Last August there were reports from The Hague that 159 Dutch soldiers had been vaccinated in preparation for combat in Surinam. Surinam (formerly Dutch Guiana) and Guyana (formerly Britisli Guiana) were squabbling over a five-thousand-square-mile piece of jungle near the Courantyne River, their common border. Guyana claimed that settlers from Surinam had “invaded” its territory. Surinam said the land belonged to Surinam. No one really knew who was right because of the continuous shifting of the river and the still unsolved problem of which of many tributaries is its true source.
Guyana had been more or less in control of the disputed area for almost a century. Problems arose when word got out that Surinam planned to build an airstrip there. A brief confrontation at the border followed, but no one was reported killed or hurt. In the end, Holland said it would send no troops to Surinam, despite the rumors, and that the matter should be settled in the UN.
Both sides were fortunate that no real fighting broke out. The trouble spot is buried deep in the equatorial rain forest—at least two hundred miles from the nearest highway. It would have been extremely expensive and almost physically impossible to have a war there. The region is practically uninhabited. Without an airplane it takes two or three weeks to get there from the coast, via riverboat, truck, and horse.
Perhaps the most valuable result of the feud along the Courantyne was that it made the newspapers. For this tiny land is almost unknown—a seemingly insignificant blob on the northeast shoulder of South America. Yet it has a unique cultural history. Today it is one of the few truly successful multiracial societies in the world.
I met a young Negro from Iowa who had been in Surinam for just a few weeks. A Vietnam War veteran, he and his pregnant Filipino wife had left the United States because they were fighting a losing battle in what he called “the other war": racial discrimination at home. “Surinam ain’t exactly heaven,”he mused, sipping a beer on the balcony of a boardinghouse in Paramaribo, the capital (accent on “mar”) , “but it’s only about four steps away.”The move to Surinam had been a good one for him. The baby had been born, and he had been hired as a mechanic by the country’s local airline, Surinam Airways.
Surinam’s flag tells the story. It has five stars of different colors, linked by an ellipse, over a plain background. The message is simple: harmony among the races. In Paramaribo you can sit on the terrace of a Chinese restaurant on a street named Keizerstraat and look at the Neveh Shalom synagogue across the street. Two doors farther down there’s a Muslim mosque.
Surinam is almost as big as Illinois. It lies just north of the Equator, between Brazil and the Atlantic Ocean. Guyana borders it on the west and French Guiana on the east. Ninety-two percent of Surinam is tropical rain forest, and there are parts of the country that have yet to be explored. Even though it has one of the highest growth rates in tire world (more than 4 percent a year), Surinam’s population is only about 400,000. Of these, more than 70 percent live in or near Paramaribo.
Soon after the Dutch were forced to surrender New York to the Brit: ish, the Treaty of Breda in 1667 awarded Surinam to the Netherlands in return. The Dutch ultimately got the better of the deal. England lost its prosperous prize to upstart revolutionaries, while Holland was able to hold on to its then unknown colony on the coast of South America.
Today Surinam is an equal member of the Royal Kingdom of the Netherlands, along with Holland and the Netherlands Antilles. When the Nazis overran Holland in World War II, Surinam could have declared its independence. Instead, it remained loyal to the Queen in exile, and as a reward it was upgraded from colony to equal partner in 1954_
Surinam has its own flag, its own money, and its own national anthem, but it still depends on Holland for defense and foreign policy. There is representational, democratic internal rule (Surinam’s Staten, or parliament, has been meeting peacefully for over 100 years) , but the Queen still appoints a governor to act as general overseer of the country.
To understand why the people of Surinam reflect such a broad spectrum of colors, cultures, languages, and religions, we must go back to the seventeenth century, when white men first intruded on what had been for centuries the home of Arawak and Carib Indians.
