Background Story The Great Surinam Exhibition

From 5 October 2019 to 2 February 2020 De Nieuwe Kerk, working in close collaboration with museums, archives, collectors and artists in Suriname and the Netherlands, presents a major exhibition dedicated to one of the most diverse countries of South America: Suriname.

Shared past
Until 1975 Suriname was part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. More than 350,000 Dutch nationals have Surinamese roots. This shared history began more than four centuries ago, when the first Dutch people reached the coast of Suriname. There they encountered developed cultures. The earliest inhabitants had left traces on the savannah nine thousand years before. Historians estimate that by the time the Dutch arrived there were more than twenty thousand people living near the major rivers that transverse the tropical rainforest, on the southern savannahs and on the elevated areas of the coastal region. They adapted their way of life to the world around them. They cultivated cassava, hunted and fished and believed that spirits and gods manifested themselves in nature. One of the most important pieces in the exhibition is a unique pre-Columbian stone mask used in religious ceremonies. The mask has never been exhibited in the Netherlands before.

The modern-day descendants of the indigenous peoples of Suriname are called Amerindians; some speak of ‘original inhabitants’. The first Europeans referred to them as Indians and distinguished between Arawaks and Caribs, but there were probably some twenty groups with their own language and culture. They originated from the Amazon and Orinoco regions in modern-day Brazil and Venezuela. The many rivers coursing through the wider area facilitated lively interaction among the groups living there.

European colonisers
The first Europeans arrived in Suriname around 1500. They were Spaniards and Portugese  looking for gold and silver. A century later the Dutch (from Holland and Zeeland), the British and the French came and established trading posts where they exchanged knives, hatchets, beads and guns for gold, wood, resin, indigo and hammocks with the local population. Two merchants from Amsterdam set up a post in 1613 near the village of Parmubo, where the city of Paramaribo is now situated.

Vast sums of money were to be made in Europe from the highly sought-after luxury goods made from plants that only grew in the tropics: sugar, coffee, cotton and cacao. Attempts to establish plantations in Suriname failed until the arrival of two groups who had gained experience elsewhere in South America, namely Jewish settlers (around 1640) and British settlers from Barbados (around 1650). Suriname become a British colony and remained under British rule until Abraham Crijnssen of Zeeland conquered the area in 1667. Later that year the Treaty of Breda brought an end to the Second Anglo-Dutch War and from then on the colony remained in Dutch (Zeeland’s) hands. The British kept New Amsterdam, which they had acquired from the Dutch in 1664 and renamed New York. A large part of the British population left Suriname but the Jewish settlers decided to stay. In 1685 they built the first synagogue in the Americas in Jodensavanne (Jewish Savannah), a community some 50 kilometres south of Paramaribo. The exhibition features a shofar and a lantern from this – now lost – synagogue.

To make Suriname profitable, investments needed to be made in law enforcement, courts, exports and defence of the colony. Letters from early Dutch colonists featured in the exhibition show that organising all this was a complex business and conflicts with the indigenous population were common. The Zeelanders decided to sell Suriname to the Dutch West India Company (WIC), which was in the business of selling enslaved people and had experience with sugar plantations in Brazil. However, the WIC failed to get all the financing they needed, so the city of Amsterdam decided to participate in the venture. Colonel Cornelis van Aerssen of Sommelsdijck, who had taken an interest in the colony, also invested and was appointed governor. As the three shareholders of the Society of Suriname, WIC, Amsterdam and the colonel all shared in the costs and profits of the colony of Suriname.

Plantation society
Operating a plantation requires implements, machetes and cooking pots, workers and foremen, seed stock, housing and irrigation ditches. Apart from the land, nearly everything had to be acquired somewhere else. The Zeelanders and Hollanders were joined by other Europeans – French, German and Jewish planters who brought knowledge of water management, equipment and agricultural methods to the colony. The Europeans purchased enslaved people captured along the West African coast to do the heavy work on the plantations. Paid for with textiles, gunpowder, alcohol or shells, they were branded and transported by ship to Suriname, a journey that took about two months. This was the fate of more than 200,000 Africans over a period of two centuries. The ledgers and logs from the slave ships d’Eenigheid and the Philadelphia presented in the exhibition will show how human beings were reduced to commodities. Even the bribes paid to African intermediaries were recorded in the accounts.

