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Suriname Collection

History Archive - Suriname Collection

Dutch Guiana, or Surinam, has an area of about 57,900 sq. m. British Guiana bounds it on the west and French Guiana to the east, Guyana to the west and Brazil to the south. The various peoples inhabiting Surinam are Dutch Guiana. distributed according to the soil and the products. The history of the Dutch in Guiana, and the compression of their influence within its present limits, belongs to the general history of Guiana (above). Surinam and the Dutch islands of the West Indies were placed under a common government in 1828, the governor residing at Paramaribo, but in 1845 they were separated.

Slavery was abolished in 1863. Labour then became difficult to obtain, and in 1870 a convention was signed between Holland and England for the regulation of the coolie traffic, and a Dutch government agent for Surinam was appointed at Calcutta. The problem was never satisfactorily solved, but the interest of the mother-country in the colony greatly increased during the last twenty years of the 19th century, as shown by the establishment of the Surinam Association, of the Steam Navigation Company’s service to Paramaribo, and by the formation of a botanical garden for experimental culture at that town, as also by geological and other scientific expeditions, and the exhibition at Haarlem in 1898.

The name Suriname may derive from an indigenous people called Surinen, who inhabited the area at the time of European contact. It may also be derived from a corruption of the name "Surryham" which was the name given to the Suriname River by Lord Willoughby in honour of the Earl of Surrey when an English colony was established under a grant from King Charles II. British settlers, who founded the first European colony at Marshall's Creek along the Suriname River, spelled the name as "Surinam". When the territory was taken over by the Dutch, it became part of a group of colonies known as Dutch Guiana.

The Indians (Caribs, Arawaks, Warrous) live on the savannahs, or on the upper Nickerie, Coppename and Maroni, far from the plantations, cultivating their fields of manioc or cassava, and for the rest living by fishing and hunting. They number about 2000. The bush negroes (Marrons) dwell between 3° and 4° N., near the isles and cataracts. They are estimated at 10,000, and are employed in the transport of men and goods to the goldfields, the navigation of the rivers in trade with the Indians, and in the transport of wood to Paramaribo and the plantations.

They are the descendants of runaway slaves, and before missionaries had worked among them their paganism retained curious traces of their former connexion with Christianity. Their chief god was Gran Gado (grand-god), his wife Maria, and his son Jesi Kist. Various minor deities were also worshipped, Ampuka the bush-god, Toni the water-god, &c. Their language was based on a bastard English, mingled with many Dutch, Portuguese and native elements. Their chiefs are called gramman or grand man; but the authority of these men, and the peculiarities of language and religion, have in great measure died out owing to modern intercourse with the Dutch and others.

The inhabitants of Paramaribo and the plantations comprise a variety of races, represented by Chinese, Javanese, coolies from India and the West Indies, negroes and about 2000 whites. Of non-Christian immigrants there are about 6000 Mahommedans and 12,000 Hindus; and Jews number about 1200. The total population was given in 1907 as 84,103, exclusive of Indians, &c., in the forests. Nearly one-half of this total are in Paramaribo and one-half in the districts. The population has shown a tendency to move from the districts to the town; thus in 1852 there were 6000 persons in the town and 32,000 in the districts.

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As early as 1580 the Dutch had established a systematic trade with the Spanish main, but so far as is known their first voyage to Guiana was in 1598. By 1613 they had three or four settlements on the coast of Demerara and Essequibo, and in about 1616 some Zeelanders settled on a small island, called by them Kyk ober al (“see over all”), in the confluence of the Cuyuni and Mazaruni rivers.

While the Dutch traders were struggling for a footing in Essequibo and Demerara, English and French traders were endeavouring to form settlements on the Oyapock river, in Cayenne and in Surinam, and by 1652 the English had large interests in the latter and the French in Cayenne. In 1663 Charles II. issued letters patent to Lord Willoughby of Parham and Lawrence Hyde, second son of the earl of Clarendon, granting them the district between the Copenam and Maroni rivers, a province described as extending from E. to W. some 120 m.

This colony was, however, formally ceded to the Netherlands in 1667 by the peace of Breda, Great Britain taking possession of New York. Meanwhile the Dutch West India Company, formed in 1621, had taken possession of Essequibo, over which colony it exercised sovereign rights until 1791. In 1624 a Dutch settlement was effected in the Berbice river, and from this grew Berbice, for a long time a separate and independent colony. In 1657 the Zeelanders firmly established themselves in the Pomeroon, Moruca and Demerara rivers, and by 1674 the Dutch were colonizing all the territory now known as British and Dutch Guiana.

