Littell's Living Age/Volume 128/Issue 1657/Dutch Guiana - Part II

From The Fortnightly Review.




"The river nobly foams and flows,
The charm of this enchanted ground,
And all its thousand turns disclose
Some fresher beauty varying round."


With a subdued silvery gleam, the surest promise in these latitudes of a clear day to follow, the sun peeped through the network of the forest that here does duty for horizon on every side, when our party mustered under the neat wooden pavilion of the landing-place between the parade-ground and the river,—I might have not less correctly said the highway. For the true highways of this land are its rivers, traced right and left with matchless profusion by nature herself, and more commodious could scarce be found anywhere. Broad and deep, tidal, too, for miles up their course, but with scarcely any variation in the fulness of their mighty flow summer or winter, rainy season or dry, so constant is the water-supply from its common origin, the equatorial mountain-chain, they give easy access to the innermost recesses of the vast regions beyond, east, west, and south; and where their tortuous windings and multiplied side canals fail to reach, Batavian industry and skill have made good the want by canals, straighter in course, and often hardly inferior in navigable capacity to the mother-rivers themselves. On the skeleton plan, so to speak of this mighty system of water communication, the entire cultivation of the inland has been naturally adjusted; and the estates of Surinam are ranged one after another along the margins of rivers and canals, just as farms might be along highways and byways in Germany or Hungary. Subservient to the water ways, narrow land paths follow the river or trench by which not every estate alone, but its every subdivision of an estate, every acre almost is defined and bordered, while the smaller dykes and canals are again crossed by wooden bridges, maintained in careful repair, but paths and bridges alike are of a width and solidity adapted to footmen only, or at best horsemen; the proper carriage road is the river or canal.

In a climate like that of Surinam, bodily exertion is a thing to be economized as much as possible; and accordingly everybody keeps his carriage, I mean his boat. That of the wealthy estate-owner, of the vicarious "attorney" (not a professional one, I may as well remark for the benefit of those unused to West-Indian nomenclatures, but the holder of a power of attorney, on the proprietor's behalf), of the merchant, of the higher official, and generally of every one belonging to this or the other of what are conveniently called the "upper classes," is a comfortable barge, painted white for coolness' sake, and propelled by oars varying in number from four to eight.

A fresh-painted, well-kept eight-oar, with a cabin of the kind just described, but of the very largest dimensions, the sides, ceiling, hangings, cushions, all white, with a dash of gilding here and there; eight rowers dressed in loose white suits, with broad red sashes round their waists, and on their heads blue caps to complete the triple colours of the national flag, make a pretty show on the sunlit river; and the governor's barge might, for picturesque appearance, match the caique of a Stamboul dignitary, besides being as much superior to the eastern conveyance in comfort, as inferior in speed. The white painted six-oar, four-oar, or even two-oar barges too, that abound for ordinary voyaging, though of course smaller in their dimensions and less gay in their accessories, are pleasant objects to look at, and may bring to mind the gondolas of Venetian waters; with this difference, that whereas the Adriatic crews are white, or what should be white, and the boats black, here the colours are, and not disadvantageously for pictorial effect, exactly reversed.

