If there is one thing that is evident from the Slave Registers, it is the amount of speculation in which slave owners engaged. Buying and selling was an art of negotiation and jostling through which slave owners built their fortunes and, of course, their social cachet.
Among these owners was the British-born John Bent, a man who has faded into obscurity even as he played an active role on the Surinamese plantation stage in the first half of the nineteenth century.
I went hunting for John Bent because he was listed as the second owner of Sarah plantation, and was probably the first to develop the land (first acquired by Johan Heinrich Dietzel around the turn of the nineteenth century). My quest started with a desire to see if I could figure out where Frederick Noa Redout, born in 1898 according to the 1830 Slave Registers (Slavenregister, Inv.Nr. 40) but ca. 1800 according to the Royal Treasury records, and the oldest of my ancestors to be freed at abolition in 1863, came from. Unsurprisingly, my search went nowhere; I have not yet found records that detail how John Bent acquired the slaves who would work this property.
But my archival peregrinations did offer more insight about John Bent himself, and ultimately, also about nineteenth-century Suriname.
At a biographical level, little is known about John Bent. Born in 1776 to a relatively low brow English family, he later served as MP for Sligo between 1818 and 1820, and then from 1820 to 1826, as MP for Totnes. But as the Legacies of British Slave Ownership project points out, he was also a slave owner in Suriname and Guyana, becoming, by 1838 , according to A. Halberstadt, “one of the most important planters in Suriname.”
John Bent appears to have begun acquiring plantations in Suriname sometime in the early nineteenth century, perhaps during the periods of British control, a period during which he had also been appointed “the Commissioner in Surinam to sequester the property of nationals of France and her allies”. In the 1820 Almanac, he is listed as the owner of a number plantations in various parts of the colony: Descanzo, Domburg, and Sarah. He also owns a final, as yet undeveloped, parcel of land along what was then known as the “Zeekust,” a range of plantation properties located not along a river, but right next to the ocean in the western side of the country. These lands had only recently been opened to development.
Over the next decade, Bent actively engaged in buying. By 1828, for example, he’d added Breedevoort, and de Herstelling to his holdings, and developed his previously unnamed land into Totness Plantation, perhaps in honour of his parliamentary role.
At a certain point, he acquired what appears to have been his dream plantation, which he named Bent’s Hope. Formerly known as Limieshoop, Bent’s Hope lies along the Warappakreek, right at “the confluence of the water from the sea and the creek” (Anonymous); that is, the point where salt water met fresh water. This was prime real estate; according to a late nineteenth-century eyewitness nostalgic for the plantation days of yore, this region lay at the heart of Suriname plantation culture. The Warappakreek was one of the oldest plantation areas and had some of the most gracious houses filled with the grandest things.
na mijne bescheide mening is de Warappakreek de mooiste landbouwstreek geweest en de rijkste ook. Prachtige woonhuizen en loodsen, groote, geplaveide drogerijen (voor katoen en koffie) steenen bruggen over de loostrenzen, majestueuze sluis werken …. Langs beide oevers van de kreek liepen welonderhouden communicatie-weg, die het gezellig verkeer bevorderde …. De streek werd ‘de kleine stad’ genoemd wegens het grootscheepsche waarop alles ingericht was.
In my humble opinion the Warappakreek was the most beautiful agricultural region and also the wealthiest. Beautiful houses and sheds, large, paved drying areas (for cotton and coffee), stone bridges over the canals, majestic lock works …. Along both banks of the creek lay a well-maintained communication path, which promoted social intercourse …. The region was called the “small city” because of the large scale with which everything was decorated.
( E.J. Bartelink Hoe de Tijden Veranderen: Herinneringen van een Oude planter Paramaribo: H. van Ommeren, 1916, 29)
Here, Bent decided to set up a modern sugar cane plantation, ordering the latest in sugar producing technology: a James Watt steam-powered sugar mill. But to make this work, he needed money, and lots of it. While he managed to acquire the necessary funds through creative arrangements with financial institutions, it’s clear from early newspapers and other records that this gamble had not necessarily paid off. Bent’s properties, among them Sarah plantation, were placed under sequestration numerous times and threatened with public auction. Over time, he abandoned most of his other plantations, apparently focusing his energies almost solely on Bent’s Hope.
But all was still not financially well with John Bent. In addition to the various sequestrations, an intriguing hint of this can be found in the Slave Registers of 1830.
Folio 5064, detailing the slaves registered to the names of J. Mackillop, R. Dent and J. Young, consists of a list of over 260 slaves, all purchased from John Bent in December 1833 “on condition of re-purchase over a period of three years” (Slavenregister Inv.Nr. 42). Mackillop and co. appear to have functioned like a pawn shop, guaranteeing the possibility of re-purchase even as they also gave out money that Bent clearly desperately needed.
John Bent died in October 1848. Today, the only thing that remains of Bent’s Hope are the ruins of his sugar mill, a heap of rusting metal in a tangle of dark, damp jungle alive with the sounds of insects. Was Bent’s Hope actually Bent’s Folly?
Anonymous, “Mattapica en Warappa” De West: Nieuwsblad uit Suriname, 24 December 1909.
Halberstadt, A. Vrijmoedige gedachten over de oorzarken van den tegenwoordigen staat van verval der Kolonie Suriname en over de gebreken in het stelsel van regering dier kolonie. 1838.
Hall, Catherine et al. Legacies of British Slave Ownership. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/lbs/.
Nationaal Archief Suriname, Slavenregister, Inv. Nr. 40 fol. 2397-2795
Nationaal Archief Suriname, Slavenregister, Inv. Nr. 42 fol. 4801-5200
Surinaamsche Almanak voor het Jaar 1820. Paramaribo & Amsterdam: E. Beijer and C. G. Sulpke.
Surinaamsche Almanak voor het Jaar 1828. Departement Paramaribo der Maatschappij Tot Nut van ‘t Algemeen, z.p. 1827.
(c) Sonja Boon, 2016. sboon @ mun.ca