Amsterdam merchants traded along the Guiana coast as early as 1614, but the first colonists were the English, who came from Barbados around 1630. The first really permanent settlers, however, were Portuguese jews who had been expelled from Brazil in the 1660s. In 1685 they built a synagogue and established the town of Joden Savanne (Jewish Savannah) on the Surinam River. Economic hardships and tropical diseases slowly took their toll, and Joden Savanne withered away and was swallowed by the dense jungle. Today you can visit the ruins of the settlement and see the tombstones of those early pioneers. The Jewish influence, although small, remains in modern Surinam; there are two synagogues in Paramaribo.
During the eighteenth century, when the Netherlands had a solid claim to Surinam, Dutch settlers began to trickle in. They were followed by slaves from Africa who were needed to work on the sugar plantations. Slavery in Dutch Guiana was abolished in 1863, and this led to a wave of contract laborers from India. This continued until the early years of the twentieth century, when the growth of the Gandhi movement put moral pressure on Britain to stop the export of Indian workers. The Dutch then turned to their former colony of Java for more field hands for Surinam.
These immigration patterns explain the present-day composition ol Surinam’s population. The Creoles (35 percent) are the dark-skinned, mixed-race descendants of the African slaves. Most live in the cities and hold jobs ranging from dock worker to mining engineer. The descendants of the workers who came from India are known as Hindustanis (35 percent) in Surinam. This is to distinguish them from the native, preColumbus Indians, who are called Amerindians. Surinam’s Hindustanis are hardworking and successful. You find them as farmers, policemen, merchants, bus drivers. There are Japanese (15 percent), most of whom work on the rice and sugar plantations and have not been assimilated into urban life. Their standard of living is lower than that of the Creoles and Hindustanis.
Chinese and Amerindians account for 2 percent each, and there are also small numbers of Lebanese, ex-Palestinians, and North Americans in Surinam. The Chinese have dedicated themselves almost exclusively to small grocery and dry goods stores and restaurants.
There is one other important population group in Surinam: the primitive Bush Negroes (as they are called in Surinam) , who live in the jungles of the interior. There are 40,000 of them, or to percent of the total. Despite the similarity in skin color, these people have absolutely nothing in common with the literate, modern Creoles of Paramaribo. The Bush Negroes are said to he the only functioning African tribal society in the Western Hemisphere. They are tlie descendants of slaves who were taken forcibly to Surinam in the early 1700s. and who ran away as soon as they got the chance. The runaways penetrated so deeply into the jungle that their Dutch overseers were unable to living them hack to the plantations. The colonial government finally recognized their right to live as they wished, and signed a separate treaty with the runaways in 1761. The ex-slaves reverted to their African tribal and social patterns, and their descendants continue to live this wav—just a few minutes away from modern society.
Thanks to a new road built by the Surinam Aluminum Company, a subsidiary of Aluminum Company of America, it is easy for non safari type visitors to see the Bush Negroes of the interior. They live in small settlements of from five to perhaps twenty-five thatch huts. The women, who wear nothing above the waist, spend their time carrying water and preparing food, while the men hunt and fish. The Surinam government provides medical care and oilers food and other supplies when they are needed. But mostly it leaves the Bush Negroes—and the Amerindians, too —alone.
This seems to be the key to racial hat mom in Surinam. I here is complete racial and religious integration and toleration, but there is little cultural assimilation. Surinam is in fact an anthropologist’s paradise. Bush Negroes burn exotic designs into their faces and chests. Amerindians paint their bodies. Javanese mothers put blue dots on their babies’ heads to keep evil spirits away. An old Muslim sings from the Koran every night in the doorway of a downtown Paramaribo store. Creoles congregate in a waterfront bar to listen to “The Mighty Sparrow" on the jukebox.
The official language is Dutch. The three daily newspapers are in Dutch, as are most of the radio and TV programs. But really, to get around, you need to know at least two languages. Many Surinamers speak three, four, or five. A lot of people in Surinam know a little English, and members of each ethnic group still retain some of their native language, be it Lebanese or Javanese. But the real unifier is a remarkable street language known as Svanang-tongo, or more simply “takki-takki.”takki-takki is said to contain elements of Dutch, English, African tribal dialects, even Spanish. With a superficial knowledge of takki-takki, you are guaranteed of being understood by just about anybody.
