East Meets West in Surinam
By “Awake!” correspondent in Surinam
WHAT is it like for persons from many parts of the world to live together in one location? Residents of most countries with mixed populations will likely agree that no serious problems need arise. An outstanding example of such a population “melting pot” is Surinam. A visit here will reveal widely diversified peoples from many nations living together peacefully. Would you enjoy a look at our colorful land and people?
Surinam lies on the northeast coast of South America, nestled between Guyana to the west and French Guiana to the east. This country occupies an area of some 63,000 square miles (163,000 square kilometers). A United Nations’ estimate for the year 1975 indicated a population for Surinam of some 420,000. Most live on the narrow coastal strip. The greater portion of Surinam is covered by dense jungles and is almost uninhabited.
Concerning the early history of this locality, The New Encyclopædia Britannica (1976 edition) states: “Until the 15th century the only inhabitants of Surinam were Carib, Arawak, and Warrow Indians. Another tribe, the Surinen, who inhabited the country at an earlier time but who were driven away by the Caribs, is considered to be the source of the name Surinam.”
The Spanish had discovered Surinam by the year 1500; but they were not inclined to settle here or to take advantage of the discovery. It was in 1651 that an Englishman, Francis Lord Willoughby, founded the colony of Surinam. He decided to make good use of the fertile soil by growing sugarcane. Soon a number of sugar plantations were in operation. These contributed to a mixed population.
Varied Population Develops
The operation of the plantations called for inexpensive labor, which led to the importing of African slaves. Frequently slave owners treated their subjects cruelly. As a result, thousands of slaves escaped by fleeing into the dense jungle, where they organized themselves into various tribes and resumed an African way of life. Thus a piece of Africa was transplanted into Surinam.
Descendants of African slaves are known as “Creoles.” Those living in the interior are “bushland” Creoles. The ones who chose to become city dwellers are called “city” Creoles. Thousands of members of Surinam’s multiracial society recognize themselves as related to this African population transplant.
The Dutch arrived in 1667. But this did not change the plantation society that flourished here. In 1863, however, came the abolition of slavery. This created a great labor shortage. The need for helping hands to keep the plantations in operation became acute. But from where would the help come?
An early measure to combat the labor shortage was the encouraging of settlement in Surinam by Dutch small farmers. In this way the local population gained a piece of the Netherlands. The labor problem remained acute, however, and it became necessary to seek workers from other areas.
By the mid-1800’s Surinam had welcomed within its borders also hundreds of Chinese contract workers. Though many returned home on expiration of their contract, quite a large number remained to establish themselves successfully in the commercial field. For years the capital city, Paramaribo, has been characterized by a Chinese-operated grocery store on nearly every corner. In this way the population took on an Oriental aspect.
There was yet more need for willing workers. So from 1873 to 1916 Surinam’s agricultural labor force was augmented by many shiploads of Hindustani immigrants from India. As with the Chinese, many Hindustanis wished to remain even after their work contracts expired. To make this possible the government provided them with small pieces of land so that they could establish themselves as small farmers.
Still Others Funneled In
‘Well, have we met everyone now?’ you might ask. By no means. Permit me, please, to introduce you to another of the population’s building blocks, this one too is from the East. It is Mr. Indonesian, who, since 1890, has found his way to this country where East meets West. Especially from the island of Java thousands accepted the invitation to come westward where they could put their agricultural ability to good use.
And that is not the end of Surinam’s population mixture. Persons visiting Paramaribo will see Lebanese, various Europeans and a large group of mulattoes. These latter are the result of intermarriage by the Eastern and Western population segments mentioned above.
What is it that attracts such diverse people to Surinam? Many still find inviting the wide variety of agricultural products that grow here, such as rice, sugarcane, citrus fruits and bananas. Others are drawn by Surinam’s many varieties of wood. Another important factor in the past was the discovery of gold.
