Surinam: Multiracial Paradise At The Crossroads
by Era Bell Thompson
“Why come here for a story?” queried the sixth ‘Black Dutchman’ I met. “Isn’t Suriname a multiracial country?” I asked. Don’t all of the people live together in harmony?” “Yes.” “Wouldn’t you call that unique in a world torn by racial strife?” “Perhaps so,” mused the man who takes his way of life for granted.
Forty-five of the next 50 people I interviewed agreed that they live in a peaceful coexistence under a flag made up of five stars representing the five races of mankind; that in Suriname, East meets West and the twain is an elliptical orbit on the flag joining the stars together. The dissenting five are not so sure. With the coming election, Surinam’s racial paradise is threatened by a power struggle between the two dominant groups: the Creoles, mixed blood (no matter how dark) descendants of African slaves who head that bauxite-rich nation, and Hindustanis, the east Indian descendants of contract laborers who have passed the Creoles economically, are catching up with them educationally and overtaking them numerically.
Rinia Roethof, 20. Optical clerk in Paramaribo hospital, wears modified kottomissie, slave dress revived as national Creole costume for holiday wear. Anjisa, or hat, can be tied in various ways to convey messages, express mood.
Conscious of the bloody riots that flared between the same two groups in neighboring Guyana, Surinamers now stand at the crossroads, pondering which path they will take; the one leading to racial revolt or continue as a multiracial society and an example for the world?
Even the 45 admit that a Guyana situation is possible- but not probable. Sounds of dissension, they hope, are so much propaganda in an election year, for the stakes are too high and their leaders too wise to let politically inspired prejudices destroy them. “Guyana is an example of what not to do if we would preserve the country we all love,” says Mr. J. Lachmon, Hindustani chairman of parliament.
“We don’t want to fight with our brothers with whom we were born, played and lived together.” Seven-and-a-half-hours as the jets fly from New York, tucked inconspicuously between French Guiana and Guyana on the northeast coast of South America is Surinam. Much better known as Dutch Guiana, it was discovered exactly 300 years ago by Alonzo de Ojeda, a Spanish conquistador in search of Eldorado, fabled city of riches.
European-Chinese Maryika Schneider, 22, Torarica Hotel Receptionist, has Dutch-German-English-French father and Surinam-born Chinese mother. There are less than 5,000 Europeans in Surinam, 400 Americans including one Negro family.
I also went to Surinam in search of Eldorado, one rich in human values, not silver and gold. I found a small tropical country throbbing with life, brilliant with the colors of nature, a rainbow of people whose bloods and lives are hopelessly and handsomely intertwined. Ocean-going ore vessels ply the deep rivers that slice through jungles covering 80 per cent of the land. Bicycles (45.000 of them) weave precariously in and out of lefthand horse, motor traffic through the narrow streets of Paramaribo, the capital city no stranger can pronounce. The annual rainfall is 88 inches, currency, the Surinam guilder; humidity (81%) illegitimacy (34%) unusually high. Dutch is the nationality and the official language, although the vernacular Sranang Tongo, or talki-talki, is more universally used. With nearly a hundred years of free and compulsory education, illiteracy is an estimated five percent. The workday begins at 7 a.m. with a three-hour break for lunch, but for government workers who quit at 2, there is no afternoon.
“Miss Surinam” of 1966 was Linda Hasselhoef, 17, clerk in the draft department of banking company. Her mother is Jewish, father Portuguese.
1965 winner, Anita van Eyck, 18, a KLM ground hostess, is typical light-skinned Surinamer.
Vlnr: Anita Chang, 21 Chinese; Grace Karamat Ali, 19, Hindustani; Rinia Roethof, 20, Creole; Yoke de Haas, 16 Dutch; Ingrid Mitrasing, 19, Hindustani.
A Creole farm woman living in the districts, teaches Dutch to an English-speaking Amerindian neighbor; lawyers enhance their cases with Martin Luther King’s I Had A Dream; a Chinese celebration attracts black, white and brown guests as well as yellow. From open windows come the songs of India and over the blaring taxi radios, American rhythm and blues- and Nina Simone’s Mississippi, Goddam!
This, then, was Surinam, a fertile agrarian country the Dutch traded for rocky Manhattan, purchased by the English from our red men for us$24,- in green stamps or the 17th century equivalent; acountry with a current population of some 325,000 people, the least of whom are a handful (2%) of their red men, Amerindian.
