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by Natalie Zemon Davis


This article describes the sources for, and the origins and uses of, the creole languages in the Dutch colony of eighteenth-century Suriname – those created and spoken among slaves on the plantations, among the free black Maroons in the jungle villages and among the mixed population (freed/slave, Christian/Jewish, French/Dutch, etc.) of the town of Paramaribo. The rich sources derive especially from plantation managers and Moravian missionaries, at their best working with black or coloured collaborators. These creoles, both the Englishbased Sranan and the Portuguese-based Saramaccan, allowed generations of Africans and Surinamese-Africans of diverse background to discuss matters of family, health and religion, to tell stories, to establish intimacy and mount quarrels with each other, to consider relations with masters and settlers, to plot resistance and sometimes to construct a past history. The uses of the creole languages by settlers are described, including their limited employment for religious conversion. The article concludes with the Dutch and Sranan poems published in the seventeen-eighties by a Dutch settler married to a mulatto heiress, poems casting in doubt hierarchies of colour.


Caribbean creole languages are especially instructive for the historical study of communication. These creoles were created by people wrenched from their own language communities and by the children of such uprooted parents; by people eager to have a language in which to conduct their lives amidst a surrounding babel of tongues and in lands far away from those of their progenitors. They illustrate the ingenuity of human populations in difficult straits and the wide range of situations and subjects they wanted to be able to talk about in relatively short order.

Linguists took their time to decide that colonial creoles were not just ‘broken’ or ‘bastard’ or ‘aberrant’ versions of genuine languages, but were new languages in their own right and worthy of study. In that change of view, the Suriname creoles had a role to play. In 1829, when the British and Foreign Bible Society published a New Testament, translated by the Moravian Brethren missionaries into ‘Negro-English’, the Suriname English-based creole, it was immediately assailed by the Edinburgh Christian Instructor for ‘putting the broken English of the Negroes . . . into a written and permanent form . . . embody[ing] their barbarous, mixed, imperfect phrases’. Whereupon in 1830 the philologist William Greenfield, himself a biblical specialist and translator, published an answer showing that the Suriname creole was an autonomous ‘rule-governed’ language, with connections to both English and Dutch, but separate from them. He reminded critics that the origins of the Suriname creole were not that different from the origins of English, once held in contempt as ‘a barbarous jargon, neither good French nor pure Saxon’. And against those claiming that Africans lacked the ability to master the English language, Greenfield wrote, three years before the abolition of slavery in England: ‘The human mind is the same in every clime; and accordingly we find nearly the same process adopted in the formation of language in every country’.1

Hugo Schuchardt (1842-1927)

Suriname creole languages also figured in the abundant work of the Austrian Hugo Schuchardt in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Celebrated as ‘the father of creole studies’, Schuchardt continued to undermine Eurocentric judgement of language:

When the [Suriname] Black . . . says ‘go-take-come’ (go teki kom . . . ) for ‘fetch’, we regard it with astonishment as an African peculiarity, though [fetching] is actually a question of three distinct acts. The peculiarity is ours . . . Is it more natural to say ‘I have hunger’ [ j’ai faim] than ‘hunger have me’ ( . . . hangri kisi mi)?2

Louise van Panhuys geboren von Barckhaus-Wiesenhütten (1763-1844). Tanz der Haussklaven vermoedelijk van de plantage Nut en Schadelijk

Schuchardt published eighteenth-century texts in both the Suriname English-based creole, now called Sranan, and the Suriname Portuguese-based creole, called Saramaccan, noting that there was overlap in words between the two and that both creoles were richly endowed with African words. Describing these and other Atlantic creoles, Schuchardt used two modes of explanation: certain practices, such as putting verbs at the front of a phrase or stringing them along in a series, he attributed to precise African practices (what the linguists now call ‘substrate influence’); other features found in all the creoles, such as using infinitives rather than inflected verb forms, he explained by ‘parallelism’, or what linguists now call ‘universal processes of creolization’.3