The cargo aboard the Sint Anthonie, which sank on its way to Suriname in 1823 and was recently salvaged, paints a variegated picture of plantation life. For the colonial elite there was fashionable tableware on board and for enslaved people, the tools of forced labour. Items found at the site of the Bakkie plantation, including a branding iron and a kromboei (an instrument of torture consisting of iron collars placed round the neck and ankle connected by a short chain), show how hard life was on the plantations. Another impressive object is Slave Dance (1706–8), an oil painting by Dirck Valkenburg. Not all enslaved people worked in the fields; some were carpenters, housekeepers or supervisors, and others were too young or too old to work. Those that did worked long days, but there was also a kind of community life and over time a Creole culture with African roots and European and American influences emerged. The Sranan Tongo language evolved from this process, and the enslaved Africans had their own celebrations, customs and religious beliefs (winti). Their modern-day descendants are referred to as Creoles. A rich collection of kotos, traditional Creole clothing, will be part of the exhibition.

Some managed to escape and fled into the jungle. They were called Maroons, or ‘runaways’, by the Europeans. Despite penal expeditions and prosecutions, many managed to remain free. They formed different communities in the rainforest, each with its own language and culture. The exhibition in De Nieuwe Kerk will include unique wood carvings and colourful pangis (cloth wraps) made by these survivors. The Surinamese artist Marcel Pinas, who is of Maroon descent, has created a new work especially for this exhibition, and works by contemporary artists Remy Jungerman and Ken Doorson will also be featured.

From plantations to mining
By the end of the eighteenth century there were around 700 plantations in Suriname, but the plantation system would soon go into decline. By the mid-nineteenth century international pressure to end slavery was overwhelming and a large part of the enslaved population had converted to Christianity – the nineteenth century was an advantageous time for missionaries. Slavery was abolished on 1 July 1863, and more than 34,000 enslaved people were freed. However, those aged 15 to 60 were required to work on the plantations for another ten years after their liberation.

Meanwhile Asia had become a new source of cheap labour. Starting in 1853 several thousand Chinese contract workers arrived in Suriname. Between 1870 and 1916 nearly 35,000 contract workers came from British-controlled northeast India. Known locally as Hindustanis (or Hindostanen, the Dutch term for people of East Indian origin), the group included both Hindus and Muslims. Today their descendents are the largest population group in Suriname. The first Javanese workers came in 1890. By the time the last ship arrived in 1939, 32,000 Javanese immigrants had made the crossing. Each of these groups brought their own customs, beliefs, food cultures and ways of life with them. The exhibition presents jewellery and other personal items that illuminate these immigrants’ lives and explain how they became Surinamese.

The contract labourers working in the plantations did not have it much better their enslaved predecessors. Wages were low and employers were at liberty to punish workers as they saw fit. About one-third returned home on completion of their contract. The rest decided to stay and build a future in Suriname, although some were homesick and missed their old lives. This is the reason Suriname is now one of the most diverse countries in the world, a cultural mosaic of influences from the Americas, Europe, Africa and Asia.

Today there are few plantations left in Suriname. Mining came to be the country’s main source of income in the twentieth century. Around 1900 there was a brief period of gold fever and later Suriname became a major supplier of bauxite, the raw material of aluminium. During the Second World War, three thousand American soldiers were based in the colony to guarantee bauxite supplies. They built infrastructure including paved runways at Zanderij, the national airport. The fighter jet wing made of Surinamese raw materials is a tangible reminder of the war years, which were a period of prosperity and progress. The gifts given by Suriname to mark jubilees of the Royal House of the Netherlands tell a fascinating story: they too are made from Surinamese raw materials.

Cultural Mosaic
The Great Suriname Exhibition offers an accessible visual introduction to Suriname’s history. The distinctive objects on display tell the story of the country’s development, from the earliest inhabitants to the newest generation living in Paramaribo today. Original documents, rare everyday objects, personal possessions and contemporary works of art present a living history of the slave trade, colonial rule, life on the plantations and the integration of each successive wave of new immigrants. De Nieuwe Kerk has asked their Surinamese and Dutch descendants to tell their stories and help us understand the significance of this history and the diversity of perspectives.

Multicultural society
The exhibition shows that ethnic and cultural diversity is a common thread running through Suriname’s history. The colonial government tried to limit interaction between groups and some relationships were prohibited. There were different rights and obligations for Europeans, enslaved and freed people, and later contract labourers. For example, a late eighteenth-century text by soldier J.G. Stedman describing the many ‘mixed-blood’ population groups offers compelling insights into European attempts to segregate society into clearly defined population groups.

Despite these efforts, there was constant interaction between ethnic groups. Customs, beliefs, cultures and languages became intertwined and contact between individuals with different backgrounds was the rule rather than the exception. The family histories highlighted in the ‘family chapel’ show that many Surinamers have a culturally diverse background. Razia Barsatie, a Surinamese artist, created a new work for this theme, in which smells and the memories they can evoke play an important role.

