In 1667, the Dutch gained control over the former English colonies in the northeast of South America. The largest of these was Surinam. Thousands of slaves worked on sugar and coffee plantations there. When France occupied Holland from 1795 to 1813, the British took control of Surinam, until the colony was reinstated to the new Dutch kingdom under Willem I.

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Sugar and slaves

Plantation in Surinam. Dirk Valkenburg, 1707

Map for the Surinam Society. Alexander de Lavaux, 1737

In the 18th century, Surinam was run by the Surinam Society. This was a private company, founded by the city of Amsterdam, the Dutch West Indies Company (West-Indische Compagnie or WIC) and the Van Sommelsdijck merchant family. Although each party had one vote in the Society, in practice most of the board was connected to Amsterdam’s patrician elite.

The Society negotiated the sale of Surinamese products, especially sugar and coffee, and the slave trade, on which the WIC had an official monopoly. Africans were shipped to Surinam and sold in the slave market. Many were set to work on the sugar plantations, of which there were more than 500 in 1750. Working as a field slave was especially hard. They worked long hours and they were watched over by slave-masters with whips.

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Mauricius and the Maroons

Portrait of Joan Jacob Mauricius, governor general of Surinam. Cornelis Troost, 1741

In the colony itself, Surinam was administered by a governor, assisted by a political council in which the wealthiest planters were represented. A constant problem for the planters was the Maroons: fugitives from slavery who raided plantations from the forest. Governor Joan Jacob Mauricius tried in vain in the mid-18th century to come to terms with the rebellious Maroons. The planters were not impressed by his approach. They eventually managed to ensure that Mauricius was relieved of his duties. Yet subsequent governors were equally unsuccessful in dealing with the insurgents: in 1757, a massive rising took place on the plantations. In 1793, governor Jurriaan de Friderici managed to subdue the main group, the Boni, in a military campaign. Yet the unrest caused by those who had escaped slavery remained an ongoing problem for the planters.

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Best jobs

Portrait of a Surinamese girl. England, c. 1810

The population of Surinam was primarily divided into free and unfree (slaves). The free included people of all races. Besides the Dutch, there were English, French and German migrants who had come to the colony to work and were attracted by the climate of religious tolerance. At the top of the social ladder stood the senior officials, merchants and planters. The slave-masters on the plantations formed a European middle class, while the soldiers were the least regarded of all Europeans. Those of mixed descent, with some European ancestry, felt a cut above the Africans. They gradually formed into a middle class. Among the unfree, those of mixed race were given the best jobs, such as domestic chores. Yet Africans made up by far the majority of the population: in 1791, 53,000 Africans were enslaved in Surinam. By contrast, there were around 5,000 Europeans living in the colony.

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British rule

Diorama of Zeezigt plantation in Surinam. Gerrit Schouten, c. 1815-1821

Diorama of a Surinamese slave dance. Gerrit Schouten, 1830

The 19th-century Surinamese artist Gerrit Schouten was of mixed descent. His father was European and his mother was herself of mixed race. Schouten made dozens of dioramas showing scenes of everyday life in the colony, such as slave dances and views of the city of Paramaribo. When the Netherlands was occupied by France, from 1795 to 1813, the British twice took over Surinam. Their attempts to introduce reforms met with little success. To the chagrin of the planters, the British prohibited the importing of slaves in 1808. In fact, just as many were brought in as before, but by smugglers. In the Treaty of Paris (1815), Surinam was restored to the new Dutch monarch, Willem I. Although the new government had made slavery illegal for Dutch subjects, it remained in place in the colony. It was not until 1863 that the Netherlands abolished slavery there too.