Oma, 1911

Oma, with her mother, ca. 1911.

Oma, with her mother, ca. 1911.

Perhaps this is the photo that started it all. It’s a picture of Oma, my grandmother. Well, Oma and my great-grandmother, circa 1911 (or perhaps early 1912?). It’s probably my favourite family photo. It’s also the oldest family photo in my collection.

Look at Oma. Round arms, toes peeking out from under a lacy dress, an abundance of hair combed neatly over her tiny head, even as a few curls escape.

And her mother, a woman I never met. There’s something regal about her here. She stands straight and tall, holding her child in front of her.

Madonna and child. There’s nothing necessarily strange about this image at all. A woman with her child, both looking directly out at the viewer.

And yet, there are curious elements to this photograph. The painted backdrop, revealed by an equally painted curtain, with its gestures towards an idyllic country location, for one. The dark faces peering out from glowing white dresses, for another. The carefully-staged vase placed on a tall pillar. And the romantic wooden fence artistically woven with vines that frames mother and child.

Where are they, these two photographic subjects? Where do they live? What kinds of lives do they lead? The photo gives very little away. They are respectable subjects – their clothing tells me this. And they are colonial subjects – again, dress tells this story.

So, somewhere in the global south. But where?

Oma was born in Suriname, along the north coast of Suriname. Her mother, too, was born there. But the story quickly becomes much more complicated.

(As an interesting aside, I saw very few women in western dress while perusing early twentieth-century photos of public events in Paramaribo, Suriname; most of the women represented on the photos were Creole women wearing kotomisi – like this woman in 1910 – perhaps something else to explore…)

At the moment, there’s not much information about my great-grandmother, the dark-hatted woman in the photo. She appears to have arrived in Suriname at some point before her marriage, but was born on another Caribbean island – likely Martinique, a French territory. My (to this point admittedly limited) forays into Martinique’s birth, marriage and death registers, however, have not yet produced any evidence to support this, although it’s possible that name spellings changed during the course of various migrations. But if this is the case, then my great-grandmother’s East Indian heritage likely reaches to the French Indian territory of Pondicherry, an alluring prospect given the fact that my grandmother’s name – Henriette Mathilde – and those of some of her siblings are French, and that my grandmother was a practicing Catholic throughout her life (although, apparently, she stopped going to Confession after she met my grandfather…another intriguing tidbit).

This also means that my great-grandmother’s heritage, apparently shaped by the French language, French cultural practices, French religious beliefs – indeed, by the whole social and cultural landscape of the French colonial world – was very different from that of her mother-in-law, my great-great grandmother, Joorayee Radha, a woman about whom we know much more. Well represented in the Dutch colonial archives, Joorayee Radha arrived in Suriname with her young son – Oma’s father – in 1874 on the Kate Kellock, a Liverpool-based shaped filled with indentured labourers from India. Listed in the immigration registers as a 25-year-old dark brown Hindu standing 1.513 m tall (!), she had signed on for a five-year contract as a field worker at the sugar plantation, De Resolutie.

[An 1887 photo of De Resolutie shows a flat landscape, white buildings clustered together in the distance. Other photos of sugar plantations – here and here – show labourers in fields, their feet tangled in endless stalks of sugar cane.]

Just six years after their arrival, Radha and her son were written into the records as immigrants and granted permission to stay in the colony. They went on to live with a Chinese merchant with the last name of U A Sai, the name that my own grandmother – the baby in this photo – carried with her until her marriage.

And so, you see, there’s a lot behind this Madonna and child. And that’s only the abbreviated version of the story. This is a complex, tangled history with tentacles that reach across the Atlantic and around the Cape of Good Hope to very different regions of the vast country then known as British India, and then, even further, to an even more remote Chinese history. But these tentacles also stretch northward, where they move through The Netherlands and Germany.

What did all of this mean for Oma, just a baby in this photo? What role did her East Indian heritage play in her life? Her upbringing? The foods she ate? The stories she was told? Where did the French fit in? Or the Chinese, for that matter? And what happened when she complicated the picture even further by marrying a Creole man descended from a former slave and a German gold mine executive? How did these tangled histories – the legacy of complex migrations – play themselves out? And how might any or all of this – stories that began over a century ago – matter at a broader level? These are just some of the questions that I’m hoping to explore with this project.

This collaborative blog is a site of exploration. The stories here are not the polished products you’ll find on bookstore shelves or in your favourite academic journal database. Rather, these stories are questions, unfinished explorations, introspective musings, conceptual threads…. bits and pieces that will slowly, as the project progresses, start to reveal a bigger picture. Through them, you – and we – will be able to  follow our research process and trace the different trajectories into which our questions and searchings will take us.

The work here is conceptual, theoretical, archival, methodological. We’ll explore theory. We’ll make regular forays into the archives, searching out visual and textual histories. We’ll explore a range of secondary sources. And slowly but surely, we’ll start to pull various pieces together.

© Sonja Boon ( August 2015


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