colonial thinking

My apologies for the slight delay in the Unintended Reader post this week … it’s been a busy time, but the thinking has still been happening, if in a slightly more piecemeal fashion.

I’ve returned to some documents I accessed at the Dutch National Archives just last month….

Documents of the Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij, which purchased and ran a few plantations in the late nineteenth century (notably Mariënburg, but also, for a short while, de Resolutie, where one of my ancestors worked), include the reports and notices for a relatively short-lived employment immigration venture, a share-based company that sought to import Chinese “coolies” to Suriname to work the cane fields.

From the “Prospectus eener op te rigten Surinaamsche Immigratie-Maatschappij,” a proposal for a shareholder-based “Surinamese Immigration Society” (Dutch original, followed by translation):

“Ieder weet, dat de slavernij in de kolonie Suriname sedert twee jaren is afgeschaft, en dat de negers thans op werkcontracten, gelijk zij door de wet verpligt zijn, tegen loon op de plantages arbeiden; maar ieder weet niet, welke van dat stelsel de uitkomsten zijn; soms leest men in de dagbladen dat de emancipatie de schoonste vruchten heeft gedragen en dat de kolonie in vollen bloei is; dan weder, dat de productie schrikbaren vermindert en de kolonie snel achteruitgaat. De waarheid is, dat zóóver de emancipatie niet is mislukt, dat desertie der negers, ja moord en doodslag, ‘t welk sommigen als gevolg van dien maatregel voorspiegelden, niet hebben plaats gevonden en zelfs de negers meerendeels aan het werk zijn gebleven, hetgeen overtreft wat men bij zulke onbeschaafde lieden na het bekomen der vrijheid verwachten kon; maar het is even waar dat hun werk is ongeregeld, onvoldoende, niet toereiken voor eene normale productie; dat zij zwaardere werk, de suikercultuur, langzamerhand verlaten (en deze is en moet toch de hoofdcultuur der kolonie zijn) om zich bij voorkeur te verhuren op de planterijen van bijproducten.”

“Everyone knows that slavery in the colony of Suriname was abolished two years ago, and that the Negroes now on work under contract for paid wages, as they are bound by law; but one does not know what the outcome of that system is; sometimes one reads in the newspapers that emancipation has borne the finest fruits and the colony is in full bloom; then again, that production has decreased at a shocking rate and the colony is rapidly deteriorating. The truth is that to the extent that emancipation has not failed, that the desertion of the blacks, and yes, even murder, which some foresaw as the outcome of this process, have not taken place and that the Negroes have, for the most part, even remained at work, which surpasses what one might have expected from such uncivilized people after the acquisition of liberty; but it is equally true that their work is irregular, inadequate, and insufficient to sustain normal production; that they are gradually abandoning heavy work and the sugar industry (and this is – and should be – the main culture of the colony) in order to hire themselves out to work with the by-products.”

Clearly, according to the directors of this organization, something needed to be done. After all, the whole purpose of the colony was to produce sugar, and the labour on sugar cane plantations was hard labour, much harder than that of coffee or cotton plantations.

The hand-written annual report, delivered at the Society’s 27 December 1867 meeting, indicates that the organization was having some problems meeting the requisite gender-based quota system. The government had imposed a requirement that women had to make up ¼ of each shipload of labourers. But this was difficult; Chinese women, they discovered, were not particularly predisposed to leaving their country, with the result that this regulation “has seriously constrained the society’s operations from the beginning, and resulted in significant disadvantages.”

In other words, they were losing money.

Not that they were against such a ruling, the directors hastened to add; they were aware that successful colonization “naturally required a certain proportion of women.”

Not a problem, the Suriname Immigration Society said, and they proposed a practical solution to the government:

“Op deze gronden, en ook vooral daarom, dat in Suriname thans de vrouwelijke bevolking veel grooter dan de mannelijke is, en dat het sluiten van huwelijken tusschen Chinezen en negerinnen geen bezwaar schijnt te ontmoeten hebben wij aan de Regering de intrekking van deze imperative bepaling voorgesteld en zulks ook verkregen.”

“On these grounds, and in particular, because, the female population in Suriname is now much larger than the male, and that the conducting of marriages between Chinese [men] and Negresses does not appear to have met with any objections we have proposed to the government the repeal of this provision, and have also obtained it. “

The sheer callousness of colonial business thinking never ceases to surprise me.

Want to see more photos of Mariënburg? The Surinaams Museum has posted a number here, here, here, here, and here)

 

References

Nationaal Archief, Nederlands Handel-Maatschappij, 1824-1964, Archiefinventaris 2.20.01, Inv. Nr. 12887.

 

© Sonja Boon sboon @ mun.ca

 

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