Four Women (Part 2)

In my last post, I explored the controversy of Nina Simone’s song ‘Four Women,’ which was the inspiration for Julie Dash’s film of the same name. In ‘Part 2,’ I look more closely at Dash’s visual adaptation of the song.

Some of my initial questions when coming across this film were: Why, about a decade after it’s initial release, did Dash decide to resurrect Simone’s song? Why did she dedicate one of her first filmmaking projects to this re-presentation of ‘Four Women’?

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Screenshot of Julie Dash’s Four Women: Colourful cinematography and kinetic editing.

In “The Oppositional Gaze: Black Female Spectators,” bell hooks (1992) explores the issues of race in cinematic representations and looking relations. hooks discusses the problematic depictions of Black individuals in American cinema, saying “When most black people in the United States first had the opportunity to look at film and television, they did so fully aware that mass media was a system of knowledge and power reproducing and maintaining white supremacy” (hooks 117).

Because Black communities were either underrepresented, or misrepresented, in the media, the “oppositional black gaze” responded by developing a black independent cinema that worked to redirect the images on screens (hooks 117). In the 1970s, Julie Dash emerged as one of these independent filmmakers.

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Screenshot of Julie Dash’s Four Women: Linda Martina Young dancing within the confines of a veil.

In Four Women, Dash uses Simone’s controversial song as the driving force behind her short film (it can be viewed here: As her own creative contribution to Simone’s musical narrative, Dash’s opens the film with a sequence in which dancer Linda Martina Young is wrapped in fabric, body nearly indiscernible as she twists and turns to the sounds of chanting, whips lashing, and waves crashing. The soundscape is subtle, but incredibly poignant, alluding to America’s role in the transatlantic slave trade, and ultimately situating the performance within that haunting historical context.

This filmic prologue to Simone’s searing ballad effectively prompts viewers to see how legacies of slavery are reflected in contemporary Black identities.

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Screenshot of Julie Dash’s Four Women: dancer Linda Martina Young evokes the constraints of, and resistance to, legacies of slavery.

This opening scene explicitly situates Simone’s song within the historical context of America’s racial past – it let’s the audience know that Simone’s music is not just about ‘Four Women’. It is actually for women. For the African American women, like Simone, and like Dash, who recognize the racism present in America’s past, and present. The women who persevere, and pave the way for a future that reflects their individual, and collective, wants and needs.

“Looking and looking back, black women involve ourselves in a process whereby we see our history as counter-memory, using it as a way to know the present and invent the future” (hooks 131).

In a way, Dash’s depiction of Simone’s four women through one body (the dancer, Linda Martina Young) may be interpreted as a reclamation of the stereotype that has overshadowed representations of Black female subjectivity throughout mass media.

Much like the effect of Simone singing all four verses, Dash’s film represents Black female subjectivity through the performance of the individual, allowing her to simultaneously critique the synecdochal operation of stereotypes. By re-presenting the images of Black femininity that have persisted over the years, Dash challenges the “burden of representation” by drawing attention to the political implications and the ontological limits of racial stereotyping.

In a similar sense, by pairing dance with Simone’s music, Dash’s experimental film also offers us new ways to think about black female subjectivity and black female spectatorship.

When thinking of films, it is all too easy to think of looking relations as one-directional: the subject is looked at by the spectator. However, when we speak of an oppositional gaze, hooks’ encourages us to explore the relationship between image and spectator even more closely (131). While the Black female spectator looks to the screen, how does the screen then look back upon the viewer? What kinds of representations exist for the Black female spectator?

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Julie Dash’s Four Women: offering new ways to approach critical ‘looking’.

In the case of Dash’s Four Women, we take these looking relations one step further. By having a dancer as the sole performer, Dash draws attention to the constructedness of the screen; in classic narrative film, it is all too easy to get swept away by the stories of other characters – for example, with Hollywood’s ‘seamless’ editing style – but through this experimental performance, we become more aware of the relationship between viewer and subject. The dancer performs on a stage, a place that exists for the purpose of performance. While there is no illusion of reality in Dash’s film, this, in a way, allows us to more effectively critique reality (in this case, the reality and politics of racial representation).