The New Dutch West Indian Company, founded in that year to replace the older company which had failed, received Guiana by charter from the states-general in 1682. In the following year the company sold one-third of their territory to the city of Amsterdam, and another third to Cornelis van Aerssens, lord of Sommelsdijk. The new owners and the company incorporated themselves as the Chartered Society of Surinam, and Sommelsdijk agreed to fill the post of governor of the colony at his own expense.

The lucrative trade in slaves was retained by the West Indian Company, but the society could import them on its own account by paying a fine to the company. Sommelsdijk’s rule was wise and energetic. He repressed and pacified the Indian tribes, erected forts and disciplined the soldiery, constructed the canal which bears his name, established a high court of justice and introduced the valuable cultivation of the cocoa-nut. But on the 17th of June 1688 he was massacred in a mutiny of the soldiers. The “third” which Sommelsdijk possessed was offered by his widow to William III. of England, but it was ultimately purchased by the city of Amsterdam for 700,000 fl.

The settlements in Essequibo progressed somewhat slowly, and it was not until immigration was attracted in 1740 by offers to newcomers of free land and immunity for a decade from taxation that anything like a colony could be said to exist there. In 1732 Berbice placed itself under the protection of the states-general of Holland and was granted a constitution, and in 1773 Demerara, till then a dependency of Essequibo, was constituted as a separate colony. In 1781 the three colonies, Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice, were captured by British privateers, and were placed by Rodney under the governor of Barbados, but in 1782 they were taken by France, then an ally of the Netherlands, and retained until the peace of 1783, when they were restored to Holland.

In 1784 Essequibo and Demerara were placed under one governor, and Georgetown—then called Stabroek—was fixed on as the seat of government. The next decade saw a series of struggles between the colonies and the Dutch West India company, which ended in the company being wound up and in the three colonies being governed directly by the states-general. In 1796 the British again took possession, and retained the three colonies until the peace of Amiens in 1802, when they were once again restored to Holland, only to be recaptured by Great Britain in 1803, in which year the history proper of British Guiana began.


The principal settlements have been made in the lower valley of the Surinam, or between that river and the Saramacca on the W. and the Commewyne on the E. The Surinam is the chief of a number of large rivers which rise in the Tumuc Humac range or the low hills between it and the sea, which they enter on the Dutch seaboard, between the Corentyn and the Maroni (Dutch Corantijn and Marowijne), which form the boundaries with British and French territories respectively. Between the rivers of Dutch Guiana there are remarkable cross channels available during the floods at least.

As the Maroni communicates with the Cottica, which is in turn a tributary of the Commewyne, a boat can pass from the Maroni to Paramaribo; thence by the Sommelsdijk canal it can reach the Saramacca; and from the Saramacca it can proceed up the Coppename, and by means of the Nickerie find its way to the Corentyn. The rivers are not navigable inland to any considerable extent, as their courses are interrupted by rapids. The interior of the country consists for the most part of low hills, though an extreme height of 3800 ft. is known in the Wilhelmina Kette, in the west of the colony, about 3° 50? to 4° N. The hinterland south of this latitude, and that part of the Tumuc Humac range along which the Dutch frontier runs, are, however, practically unexplored. Like the other territories of Guiana the Dutch colony is divided physically into a low coast-land, savannahs and almost impenetrable forest.


Paramaribo, the capital of Dutch Guiana or Surinam (see Guiana), in 5º 44' 30" N., 55º 12’ 54” W., 20 m. from the sea on the right bank of the Surinam, hence a tidal river nearly a mile broad and 18 ft. deep. Pop. (1905), 33,821. Built on a plateau about 16 ft. above low-water level, Paramaribo is well-drained, clean and in general healthy. The straight canals running at right angles to the river, the broad, straight tree-planted streets, the spacious squares, and the solid plain public buildings would not be unworthy of a town in the Netherlands.

The Indian village of Paramaribo became the site of a French settlement probably in 1640, and in 1650 it was made the capital of the colony by Lord Willoughby of Parham. In 1683 it was still only a “cluster of twenty-seven dwellings, more than half of them grog-shops,” but by 1790 it counted more than a thousand houses. The town was partly burnt down in 1821, and again in 1832.