So much for the "genteeler sort." Larger yet and more Solidly built, are the great lighter-like barges, whether open or partly covered, that convey down stream from the river-side estate casks of sugar or molasses, barrels of rum, sacks of cocoa, heaped-up yams, plantains, sweet potatoes, cocoa-nuts, cassava, and the hundred other well-known but too little-cultivated products of this teeming land. Alongside of these may be often seen the floating cottages of the so-called "bush negroes," well thatched and snug; each occupying half or more of a wide flat-bottomed boat, where two stalwart blacks in genuine African garb, that is, next to no garb (vid. the woodcuts in Winwood Reade's amusing narratives, passim), paddle rather than row; and any number of black ladies, hardly more encumbered by their costumes than their lords, with an appropriate complement of ebony children, these last in no costume at all, look out from the cabin doors. In their wake follows a raft of cut timber, green-heart probably, or brown-heart, or purple-heart, or balata, or letter-wood, or locust-wood, or whatever other forest growth finds its market in town; and standing on it, one or more statuesque figures, that look as if they had been cut out of dark porphyry by no unskilful hand, and well polished afterwards, guide its downward course. Most numerous of all, light corials, that have retained the Indian name as well as build, each one hollowed out of a single tree-trunk, with sometimes a couple of extra planks roughly tacked on to the sides by way-of bulwarks, paddle past us, under the guidance of one or two ragged negro labourers, or husbandmen, who exchange shouts, sometimes of jest, sometimes of quarrel, with their fellows in other boats or on the shore. These little skiffs, drawing scarce a foot of water when deepest laden, pass through the narrowest ditches that divide almost every acre of cultivated land on the estates from the other, and are the chief means of passage for the working folks on their way to and fro between country and town. When not in actual use they are kept sunk in water just deep enough to cover them, and thus preserved from the sun-heat, which would otherwise soon split the unseasoned wood. Lastly, a few clumsy boats of the ordinary longshore type, in the service of trade with the ships that lie anchored, giving out or taking in cargo off the town-wharf, mix up with the rest, and add their quota of variety to the river-crafts of Surinam.

However, on the present occasion it is neither barge, plain or gay, nor a boat, not even a corial, that is waiting to receive our party. A flat-bottomed river-steamer, one of the three that belong to the service of the colony, lies off the wharf; she draws about ten feet of water, and her duty is just now to convey us up the Commeweyne River, and its main tributary the Cottica, where lies the district which his Excellency has selected for our inspection, because affording the greatest variety of scenery and cultivation within easy reach of Paramaribo. I have said that the colony possesses three of these boats; the largest of them makes a voyage along the seacoast as far as Georgetown twice every month; the two smaller confine their excursions within the limits of river navigation.

In a few minutes we were all on board, a merry party, Dutch and English, official and non-official, military, naval, civilian and burgher, but all of us bent alike on pleasing and being pleased to the best of our opportunities. Our boat was well supplied, too, with whatever Dutch hospitality — no unsubstantial virtue — could furnish for convivial need, and was commanded by a paragon of boat-captains — a bright-eyed, brown-faced little man, Scotch by his father's side, Indian by his mother's; himself uniting in physiognomy as in character the shrewdness and practical good sense of the former parentage with the imperturbable calm and habitual good-humour of the latter. Under such auspices we started on our way.

To enter the Commeweyne River we were first obliged to retrace a portion of the route by which I had arrived three days before, and to follow the downward course of the Surinam River for about eight miles, passing the same objects, no longer wholly new, but now more interesting than before, because nearer and better understood. Here is a plantation, seen by glimpses through the mangrove scrub that borders the river's bank; a narrow creek, at the mouth of which several moored barges and half-submerged corials are gathered, gives admittance to the heart of the estate. It is a vast cocoa-grove, where you may wander at will under three hundred and fifty continuous acres of green canopy — that is, if you are ready to jump over any number of small brimming ditches, and to cross the wider irrigation trenches on bridges, the best of which is simply a round and slippery tree-trunk, excellently adapted, no doubt, to the naked foot of a negro labourer, but on which no European boot or shoe can hope to maintain an instant's hold. Huge pods, some yellow, some red, — the former colour is, I am told, indicative of better quality — dangle in your face, and dispel the illusion by which you might, at first sight of the growth and foliage around you, have fancied yourself to be in the midst of a remarkably fine alder-tree thicket; while from distance to distance broad-boughed trees of the kind called by the negroes "coffee-mamma," from the shelter they afford to the plantations of that bush, spread their thick shade high aloft, and protect the cocoa-bushes and their fruit from the direct action of the burning sun. Moisture, warmth, and shade — these are the primary and most essential conditions for the well-doing of a cocoa-estate. Innumerable trenches, dug with mathematical exactitude of alternate line and interspace, supply the first requisite; a temperature that, in a wind-fenced situation like this, bears a close resemblance for humid warmth to that of an accurately shut hothouse, assures the second; and the "coffee-mamma," a dense-leaved-tree, not unlike our own beech, guarantees the third. Thus favoured, a Surinam cocoa crop is pretty sure to be an abundant one. Ever and anon, where the green labyrinth is at its thickest, you come suddenly across a burly creole negro, busily engaged in plucking the large pods from the boughs with his left hand, and holding in it so, while with a sharp cutlass held in his right he dexterously cuts off the upper part of the thick outer covering, then shakes the slimy agglomeration of seed and white burr clinging to it into a basket set close by him on the ground. A single labourer will in this fashion collect nearly four hundred pounds' weight of seeds in the course of a day. When full the baskets are carried off on the heads of the assistant field-women, or, if taken from the remoter parts of the plantation, are floated down in boats or corials to the brick-paved courtyard adjoining the planter's dwelling-house, where the nuts are cleansed and dried by simple and inexpensive processes, not unlike those in use for the coffee-berry; after which nothing remains but to fill the sacks, and send them off to their market across the seas.

