Dutch Guiana (Palgrave)/Chapter V

Dutch Guiana by William Gifford Palgrave
Chapter V



The groups that had gathered to greet us as we landed at the large wooden stelling in front of La Paix, had an appearance not unbefitting the general character of the place itself. Mixed together, yet distinct, the slender, ornament-circled limbs and cringing gestures of the turbaned coolies by the wharf, contrasted strangely with the sturdy forms and independent demeanour of the bush-negroes, here present in great force, mixed up with the more disciplined creoles, many of whom were, however, scarcely more overburdened with apparel — or, rather, sensible of the want of it — than their maroon kinsmen around. There was no lack of that general good feeling and willing subordination that characterized the more civilized population nearer the capital; all were cheerful — the coolies, perhaps, excepted, but cheerfulness is not a Hindoo virtue either at home or abroad — and courteous, after a fashion, but somewhat wild.

A painted four-oar boat, with its commodious stern-cabin — the overseer’s conveyance — lay alongside the wharf; two broad, flat-bottomed barges were moored some way up the main creek that leads to the interior of the estate; and besides these were a dozen maroon corials, mere hollow tree-trunks, the simplest forms of barbaric invention — survivals, to borrow Mr. Tylor’s excellent nomenclature, of a pre-civilized era in river-navigation.

The owners of the corials — tall, well-shaped men of colour, ranging between dark brown and inky black, with a rag at most bound turban-fashion round their bullet heads, and another of scarce ampler dimensions about their loins — muster on the landing-place, and salute the governor with a courteous deference to which the fullest uniform could add nothing. The women, whose dress may best be described as a scanty kilt, and the children, boys and girls, who have none to describe, keep somewhat in the background — laughing, of course; all seem perfectly at home, without strangeness, or even shyness of any kind. Nor, indeed, are they strangers from far off; their villages on the banks of the upper Cottica itself, and of its tributary stream, the Coermotibo, are almost contiguous to the European estates. The main body of the tribe is, however, far away on the banks of the Saara River to the south, where their chief resides, and along the west bank of the Marowyne, the boundary river between Dutch and French Guiana. All this vast region, said by the few explorers who have visited it to be in no respect inferior for its fertility and the variety of its products to the best lands of Surinam, has been made over, partly by express treaty, partly by custom, to the maroons, commonly known as the bush-negroes, the first who in 1761 obtained a formal recognition of freedom and independence from their European masters. Of the entire district they are now almost the sole occupants, undisturbed even by dark-skinned competitors; for the Indian aborigines, believed to have been once numerous throughout these wooded valleys, have wasted away and disappeared, unable not merely to compete but even to co-exist with their African any better than with their European neighbours. A small Dutch settlement — that of Albina, on the banks of the Marowyne — alone varies the uniformity of negro possession in these lands.

Their mode of life is agricultural; their labour is partly bestowed on the field-produce sufficient to their own personal wants, partly on the growth and export of rice, with which they supply the estates and the capital. But their chief occupation is wood-cutting, and their skill in this department has secured them an almost absolute monopoly of the timber-supply that forms a considerable item in the trade-lists of Surinam. They hew, trim, divide the planks, and do whatever is requisite for preparing the wood for shipment; then bring it down in the form of rafts or boat-loads to Paramaribo, where they exchange it most commonly for arms, powder, cooking-utensils, and other household necessaries. Fortunately for themselves, strong drink is not a favourite article of barter among these unregistered and unbaptized disciples of Father Mathew and Sir Wilfrid Lawson. Indeed, in this, as in many other respects, they present an advantageous contrast with the besotted Indians, whose diminution and almost disappearance from the land has been occasioned by intemperance much more than by any of the numerous causes assigned on philo-indigenous platforms. With the negro, on the contrary, drunkenness is an exotic vice, and even where it has been implanted it does not flourish largely on his soil.