Landscape and nature
Besides history and cultural diversity, the country’s extraordinary natural environment is the third pillar of the Great Suriname Exhibition. Suriname is about four times the size of the Netherlands and is exceptionally biodiverse. For the earliest inhabitants, its bountiful natural environment was both a source of life and a threat. The jaguar in particular struck awe into the hearts of many. The exhibition presents Maria Sibylla Merian’s world-renowned studies of catepillars and butterflies in Suriname which she conducted around 1700. The country is enormously rich in mineral reserves, and plants and animals. Many examples will be on display in De Nieuwe Kerk.

Suriname has a broad network of inland waterways, some with dangerously deceptive currents. For many, the rivers are essential to survival. It is not surprising that many cultures venerated water gods and spirits. The exhibition includes a number of original dugout canoes called korjalen, and visitors can experience what it is like to travel on the water in Suriname’s interior.

Suriname now
Today Suriname has a population of about 600,000. At least half live in or near Paramaribo, the centre of life in Suriname since the time of the first Dutch settlement. It is the seat of government and home to a university and a teaching hospital. In the last part of the exhibition we focus in on Suriname’s capital city. Paramaribo’s streetscape exemplifies its cultural and religious diversity: a mosque and a synagogue are located a stone’s throw away from each other and there are several Hindu temples and Catholic and Protestant churches in the city.

The exhibition looks at the historic city centre, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2002. The city grew dramatically when the colonial elites moved there from the plantations in the eighteenth century and erected impressive wooden buildings. People freed from enslavement built their own neighbourhoods on the edge of the city. And when slavery was abolished, many formerly enslaved people moved to the capital and built homes on the terrain of existing buildings. After the Second World War the streetscape evolved as more and more distinctive public buildings were constructed to accommodate the country’s growing public administration apparatus. Wealthy inhabitants began to move to the outskirts of the city. Postcards and personal stories provide a multifaceted view of life in Paramaribo and its history.

Independence Square (Onafhankelijkheidsplein) in Paramaribo is the site where Suriname celebrated its independence on 25 November 1975. The Declaration of Independence, the gown worn by Princess Beatrix and the  dress suits worn by the last governor and the first president of Suriname, Johan Ferrier, are tangible symbols of this important moment in Suriname’s history. The exhibition includes interviews with attendees sharing their memories of the celebration and how they look back on it now.

Constitutional independence did not spell the end of ties between Suriname and the Netherlands. Between 1960 and 2005 some 300,000 Surinamers moved to the Netherlands, and 80,000 people returned to Suriname. The period after independence was a turbulent one. In February 1980 the sitting government was overthrown in a military coup led by Desi Bouterse. Almost three years later, in December 1982, fifteen political dissidents were arrested and executed. From 1986 to 1991, the interior region of Suriname was entangled in a civil war. The exhibition in De Nieuwe Kerk includes an impressive work by Dutch artist Iris Kensmil inspired by the ‘December Murders’.

Suriname in the twenty-first century
Suriname’s cultural diversity is fraught with challenges, but it is also its strength. This is a common thread in the stories shared by inhabitants of Paramaribo. New generations are optimistic about life in Suriname. They celebrate their country’s cultural diversity, for example in Villa Zapakara, an interactive children’s museum where children talk about how they experience each other’s celebrations. Suriname’s youngest generation, the children, get the last word. After all, this exhibition is about giving a voice to the people it is about.

Facts and figures

Government and geography

–  Suriname has a population of 575,763 (2016), is approximately four times the size of the Netherlands and is divided into ten districts. The largest by far in terms of area is Sipaliwini in the sparsely populated south. Most people live in the district of Paramaribo. Its surrounding districts are also relatively densely populated. More than half of the Surinamese population lives in or near the capital.

–  Suriname borders Brazil to the south, Guyana (former British Guiana) to the west and French Guiana to the east.

Language and culture

–  The names of many places and rivers have an indigenous origin that is often linked to a common bird, fish, animal or plant. For instance, the suffix ‘bo’ means ‘in’ or ‘near’; the city of Paramaribo was located near a Paramuru, a type of tree. The suffix ‘wini’ comes from the Arawak word for water (unnï or oni): the Sipaliwini is the river of the Sipari/Sipali, the ‘stingray’. ‘Wini’ is also part of the name Marowijne: mara-unnï or ‘river without end’. The name ‘Guiana’ is probably also derived from an indigenous language and means ‘land of many waters’.