A little odd
Surinam is full of little oddities. A few examples:
—Traffic circulates on the left, although in Holland driving is on the right. Nobody seems to know why this is.
—Five-cent pieces are square, but the rest of the coins are round.
—Surinam time is 15 minutes ahead of Guyana, but 30 minutes behind French Guiana and eastern Brazil.
—Paramaribo takes a Latin-style siesta every afternoon, and stores and businesses reopen at 4 P.M.
—Surinam exports balata gum, which is used in making golf ball covers.
—There is a German ship scuttled in the Surinam River, in plain sight of downtown Paramaribo. The Nazis sank the ship on purpose in 1940 to try to block bauxite exports from Surinam to the Allies. The strategy didn’t work, because the river formed another deep-water channel away from tiie ship. The rusting wreck is still there.
Earlier this year, high school students and their teachers brought Surinam’s government down. In what was probably the least publicized “revolution” in South America, Premier Johan Pengel and his entire cabinet resigned in March, 1969, following a five-week strike by grade school and high school teachers. The teachers refused to work when a long-promised pay raise did not materialize. The government replaced the striking teachers with whatever substitutes it could find, and this proved to be its undoing. The replacement teachers were so incompetent that the students left school and demonstrated in front of the government buildings—in support of their former teachers! Pengel gave in and quit. The governor appointed interim cabinet ministers to serve until next year’s regularly scheduled elections.
Surinam’s economy can be explained in one word: bauxite. Annual production is over four million tons, and experts say that when the present mines run out another one billion tons of bauxite remain to be extracted. The Surinam Aluminum Company, known locally as Suralco, recently spent more than $150 million for a dam across the Surinam River at Affobaka, sixty-five miles inland from Paramaribo. A road lined with high-voltage power towers leads from the dam to the company’s smelter at Paranam, twenty-two miles from the capital. Suralco says this is the only place in the world where bauxite is mined, processed into alumina, and then transformed into aluminum in the same operation.
Suralco has been in Surinam for almost fifty-five years. The discovery of bauxite saved the country’s deteriorating agricultural economy, and during World War II most of the aluminum used in U. S. airplanes came from here. Today most of Surinam’s aluminum is exported to Europe. Surinam is an associate member of the Common Market, and consequently gets tax and tariff concessions from the Market.
Industrial prospects for the future are oil and timber. Royal Dutch Shell and ELF, a French company, have spent $8 million since 1965 on offshore explorations for petroleum deposits. Their scientists are optimistic, but no major finds have yet been made. Surinam is covered with forests, but because of lack of roads it is almost impossible to get the wood out. One company, however, has built a sawmill and is now turning out plywood, particle board, and parquet. The coastal lowlands are perfect for growing rice; the land and the climate are similar to those of South Vietnam. Much of the coastal area is below sea level, and it has to be protected from flooding by an elaborate system of dikes and polders. But the Dutch are old hands at this.
The Surinam government is anxious to attract foreign investors and is willing to offer tax holidays of up to ten years. It will also forget about import taxes on certain key items.
The U.S. State Department, under an agreement with the Surinam government, will even pay up to 50 percent of the cost of a survey for a U.S. businessman who may he thinking of expanding into Surinam.
Surinam has a small tourist industry. Paramaribo has one super fancy luxury hotel, complete with casino, and there’s a new guesthouse in the interior at a place called Stoelman’s Island for travelers who want to see the jungle without actually working up a sweat. Even though most manufactured goods have to Ire imported from Holland, prices in Surinam are moderate. There’s enough local industry to keep the cost of living down to a tolerable level.
Despite the recent trouble with Guyana, life in Surinam goes on at its usual tranquil pace. The border confrontation gave the Surinamers something new to talk about, but all out war seems unlikely, if not preposterous. So it is possible to sit on a bench in the Oranjeplein, Paramaribo s quiet, green main square, watching the people coast by on their bicycles, and contemplate how strange it is these days to find a place where tilings appear to be going so right.