More recently, however, the attraction stems from this land’s chief mineral treasure, bauxite. This is a claylike, earthy material that is the chief source of aluminum and its compounds. The aluminum industry has gobbled up hundreds of thousands of tons of bauxite from Surinam; and vast deposits remain for future use.
Benefiting from the Mixture
Many are the benefits of Surinam’s East-West population mixture. The bushland Creole has proved to be very helpful in regard to travel on rivers or into the interior. In dugout canoes these skillful boatmen can navigate dangerous rapids and even small waterfalls. The bushland Creole also distinguishes himself by artful wood carving.
A fine example of adaptability is the Chinese population. While retaining their own language, in several respects the Chinese have adopted Western standards. This is evident socially, educationally and religiously. As for occupations chosen by the Chinese here, besides storekeepers, some have become doctors, teachers and contractors. They are an asset to Surinam.
Among the Hindustanis, the younger generation has proved to be quite progressive. Their forebears were an almost exclusively agricultural society. Today, however, we are not surprised to meet Hindustanis in other fields, such as medicine, education, law and commerce. They have drawn praise for industriousness and thrift.
It is similar with the Indonesians. Many have left the agricultural way of life and pursued occupations in the same fields as their Chinese and Hindustani countrymen. Mr. Indonesian too has won commendation as a diligent and intelligent worker.
In view of the many languages spoken by the people, one might wonder how they communicate. While many of the younger generation have learned Dutch, a large percentage of persons can be reached only through a language that has come to be known as “Sranan-tongo.” Many refer to this language as Negro-English, and locally it is still known as “taki-taki.” With English as a basis, Sranan-tongo draws elements from Dutch, French, Portuguese and various languages of Africa and India. Though it may sound amusing at first to persons who speak these other languages, Sranan-tongo has proved to be an adequate means of communication between East and West in this territory.
Evidences of Religious Beliefs
Religious customs and practices here in Surinam are as diverse as the population. An interesting example is what happens at the death of bushland Creoles, also known as “maroons.”
The only death that these people consider natural is that from old age. Regarding untimely deaths, however, Dutch author Willem van de Poll mentions “the carrying around of the corpse, for days after death. If possible, the evil spirit, guilty of this death, has to be found, before the dead person can be committed to the earth. The dead one is considered capable of indicating to the bearers of his corpse, where the [evil spirit], guilty of the calamity, dwells.”
This is in sharp contrast with the religion of the Bible. The Scriptures state that the dead are wholly unconscious. (Eccl. 9:5; Ps. 146:4) As for untimely death, this is often the result, not of evil spirits, but of “time and unforeseen occurrence.”—Eccl. 9:11.
The Hindustanis too preserve customs from non-Biblical religion. In their yards one may see little red flags flying at the end of bamboo poles. The flags are supposed to serve as a charm against evil. Another unusual Hindustani custom concerns weddings. On the outside of a house one occasionally sees white hand prints. They are evidence that the bride has dipped her hand in a paste made of ground white rice and has pressed it against the outside of the house. This supposedly shows that her hand has been given in marriage.
Rewarding have been the activities of Jehovah’s Witnesses in Surinam. In 1946 there were only 20 Witnesses in this locality. By the end of 1971 the number had increased to more than 600 and by 1978 a peak of 879 was reached. The majority of these are city Creoles and mulattoes who consider themselves Occidentals. However, they regularly welcome into their ranks Orientals (largely from the Indonesian sector), native Indians and bushland Creoles.
This consideration of Surinam and its people would not be complete without mentioning the birth of the new independent Republic of Surinam on November 25, 1975. The people looked forward to this transition with enthusiasm; and it took place in a peaceful and orderly way. Among the liberties guaranteed by the constitution of the New Republic are freedom of worship, speech and press.
Interesting indeed is the history and development of Surinam and its population. It is a noteworthy example of what can happen when East meets West.
[Map/Picture on page 13]
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