In 1863, slavery was made illegal in Surinam and the Antilles. In the Dutch East Indies, this had been achieved with a little less fanfare the previous year. The Dutch were among the last to abolish slavery. After Denmark in 1803, Britain in 1834 and France in 1848, the many thousands who worked on the plantations in the Dutch West Indies were finally released.

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Revolt

Medal given to George, who remained an obedient slave during the unrest at Nickerie. Surinam, 1837

The abolition of slavery in British Guyana in 1834 caused an upheaval among people who had little hope of release in the neighbouring district of Nickerie in Surinam. The Dutch authorities reinforced the garrison and took precautionary measures. Even so, rebellion erupted in 1837. Unrest spread to sugar, coffee and tobacco plantations elsewhere in Surinam and some people attempted to escape.

Protests were not unusual on plantations in the West Indies colonies, and they were brutally suppressed. Already in the 18th century small communities had formed in the forests of Surinam of people who had escaped and who regularly raided nearby plantations. While those who had rebelled at Nickerie in 1837 were severely punished, others were rewarded for remaining obedient. This medal was given to George of Leasowes plantation ‘for his proven loyalty to legitimate authority during the disturbances among the slaves in Nickerie’.

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Abolition

Cup showing a chained slave kneeling. Netherlands, c. 1850-1900

Dish showing a slave seated. Netherlands, c. 1850-1900

Sympathy for the victims of slavery in overseas territories had increased in the Netherlands since the late 18th century. Support for the abolition of slavery in Europe’s colonies had first emerged in Britain. In 1814, the Netherlands signed an international agreement to stop the slave trade. On 1 July 1863, slavery itself was officially abolished in the main Dutch slave colony of Surinam. The effect was not immediate however. Although released from slavery, plantation workers were required to continue their former work for another ten years on contract basis. Sympathy among the Dutch lay with the slave owners, not the victims of slavery. Owners were compensated by the state: 300 guilders for each person they released.