We as viewers are forced to recognize that we are watching a performance; we are forced to consider more closely our role as spectator and thus, interpreter of images of Black femininity.

As the four women ponder at the end of their respective verses, “What do they call me?” we, as spectators/listeners, are asked to consider our own relationship to Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing, and Peaches. Though each woman speaks for herself, we see how their perceptions of self are intertwined with how other people see them. In a way, the viewer/spectator becomes implicated in the process of stereotyping, and are called to question their own role in racial representation through critical looking relations.

Dash, like Simone, does not wish to ignore stereotypes, nor does she expect to easily eliminate them. Rather, she directly approaches them, interrogates them and re-presents them in a way that can help us to further understand the historical roots of these persistent, and indeed problematic, racial stereotypes.

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Julie Dash’s Four Women: challenging the cinematic gaze.

I think it only fitting to leave this post with Thulani Davis’s (2003) beautiful reflection on Nina Simone’s music:

“But it was “Four Women,” an instantly accessible analysis of the damning legacy of slavery, that made iconographic the real women we knew and would become. For African American women it became an anthem affirming our existence, our sanity, and our struggle to survive a culture which regards us as anti-feminine. It acknowledged the loss of childhoods among African American women, our invisibility, exploitation, defiance, and even subtly reminded that in slavery and patriarchy, your name is what they call you. Simone’s final defiant scream of the name Peaches was our invitation to get over color and class difference and step with the sister who said:

My skin is brown/My manner is tough/I’ll kill the first mother I see/ My life has been rough/I’m awfully bitter these days/Because my parents were slaves (‘Four Women’)” (Davis n.p.).



Dash, Julie, director. Four Women. Choreography and performance by Linda Martina       Young, produced by Winfred Tennison, 1975, Vimeo,

Davis, Thulani. “Nina Simone, 1933-2003.” The Village Voice, 2003,  Accessed 6 March 2017.

hooks, bell. Black Looks: Race and Representation. Between the Lines, 1992.

Simone, Nina. “Four Women.” Wild is the Wind, The Verve Music Group, 1966, Spotify,


© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @, 2017.


What if?

A few weeks ago, I received Julie Dash’s book, Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film (1992) in the mail. Like copies of the film itself, this book can run up to $500 (at least according to the website I was browsing), so I was very happy when I finally got my hands on a copy for a reasonable price.


Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film, by Julie Dash. New Press, 1992.

Now, I have written quite a bit already about the film, Daughters of the Dust (1991), but with this new (to me) text, I feel compelled to share some things that stood out to me so far.

Dash’s book is not only a reflection on the making of the film, but it also includes the full script, excerpts from the Gullah translation of the script, a dialogue between Julie Dash and bell hooks, as well as a selection of traditional Geechee recipes.


Traditional Geechee recipes from Daughters of the Dust: The Making of African American Woman’s Film, by Julie Dash. New Press, 1992.

Hopefully, if my mediocre cooking skills are up to the task, I will try my hand with some of these Geechee recipes, but for now I will dive into the dialogue between Dash and hooks.

Their conversation took place on April 26, 1992, in Atlanta, Georgia, and focused on the making of, and reception to, Dash’s 1991 film Daughters of the Dust.

Considering my research thus far has focused on ideas of history, identity, and life writing, I was so excited to see Dash and hooks actually discuss these matters in a critical and reflective way.

 BELL: Part of the challenge of Daughters of the Dust is that it brings us what could be called ethnographic details, though in fact it’s set within a much more poetic, mythic universe. I would like you to talk some about your sense of myth and history (29).

Because Daughters‘ thrives on the portrayal of Gullah culture at the turn of the century – with particularl emphasis on dialect, dress, food, and more – it is easy to see the connection with certain ethnographic films.

However, while noting this connection, hooks’ describes this as a kind of “could-be” ethnography, or a subversive play on the ethnographic genre. Instead of committing to a more structured, prescriptive methodology to explore Gullah culture, Dash creates “a much more poetic, mythic universe” (29).

Commenting on this tension between history and myth, or what hooks calls a “mythobiography” and “mythopoetics,” Dash defines Daughters as speculative fiction (28-29). What she describes as a kind of “what if” approach to storytelling.