A Guiana cocoa-plantation is an excellent investment. The first outlay is not heavy, nor is the maintenance of the plantation expensive — the number of labourers bearing an average proportion of one to nine to that of the acres under cultivation. The work required is of a kind that negroes, who are even now not unfrequently prejudiced by the memory of slave days against the cane-field and sugar-factory, undertake willingly enough; and to judge by their stout limbs and evident good condition, they find it not unsuited to their capabilities. More than four millian pounds' weight of cocoa are yearly produced in Surinam, "which is a consideration," as a negro remarked to me, labourously attempting to put his ideas into English, instead of the Creole mixture of every known language that they use among themselves. Neither coolies nor Chinese are employed on these cocoa-estates, much to the satisfaction of the creoles, who though tolerant of, or rather clinging to, European mastership, have little sympathy with other coloured or semi-civilized races. Some authors have indeed conjectured that the West-Indian labourer of the future will be a cross-mixture of the African and the Asiastic; but to this conclusion, desirable or not, there is for the present no apparent tendency, either in Surinam or elsewhere. As to the Indians of these regions, they keep to themselves, and their incapacity of improvement, combined with hereditary laziness and acquired drunkenness, will, it seems, soon render them a mere memory, poetical or otherwise, of the past.

Soil, climate, and the conditions of labour, all here combine to favour the cocoa-plant; and accordingly, out of the thirty thousand acres actually under cultivation in Dutch Guiana, we find that a sixth part is dedicated to its production. More would be so, but for the time required before a fresh plantation can bear a remunerative crop; five or six years must, in fact, elapse during which no return at all is made, "which is a consideration" also, though in an opposite sense to that quoted above.

Cocoa prospers; but after all said and done, sugar, the one thing that for two centuries and more has been to the West Indies — Dutch, French, Spanish, or English — what cloth is to Manchester, cutlery to Sheffield, or beer to Bavaria, is even now, despite of emancipation, free-trade, beetroot, prohibitive regulations, American tariffs, and the whole array of adversities mustered against it for the last fifty years, the "favourite" of the agricultural racecourse, and holds with regard to other products, however valuable, the same position as the queen of the chessboard does when compared with the remaining pieces. Indeed in some — Demerara, for instance — sugar reigns, like Alexander Selkirk on his island, not only supreme, but alone; while in Surinam, where, more than in the generality of West-Indian regions, she has many and, to a certain extent, successful rivals to contend with, she vindicates a full half of the reclaimed soil for her exclusive domain. Previous to emancipation, four-fifths at least were her allotted share. No fuller evidence of her former sway need be sought than that which is even yet everywhere supplied by the aspect of the great houses, gardens, and all the belongings of the old sugar-plantations, once the wealth and mainstay of the Dutch colony. The garb is now too often, alas, "a world too wide for the shrunk shanks" of the present, but it witnesses to the time when it was cut to fitness and measure.

