Within the first year of moving to St. John’s, just after our sons started learning how to play chess, we drove past the cemetery at the intersection of Mayor and Empire Avenues, just down the road from the university. My younger son, then just four, pointed eagerly out the window: “Chess pieces!” he said with enthusiasm.
I can see his point. The varied tombstones and grave markers in the many cemeteries around the province do look like chess pieces, but this was a connection that I, personally, had never made.
I have loved cemeteries for years. The quiet. The solitude. And of course, the stories. I look at the names etched into stones. I look at the messages left by friends and family. I look at the way that people are remembered on the tombstones. And I look at shapes and sizes. There are whole lives here, lives and stories all gathered in a small plot of lands.
And so, it was not surprising that I would want to visit Paramaribo’s Nieuwe Oranjetuin Cemetery last year. The Nieuwe Oranjetuin is in the middle of Paramaribo’s old city. In use between 1756 and 1921, this cemetery houses the bodies of some of Paramaribo’s most illustrious residents (who apparently paid with sugar for the privilege of being buried there). But now, overgrown and untended, most of its graves are buried under long grasses, or have been otherwise damaged or destroyed. Photos taken by members of the Stichting Gebouwd Erfgoed Suriname in 2012 show a dirty, unkempt space, filled with random garbage.
As a visitor, I couldn’t even get close to it. The cemetery is locked, with chains and padlocks at the gates. All I could do was zoom in from a distance, and my point and shoot camera was not nearly up to the task. But my photos, too, show an untended space. Now, at a distance of several thousand kilometres, I can only look with longing at the photographs while I wait for my Interlibrary Loan of Grafzerk en Suikerwerk, namen op oude grafstenen in Suriname en Brits Guyana, by Frederick Oudschans Dentz to appear.
Among the muckety mucks whose bones are interred at the Nieuwe Oranjetuin Cemetery are those of Frederika Rosette Dessé, a woman who died in 1853.
Her last name – Dessé – heralds her status. Anthony Dessé, the man who owned the plantation where my one branch of my ancestors were enslaved, was one of the biggest plantation owners in the period immediately preceding Emancipation. In 1863, when slavery was abolished, he owned many plantations – among them Leasowes & Clyde, Good Intent, Inverness, Sarah, Catharina Sophia, and Paradise – and over 1000 slaves. The Dutch state paid him F96 000 in compensation for the slaves at Plantation Sarah, alone. It stands to reason, then, that Frederika Rosette would be buried at the Nieuwe Oranjetuin, given her association with this very powerful man.
But this story, as so many other stories in slave-owning societies, is much more complicated. Anthony Dessé seems to have arrived in Suriname at some point in his late teens. It’s thought that he came from Guadeloupe, or perhaps from Santo Domingo. In any case, he was not a white European man, but rather of mixed racial background. After his arrival he somehow worked his way up the social and economic hierarchy, to the point where he owned prime plantations and hundreds of slaves.
At one point, he also owned Frederika Rosette.
Named Roosje on the small Plaisance plantation, she was manumitted in 1838 along with her eldest child, a son named Edmund (Surinaamsche Courant 10 August 1838).
At that time, both Roosje and Edmund took the last name “van Nederoord.” Just over a decade later, Dessé petitioned for Roosje and Edmund, as well as seven other children – Edwin, Elvira, Ethelrid, Eleonora, William Henrij, Henriette Dorothij, and James – to take the last name Dessé. Roosje, meanwhile, changed her whole identity, moving away from her slave appellation – a diminutive, child-like name with a last name tagged on upon manumission – to the much more regal Frederika Rosette Dessé, a transformation that showed that she had arrived in Surinamese society.
Unfortunately, she did not get much opportunity to celebrate her newfound social status. Nor do we know how well she was received – if at all – in elite Paramaribo society. A few years after her Cinderella-esque rebirth, Frederika Rosette Dessé had passed away. Listed in the official records as “unmarried” at her death, she nevertheless benefitted from Dessé’s wealth and status and was buried in the Nieuwe Oranjetuin. Her surviving children, all of whom carried their father’s name, were officially acknowledged, by law, soon after her death.
Five years after the abolition of slavery, Anthony Dessé died, just a week after his daughter, Eleonora’s marriage to her first husband Edmund Oldfield, a British-born doctor. After Oldfield’s death at the age of 49, Eleonora married again, this time to a Dutch-born plantation agent and administrator named Severinus van Lierop (seen here in a portrait completed in 1841, well before the marriage). Twice a widow, Eleonora ran plantation Leasowes, site of a well-known slave uprising in 1836, in the post-Emancipation period after her first husband’s death. She passed away in 1905. (Interestingly, she also had a schooner named after her. This schooner travelled between Paramaribo, Nickerie, and Demerara – called Demerarij by the Dutch – ferrying goods and labourers between locations). Ethelrid Dessé, meanwhile, undertook medical training in the UK and later, in The Netherlands. He died in 1889 in Barbados at the age of just 46. Edmund, finally, was also a plantation owner (sharing ownership of some of his father’s plantations with his sister’s first husband, before taking over one of them – Burnside – after Oldfield’s death). He married Mathilde Petronelle Landt, with whom he had a daughter in 1882. He died in 1888, after a long illness. Edmund, too, was buried in the Nieuwe Oranjetuin.
It was fairly easy to trace the life journeys of Dessé’s heirs. Much more hidden is the story of their mother, a woman who began her life in slavery and ended it in the most posh resting place of all.
Here’s to you, Roosje.
© Sonja Boon (sboon @ mun.ca), 2016