 DASH: It’s interesting that you say mythopoetic, because Daughters of the Dust is like speculative fiction, like a what if situation on so many different levels.

Like what if we could have an unborn child come and visit her family-to-be and help solve the family’s problems.

What if we had a great-grandmother who could not physically make the journey north but who could send her spirit with them.

What if we had a family that had such a fellowship with the ancestors that they helped guide them, and so on” (29).

In a way, this ‘what if’ approach to storytelling creates a kind of alternative history. Dash is not concerned with teaching history; rather she conveys it in a creative way. It is not necessarily what is historically true or untrue that is important for Dash, but instead how the story is told.

On this topic of truth in historical film, Dash has critiqued the tendency to approach films like Daughters from what she describes as a “teacher-learner” situation (28). She suggests that when audiences are presented with new information, especially when it is to do with minority groups, they treat these films as a documentary presentation – material on the screen is absorbed as fact, even if it is indeed dramatic fiction (28).

While Dash does present a lot of information on the Sea Islands and Gullah Culture, informed by extensive archival research, she does this by weaving history with myth; fact with fiction.

It is a ‘what if’ approach to how we remember, recall, and perhaps, rewrite history.

 BELL: It’s interesting that whenever an artist takes a kind of mythic universe and infuses it with aspects of everyday reality, like the images of women cooking, often the cinema audiences in this society just isn’t prepared. So few of the articles that I’ve read about Daughters of the Dust talk about the mythic element in the film, because, in fact, there is this desire to reduce the film to some sense of historical accuracy. It is relevant for moviegoers to realize that you did ten years of research for this film – but the point was not to create some kind of documentary of the Gullah, but to take that factual information and infuse it with an imaginative construction (30).

One example of this challenge to representing historical ‘truth’ is Dash’s creative use of indigo in the film.

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Screenshot of flashback scene to an indigo plantation on the Sea Islands. Daughters of the Dust, directed by Julie Dash. Kino International, 1991.

On the Sea Islands, many slaves worked on indigo processing plantations. Indigo was toxic, and tended to stain the hands of those who worked with it. While Dash knew that this blue stain would not have remained on the elders hands all these years after enslavement, she chose to include this imagery as an atypical “symbol of slavery” (31).

DASH: I worked with Dr. Margaret Washington Creel, who is an expert on the Gullah. She was my historical advisor on the project, and she reminded me that, of course, indigo was very poisonous and all that, but that the indigo stain, the blue stain, would not have remained on the hands of the old folks who worked the indigo processing plant. And I explained to her, that yes, I did understand that fully but I was using this as a symbol of slavery, to create a new kind of icon around slavery rather than the traditional showing of the whip marks or the chains … I wanted to show it in a new way” (31).

When we see these elders with their hands stained blue, the question should not be “is this real?” But rather, “what if this was real.” What does this imagery represent, and how can it make us rethink or reimagine history and the legacy of slavery on contemporary bodies?

Dash offers viewers a “new way” of telling stories, of representing history, and of mythologizing memory. Daughters resists its classification and interpretation in terms of “reality” and “authenticity,” by shifting the discourse into the realm of the creative, the mythic, the imaginative … towards the what if.

With Dash’s creative approach to narrative, historical fiction, we see how “what if” can be a powerful, poetic proposition.



Dash, Julie. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film. The New Press, 1992.

Dash, Julie, director. Daughters of the Dust. Kino International, 1991.


© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @, 2017

The Blur Between

When writing about the making her film Daughters of the Dust (1992), Julie Dash credits the archives for helping shape the historical, ethnographic foundation of her story: a Gullah family at the turn of the century, contemplating northern migration from their Sea Island home to the US mainland.

Turning to the archives myself, I decided to browse the photographs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “public domain” collection to see what I could find.

One image caught my eye.

It was a photograph by Henry P. Moore of a group of former slaves on a plantation during the American Civil War (1862).


sea island met

Moore, Henry P. “Negroes (Gwine to de Field), Hopkinson’s Plantation, Edisto Island, South Carolina.” Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862.

