Crisscrossing through Frimangron

Sranang Oso, Hubert Hermelijn - 21PHO-250

Kriskras door Frimangron
Cynthia McLeod, S. Prantl, Judith Steinmeier

KIT Publishers, 2003

ISBN: 9789068325379

The Frimangron district borders the centre of Paramaribo. It is the city’s first working-class neighbourhood, created after the first slaves were freed. Kriskras door Frimangron takes you on a walk through this historic district. In between, you can read background stories about the streets and houses you encounter afterwards. The stories in this book form the history of Frimangon and also paint a picture of Surinamese society then and now. These personal testimonies and orally transmitted tories (stories) have never been written down before. It would be a shame if they were lost, because the stories bring the neighbourhood to life.

Hindustani contract workers 1873-1920

Prof Chan E.S. Choenni has chronicled the history of Hindustani contract workers. Not only through extensive literature review and archival research, Choenni also gives an insight into the lives of the contract workers through oral history. For instance, he gives a vivid picture of recruitment and selection in India, transport to the port city of Calcutta/Kolkata and the journey overseas. He also describes the arrival in Suriname and the daily life of the contract workers on the plantations.

Sarnami Hindostani 1920-1960

Sarnami Hindostani 1920–1960: Worteling, identiteit en gemeenschapsvorming in Suriname, volume 1.

Gharietje G. Choenni & Chan E.S. Choenni

Amsterdam: KIT Publishers, 2012

The Lalla Rookh Diaspora Foundation published this book in order to rectify deficiencies in knowledge of the history of the Surinamese Hindustanis (East Indians). 

The book’s introductory chapter deals with the departure of the Hindustanis from India, their life on the plantations, their numerical growth, their progress between 1920 and 1960, and the development of Sarnámi (a linguistic variation of Hindi). A chapter entitled “Settling and taking root” then relates the developments that took place after the contract period, when the Hindustanis created small villages of their own near their rice fields. The hardships of agricultural life are delineated as well as the diligence and perseverance of the settlers. The next chapter is devoted to transport, recounting how after some time many Hindustanis became active as wagoners, truck drivers, and bus drivers. The fourth chapter deals with the differentiation that took place when the children of the paddy farmers became entrepreneurs and craftsmen and later also government officials.

Chapter 5 is about housing. It paints the development from the plantation barracks to the simple dwellings in the villages and finally to the magnificent city houses of Paramaribo. It also describes the medical care the Hindustanis received. Chapter 6 discusses developments in education. Here attention is paid to the deterioration of the position of women in the third generation in Suriname. The setback was halted when later generations of women became better educated. This chapter also addresses the position of homosexual men and lesbians. The last chapter, which focuses on family life, paints the development of the joint family as well as its disappearance after the World War II and discusses Hindustani clothing, jewels, tattoos, food, and identity markers.

These seven chapters alternate with literary portrayals of seven elderly persons, a number of whom now live in the Netherlands, who reminisce about their lives in Suriname in the past.

Eighty in-depth interviews with elderly Hindustanis living both in Suriname and in the Netherlands form the main source of this book. The data they provide are subsequently checked in other (mostly written) sources. A reasonable number of Hindustanis say, for example, that the East Indians never asked for help from governmental social security, but the archives of these institutions prove that this is an exaggeration (pp. 16–17). So, the oral information is not blindly accepted, but critically evaluated. Choenni and Choenni call their method triangulation, which means that they have tried to get a reliable image of the situation by consulting various kinds of sources. Therefore this study fits the recent trend among historians of giving attention to oral history as an important addition to the written sources composed mainly by the writing elite and by the people governing the country. One could say that oral history is the history of the oppressed, which certainly is something that pops up in the material of this book. It is full of stories about the hardships people suffered in India even before their transportation to the Caribbean, the oppression on the plantations, the poverty and lack of medical care in the first years on the plantations and in the new settlements, and the discrimination against Hindustanis by the other population groups of the country.

In spite of the book’s merits, its sloppy writing style causes many inaccuracies. For example, the authors write that Columbus discovered Suriname (p. 37), which is untrue. Or again, there are many spelling errors or strangely written Dutch words, such as Hinduïsme instead of hindoeïsme. Other errors could have been prevented if the necessary academic literature had been consulted; people with the title maharaj are said to be chattri’s (p. 645), while in reality they are Brahmans (Clarke 1967:178–80). And a description of the development of the Hindu literary tradition (p. 434) is colored by the views of some Hindu religious experts, but deviates from the findings of authoritative research on the subject. These errors reflect a failure to engage academic fields outside of the social sciences.

Lands of Freedom

Deep in the Amazon rainforest of South America, reside a small community of Africans, whose ancestors escaped from slavery hundreds of years ago. They went on roving raids to liberate their brothers and sisters, and fought with the colonial army for their right to exist in peace.
They are the known as the Matawai Maroons.
This is their story.