In 1650 the first slaves were brought in from Africa to work on the sugar and cotton plantations, some of which were owned by wealthy Portuguese Jews driven with the Dutch, from bordering Brazil. In 1853 Chinese coolies replaced Africans who revolted against serfdom and fled into the bush where 27,000 of their descendants, today’s Bushnegroes, maintain a flourishing tribal society.
Prime Minister J.A. Pengel, 51, points to $300 million project, possibly wolrd’s largest bauxite deposits. Pengel heads leading NPS party and Surinam Labour Federation.
When slavery was abolished in 1863, contract laborers from India and, more recently, Indonesia, were brought in to replace freedmen who refuse to stay on the land. With the decline of the plantation, Dutch settlers drifted back to Holland, leaving the city to the Creole and the country to the agricultural-minded immigrant. “That is why our multiracial society works,” says Atty. Walter Lim A Po who calls himself a Chinese Creole. “There were none left but the newcomers, and they all started even – with nothing.” The germ of brotherhood was planted when Queen Wilhelmina voiced the need to prepare for independence in the Kingdom of the Netherlands during a radio speech following World War II. Shortly thereafter, a group of leaders including Dr. J.H.E. Ferrier, brought together all five races into one association called Unie Suriname. By the first general elections in 1949, four political parties represented the three leading groups – Creole (37%), Hindustani (30%) and Indonesian (16%). Amid much racial animosity, the Creole NPS (National Party Surinam) won, and except for three years during which the United Front took over, has been in power ever since. Rather than “using up precious energy fighting with each other,” Mr. Lachmon, head of UHP (United Hindustani Party) and Creole leader J.A. Pengel, now prime minister, launched a program of verbroedering, or brotherhood. To show good faith, Lachmon asked one of his parliament members to resign and invited Pengel to run his place. Pengel won on a Hindustani ticket in a 90 per cent Hindustani district. It was a beautiful display of verbroedering, but brought charges of “selling out” from both sides of the ballot box.
Governor H.L. de Vries, 57, strolls with Dutch wife Kaatje in front of Governor’s mansion. He was the first Creole director of Suralco, American bauxite mine.
Autonomous internally since 1954 and an equal partner in the Federation of the Netherlands, Surinam is today a uni-cameral parliamentary democracy with a governor appointed by the Queen to represent the crown and a cabinet of ministers responsible to the not-so-popularly-elected staten van suriname, or parliament. The present administration is a coalition of the three major parties- and races- with 50,000 Indonesians holding the a crucial balance of power. Although vehemently denied in high quarters, color in Surinam – as in most of the world- does make a difference. Beginning with slavery, the mulatto child was favored with the best education, food and care. The dark Creole, who has never trusted the light one, accuses him of “eating from two plates” – currying favors with whites in the old days and shifting to the blacks, now that they are in power. “Pengel will always get the black vote,” says a fair-skinned businessman. “Look at the number of black men in office.” Colonial-day discrimination against dark Creole is not completely gone, although color is sometimes forgotten. A school was closed to keep Johannes Polanen from studying medicine, so he became the first black man to win the high certificate in teaching. To show what a difference a generation makes, daughter Esselien recalls the time her minister brother forgot for a moment while reprimanding his congregation in Holland. “We white men,” he challenged, “what are we doing for our black people?”
Dutch salesman Theodore Eken, 33, and his Bushnegro wife, Marie, 23 represent unusual marriage even for Surinam. Eken holds daughter Sandra while son Teddy sits on trunk of family car in front of home in mixed marriage housing project.
Creole employees of Suralco at Moengo; personnel manager Wm. de Miranda and foreman Geo. Kranenburg.
Despite Surinamers who say all is harmony between Creole and Hindustani, there is evidence to the contrary. One politician labels economic competition, leadership and culture the big “dividers”, with race running a poor fourth. Another blames the pandits for “driving the two groups further apart” by setting up Hindi schools “to teach East Indian language and culture.”
On the other hand, a Hindustani merchant charges the Creoles with vote gerrymandering (“it favors them”) and discrimination in government housing (“it’s not for us”).
Agnes I.N. Guardiola, $12,000 a-year manager of foreign department of Bank of Surinam, earns more than Prime Minister.