 While in residence, [Moore] made some of the earliest and most poignant Civil War photographs of slave life in the Deep South. Moore focused on the changed lives of African Americans in the aftermath of the Union victory (navy and army) at the Battle of Port Royal, South Carolina, in November 1861.

 With the departure of their owners, plantation workers in Union-controlled areas were no longer slaves but, before the Emancipation Proclamation, not yet free. (Metropolitan Museum of Art,*&offset=40&rpp=20&pos=42)

 “No longer slaves but not yet free.”

A liminal state.

Caught between a divided nation,

Between time,

Between place … but where is home in the inbetween?

I think what really caught my attention about this photo was the way in which the plantation workers looked towards the camera. I do not know if this photograph was staged or not, but the fact that the Black workers return the gaze of Moore’s camera really jostles the power dynamics of the photographs. In a way, this gaze seems to acknowledge the tripartite relationship between subject-artist-viewer.

But what does this relationship signify? What power structures exist in this frame, and beyond it?

If we take the title, for example, what can we learn?

After the word “negroes” (a word quite out of date, although only so since about the 1970s) there is the bracketed phrase: “Gwine to de Field.”

gwine (gwīn)

  1. Chiefly Southern & South Midland US

A present participle of go1.

[African American Vernacular English, alteration of going.]

(The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language)

The inclusion of this in the title makes me wonder if it was Moore’s conscious attempt to more “authentically” (a loaded word, yes) represent his subjects? Does this title allow the subjects to speak, in a way? Or is Moore exoticizing their own language? Are the subjects ‘othered,’ and silenced through the power structures imbued in this photographic (and somewhat ethnographic) pursuit?

We also learn from the title that this image depicts a plantation on Edisto Island, one of the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. This is near St. Helena Island, which is the Sea Island in which Daughters of the Dust was set (the focus of my current research).

Julie Dash has said that she wanted to make Daughters of the Dust to tell untold stories, the untold histories.

What stories are held in the frame? What histories are hidden?

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Moore, Henry P. Detail of “Negroes (Gwine to de Field).” Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862.

I look to the woman on the ride side of the photograph, carrying a child. The skirt of her white dress is blurred, as if caught in the midst of movement. At a glimpse it looks ghostly. Mother and child caught in motion – in a flash of the camera, caught between past and present. They may be caught in between – in the liminal – yet, in their ghostly, blurred visage, they appear to transgress the limits of the photograph.

Moore may have wanted to capture a moment, but what he also captured was (a) movement.

In any case, in that blur, I am reminded of the life behind the image. The stories untold and the histories that still resonate.


Dash, Julie. Daughters of the Dust: The Making of an African American Woman’s Film. The New Press, 1992.

Dash, Julie, director. Daughters of the Dust. Kino International, 1991.

Moore, Henry P. “Negroes (Gwine to de Field), Hopkinson’s Plantation, Edisto Island, South Carolina,” photograph, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1862,*&offset=40&rpp=20&pos=42).

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @, 2017


Maneuvering the Master’s House

When I initially began my research about a year ago, I looked mostly to literature on postcolonialism, transnational feminism, and life writing. But as I was primarily interested in how film and gender fit into these general topics, I found myself perusing a book called, Celluloid Ceiling: Women Film Directors Breaking Through (2014). While trying to see if I could find any specific films or filmmakers that might help me hone in on a more specific topic, one paragraph stood out to me:

 Far from Hollywood, Senegalese director Safi Faye realised she could communicate more effectively in visual images rather than words to overcome the multiple languages of her country and avoid using the language of France, the coloniser of her country, Senegal (Kelly and Robson 12).

Although quite short and straightforward – more a survey than anything profoundly theoretical – this quote helped me to think more about the significance of film within (post)colonial contexts.

How does the visual medium of film work through the colonial implications of communication? How does it navigate language differences within (and across) borders? How does it challenge, and engage with, notions of silence?

In a way, Safi Faye’s filmmaking philosophy seems to echo Marlene NourbeSe Philip.

 In man the tongue is

(a) the principle organ of taste.

(b) the principle organ of articulate speech.

(c) the principle organ of oppression and exploitation.