Meteorological observations have been carried on at five stations (Paramaribo, Coronie, Sommelsdijk, Nieuw-Nickerie and Groningen). The mean range of temperature for the day, month and year shows little variation, being respectively 77.54°–88.38° F., 76.1°–78.62° F. and 70.52°–90.14° F. The north-east trade winds prevail throughout the year, but the rainfall varies considerably; for December and January the mean is respectively 8.58 and 9.57 in., for May and June 11.26 and 10.31 in., but for February and March 7.2 and 6.81 in., and for September 2.48 and 2.0 in. The seasons comprise a long and a short dry season, and a period of heavy and of slight rainfall.

Products and Trade.—It has been found exceedingly difficult to exploit the produce of the forests. The most important crops and those supplying the chief exports are cocoa, coffee and sugar, all cultivated on the larger plantations, with rice, maize and bananas on the smaller or coast lands. Most of the larger plantations are situated on the lower courses of the Surinam, Commewyne, Nickerie and Cottica, and on the coast lands, rarely in the upper parts. Goldfields lie in the older rocks (especially the slate) of the upper Surinam, Saramacca and Maroni. The first section of a railway designed to connect the goldfields with Paramaribo was opened in 1906. The annual production of gold amounts in value to about £100,000, but has shown considerable fluctuation. Agriculture is the chief means of subsistence. About 42,000 acres are under cultivation. Of 30,000, persons whose occupation is given in official statistics, close upon 21,000 are engaged in agriculture or on the plantations, 2400 in gold-mining and only 1000 in trade. The exports increased in value from £200,800 in 1875 to £459,800 in 1899, and imports from £260,450 in 1875 to £510,180 in 1899; but the average value of exports over five years subsequently was only £414,000, while that of imports was £531,000.

Administration.—The colony is under a governor, who is president of an executive council, which also includes a vice-president and three members nominated by the crown. The legislative body is the states, the members of which are elected for six years by electors, of whom there is one for every 200 holders of the franchise. The colony is divided into sixteen districts. For the administration of justice there are three cantonal courts, two district courts, and the supreme court at Paramaribo, whose president and permanent members are nominated by the crown. The average local revenue (1901–1906) was about £276,000 and the expenditure about £317,000; both fluctuated considerably, and a varying subvention is necessary from the home government (£16,000 in 1902, £60,400 in 1906; the annual average is about £37,000). There are a civic guard of about 1800 men and a militia of 500, with a small garrison.

Authorities.—Among the older works on Surinam the first rank is held by Jan Jacob Hartsinck’s masterly Beschryving van Guiana, of de Wilde Kust, in Zuid Amerika (2 vols., Amsterdam, 1770). Extracts from this work, selected for their bearing upon British boundary questions, were translated and annotated by J. A. J. de Villiers (London, 1897). A valuable Geschiedenis der Kolonie van Suriname, by a number of “learned Jews,” was published at Amsterdam in 1791 and it was supplemented and so far superseded by Wolbers, Geschiedenis van Suriname (Amsterdam, 1861). See further W. G. Palgrave, Dutch Guiana (London, 1876); A. Kappler, Surinam, sein Land, &c. (Stuttgart, 1887); Prince Roland Bonaparte, Les Habitants de Surinam (Paris, 1884); K. Martin, “Bericht über eine Reise ins Gebiet des Oberen-Surinam,” Bijdragen v. h. Inst. voor Taal Land en Volkenkunde, i. 1. (The Hague); Westerouen van Meeteren, La Guyane néerlandaise (Leiden, 1884); H. Ten Kate, “Een en ander over Suriname,” Gids (1888); G. Verschuur, “Voyages aux trois Guyanes,” Tour du monde (1893). pp. 1, 49, 65; W. L. Loth, Beknopte Aardrijkskundige beschrijving van Suriname (Amsterdam, 1898), and Tijdschrift van het Aardrijkskundig Genootschap (1878), 79, 93; Asch van Wyck, “La Colonie de Surinam,” Les Pays-Bas (1898); L. Thompson, Overzicht der Geschiedenis van Suriname (The Hague, 1901); Catalogus der Nederl. W. I. ten Toonstelling te Haarlem (1899); Guide à travers la section des Indes néerlandaises, p. 323 (Amsterdam, 1899); Surinaamsche Almanak (Paramaribo, annually). For the language of the bush-negroes see Wullschlaegel, Kurzgefasste neger-englische Grammatik (Bautzen, 1854), and Deutsch neger-englisches Wörterbuch (Lobau, 1865).


1911 Encyclopædia Britannica, Volume 12. pp. 674-683.

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