names and identities

One of the interesting things I’ve discovered while working through the immigration records of those labourers who came on the Kate Kellock is evidence of processes of what might be termed “Dutchification”; that is, process through which indentured labourers navigated the complexities of cultural assimilation in the years after their arrival in Suriname.

The immigration records are sometimes very detailed, tracing not only an individual’s arrival, but also their subsequent lives in the colony. Thus, the record includes details on marriages, children, grand children and even great-grandchildren. If a labourer married another labourer, for example, then the records are cross-referenced, so that this relationship is marked in both records. If a woman gave birth during the period of her contract, the name, sex and date of birth were recorded in the immigration record. So, too, do the records detail deaths (and causes) and departures. And, in the case of children orphaned after the deaths of their parent(s), the records indicate fostering arrangements and later, record the entry of children into their own labour contracts (often around age 10 or 11).

In some instances, these records are substantial, moving from the 1874 arrival of the Kate Kellock and into the middle of the twentieth century. They might, then, be read as a form of family tree, in which lineage is traced and mapped not by the family or by the church, but by the state. Particularly intriguing in these “family trees” are the transitions – at which point did those who came to Suriname as indentured labourers take on Western identities?

Some labourers and their descendants stayed in Suriname for decades and always maintained strong Hindu, Muslim and South Asian identities. Marriages occured within ethnic and religious communities, and these identities were then also reflected in naming practices. In other cases, mixed relationships resulted in new naming practices, as individuals and families moved into different social, religious, and cultural positions in Suriname.

Consider, for example, the record of Dassia Bhowandeen, a 16-year-old girl from the district of Allahabad who arrived in 1874 with her fifty-year old father and 14-year-old brother. Dassia gave birth to two children during her contract period: a son born almost exactly one year after her arrival (January 1875) and a daughter, Mungary, born in 1879, within the first year of Dassia’s second contract at the Zorg en Hoop plantation.

Residential dwelling, Plantage Zorg en Hoop, Suriname, ca. 1928.  Image courtesy of: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Residential dwelling, Plantage Zorg en Hoop, Suriname, ca. 1928.
Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( ], via Wikimedia Commons

Dassia died of consumption in 1881, at the age of 23. Her son drowned a year later.

But her daughter, Mungary, integrated into Surinamese society. In 1897, Mungary gave birth to a daughter. At some later point, she appears to have left her Hindu heritage behind. She entered into a relationship with one Richard Currie and gave birth to a second daughter. The record is unclear as to the order of these two events, but what is clear is that Richard and Mungary legally acknowledged their status as parents to these two girls in 1921, when the eldest daughter was 24 years old. On 5 July 1951, seventy-five years after Dassia Bhowandeen set foot on Surinamese soil, her daughter – by this time over 70 years old – changed her name from Mungary to Margaretha and chose Dasia as her last name, in this way seemingly acknowledging both her past – Dasia – and her present – Margaretha. That same day, Mungary’s eldest daughter – born on plantation in 1897 – formally changed her name to Louise Maria Currie.

Other records also reveal shifts. Huffeejun, a six year old Muslim girl who arrived from Lucknow with her parents and four siblings, was orphaned after the deaths of her parents later in 1874. Fostered from 1877 with a family in Paramaribo, she gave birth to five children between 1888 and 1898. While their father’s name is not noted, they were all given Western, and in two cases specifically Dutch, names – Willem Marius, Willem Gerhardus, Emma Elisabeth, Mathilda Rosalia, Antcella Cornelia – which suggests that their father (or fathers) was Dutch or European.

Waterkant, Paramaribo, ca. 1880-1900.  Image: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Waterkant, Paramaribo, ca. 1880-1900.
Image: Tropenmuseum, part of the National Museum of World Cultures [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( ], via Wikimedia Commons

 One might think, then, that the process of assimilation was fully accomplished by this point. But in 1904, Huffeejun married another former indentured labourer, a Hindu man named Ajmma who arrived on the Calcutta in November 1873. While this would appear to mark an apparent return to the history and heritage of her birth, the story is more complicated. Huffeejun and Ajmma may have shared the experience of indenture, and they may have both hailed from India, but Huffeejun, if we recall, was Muslim. Ajmma, meanwhile, was Hindu. Their worlds intersected, certainly, but were not the same.

In another twist, Huffeejun’s eldest son chose at the age of 54 to change his name from Willem Marius to Sewnarain Doerga, here apparently taking on a Hindu identity.

Naming – as it emerges in state-structured family trees – offers one window into the processes of cultural assimilation. Such windows are opaque, and silences remain. The records rarely name fathers, for example, and, when the record indicates that a man recognized children as his own, it’s not always clear that these children were biologically related to him. Nor can we be certain that the records are complete; it’s entirely likely that some immigrants didn’t bother updating their information after a certain point. But what these two records do demonstrate is that processes of cultural assimilation were not linear. Rather, they were complex, complicated and messy, shaped by geography, politics, culture, and ideology, but also by class, race, ethnicity, religion, and gender.

Header image: Detail from:

© Sonja Boon, 2015


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