(Photo: pathway into the former Bent’s Hope Plantation, Warappakreek, Suriname. July 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon)
I’ve spent the last two weeks working at the Nationaal Archief Suriname in Paramaribo. In some respects, it’s a fantastic place to be: the staff is friendly, the materials arrive with efficiency, the other patrons are relaxed, and it’s air conditioned, which is ideal when it’s over 30 degrees outside, every single day. And who wouldn’t want to be in the tropics? Papaya for breakfast. Soursop juice for lunch. And a yummy smorgasbord of evening meal possibilities brought to you by the wonders of imperialism and colonialism. In the past two weeks, I’ve enjoyed Chinese, Indonesian, Indian, and Creole meals, sharing most with my aunt and uncle, the only family members who still live in Suriname. In a word, it’s been fantastic.
But this work is haunted. It’s challenging. It’s difficult.
I’ve been in the archives, one of my favourite places to be, but I’ve been looking through slave registers. Volumes and volumes of them. 1830. 1838. 1840. These are the account books of slavery, their columns marking purchases and sales. Each slave is listed at least twice: in the records of the owner who sold them, and then, once more, in the record of the owner who purchased them. The records extend further as the sales and purchases add up: 4, 6, 8.
Some owners maintained stable slave populations; there are few sales or purchases. Others, however, were of a more speculative bent, and their records show extensive buying and selling as human property exchanged hands.
It’s hard to read such records. It’s difficult to immerse oneself into a world that you can’t imagine inhabiting, a world you have absolutely no desire to inhabit. But this is a world I need somehow to understand if I am to understand my own research at all. I have to work past my resistance. I have to look through colonial eyes, no matter how hard this is, no matter how little I want to, no matter how much I’d rather look away, close my eyes, return the volumes to the staff.
But every now and then, I come across slave owners who are different. One such owner was a man named Jan Houthakker. Like many owners, Houthakker possessed numerous slaves, well over 100 over a twenty-year period. But unlike the majority of his fellow slave owners, he didn’t buy them to own them; he bought them to free them (Nationaal Archief Suriname, Slavenregister, Inv.Nr. 40).
It is, as Okke ten Hove observes, the ultimate irony of a slave-based system that you could only free slaves by first purchasing them. But that’s exactly what Houthakker did, subverting a system designed to benefit slave owners by using it to benefit the enslaved.
In a twenty-year period, he manumitted over 120 slaves. How’s that for using the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house (Lorde).
But how might this come about?
The Dutch educational website slavernijenjij.nl offers some insight. Houthakker, the authors observe, was himself a manumitted slave. Originally named Flink, he was manumitted in October 1838 and written into the Registry of Citizens in 1841. From this point on, he could own property, including slaves. But the story goes even further back than this. Flink had been owned by a group of three men. Of those two had previously been enslaved; their owner, one Mary van McNeil, had also been enslaved. It would seem that Houthakker’s vocation was a responsibility, an inheritance gifted to him by those who came before him. It was clearly something he took seriously, and as the records show, it was something that some of those who were freed through his work also took up.
Thus Ferdinand Touh, who was freed in September 1854 (and whose last name is an obvious homage to Houthakker), furthered his ‘master’s’ legacy: in November 1859 he freed Ernstina Frederika Omzigtig and her three-year-old son, Julius Ferdinand Omzigtig (Nationaal Archief Suriname, Slavenregister, Inv. Nr. 40; “Suriname: Manumissies,” ghaetna.nl).. So, too, did Salomon Adam Schelts, freed in December 1857, later free a child – Rudolf, born in 1857 – on 24 December 1860 (“Suriname: Manumissies”, gahetna.nl). Perhaps in homage to the man who manumitted him, Rudolf became Rudolf Schel.
Houthakker appears to have purchased and manumitted both “private” (individually-owned) and “plantation” (belonging to the larger property of the plantation) slaves; he also appears to have purchased and manumitted both young and old. In some instances, he manumitted single people, each of whom acquired a last name. In others, he manumitted whole families.