–  In Suriname there are some twenty ‘home languages’. In 2009, there were nine indigenous languages (a number of which were dying out). They belong to the two largest and most widespread language families in South America: Cariban and Arawakan. Traditionally there are four or five Maroon languages, of which Saramaccan and Ndyuká or Aukan are widely spoken. Migrants brought Hindi, Javanese and Hakka (a Chinese language) to Suriname, where local variants like Sarnami Hindustani evolved. Sranan Tongo, which is sometimes called Surinamese, began as a contact language on the plantations among people who did not share a common language. Almost everyone in Suriname is multilingual. Dutch is the official language and Suriname has been a member of the Dutch Language Union since 2004.

Suriname today

–  Religious affiliation according to the 2012 census:

–  Hindu (multiple movements)                                                        22.3 %

–  Catholic                                                                                             21.6 %

–  Muslim (multiple movements)                                                       13.8 %

–  Pentecostal                                                                                      11.2 %

–  Moravian (Protestant)                                                                      11.2 %

–  No religious affiliation                                                                    7.5 %

–  Other Christian affiliation                                                               4.4 %

–  Unknown                                                                                          3.2 %

–  Other (Jehovah’s Witnesses, Winti, Javanism, Judaism, other) 4.9%


–  Traditionally, the population of Suriname consists of five large groups (Hindustanis, Creoles, Maroons, Javanese and Chinese) and multiple small groups. Ethnic groups according to the 2012 census:

–  Hindustani (‘East Indians’)                                                            27.4 %

–  Maroon                                                                                             21.7 %

–  Creole                                                                                               15.7 %

–  Javanese                                                                                           13.7 %

–  Mixed                                                                                               13.4 %

–  Unknown                                                                                         0.6%

–  Other (including Boeroes (Dutch Surinamese), Brazilians, Chinese, Amerindians, Lebanese, Sephardic Jews)                                                                   7.6 %

The close connection between ethnicity and identity is clear from the 62% growth in the Maroon group since the 2004 census. The number of births does not account for this significant increase. It is probable that many of those who previously described themselves as Creole changed their declared ethnic affiliation to Maroon in 2012. The group that considered themselves primarily Creole used to be much larger. This could be the case again in the next census. This illustrates that ethnicity in Suriname is a dynamic concept and many people have an ethnically and culturally diverse background.

Concise timeline

9000–8000 BCE: Hunter-gatherers leave traces on the savannah in southern Suriname.

1500 BCE: Farmers from the Orinoco region leave traces behind in Suriname. The most recent traces date from circa 550 BCE.

1000 BCE: New groups that speak Arawakan languages arrive in Suriname.

1100 CE: New groups that speak Cariban languages arrive in Suriname.

1499: Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda arrives in Suriname.

1598: The first Dutch merchants are active in Suriname.

1651: Under the leadership of Francis Willoughby, the British establish the colony of Suriname.

1667: Abraham Crijnssen of Zeeland conquers Suriname.

1683: Suriname becomes the property of the Society of Suriname and remains so until 1795.

1685: The first synagogue in the Americas is built in Jodensavanne.

1734: Construction starts on Fort Nieuw-Amsterdam, inspired by Maroon invasions

1738: Slave ship Leusden is destroyed in the Marowijne River. 664 enslaved people are drowned.

1760: First peace treaty with Maroons, the Ndyuka.

1814: The Trans-Atlantic slave trade is abolished.

1853: First group of Chinese contract workers arrives.

1863: Slavery is abolished on 1 July 1863.

1865: The elites of Suriname are represented in government with the establishment of the Colonial States, an assembly similar to the States-General of the Netherlands.

1873: First Hindustani contract workers arrive on the ship Lalla Rookh.

1890: First group of Javanese contract workers arrives.

1892: First trade union in Suriname established: the Christian Teachers Union (Christelijke onderwijzersbond).

1902: Insurrection on Mariënburg plantation. At least 17 contract workers are killed.

1917: Surinamese bauxite company established (Bauxietmaatschappij, later Suralco).

1933: The writer and trade union leader Anton de Kom is exiled to the Netherlands.

1935: Sophie Redmond becomes Suriname’s first female medical doctor.

1949: First general elections held in Suriname.

1954: The Charter for the Kingdom of the Netherlands grants Suriname internal autonomy.

1960: Brokopondo Reservoir created.

1968: University of Suriname established (renamed Anton de Kom University in 1983).

1975: Suriname becomes independent; governor Johan Ferrier becomes president.

1980: Military coup led by Desi Bouterse.

1982: December Murders

1986–92: Interior War

1987: New Constitution adopted, and amended in 1992.

1995: Suriname joins the Caribbean Community (CARICOM).

2002: The historic inner city of Paramaribo becomes a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

2015: The emblem of the Society of Suriname on the Presidential Palace is replaced by the coat of arms of the Republic of Suriname.