GHRD News

Slavery: from India to Surinam

‘’The first ship containing Indian ‘laborers’ arrived in Suriname in June 1873’’

It does not matter if you are black or white, almost every individual agrees upon the fact that the slavery period is a dark page in human history. Slavery can be traced back to 221BC, going through the ancient times where people became slaves because of debt, born in a slave family or as a punishment of a crime. The medieval changed the notion of slavery, where slaves where seen as prisoners of war. The form of slavery that stays the most with us and has a close connection to our hearts is the movement of 1619 where African people where moved from Africa to America to work on the plantations under horrific circumstances. Not long after European countries followed the practice of America and started transporting slaves to their colonies.

Since 1667 Surinam was a Dutch colony, and even the Dutch practiced the notion of slavery. The Dutch transported slaves from different places in the world to Surinam and made them work on the plantations

 In the early 19th century European countries began to abolish slavery. In 1814, the Netherlands also signed international agreement to stop slave trade.

On 1 July 1863, slavery was officially abolished in the main Dutch slave colony of Surinam. Unfortunately, even though the formal agreement was made to abolish slavery, it continued in disguised forms.

Indian laborers

The first ship containing Indian laborers (hereinafter mentioned as Indians) arrived in Suriname in June 1873. It did not stay with one shipment of ‘laborers’, six ships followed during the same year. In total 143,939 Indians were transported to work on the plantations in European colonies.

Even though slavery was officially abolished in 1863, the Dutch law called for the slaves to remain under supervision until 1873. With this provision, the Dutch government had hoped to give itself time to start the replacement of labor before the slaves were officially free to withhold their labour. The Indians (former slaves) were signed up for five years and were provided with a return passage at the end of the five years.

To recruit the Indians, the Dutch not only transferred some old forts, known as remnants of slave trade, located in West Africa to the British, but also bargained for an end to the British claims in Sumatra.

Slavery in disguise

 To attract recruitment the Dutch recruiters promised the Indians that this work would be an opportunity for them to escape their poverty, they could earn money and then after five years return back to their families. The Indians were even told that Surinam, which at that time they called ‘Shri Ram Thappu’ was the Island of the God Shri Ram. Most Indians where of a Hindu religion for them this was a golden opportunity to work on the land of their God Shri Ram, there could not be a greater honor for them. And it was also told to them that it was not far away from Calcutta, which made the Indians believe that they are still close to their motherland. These Indians where from poor descent, meaning that they lived in extreme poverty and had the responsibility to take care of their family, they saw the recruitment as an opportunity to work and earn money.

Therefore, some Indians agreed voluntarily to work for the Dutch recruiters and who did not voluntary wanted to work for the Dutch, where forced into labour. The people that went voluntary, were kept separately from the people the Dutch recruited by force. One thing that they had in common was they were ‘deprived of their freedom’.

                                                         The journey from Calcutta to Surinam

According to a statement of a female, that underwent this journey from Calcutta to Surinam, the journey was not easy, she was one of the unlucky ones that was forced into labor, separated her from her family. According to her “the journey to Calcutta lasted 24 hours and after that she was placed in a depot for a month before her journey to Suriname began, an escape was not possible, she was held captive”.

When the Indians arrived at the depot, they had to sign a contract. Most Indians were poor and could not read or write, nevertheless they were forced to give a thumbprint making them subject to Dutch law. The Indians later found out that the contract was a volunteer’s contract. But a ‘volunteer’ is a person who does things out of its free will. And the name for someone who is forced to do something against its will is ‘a slave’. The Indians did not have a choice to not sign the contract, therefore they can definitely not be called ‘volunteers.  Even though it was in most instances not a voluntary case of the Indians to work on the Surinam plantations. They had some rights on which they could restore, they had the opportunity to after 5 years of providing labour to return to their families in India or to stay in Suriname and continue working. If the Indian labors went for the second option, to stay in Surinam they were offered a piece of land to live and work on as a form of compensation.