And here on our way, almost opposite the cocoa-plantation with its modern and modest demesnes that we have just visited, appears the large sugar-estate of Voorburg, close behind Fort Amsterdam, at the junction point of the river. Let us land and gladden the heart of the manager — the owner is, like too many others, and the more the pity, an absentee — by a visit. Happy indeed would he be, in his own estimation at least, were we to comply with his well-meant request of riding round every acre and inspecting every cane on the grounds. But as these cover five hundred and sixty acres of actual cultivation, besides about a thousand more of yet unreclaimed concession; as the sun, too, is now high enough to be very hot, and we have other places to visit and sights to see, we will excuse ourselves as best we can, though by so doing we mark an indifference on our part to the beauties of the cane-field that he may forgive, but cannot comprehend.

I may remark by the way that in this respect every planter, every manager, Dutch, English, Scotch, or Irish, in the West Indies is exactly the same. None of them, in the intense and personal interest they take in every furrow, every cane, can understand how any one else can feel less; or how, to the uninitiated eye one acre of reed is very like another; one ditch resembles another ditch; just as the sheep in a flock are mere repetitions the one of the other to all but the shepherd; or as one baby resembles any baby to every apprehension except to that of the mother or, occasionally, the nurse. Let us, however, respect what we are not worthy to share; and do thou decline regretfully, O my friend, but firmly — if thou desirest not headache and twelve hours' subsequent stupefaction at the least — the friendly invitation to "ride round" the estates, in a sun heat say of 140º F., for two whole hours, it cannot be less; while a super-copious breakfast, and all kinds of cheerful but too seductive drinks, are awaiting you on your return. Accompany us rather on the quiet circuit we will now make about the house, the labourers' cottages, the outbuildings, and two, at most three, acres of cane, and when in future visiting on thy own account, go thou and do likewise.

Nor is even the following picture of Voorburg to be taken as a photographic likeness, but rather an idealized view, combining details taken from other subjects with those of the above-named locality, and true to many, indeed most, sugar-estates of this region, because limited to the exact facts, statistical or pictorial, of none.

Wood or brick, more often the former, the landing-place, or stelling, receives us, and on traversing it we are at once welcomed by the shelter — half a minute's exposure to the sun will have made you desire it — of a cool, well-swept, well-trimmed avenue, most often, as it happens to be at Voorburg itself, of mahogany-trees, dark and clustering, sometimes of light green almond-trees, or locust-trees, or it may be of palms, especially betel; this last selected rather for the perfect beauty of symmetry, in which it excels all other palms, than for shade. To this avenue, which may be from fifty to a hundred yards long, succeeds an open garden, laid out in walks where "caddie" does duty for gravel, and flower-beds in which roses, geraniums, verbenas, jessamines, and other well-known Europeanized flowers and plants, mix with their tropical rivals, of equal or greater beauty and sweetness; their names — ah me, I am no botanist; enough if wonderful passion-flowers, noble scarlet lilies, and gorgeous cactus-blossoms be mentioned here; Canon Kingsley's chapter on the Botanical Gardens of Trinidad may be safely consulted for the rest. Among the beds and garden-walks keep sentinel, in true Batavian fashion, quaint white-painted wooden statues, mostly classical after Lemprière, "all heathen goddesses most rare," Venuses, Dianas, Apollos, Terpsichores, Fortunes on wheels, Bacchuses, fauns, occasionally a William, a Van Tromp, or some other hero of Dutch land or main, these last recognizable by the vestiges of cocked hats and tail coats, as the former by the absence of those or any other articles of raiment; and all with their due proportion of mutilated noses, lopped hands, and the many injuries of sun, rain, and envious time.

