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Hindu, 14 percent as Muslim and

two percent as Winti (an indigenous

religion), with just 200 Jews. That

means this country has the high-

est percentage of both Muslims and

Hindus in the hemisphere, kind of a

living diversity model. The wooden,

colonial-fusion architecture may have

caught the


s gaze, but to me people

were the best sight. The street language

is called Sranantongo, from the time

when slaves from different backgrounds

had to find ways to talk with each other,

so it uses words from African lan-

guages as well as English, Dutch

and Portuguese. The official lan-

guage, though, is Dutch.

Travel away from Paramaribo,

and it becomes a quiet country

lifestyle. People sitting on their

porches wave as you pass. A

hundred kilometers ahead, the

road ends abruptly at a river bus

stop. There is a petrol station, a

convenience store and boats to

take you farther upriver into the

mystical jungle. Evening around

the oil lanterns, and the conversa-

tion goes from the coming election to the

corruption scandals to the dry season

that “must end soon.”

As darkness falls, the conversation

maneuvres to stories of snakes and

insects as big as animals that creep

around in the dark. “When I was up-

river the last time,” one man says, “a

local caught a huge snake in the dark

with his bare hands. Don’t know how he

did it.” Then the drums started. It was

a funeral celebration in a nearby village,

and it beat on until after dawn.

Spaniards came to what is now Guyana

about 1500. Pizarro listened covetously

as Indians—probably Arawaks and Car-

ibs—told of a powerful Inca king who

bathed in a holy golden lake and draped

himself from head

to foot with gold.

Sir Walter

Raleigh published a

book in 1596 with

the long title,


Discoverie of the

Large, Rich, and

Bewtiful Empyre

of Gviana, with a

relation of the great and Golden Citie

of Manoa (which the Spanyards call

El Dorado).

On a 17th-century map

drawn by the mapmaker Willem Blaeu,

Manoa appears somewhere between

the Orinoco River to the north and the

Amazon south. The gold rush was on,

and it’s mined to this day.

By the mid-1600s, the British governor

of Barbados, Lord Francis Willoughby,

wanted to expand his sugar plantations.

He sailed into the Suriname River, made

a deal with the Arawak Indians to stay,

and started building a fort at the river.

Behind it, natives and 3,000 slaves built

sugar plantations.

In 1664 the English and Dutch

declared another war on each other over

maritime trade. The Dutch told their

navy to conquer all the English colo-

nies they could. They sailed down the

Suriname River, and after an hour of

cannon fire, Willoughby surrendered.

The war ended in 1667 with the

Treaty of Breda, under which each

country kept the territories it con-

quered: Suriname became Dutch, and

the British kept New Amsterdam,

which they renamed New York.

Labor at the time mostly meant

slavery. As in much of South Amer-

ica, from the beginning in Suriname,

slaves ran away into the rainforest and

organized sabotage and rebellions.

Back in Paramaribo, a city of wooden

houses, 400 were lost in a fire in 1821. In

1832 a group of slaves wanting to escape

to the forest stole food for the journey

and, to mask the theft, set a fire. They

were arrested, and three of them were

sentenced to death and burned alive at

the spot where the fire started. Today,

every school kid in Suriname can tell you

they were Cojo, Mentor and Present, and

they are official national heroes.

Another example of how much

Suriname has changed starts with the

first theater, built in 1775. No Jews or

slaves were allowed inside. Then move

up to January 1943, when the state

announced to the world: “Every Jew

who can escape Europe is welcome in



” They built houses for them

and waited. Jewish refugees came, set-

tled, worked their trades and sent their

children to school.

Emancipation from slavery came on

July 1, 1863, but independence not until

1975; this June there will be elections.

Historian and writer Cynthia McLeod

tells it this way: “Slavery was a terri-

ble system, but it was a system. Who

survived? The strongest. Who are the

strongest? We are.”