Guest Post: Resistance and Adjustment in Suriname: A Durable Eighteenth-Century Cultural Schism

This is the fourth post in The Junto’s roundtable on the Black Atlantic. The first was by Marley-Vincent Lindsey, the second was by Mark J. Dixon, and the third was by Kristin O’Brassill-Kulfan. D. S. Battistoli is a rural development practitioner, working in West Africa and the Caribbean. He holds a B.A. in English literature from Binghamton University, and, since 2011, has more than a thousand days’ field experience among the Saamaka Maroons of Suriname, first as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and later independently.

mcleod-bookCynthia McLeod’s Hoe Duur Was De Suiker, published in 1987 in the middle of Suriname’s Interior War, was the country’s first bestselling novel and a sort of foundational myth for the Creole population of the country.[1] The book takes its name from Voltaire’s famous rejoinder from Candide, “C’est à ce prix que vous mangez du sucre en Europe.”[2] The plantation colonies of the Caribbean took turns being the richest, and also the most violent and exploitative toward the blacks who produced the wealth; for much of the eighteenth century, the distinction belonged to Suriname.

Suiker offers its readers a tour of the grand plantations of the late eighteenth century, when Suriname was already in relative decline. It follows several characters including Sarith and her slave Mini Mini as the colony is rocked by escalating Maroon wars and a series of booms and busts occasioned by shifts in the price of sugar and the indebtedness of the heavily-leveraged plantations.

For non-Surinamese readers looking for a political window onto the period, the denouement might leave something to be desired: Mini Mini dispossesses Sarith by developing a loving relationship with Sarith’s wealthy slave-owning husband Julius Robles. At the same time, Maroons are portrayed as well-intentioned rebels who give in to a desire for retribution that leads them to senseless violence and cuts them off from the more sympathetic blacks like Mini Mini, who stay behind and develop friendship with people the author characterizes as the best whites: empathetic men and women who still hold slaves, but stand apart from the most brutal treatments of blacks.

It would be easy enough to dismiss Suiker as a sort of retrospective respectability politics, were it not for the fact that it reflects a certain distinction that was already prevalent in the 1770s, when the novel was set. By the 1770s, there were already clear distinctions between Maroons and the group now called Creoles in terms of geography, norms of kinship, political structures, ritual practice, wealth domestication, arts & architecture, and diet.[3] For the Creoles staying in plantation societies, they would have had a life that balanced the ability regularly to engage in Afro-American ritual practice, and to hunt, fish, and farm in the bountiful near hinterlands of coastal plantation society with the frequent toil and constant threat of rape, torture, and death at the hands of white slaveholders. Creole society drew comparatively more heavily on European norms, and divisions between Creoles and Maroons only sharpened after emancipation in 1863, when new Africans stopped being shipped into the country and financialized exchange became more common.

Prior to emancipation, Maroon men, who had to travel to the coast to get essential material supplies like cloth and iron goods, often had wives and children on plantations, and it would be easy enough to model Suriname as a vast resistance network supporting runaways, were it not for the well-documented pervasive distrust that existed between Maroons and coastal Creoles. Sometimes, when Maroons came to raid a plantation, enslaved blacks rose up and looked to run away with them; other times, they sought to fight them off. When Maroons met individual runaways in the forest, they made an often gender-based decision as to whether to integrate the runaway, or to abandon or return him to his plantation. [4] While the slaves that did not run away certainly may have resisted in other ways, we should also recognize that many of them may have viewed their own activities as incommensurate with that of runaways and fugitives.

This is where the value of Suiker as a thought-piece comes in: it highlights the extent to which “respectability politics”—an effective-enough category for a variety of later outlooks that may be worth academic disparagement—might have limited value as a conceptual frame for an eighteenth-century plantation society. The survival of highly distinct and frequently oppositional Maroon groups in the country through to the present day has constrained Surinamese Creole thinkers from successfully positing a unitary national Afro-Surinamese identity: the 1980s Interior War again pitted Maroons against coastal blacks, with the difference that now coastal Creoles were in firm control of the state that was making war on Maroons. Instead, while holding onto commonalities such as ritual winti play, Creoles have also taken pride in the European roots of social structures as varied as marriage, education, and education.[5]

McLeod’s novel has a greater value in helping conceptualize the sheer variety of contours of black responses to slavery. While it is possible to make marronage shorthand for all such responses, so doing runs the risk of leaving a gap in our understanding of the totality of black experience. [6] This might be seen particularly clearly in the response one academic offered to the recent “not another slavery movie” movement: she’d be glad to see many more slavery films made, as long as they were all about fugitives or rebels.  Runaways and armed rebels comprised a small minority of the total enslaved population in the eighteenth century; the Afro-American experience was almost certainly more diverse.

Kalpana Ram, in her excellent phenomenology of female spirit possession in Tamil Nadu, notes that Pierre Bourdieu’s influential model of power and agency takes the form such that resistance is the “minimum point that can be imagined,” but that this leaves no room for modeling the behavior of people who, frequently unconsciously, engage in actions that increase their own scope for freedom of action and reshape existing power dynamics without consciously resisting such dynamics.[7] Still, her term for this, “adjustment” or “accommodation”, may strike the wrong rhetorical note when applied to people under the yoke of chattel slavery.

Integrating adjustment, or a concept like it into resistance talk, may help historians and literary scholars avoid a situation in which they passably describe rebels, runaways, and the emancipated, while maintaining a sort of uncanny valley with regard to the daily lives of Afro-Americans who may have themselves resisted the resisters, or otherwise not have conceived of proto-Marxist struggle as the primary font of meaning in their lives. Part of the value of McLeod’s novel for scholars is that, in its sometimes uncomfortable imagination of the distinctions between runaways and those who stayed behind, it can help unsettle core assumptions about the continuum of resistance.

________________

[1] C. McLeod, Hoe Duur Was De Suiker? (Paramaribo: Conserve, [1987]/1996)

[2]Such is the price of the sugar you eat in Europe.”

[4] W. Hoogbergen, “Marronage and Slave Rebellions in Suriname” in W. Binder, ed., Slavery in the Americas (Würtzburg: Königshausen en Neumann,1993), 167f, 177.

[5] Winti play is a syncretic Afro-Surinamese ritual practice, with both commonalities and distinctions as performed by either Maroons or Creoles; it can be compared to Candomblé, Santería, or Voudou in other Caribbean contexts See, eg, Van Der Pijl, Y. Levende Doden (Amsterdam: Rozenberg Publishers, 2007/2010) for a discussion of Winti play in the context of mortuary practice.

[6] Roberts, N. Freedom As Marronage. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[7] Ram, K. Fertile Disorder: Spirit Possession and its Provocation of the Modern. (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2013), 252.

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One comment on “Guest Post: Resistance and Adjustment in Suriname: A Durable Eighteenth-Century Cultural Schism

  1. […] Lindsey, the second was by Mark J. Dixon, the third was by Kristin O’Brassill-Kulfan, and the fourth was by D. S. Battistoli. Ryan Reft is a Historian of Modern America in the Manuscript Division at […]

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