But stay, I had almost forgotten to mention the two iron popguns, that command the landing-place, and flank on either side the entry of the avenue; imitation cannon, that in everything except their greater size are the very counterparts of those "devilish engines" that our early childhood thought it a great achievement to load and fire off. Here the children's part is played not unsuccessfully by the negroes themselves, who at seventy years of age have no less pleasure than we ourselves might have felt at seven, in banging off their artillery in and out of all possible seasons, but especially on the approach of distinguished and popular visitors like his Excellency the governor, with whom I am happily identified, so to speak, during this trip. But this is not all; for within the garden, close under the house windows are ranged two, four, or even six more pieces, some shaped like cannon, others like mortars; and these too are crammed up to their very mouths with powder and improvised wadding, and exploded on festive occasions; when, as ill-hap will have it, their over-repletion often results in bursting, and their bursting in the extemporized amputation of some negro arm, leg, or head, as the case may be. But though I heard of many a heartrending or limb-rending event of the kind, I am thankful to say that I witnessed none during our tour; though of explosions many.

Next a flight of steps, stone or brick, guarded by a handsome parapet in the Dutch style, and surmounted by a platform, with more or less of architectural pretension, leads up to the wide front door; by this we pass and find ourselves at once in the large entrance hall, that here, as formerly in European dwellings, serves for dining-room and reception-room generally. The solid furniture, of wood dark with age, gives it a quasi old-English look; and the gloom, for the light is allowed but a scanty entrance, lest her sister heat should enter too, is quasi English also. But the stiff portraits on the wall, ancestors, relatives, Netherland celebrities, royal personages, governors, etc., etc., are entirely Dutch and belong to the wooden school of art. The central table is of any given size and strength, and has been evidently calculated for any amount of guests and viands. We shall partake of the latter before leaving, and bestow well-merited praise on cook and cellar. Besides the hall are other apartments, counting-rooms, and so forth; above it is a second story, above it a third, for the brick walls are strong, and hurricanes are here as in Demarara unknown; over all rises a high-pitched roof; the wolf, or griffin, or lion, or whatever crest the original proprietor may have boasted, figures atop as gable-ornament or vane. The whole forms a manor-house that might have been transported, by substantial Dutch cherubs of course, as the Loretto bauble was by slim Italian angiolets, from amid the poplars of Arnheim or Bredvoort, and set down on the banks of Commeweyne. Only the not unfrequent adjuncts of a trellised verandah, and a cool outside gallery, are manifestly not of extra-tropical growth.

We have received our welcome, and drunk our prelusory schnapps. And now for the sight-seeing. The factory, where the canes, crushed into mere fibre as fast as the negroes can lift them from the canal-barge alongside on to the insatiable rollers close by, give out their continuous green frothy stream, to be clarified, heated, boiled, reboiled, tormented fifty ways, till it finds refuge in the hogsheads or rum-barrels; resembling in every stage of its course its counterpart in Demerara, or Jamaica, minus, however, except in one solitary instance, the expensive refinements of the centrifugal cylinder and vacuum-pan. But for mere delectation, unless heat, vapour, noise, and an annihilation of everything in general be delectation, which I hardly think, no man need linger in a factory, nor, unless he desires premature intoxication on vapour, in a rum-distillery either. Worth attention, however, and admiration too, is the solidity of construction by which the huge mass of building, doubly heavy from the ponderous machinery it contains, besides its clustering group of out-houses, megass-sheds, tall chimneys, store-places, and the rest, is enabled to support itself upright and unyielding on a soil so marshy and unstable. The foundations in many instances, I am told, exceed by double in dimension the buildings above.

Ingenious bees these sugar-making ones. Let us next look at the hives of the workers. These workers, or, metaphor apart, labourers, are here, at Voorburg I mean, and on not a few other estates, of three kinds, coolie, Chinese, and creole. And, should any one, smitten with a desire for accuracy and statistics, wish to know their exact numbers in this particular instance, the coolies at Voorburg are ninety all told, the Chinese one hundred and eighty-one, the creoles or colonial-born negroes, two hundred.