In the development of creole studies since the nineteen-thirties and their explosion in the last forty years, such modes of describing and explaining have been at the forefront of lively debate. Are the similar forms found in the Atlantic creoles to be explained solely by universal properties of language inborn in all of us (the ‘language bioprogram’, as a leading proponent, Derek Bickford, calls it)? Or are similarities in phonology and syntax to be explained by substrate influences, that is, influences from west African languages? Are creole languages created in a single generation by slave children who are born in the Americas and who take the pidgin of their displaced parents and turn it into a real ‘nativized’ language? Or are they rather created over several generations, with the influx of new speakers from Africa making a difference? The best current wisdom, some of it drawn from the study of the languages and demography of Suriname, combines these alternatives. Both language bioprogramme and west African substrate can play a part in the first emergence of a creole; and though the creole might ‘jell’ in a generation, it could acquire new features afterward from the flood of arrivals from Africa, some of them children, who learned to speak it as a second language, and from other processes of language change.4

Suriname was an English colony from 1650 to 1667.5 The first settler population at its height was about 1,000 people, many of them coming from other English colonies in the Caribbean. The 2,000 slaves who worked their sugar plantations on the Suriname and Commewine rivers included Arawak Indians, but most of them were Africans, transported on Dutch slave boats especially from the Slave Coast and Loango. Purchased at the Paramaribo slave market or in some instances born on the plantations, these men, women and children spoke the Gbe and Bantu Kikongo languages to whatever compatriots they had, and in the early years used an Englishbased pidgin for intra- and inter-plantation communication. By 1667, when the Dutch acquired the colony, the pidgin was expanding into a creole with an English and west African lexicon. During the sixteen-seventies most of the English-owned slaves were taken from Suriname by their departing masters, but not before they had passed on their creole to a new generation of Africans purchased by the Dutch planters. Other recent arrivals from Africa learned the creole directly from those  slaves and the slaves of English proprietors who stayed on. By around 1700 the language was known in Dutch as Neger Engels or Neger Engelsche.6 Not long after, it was also taken into the woods by runaway slaves, and became the language of the Djuka Maroons.

Meanwhile in these same decades, a second, related creole emerged in Suriname. In 1664–5 a group of Portuguese Jews won permission from the English to establish themselves in Suriname with all liberty to practice their religion.7 Families came from Amsterdam, nearby Cayenne and elsewhere, and in a spirit both entrepreneurial and eschatological (these are the years of the proclaimed Messiah Sabbatai Zevi), they set up sugar plantations part way up the Suriname River and established a village nearby, a New Jerusalem of their own. When the colony became Dutch, all their privileges were confirmed by the governor, and by 1680, the Jews of the Portuguese Nation (as they called themselves) owned about thirty plantations. On them, some 1,200 slaves were speaking to compatriots the same range of west African languages (Gbe, Kikongo and others) as on the Christian estates, but had developed for cross-plantation communication a creole with a Portuguese and African lexicon, and with many English words as well. By 1690, the first escapes from the Portuguese-Jewish plantations had occurred, and the Maroons who set themselves up near the Saramacca River carried this creole with them, to be used by other slaves who fled to them in the next decades. The language, when spoken on the plantations, came to be called Dju-tongo, the Jewish tongue, and when spoken in the bush, Saramaccan.8


The speakers of these creoles increased in number in Suriname over the course of the eighteenth century. In 1701, some 8,500 people of African origin were slaves on the plantations and perhaps 1,000 more had escaped to the forests. At the same time some 700 people of European origin were living in Paramaribo and on the plantations: Dutch, Portuguese-Jewish and even some German-Jewish families, Huguenots from France or other places of refuge after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and English.

By 1774, almost 60,000 people of African origin were living on the plantations, though because of a high mortality the number would soon sink to around 50,000 for the next decades. The majority of these men and women had crossed the Atlantic on a slaver, some still from Loango, many others from the Gold Coast and Windward Coast, bringing with them their Akan languages and other west African tongues. Native-born blacks were a minority among the slaves, but by the seventeen-seventies, if not well before, the word ‘criolo’ appears on the plantation inventories and the word ‘kreól’ or ‘crioolo’ is used in the Neger Engelsche tongue to indicate a person born in Suriname.9

While the slave population multiplied six- or seven-fold across the eighteenth century, the European settler population tripled – estimates in the seventeen-eighties are in the range of 2,000–3,000 people – and European languages increased as well. So prevalent was the French of Huguenots and Swiss soldiers that sermons in the Reformed Church were given regularly in both French and Dutch.10 In the streets of Paramaribo and in the great houses of certain plantations, one heard Swedish, German and English (and English with a Scottish burr). Jewish families made up a third of the settler population in 1787, according to David de Isaac Cohen Nassy, a descendant of one of the earliest Jewish planters: about 830 Jews of the ‘Portuguese nation’, who continued to speak Portuguese among themselves, and nearly 500 of the ‘German nation’, some of them coming from as far away as Poland, and speaking Yiddish to each other.11