Their settlements, far up among the rivers, and in regions said to be admirably adapted for cultivation, though as yet rarely favoured by European visitors, are grouped together after the fashion of small villages, resembling, I am told, in their principal features the more accessible hamlet inhabited by emancipated Congo Africans, and called “Bel Air,” near Berbice. Their dwellings are reported to be neat and comfortable enough after a fashion. About fifty of these villages are recorded by name; the average number of souls in each equals three hundred, or thereabouts. The census of the entire bush-negro population is almost conjectural; some bring their numbers down to eight thousand, others raise them to thirty. Of the two extremes the latter is, I believe, the nearest to the truth. Negroes, like other Eastern tribes, when required to give an account of themselves, are in the habit of reckoning up their men only, omitting the women altogether, and even the male children if still at the breast. Fear of taxation is another common motive for under-statement, especially in the presence of official inquiry. Every village has its chief; his office is partly hereditary, partly elective, and he himself is distinguished from his subjects by a uniform, to be worn, however, only on rare and special occasions — a fortunate circumstance in so warm a climate. He also bears a staff of office. These lesser chiefs are, again, under the orders of the headsman of the tribe, who has right to wear, when he chooses — a rare occurrence, let us hope — a general’s uniform, and to bear in his hand a baton of rule surmounted by a gilded knob.

Besides the "grand man" of their own "skin," in negro phrase, each tribe enjoys or endures the presence of a European official whom the colonial government appoints under the title of posthouder to reside among them, and whose duties chiefly consist in settling the frequent petty contentions that arise between the villagers themselves or their neighbours, regarding rights of property or land. Most other cases, civil or criminal, fall under the jurisdiction of the tribe itself, and are decided by the unwritten code of usage — often sufficiently barbarous in the punishments that it awards; though the cruelest of all, that of burning alive, is said not to have been inflicted on any one for a generation past. It was the penalty especially reserved for sorcerers, and its discontinuance is attributed to the fact that the sorcerers have themselves, like the witches of Germany or Scotland, disappeared in our day. The truth is that the negroes are less superstitious than of old, and having discarded the imaginary crime from their belief, have also discarded the real one by which it was supplemented from their practice —just as the erasure of heresy from the catalogue of sins was immediately followed by the extinction of heretic-burning faggots. The beneficent triumphs of rationalism, so ably chronicled by Mr. Lecky, are not confined to Europe and the European races, and the process of the suns brings wider thoughts to other men than the dwellers of the moorland by Locksley Hall.

Sorcerers, indeed, have, it is said, though from what cause I cannot readily determine, been of all times rare articles among the negro colonists of Surinam. So, too, though the large majority of the bush-negroes are yet pagans — as were their ancestors before them, when, cutlass in hand, they hewed out their way to freedom — obeah, so notoriously widespread throughout Africa, and, if report say true, not unknown to some West-Indian regions, is scarcely ever heard of among them. Yet, did it exist in any notable degree, it could hardly have failed, by the natural contagion of evil, to have established itself also among the creole blacks, their immediate neighbours and kinsmen, who are, however, in general remarkably free from any imputation of the kind. Nor, again, are the bush-negroes — nowadays at least — addicted to the indiscriminate fetish-worship so often described by modern travellers as prevalent in Africa. Perhaps they may have been so formerly. At present the ceiba or cotton-tree, that noblest forest growth of the West Indies, enjoys almost alone, if report says true, the honours of negro worship, avowedly among the maroons, furtively in the creole villages. I myself have often seen the traces of offerings — fowls, yams, libations of drink, and the like — scattered round its stem; the spirit-dweller of its branches, thus propitiated, is said to be of an amiable disposition; unlike its demon-brother of the poison-tree, or hiari, also venerated by some, but out of fear. Idols in the strict sense of the term they certainly have none; and their rejection of Roman Catholicism, a circumstance to which I have alluded before, is asserted to have had at least for its ostensible motive their dislike of the image-worship embodied in that system.