First to the coolies. Their introduction into Surinam is of recent date, little over two years, in fact; but everything has been organized for them on exactly the same footing as in Demerara or Trinidad. They have their agents, here and in India, their official protector, a very efficient one in the person of Mr. A. C———, her Majesty's consul; their labour and pay regulations are textually identical with those of Demerara; they are duly provided with a medical staff and hospitals; in a word, they are, if anything, more fenced in here from every shadow of a grievance than even in an English colony; Mr. Jenkins himself could not ask more for his protégés. The eye recognizes at once the regulation cottages, all like pretty maids — but here the similarity ceases — of a row, with garden spaces attached, back yards, verandahs, and every attention paid by the constructors to dryness, ventilation, and whatever else a Parliamentary inspector of the most practical type could desire. Thus much is done for the immigrants; but except to amass money, with an occasional whiff at the hookak between times, from morning to night, the "mild Hindoo" is not inclined to do much for himself. His garden, ill-planted and ill-cared for, is a sorry sight; his dwelling, for what concerns the interior, is a cross between a gypsy-hut and a rag-shop, and a pinched, stingy meanness characterizes his every belonging no less than himself. That he may also excel in "grace, ease, courtesy, self-restraint, dignity, sweetness, and light," I am ready, of course, with all believers in "At Last," to admit. But I do it on faith, the evidence of things not seen either in the West Indies or the East. Low-caste Hindoos in their own land are, to all ordinary apprehension, slovenly, dirty, ungraceful, generally unacceptable in person and surroundings; and the coolies of Voorburg may have been low-caste, very likely. Yet offensive as is the low-caste Indian, were I estate-owner, or colonial governor, I had rather see the lowest parias of the low, than a single trim, smooth-faced, smooth-wayed, clever, high-caste Hindoo on my lands or in my colony.

But for the untidiness, I might say shiftlessness of the Surinam-planted coolies some allowance must be made. They are new comers in a land, among what are to them new races, and if it takes some time even for the European under such like circumstances to pluck up heart and be a-doing, the process of adaptation is yet slower for the Asiatic. In Demerara, where they have now dwelt for years with Europeans to stimulate and direct them, and negroes to teach them gardening without doors and tidiness within, the coolies certainly make a better show, and so do their dwellings. But they have much as yet to learn in Surinam.

Passing a dyke or two, we come next on the Chinese cottages, in construction and outward arrangement identical with those of the coolies, or nearly so. The gardens here show a decided improvement, not indeed in the shape of flowers, or of any of the pretty graceful things of the soil, for of such there are none here; but there are useful vegetables and potherbs in plenty; spade and hoe, manure and water, care and forethought, have done their work and are receiving their reward. But the inside of a Chinese dwelling—guarda e passa. Well, Chinamen are fond of pigs, and if they have a fancy themselves to live in pigstyes, it is all in character.

A dyke or two more has to be crossed, and we enter the creole village. Here regulation has done less, and individual will and fancy more. But the negroes are Dutch-trained, and have an idea of straight lines and orderly rows, by no means African; though in, the English-like preference given to isolated dwellings in which each household can live apart over conjoint ones, they do but follow the custom of their ancestral birthplace. Their gardens' are well-stocked, not with fruit and vegetables only, with plantains, mangoes, bananas, yams, sweet-potatoes, peas, and the like things good for food, but also with whatever is pleasant to the eye; with gay flowers, twining creepers, bright berries, scarlet and black; in fine, with the brilliant colours and strong contrasts that befit African taste. Inside their dwellings are comfortable, and in most instances clean, neatly arranged, too, though the space is very often overcrowded with furniture, the tables covered with cheap glass and crockery, more for show than use, and the walls hung round with a confused medley of gaudy prints. These creoles evidently know how to enjoy life, and have resolved to make the best of it; the wisest resolution, it may be, for us mortals in our little day.