Finally, there were free people of African descent or part-African descent: over 5,000 Maroons living in the forest villages and speaking varieties of Neger Engelsche and Saramaccan at the end of the century; and between 650 and 1,000 free blacks, mulattos and other people of colour living in Paramaribo and elsewhere in the years 1787–95, whose languages will be discussed below. Our sources for these creole languages in action in eighteenth-century Suriname are good, especially for Neger Engelsche, which, following the practice of linguists today, I will usually call Sranan. We have two Sranan-Dutch vocabulary or phrase books. One is brief, with only introductory phrases, inserted for ‘the entertainment of the readers’ into an extended description of Suriname by Jan Herlein, a young Dutch Huguenot who lived in the colony for several years until 1704. He reported what he had seen and heard, but also learned much from the governor, from a Paramaribo merchant and from a plantation manager on the Commewine River. Herlein worked over his notes, publishing his book only in 1718, long after his return to The Netherlands.12

Another vocabulary, much fuller, was compiled in 1765–70 by Jean Nepveu as part of an unpublished revision of Herlein’s entire book, which he thought was ‘not up to much’. Nepveu was in good position to judge: a Dutch Huguenot who spent most of his life in Suriname, he had risen through a sequence of colonial offices to become deputy governor in 1756–7 and then governor of Suriname in 1769. The world of the slaves he knew as owner of five coffee plantations and of a sugar plantation with some 150 slaves on the Commewine River; the world of the Maroons from many inquiries into their raids and from sporadic peace negotiations with their leaders. In 1767, as he was writing his Annotations on Herlein’s book, he took as his second wife a widow, herself an heiress to plantations and said to be the daughter of a wealthy free mulatto.13

Planter Suriname

Our most remarkable instruction book in ‘Neeger Engels’ (as its author called it) and Dutch was put together around 1763 by one Pieter van Dyk. He had spent years in Suriname, most likely as a plantation manager or as a ‘white overseer’ on the Commewine River, and published the New and Unprecedented Instruction in Amsterdam after his return to The Netherlands, patiently working with printers who had never set such a text in type before. Van Dyk dedicated the book to his friend Tepper (addressing him before the Dutch boats from Paramaribo had brought van Dyk news of Tepper’s burial in August 1763 by the Lutheran church on the Commewine): with Tepper’s thorough knowledge of Neeger Engels and of the life of a plantation manager, van Dyk hoped he would approve of the book. Writing for merchants and craftsmen in Suriname, and especially for plantation owners and managers so that they could ‘understand the slaves and be understood by them’, van Dyk included extended vocabulary and dialogues and a fascinating play set on a plantation.14

Some years later two missionaries of the Moravian Brethren in Suriname prepared manuscript dictionaries showing word use and grammar for their fellow Herrenhuter there. Christian Ludwig Schumann began the process in 1778 with a dictionary in Saramaccan and German. Born in 1749 to a Moravian missionary in neighbouring Berbice, Schumann spent his boyhood and young adult years in Germany, returned to the Herrenhuter settlements in Suriname in late 1776, and immediately plunged into learning ‘Negersprache’, first in Paramaribo and then at the mission at Bambey, far south on the Suriname River near Saramacca settlements. He could practice his Saramaccan on his two Bambey household slaves, a man and a woman, but especially he worked on his dictionary with the aid of the remarkable Johannes Arrabini, as the Saramacca tribal chief Alabi was called after his baptism in 1771.

Bosnegers in Kolonie Suriname A.M. Coster 1866

Alabi was also a major resource for Brother Johannes Andreas Riemer, who put together a Saramaccan-German dictionary during a brief stay two years later: ‘the baptized Negro captain Johannes Arrabini [was] of invaluable service to me, on a daily even an hourly basis.’ While the inexperienced Riemer found Saramaccan ‘poor in words’, the learned Schumann delighted in ‘the vast quantity of unchanged Latin words’ he found in the language, explaining their presence by the fact that these ‘Free Blacks’ (that is, Maroons) were the descendants of the runaway slaves of the Portuguese Jews. Before Schumann returned to Germany in 1783 he also compiled a Sranan and German dictionary, and included some words with a Portuguese lexicon drawn from Dju-tongo.15

read on: https://bukubooks.wordpress.com/davis/creolelanguages/