A teenager holds a baby caiman in her hands, a young boy feels its rough skin. There is nothing to fear as the reptile’s jaws have been tied for the occasion. We admire sweet water turtles, decipher dilapidated gravestones and buy dried shrimp.
This eclectic combination of attractions is to be found at Rust and Werk, one of Suriname’s plantations near the capital of Paramaribo, during a daylong boat trip on the Sweet Merodia.
Suriname’s Plantation History
Suriname shares the ambiance and cultural diversity that characterizes the Caribbean but, in fact, is a nation on the north coast of South America. Like in many Caribbean islands, its jungles were transformed into plantations from the 17th to the 20th century.
In Suriname each narrow, elongated plantation bordered a waterway since roads in the countryside didn’t exist, and today this still typifies some of the former plantation regions. Under the Dutch, more than 700 plantations flourished (mostly sugarcane and a bit of coffee) thanks to slaves and, after the abolition, contract laborers from Java and India.
A Boat Trip with Cynthia McLeod
The Sweet Merodia belongs to Cynthia McLeod, a Surinamese author known for her historical novels on Suriname’s plantation history (e.g. The Cost of Sugar and The Free Negress Elisabeth). The boat measures 82 by 18 feet, slightly larger than was the size of slave ships.
Today there are about 40 visitors on the Sweet Merodia whereas the similar-sized slave ships carried 300-400 slaves, who were literally stacked in the holds of the ships, Cynthia points out. This is one of the typical details in her stories that help me visualize the reality of those days.
Not surprisingly, she has many of those details to share. To write her historical novels she researched the maritime archives in the Netherlands (town of Middelburg), where everything with regard to Suriname’s colonial history is kept.
The Plantations of Rust en Werk, and Frederiksdorp
As we sail up the Commewijne River Cynthia narrates her stories about the distinct differences between slavery in Suriname and other countries (among which the US), the good and the bad things done by Dutch governors, captivating stories about love, hatred and conspiracies among salt-water slaves (as newly arrived slaves were called), maroons (runaway slaves), plantation families and foreign powers.
Plantation Rust en Werk (Rest and Work) is one of Suriname’s handful of plantations still productive in the 21st century. It consists of a ranch with 7,000 cows and a shrimp farm. As we walk the grounds to take a look at the crumbled graves of the plantation founders, the Crommelin family, we pass noni bushes. The whose light green, bulgy fruits are popular their medicinal and nutritious values, and a growth market for Rust en Werk.
The Plantation of Frederiksdorp (1760) was known for its coffee and cacao production. The drying floor is still intact. After the abolition of slavery, the plantation was left to go to ruin until Ton and Marianne Hagemeijer bought it in the 1980s. They restored part of the buildings to their former glory, among which the police post, prison cells, the family doctor’s residence and the director’s home.
The red-roofed, white clapboard buildings with contrasting dark-green windowsills surrounded by tropical gardens now house a small, upscale guesthouse.
The Children’s Home of Sukh Dhaam
As the Sweet Merodia cleaves the chocolate brown river lined by a green wall of overgrown plantations reclaimed by nature, we enjoy a coffee and tea with cake, stroop (Surinamese lemonade), and a typical local lunch consisting of rice, kouseband (a type of vegetable) and chicken.
In 1918-1919, the Spanish Flue hit Suriname, killing thousands. The Community of Moravian Brethren founded an orphanage for Hindustani children: Sukh Dhaam (‘House of Happiness’) We stop to chat with the children, no longer limited to Hindustanis, who love to show visitors around. The boys’ quarters have recently been renovated, of which they are incredibly proud.
Orphanages no longer exist in Suriname, but there is still a need for children’s homes like Sukh Dhaam, which offers a home to children from socially deprived families.
The children’s home is “on” Alkmaar. In Suriname you don’t live in a village but “on” a village, which I find one of those fascinating reminders of Suriname’s history. In the early days, people lived “on the Alkmaar Plantation”. The word “plantation” is gone, but “on” Alkmaar – or any other village that replaced a plantation – has remained.
- Tours are in Dutch but on request Cynthia McLeod organizes tours in English for groups. Another option is to make friends with a Dutchman or Surinamese who’ll translate for you along the way).
- Departure is from the dock at Anton Dragtenweg 8 (across from the Residence Inn), north of Paramaribo. It can be reached by taxi.
- Tip: wear comfortable shoes to walk the plantations and bring sun lotion, a hat and, of course, your camera.
All photos by Coen Wubbels. Follow him on Instagram here & here.