West-Indie 1674–1800’ in: Boogaart, E. van den a.o., Overzee. Nederlandse koloniale geschiedenis, 1590–1975 (Haarlem and Bussum 1982) 153 (my translation; AvS).Lier, R.A.J. van, Frontier Society. A Social Analysis of the History of Surinam (The Hague 1971) 4041.Voort, J.P. van de, De Westindischeplantages van 1720–1795. Financial en handel (Eindhoven 1973) 199 (my translation; AvS).

12 During that time at least 240 negotiatie-funds were founded, although not all for Suriname plantations. About half went to planters in the neighbouring Dutch colonies of Berbice, Essequibo, and Demerary (later British Guiana) and other Caribbean plantation colonies (Voort, Van de, De Westindische plantages, 269323).

13 The average price in 1768 was 106 cents/kg, in 1773 76 cents/kg, and in 1778 66 cents/ kg. (Van Stipriaan, , Surinaams contrast, 434435).

14 As this is one of the main themes of the book this story can be found throughout my Surinaams contrast; for a concise version see:Stipriaan, Alex van, ‘The Suriname rat race: Labour and technology on sugar plantations’, Nieuxve West-Indische Cids/New West Indian Guide 63 (1989) 94118.

15 All three produced sugar, one of them being a former coffee plantation. Of the original 31 plantations a few had been sold, the rest had been abandoned some time or other, and the slaves were distributed over the remaining plantations.

16 Originally there had been 2,417 bonds of / 1,000 each nominally in Letter A. In 1829 when it was converted into a ‘propertied society’, it turned out that 637 bonds had been discharged during the preceding decades – probably far under their nominal value – and the rest was converted into one seventeenhundredeightieth share each.

17 This was far less than the five to six per cent which had been promised to them, but at least it equalled the level of interest on capital in the Netherlands of two to three percent.

18 These infrastructures which included dikes, canals, trenches, sluices and other waterworks were of vital interest as most plantations were actually polders, which were always in danger of inundation. More on this problem can be found inStipriaan, Alex van, ‘Water en de strijd om het bestaan in Suriname. Een ecologische paradox in de slaventijd’, Tijdschrift voor Geschiedenis 107 (1994) 348370.

19 The rest was occupied by the plantation infrastructure, buildings, food crops, cattle, and the remainder was too swampy to plant coffee (Van Stipriaan, , Surinaams contrast, 5761).

20 SeeStipriaan, Van, Surinaams contrast, 408429.

* This article is a revised version of a lecture held at the IGEER colloquium at Leiden (May 1994) on the Dutch Atlantic Empire in the 17th and 18th Century. It is based mainly on Alex van Stipriaan, Surinaams contrast. Roofbouw en overleven in een Caraïbische plantagekolonie, 1750–1863 (Leiden 1993), particularly 205–257: Chapter VII on developments in the supply of capital in Suriname. Unless indicated otherwise all references in this article are to these pages.

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Debunking Debts Image and Reality of a Colonial Crisis: Suriname at the End of the 18th Century*

  • Alex van Stipriaan (a1)


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