Some families came intact, purchased as a group from a single owner. Thus, for example, he purchased Fanny, her daughter Santje, and two grandchildren, Eduard and Herman from an owner named Faerber in January 1860, with the express purpose of granting them freedom. This family was officially manumitted in December 1862, by which point Santje had had one more child, a son named Julius (Nationaal Archief Suriname, Slavenregister, Inv. Nr. 40)
But some manumissions were not as straightforward.
A group of three slaves – Meyntje, Heintje, and Salomon Adam – purchased from Van Eyck in January 1856 and manumitted together in December 1857 as Maria Susanna, Hendrik, and Salomon Adam Schelts, do not on the surface appear to be related. Born in 1802, 1811 and 1828 respectively, they all had different mothers. How then, were they united as a single family unit? It’s possible, in this case, that they were cousins. Or, perhaps, two cousins and a nephew. This is ultimately impossible to discern.
In some instances, families had already been separated by the realities of slavery and a series of purchases were necessary before a family could be reunited and freed under a single name.
Consider, for example, the case of Willie, Johanna, and Patientie Koen. Willie and Johanna, born in 1845 and 1843 respectively, were the property of one F. W. Faerber, from whom Houthakker purchased them in January 1860. Patientie, their mother, born in 1808, was the property of L. M. Kohn (perhaps the origin of their manumitted name of Koen), from whom Houthakker purchased her one month later, in February 1860 (Nationaal Archief Suriname, Slavenregister, Inv.Nr. 40). They were manumitted together, as a family, on Christmas Eve 1862, six months before abolition, taking the names Jacoba Patientie, Christiaan Willie, and Cecilia Johanna Koen. Interestingly, another woman, Hermina Albertina, born in 1849 and also property of L. M. Kohn, was manumitted the same day, and also under the last name Koen (“Suriname: Manumissies,” gahetna.nl).. Was Hermina Albertina Willie and Johanna’s cousin? Again, it’s impossible to know.
While manumission – as practiced by a man like Houthakker – had the capacity to bring families together, it also served to separate families from one another. My own family history includes a multi-generational family of fourteen who were freed in 1863, at manumission, at which point they took the last name Redout. What the emancipation registers don’t say is that there was another family member – Annette – who was manumitted six months earlier under a completely different last name (Nationaal Archief Suriname, Slavenregister, Inv.Nr. 33). While manumission freed her, it also divided her from her family. Houthakker freed numerous individuals; that is, people who do not appear to have been linked by kinship relations with others, at least not others under Houthakker’s ownership. What happened in these instances? Were they freed in order that they might further manumit other members of their families? Were they seen as the most likely to succeed in nineteenth-century society? Were they the product of interracial relationships and thus better positioned for post-manumission social integration? Or were they freed along with other family members under different ownership (like Hermina Albertina Koen)? Any of these options might have been possible.
Buy and Sell.
The Slave Registers are difficult to read, difficult to process, difficult to engage with. But within them I can still find resistance, subversion, and small moments of grace.
Nationaal Archief Suriname, Slavenregister, Inv. Nr. 40 fol. 2397-2795
Nationaal Archief Suriname, Slavenregister, Inv. Nr. 33 fol. 2004-2400
Nationaal Archief, Den Haag, “Suriname: Manumissies” database: http://www.gahetna.nl/collectie/index/nt00340
“Achtergrond: Suriname Manumissies” http://www.gahetna.nl/collectie/index/nt00340/achtergrond
[Hove, Okke ten]. “Manumissies in Praktijk,” http://www.gahetna.nl/collectie/index/nt00340/achtergrond/manumissies-praktijk
Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Maser’s House.”http://collectiveliberation.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Lorde_The_Masters_Tools.pdf
(C) Sonja Boon, 2016. sboon @ mun.ca