….en twee fraaije Forte Pianos

I’ve spent the last few days digging around in early nineteenth-century newspaper advertisements (1821-1825), looking to get a sense of what life might have been like for wealthy Surinamese planters living in the colony’s capital, Paramaribo in the decades prior to emancipation. While this does not, at least on the surface, give me much insight into slave lives, it does give a sense of life in a colonial city. These ads could be useful sources for business history – tracking globalization in the nineteenth century, for example – but they’re also interesting in relation to questions of self-making and identity: what people purchased – or imagined they could purchase – can reveal much about how they imagined themselves and their worlds.

Perhaps unexpectedly, the advertisements reveal that they lived lives of luxury – at least if the goods available for purchase are any indication. Merchants – sometimes the captains of incoming ships, sometimes auctioneers, sometimes warehouse keepers – advertised all sorts of things, from simple things like nails and wood to fancy goods: gloves, dresses, stockings, and pomades for women and scarves, ties, and pants for men. So, too, do they advertise fine leather goods and also, hats.

Dress was clearly important and the advertisements lists a variety of fine fabrics, from the most common muslin to silks, satins, cotton, wool, and more. One advertisement offered “supra fijn geborduurd Neteldoek met gebloemde Bouquetten na de laatste smaak” – extra fine muslin embroidered with floral bouquest in the latest tastes (Geprivilegeerde Surinaamsche Courant, 3 March 1825).

Perhaps gesturing towards the links between the colony and the motherland, letter paper and writing materials also figure in the ads. But local presentation and performance also matters: consider the silk parasols, mahogany furniture, cigars, and, as the title to this blog post makes clear: “…twee fraaije Forte Pianos, zynde de besteld werk van der eerste Meesters” – two fine fortepianos, being the commissioned work of first-rate masters (Surinaamsche Courant, 29 May 1821).

Excerpt from an advertisement posted in the Surinaamsche Courant on 29 May 1821 (source: delpher.nl)

Excerpt from an advertisement posted in the Surinaamsche Courant on 29 May 1821 (source: delpher.nl)

Taken together, these ads reveal that the wealthy planters likely led lives of luxury that rivaled those of their family and friends in The Netherlands (and elsewhere).

So, too, do they reveal the specifics of life in a slave-owning plantation colony: I found black hats for slaves, as well as another item of clothing that baffled me completely at first: the “negerbuffel.” What, I wondered, could this be? Based on its positioning within the advertisement, I knew it had to be clothing, and from its name, it had something to do with slaves – but what? J. van Donselaar’s Woordenboek van het Nederlands in Suriname van 1667 tot 1876 came to my rescue. According to Donselaar, a negerbuffel is “jasje of buis bestemd om gedragen te worden door negerslaven”(157); that is an upper-body garment meant to be worn by slaves.

Slaven op weg naar het werk en een groep Creoolse vrouwen (1839). Source: Tropenmuseum Objectnumber 3728-380 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tropenmuseum_Royal_Tropical_Institute_Objectnumber_3728-380_Slaven_op_weg_naar_het_werk_en_een_gr.jpg)

Slaven op weg naar het werk en een groep Creoolse vrouwen (1839). Source: Tropenmuseum Objectnumber 3728-380 (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tropenmuseum_Royal_Tropical_Institute_Objectnumber_3728-380_Slaven_op_weg_naar_het_werk_en_een_gr.jpg)

As I read further through the advertisements, I became quickly interested in questions of geography. The advertisements delineate the quality of their goods by offering specific geographical markers: Westphalia ham, Havana cigars, Marseilles soap, Madeira wine, French fruits in brandy, Italian straw hats, East Indian muslin, Irish butter, Scottish herring, English candles. Paramaribo, an outport city at the edge of a deep, dark jungle was also part of the global markets, and its inhabitants clearly bought into the cosmopolitan identity.

But even as these markers demonstrate Paramaribo’s positioning as a wealthy, cosmopolitan city situated within an immense global network, I also felt, at times, as if I was in a Canadian Dutch expat store; that is, as if I was in a space that carried and contained all the longings for ‘home’ that the migrant Dutch might have had.

In Dutch stores today, you can find all of those things that you associate with Dutch identity: Gouda cheese, of course, but also such easily identifiable Dutch items like stroopwafels, ontbijtkoek, krentenbollen, and drop. Dutch stores also carry other goods that might remind buyers of ‘home’: dish soap, laundry detergent, tea towels, boerenbont dishes, cookbooks, and, of course, the poffertjespan. So, too, will you find Dutch kitsch; things that Dutch people living in The Netherlands may never purchase for themselves but which gain meaning for those living away: poor quality Delft blue featuring kissing children in clogs, for example. Each of these items conjures ‘home’ and taken together, they make it possible for Dutch expats abroad to maintain links with their histories.

For the Dutch planters who lived in Suriname as for the Dutch expats who live in Canada, ‘home’ appears to have come primarily through food: herring, sausages, salt fish, and Edam, Leidse and Limburger cheeses….


© Sonja Boon (sboon@mun.ca). September 2015


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