Photo from Edward C. Green papers, National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution (box 3)

The Amazon Conservation Team en de Matawai gemeenschap



With the awareness that the history and memory of slavery still continue to play a structuring role in multicultural societies today, and largely constitute the matrix of racial injustices which still victimize Africans and their descendants throughout the world, in 1994 UNESCO decided to launch the project  The Slave Route: resistance, freedom, heritage . The initial objective of this multidisciplinary project was to “break the silence” on the tragedy of trafficking and slavery in the world, by casting light on their scale, their root causes, their challenges and their modalities of operation. The project aimed to highlight more concretely the global transformations and cultural interactions resulting from these constrained interactions, to promote scientific research on this theme, and to preserve the tangible and intangible cultural heritage associated with it.
Today the project focuses its efforts on delivering a new narrative that moves the gaze from the slavers to the “slaves” themselves. Indeed, until now, the methods of writing history have mainly focused on exploring the archives and traces left by slavers. Historians faced the paradoxical task of writing an objective history about the reality of the condition of millions of men and women who had been thrown into the violence of slavery, but only from the perspective of the executioner, through an understanding of his narration, and administrative and juridical context. Now, we are carrying out an ethical reversal, which in fact invites a new epistemology: namely, that of reinscribing in the writing of the history of slavery a strangely silent voice, that of these very men and women who have suffered from, but also resisted, this system which reduced them to the condition of “movable property”.


This new narrative, currently under development, is constructed from “new” materials, or better said, materials which had until recently held little interest for a certain historiographical tradition. Until now, the few recorded biographical accounts in existence have served as the primary support for this endeavor; but, the main material, which are the oral archives (testimonies, tales, songs, expressions, etc.) are still largely under-developed despite some promising work on subjects such as the formation of the Maroons.
Facing very similar ethical and epistemological issues in the 1960s in the process of rewriting African history from the perspective of Africans themselves, the Scientific Committee of the General History of Africa (composed of eminent historians such as Joseph Kizerbo or Cheick Anta Diop), or even the pioneering work of Jan Vansina, had largely cleared the ground by exposing the shortcomings of a Eurocentric methodological conception. The notion of archive had to be “decolonized”. This titanic work, which called for the rehabilitation of oral sources, prompted UNESCO to create two centers for the collection and processing of oral tradition, in West Africa (Niger) with the CELHTO (Center for the Linguistic and Historical Study by oral tradition), and in Central Africa (Cameroon) with CERDOTOLA (Regional Center for Research and Documentation on Oral Traditions and for the Development of African Languages).

The Amazon Conservation Team (ACT) is taking action to help the Matawai safeguard their intangible cultural heritage. Since 2015, ACT has been partnering with the Matawai civil society organization Stichting voor Dorpsontwikkeling Matawai to use a participatory methodology training young Matawai to record and interview their elders about Matawai oral history.


To date, the initiative has produced more than 17 hours of footage of more than 150 historically significant sites along the Saramacca River.

34 elders from villages across Matawai were interviewed at length, with as many points of view represented as possible.


Photo credit: Amazon Conservation Team



The Historical Vision of an African American People

Richard Price


The University of Chicago Press

First-Time is an extraordinary collection of oral testimonies about the lives of eighteenth-century Saramakas, Afro-American maroons who escaped from slavery and settled in the tropical rain forest of Suriname. Proverbs, songs, prayers, genealogical nuggets, and contemporary engravings are woven into a fascinating interpretation of past events. They contain moving evocations of daily life two centuries ago — battles and love stories, political rivalries and ritual celebrations. And in the hands of the world’s foremost authority on maroon societies, they become a key to understanding the most striking aspect of modern Saramaka life: a people’s consciousness of living within history, shaped by the deeds of their ancestors and shaping the lives of their own descendants.


Half of each page in First-Time is devoted to direct transcriptions of the words of individual Saramakas, pieced together to reveal the order and coherence of their historiography. Price’s commentaries placing the Saramaka accounts into broader social, intellectual, and historical contexts appear directly below the translations. His unique presentation not only preserves the integrity of both oral and documentary historical accounts but also unites them in a meditation on the role of history in modern life.


“With a fine eye for detail, a scholar’s touch, and a sense of compassion, Price offers us a double account of Saramaka history. He gained the confidence and friendship of living Saramakas, and they offered him their most secret and powerful memories. Thus we are allowed to witness, as closely as anyone shall, slaves escaping, surviving, and forging a new sense of themselves in a harsh environment. To this vivid account Price juxtaposes the Western historical view. By preserving in writing now-flagging oral memories, Price serves both the Western and the Saramaka communities. Distant figures become our companions and distant events our concern in this fresh and distinctive book.”
–Stephen Gudeman, University of Minnesota


First-Time is evidence of the fact that acute political and epistemological self-consciousness need not lead to ethnographic self-absorption, or to the conclusion that it is impossible to know anything certain about other people. Rather, it leads to a concrete sense of why a Saramaka folktale … teaches that ‘knowledge is power, and that one must never reveal all of what one knows.'”
–James Clifford, in Writing Culture