(d) all of the above.

(Philip 59).

the tongue is the principle organ of oppression and exploitation.

Every slave caught speaking his native language shall be severely punished. Where necessary, removal of the tongue is recommended … (Philip 56).

Sometimes I find myself forgetting the histories of power and persecution behind the very words that warp my tongue.

Perhaps I don’t really forget, rather, I fail to notice.

When something becomes seemingly second nature, like language – like my mother-tongue – it becomes hard to defamiliarize it, to distance yourself from it. But this is why it becomes all the more important to remember the many injustices that occur at the level of language.


is my mother tongue.

A mother tongue is not a foreign lan lan lang




— a foreign anguish.


English is

my father tongue.

A father tongue is

a foreign language,

therefore English is

a foreign language

not a mother tongue (Philip 56).

What does this mean then for filmmakers like Safi Faye who are caught between languages? How can the visual help us navigate those colonial histories? Can film maneuver the politics of language more effectively than other textual mediums?

I think also to Audre Lorde, who famously claimed: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (112).

 Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women … know that survival is not an academic skill … It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support (Lorde 112).

If we think of these “tools” in terms of language, how can we apply this to Safi Faye’s approach to postcolonial filmmaking? Can filmmaking dismantle the ‘master’s house’? Or does filmmaking become yet another tool of the ‘master’?

 What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy?” It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable (Lorde 110-111).

Can filmmakers, with unique, passionate, and critical ways of storytelling, direct their lens in a way that is resistant to their patriarchal, racist surroundings? Can filmmaking effectively contribute to (post)colonial conversations?



Kelly, Gabrielle and Cheryl Robson, editors. Celluloid Ceiling: Women Film Directors Breaking Through. Supernova Books, 2014.

Lorde, Audre. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Crossing Press, 1984.

Philip, Marlene NourbeSe. She Tries Her Tongue/Her Silence Softly Breaks. Charlottetown: Ragweed Press, 1989.

© Lesley Butler (lvb717 @, 2017




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.



Warappakreek, at Bent’s Hope Plantation. Suriname. Photo: Sonja Boon.

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.


Walking into what remains of Bent’s Hope Plantation. Warappakreek, Suriname. Photo: Sonja Boon

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.


James Watt Steam Powered Sugar Mill, Bent’s Hope, Warappakreek, Suriname. Photo: Sonja Boon


Bent’s Hope Sugar Mill. Photo: Sonja Boon


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?


The dock at Bent’s Hope, Warappakreek, Suriname. Photo: Sonja Boon



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.

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 @

Buy and sell. And Liberate

(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.

(Boat on the Suriname River, outside Fort Zeelandia. July 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon)

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 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,” So, too, did Salomon Adam Schelts, freed in December 1857, later free a child – Rudolf, born in 1857 – on 24 December 1860 (“Suriname: Manumissies”, 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)

(Photo: Mangroves along the Commewijne River, Suriname. July 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon)

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,” 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.

And Liberate.

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.

(Photo: Nineeenth-Century Officers’ Residences, Fort Zeelandia, Paramaribo. July 2016. Photo: Sonja Boon)


Primary Sources

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:

Secondary Sources

“Achtergrond: Suriname Manumissies”

[Hove, Okke ten]. “Manumissies in Praktijk,”


Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Maser’s House.”
(C) Sonja Boon, 2016. sboon @ 

social mobility, plantation style

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.


Templeman (Fox Cove) Cemetery, Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, 2013


Templeman (Fox Cove) Cemetery, Bonavista Bay, Newfoundland and Labrador, 2013

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.


Petty Harbour, Newfoundland and Labrador, 2014


Petty Harbour, Newfoundland and Labrador, 2014

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.


Nieuwe Oranjetuin, Paramaribo, 2015


Nieuwe Oranjetuin, 2015.


The closest I could get, with zoom, Nieuwe Oranjetuin, 2015.


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).


Surinaamsche Courant, 10 August 1838. Image source:

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.


Surinaamsche courant en gouvernements advertentieblad, 29 June 1850. Image source:

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.


Surinaamsch Weekblad, 14 May 1854. Image source:

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 @,  2016