I would willingly indulge the charitable hope that the Moravian bush-negro converts may possibly have acquired some kind of idea of the virtue commonly designated, though in a restricted use of the word, by the name of morality. It is a virtue with which their pagan brethren are, in a general way, lamentably unacquainted. On principle, if the phrase may be allowed, they are polygamists; but the frequency of divorce renders, it is said, the dignity of a bush-negro’s wife more often successional than simultaneous. Indeed their avowed laxity in this and analogous directions is sometimes asserted, but how truly I cannot say, to be one of the chief hindrances to the increase of their numbers. Without going into the particulars of an obscure and unpleasant subject, thus much is clear, that a child which has for its parents "no father and not much of a mother," a normal condition of things in the bush-negro villages, must necessarily commence the infantile struggle for life under somewhat disadvantageous conditions. To this may be added a total absence of medical practitioners; a circumstance which however might, by a cynical mind, be rather reckoned among the counterbalancing advantages of forest existence.

In form and stature the bush-negroes of Surinam may rank among the best specimens of the Ethiopian type; the men are often six feet and more in height, with well-developed limbs and pleasing open countenances; and the women in every physical respect are, to say the least, worthy of their mates. Ill-modelled trunks and disproportioned limbs are, in fact, as rare among them as they are common among some lighter-complexioned races. Their colour is in general very dark, and gives no token of the gradual tendency to assume a fairer tint that may be observed among the descendants of negroes resident in more northerly latitudes; their hair, too, is as curly as that of any Niam-niam or Darfooree chief, or native of Senegal. I have heard it asserted more often than once, that by long domicilement in the South-American continent the negro type has a tendency to mould itself into one approaching that of the Indian aboriginal; and something of the kind might be looked for, if anywhere, among the bush-negroes of the Surinam interior. But in the specimens that I saw, and they were many, I could not detect any such modification.

Their language is a curious and uncouth mixture. When it is analyzed, English appears to form its basis; next on the list of contributors comes Portuguese, then Dutch, besides a sprinkling of genuine African words thrown in at random; and the thick soft African pronunciation over all. But of this jargon the negroes themselves make no use in writing, for which they employ Dutch, thereby showing themselves in this respect possessed of a truer feeling of the fitness of things than, I regret to say, their Moravian friends, who have taken superfluous pains to translate books of instruction and devotion into the so-called “negro language” for the supposed benefit of their half-tamed scholars — an instance, one amongst many, of being too practical by half.

Fortunately for the bush-negroes themselves, their ultimate tendency in language, as in everything else, is to uniformity with the general creole colonial type; one not of the very highest, it may be, but much superior to the half or three-quarters savagery in which they at present live. Their little, and, so to speak, accidental nationality, is composed of elements too feeble, and too loosely put together, not to be ultimately reabsorbed into the more vigorous and better-constructed mass to which, though under differing conditions ,it once belonged. Old mistrusts and antipathies are fast wearing themselves out in the daily contact with European life; and contact with Europeans never fails to produce, where negroes are concerned, first imitation, then assimilation. So long as slavery lasted, this was of course an impossibility for the bush-negroes; it is now a mere question of time, longer or shorter according to the discretion and tact of the colonial government itself. And we may reasonably hope that the sagacity and moderation by which that same government has thus far always distinguished itself will not fail it in this matter either.

Freedom from taxation and internal autonomy are the special privileges which the bush-negroes in their present condition enjoy; by the latter they set some store, by the former much. On the other hand they are fully aware of the greater advantages and enjoyments of a more settled and civilized form of life than their own, and would sacrifice much to make it theirs. The result of the exchange would be undoubtedly a very beneficial one, not only to the bush-negroes themselves but to the colony at large. Labour is the one great requisite of Surinam; rich in every gift of unassisted nature, she is poor of that which alone could enable her to make a profit of these gifts. In these maroon subjects of hers close at hand she possesses a copious and as yet an unemployed reserve-force of labour, superior in most respects to the coolie or Chinese article, and, which is a main point, cheaper by far. The complete incorporation into colonial life and work of the negro element, now comparatively isolated and wasted in the bush, would add about a third to the progressiveness and energy of Dutch Surinam.