Algemene kaart van Suriname, Alexander de Lavaux, Hendrik de Leth, Directeurs van de sociëteit van Suriname, 1737 – 1757. (Rijksmuseum RijksStudio)
Publishers in the colony of Suriname produced annual Almanacs between the late 1700s and the mid-twentieth century, right around the time that Suriname’s status changed from colony to country (under home rule). These works differ in approach and content, but they can offer insight into how the colony organized and understood itself.
I’ve only just started perusing them, working my way forward from 1820, the oldest digitized one that I have access to, to 1955. But even at this early point, I’m already struck by certain details.
The 1820 Almanac opens with a detailed calendar for the year. Dates tell stories, and I am struck – although, once I really think about it, unsurprised – that this calendar lists both Christian and Jewish holy days, gesturing towards the Dutch colonization as well as to the large Jewish planter population. Today’s Almanac, would, I imagine, have left some of these behind and instead made room for holy, feast or celebration days important to some of the other communities who have since made Suriname home. These might include, among others, Chinese New Year, the Hindu Holi, and the Muslim Eid al-Fitr. So, too, would today’s Almanac include state-sanctioned dates of political relevance; that is, dates central to the construction of Suriname’s national identity: Day of the Revolution (25 February), keti koti – literally “cut chains” or Emancipation Day (1 July), Indigenous Peoples’ Day (9 August), and Independence Day (25 November).
But the calendar also includes important historical dates, situating the reader within a larger and longer history that reaches well beyond European shores. For example, the Almanac tells its readers that the prophet Muhammad died on June 17 in 631. One day and 1184 years later, the battle of Waterloo was fought, an even also listed in the calendar. Closer to my current Canadian home is mention of the British takeover of the island of St. Pierre (now French) on May 7, 1793. The Almanac tells me that the British were busy that year: on August 23, 1793, they staged what is now known as the Siege of Pondicherry, seeking control of what was then French India. The great Lisbon earthquake (1 November 1755) is also listed, as is a terrible Dutch storm in 1756 (6 October 1756). So, too, does the Almanac list familiar political names: Napoleon and his various exploits figure prominently, but so too do we find Cromwell, Czar Peter, Erasmus, and Martin Luther.
Paging further through the Almanac (or clicking through, which isn’t nearly as evocative an image), leads me to a general history of the colony, followed by a geographical description, which gives insights into both flora and fauna as well as to the architecture and general landscape of the more urban area of Fort Zeelandia and Paramaribo.
Gezicht op Paramaribo, Johan Antonie Kaldenbach, J.H. Hottinger, 1770 – 1818 (Rijksmuseum RijksStudio)
Suriname, in this way, is not just an isolated outpost, but part of a larger colonial history that stretches across oceans and continents.
What’s interesting, of course, is the relationship between the stories the Almanac chooses to tell and those that it chooses to leave out, a project for a later date when I’ve had the time to explore in greater detail.