Third richest Surinamer is Jules de Vries whose merchandising firm was founded by his father in 1903. He employs 278 people of all races. As one wag put it: The Hindustani says his culture is older and looks down on the Creole who came in as a slave. The Creole says he was here first and looks down on the Hindustani who came in as an immigrant. Proud of the rebellions that kept his blood pure and freed his body and his soul, the Bushnegro looks down on both of them. The Indonesian, last to arrive, the least educationally prepared, looks down on nobody.
Today, Hindustanis are leaving the farm for the city to compete for jobs with the Creoles whose dominance they threaten. The ambition of the one to gain control and the desire of the other to retain it, breeds suspicion and contempt.
The Hindustanis, for instance, are against independence now. They want to delay it, say the Creoles, until they have more political power. Nationalist leader Eddy Bruma, who proclaimed Surinam a republic back in 1963, accuses the NPS for letting the opposition to set the pace.
Eddy Bruma, 41, denies he is Stokely Carmichael of Surinam, also says Communist label is lie. Founder of Party of Nationalist Republic, he began Creole cultural movement. Says Mr. Bruma, after 100 years Creoles and Hindustanis “do not like each other.”
Says political leader I. Soemita, “We Indonesians have nothing to lose or gain by independence, but the country must learn to walk before it can run. Economically, it cannot stand on its own two feet.”
When asked his position on the question, the Prime Minister hedged. “We have had independence in managing our own affairs to our own satisfaction for a number of years,” he answered. And referred me to his book about the NPS the awaiting publication – in Dutch.
Coalition, rather than verbroedering seems to be the cohesive element in Surinam’s unity, for there is unspoken hope and widespread doubt that either major party can win in the next month’s election without the support of the other; doubt that any combination of parties can stick together long enough to bring the country down.
Not only are they interdependent upon each other, but party members are too racially mixed to separate along purely racial lines. The leading Hindustani is married to a Creole. Another’s wife is Chinese. The grandmother of a Creole opposition leader arrived from India with the first boatload of contract laborers.
“This is a colored country,” says brown-skinned Mr. Chandi Shaw. “God gave me my color. I want to keep it. The world has been run by whites too long.”
A united colored country is the common desire, but old country ties are strong. An Asiatic is unwilling to give up his culture for the culture of another, and a Creole is reluctant to forfeit black power to brown. The five-star flag may not have helped either.
“As soon as it was adopted,” says Protocol Chief Henry Nassy, the Hindustani put on their saris, Creoles revived the African kottimissie and back in the bush Amerindians are flying the flag upside down so the red star will be on top.
Wilfred Lionarons operates eight enterprises including radio station, newspaper, printery, suasage firm. Now 41, he plans to retire at 45. The prophets date a one-nation country 20 years from tomorrow, but the idea is beginning to jell. The first of July is a holiday for all nationals, foods are already integrated, artists are communicating in Sranang Tongo and Judge Ramdat Misier says Hindustani culture “gradually accommodates with the Surinam community.” If interracial marriages – and unions – continue at their present rate, assimilation can’t be far behind.
Surinamers feel that they are proof now that a multiracial society can work, and they have high hope for the future. The pattern is set, they say. “We don’t have to change peoples minds.”
Teeing off at Paramaribo’s only golf course: left to right; Henri Nassy, Johan Heide, Syd Newcomb, Jules de Vries, Arthur Tjon Pian Gie, Andre Hermelijn and their Hindustani caddie.
The Prime Minister names leadership, education and desire as keys to Surinam’s success. “Each leader,” he says, “realizes that racial tensions and discrimination are disastrous. With a century of compulsory education, our literacy rate is high. Every group here wants to see our way of life continue.”
When asked if American Negro immigrants are welcome, he said, “Yes. We are a hospitable people. We have the same history. Both of us are from Africa…..but there is a difference. The American Negro may not be able to apply himself. He may not be happy here.”
Despite the differences among themselves which “come to the surface in the political field,” Governor de Vries maintains that “Surinam is a paradise and a good example for even greater countries to follow.”
Indonesians Nula Saptajanti, Heruwati, Sri Hanan, daughters of Consul Asmono Martodipuro. All are in national dress.
Amerindian Eleanora Kollom, 24.
Older students provide excellent study of Surinam’s many racial types and mixtures.
AMS high school students
(Era Bell Thompson, February 1967)
Dit artikel is integraal overgenomen uit de Ebony van februari 1967