June 5, forever the day of arrival in Suriname

Plantation Johanna-Catharina

On March 14, 1881, Dwarka Sing (then 34) and Jossodee (21) set foot in Paramaribo. She first, him again. Together they are awarded the Johanna-Catharina cocoa plantation in the Lower Saramacca district. Eventually, after the contract period, they, like about 23,000 other contract workers – two-thirds of the Hindustans sent – will settle in Suriname as farmers.

Plantation Johanna-Catharina has 1500 fields, spread over 643 hectares of land – about 888 football pitches in size. In addition to coffee plants and cocoa trees, the plantation has a number of banana trees – they provide the necessary shade while working in the blazing sun. Or shelter during a tropical rainstorm.

For Dwarka Sing, the situation was probably better than seven years earlier: where he stayed in slave barracks on the Caledonia plantation, which was also compared to ‘pig houses’, he was assigned a real ‘coolie house’, which he moved into. Jossodee. These wooden houses have a veranda and a small garden.

The improved situation is due to a reprimand from the British government: the Netherlands treated the contract workers so badly that in 1874 Britain decided to suspend the agreement. Mortality rates on the plantations are high at that time. Causes are exhaustion and illness, but also suicide. IN It made cool Bhagwanbali tells of the young man Sewborn who tries to hang himself. If that fails, he will be sentenced to two months in prison for ‘attempting to evade his contract’. When he returns to the plantation, he hangs himself.

In 1879 the system was resumed. Despite the improvements made, many plantations are still subject to exploitation and abuse. In 1884, this resulted in a major uprising on the sugar plantation Zorg en Hoop, with Janey Tetary as one of the leaders. The Dutch colony administration sends fifty soldiers, who shoot seven rebels, including Tetary. She grows into a symbol of resistance. Years later, in 2017, a statue of her was placed in Paramaribo.

The stories of Tetary are still told in Hindu society. Pravini Baboeram (37) was involved in the creation of Tetary’s bust. She thinks it is important that stories of Hindu resistance become visible. “In Dutch society, there is a stereotypical image of Hindustani as well-behaved and submissive. This fits into a colonial vision that emerged in four hundred years of colonization. But the uprisings show the militant nature of our ancestors.”

The system of ‘criminal sanctions’ is one of the reasons for the dissatisfaction during the period of contract work. This means that ‘crimes’ committed by employees, such as absence or ‘laziness’, fall under criminal law. As a result, a plantation owner can impose sanctions such as imprisonment (in state prison, sometimes in solitary confinement), withheld pay, ‘forced employment’, thirty lashes or days of locking in crooked cuffs.

In 1902, a major uprising also took place on the Mariënburg sugar plantation due to hard work, low wages and abuse of women by the (Scottish) director James Mavor. During the uprising, Mavor is killed by rebels. By order of the colonial government, Dutch soldiers brutally crushed the uprising: seventeen rebels were executed and thrown into a mass grave, seven others later died of their wounds. A total of forty revolts broke out on the Surinamese plantations.

The ancestors of documentary filmmaker Narsingh Balwantsingh worked on the Mariënburg plantation. Balwantsingh recently made a documentary about it: The journey of the Indians† According to him, the opposition at Mariënburg shows ‘fighting spirit’. “The fact that the director of the plantation was killed during the uprising shows how great the despair was.”

Balwantsingh has “mixed feelings” about Hindu history. This is more common, even among historians: one emphasizes the opportunity that the Hindustani seized – and were given – to escape poverty in India and build a better life, the other emphasizes the injustice – deception, exploitation, oppression – that was done against them during that period.

Lawyer Raksha Nazir also feels “both the sadness and the pride.” “How much courage did it take for my ancestors to get on that boat?”

death rates

The conflict in society shows the two sides of contract work. How someone feels often depends on their plantation. The work is usually hardest on sugar plantations, where sugar cane has to be cut. Sugar plantation Drie Gebroeders has by far the highest mortality rate: 17.5 percent against an average of 3.4 percent. Plantation Resolution, with a death rate of 1.8 percent, shows the other side: Indentured workers are being looked after carefully and given a piece of land in their coolie home to grow their own crops, according to an archived report from British Consul A. Cohen from 1877.

On the plantation Johanna-Catharina, where my ancestors Dwarka Sing and Jossodee worked, the death rate in 1877 is 2.6 percent below average. Little can be found about the circumstances – Cohen mentions in his report that the workers are being treated with “indifference” and that the hospital is “neglected”.

To get a better picture of life as a contract worker, historian and economist Sandew Hira (father of Pravini Baboeram) collected 7,000 letters from Suriname to India and vice versa from various archives. The correspondence between Hindustani and the bereaved is sometimes “heartbreaking,” he says. In recent years, he has been busy digitizing the so-called ‘Calcutta letters’ – this Saturday he presents a ten-volume encyclopedia at the General Hindu Primary School in The Hague.

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