Slavery and love in Suriname, new film

This video is the trailer for the movie Hoe Duur Was de Suiker.

There is a new film by Dutch director Jean van de Velde. It is called Hoe Duur Was de Suiker (How Much Was the Sugar)?

It is about the eighteenth century in Suriname. Then, sugar plantations there meant riches for a few (mainly) Dutch slave owners; being driven away for native people; and slavery for Africans.

The film is based on the novel of the same name by Surinamese author Cynthia McLeod. Ms McLeod also wrote about Marienburg plantation; and another novel on Suriname in the eighteenth century sugar plantation days, The Free Negress Elisabeth, which I discussed elsewhere on this blog.

Hoe Duur Was de Suiker is the most sold book ever in Suriname. The text of the novel (in Dutch) is on the Internet.

This video is a television publicity spot on the film.

The film is about two half sisters, Sarith and Mini-mini. Sarith is free; she is a rich planter’s daughter. So is Mini-mini, but she is Sarith’s house slave. Gaite Jansen plays Sarith. Yootha Wong-Loi-Sing plays Mini-mini.

We see the film through Mini-mini’s eyes, differently from the novel.

In the beginning of the film, Mini-mini is an innocent, open-minded little slave girl. Her master tells her to make juice for the “Spanish billy-goat”. Mini-mini thinks about a real billy-goat, probably thirsty, so she makes lots of juice. To her horror, when she arrives, she sees no real billy-goat, but a slave being tortured. “Spanish billy-goat” (in Dutch: Spaanse bok, in Sranan: pansboko) was a cruel torture method for slaves, which survived into the nineteenth century.

Mini-mini loves her half-sister Sarith in spite of all her faults and crimes. She saves Sarith’s life from a burning plantation mansion. Sarith calls an old slave woman “dirty negress”. When the old woman objects, Sarith has her whipped to death.

Near the end of the film, when Mini-mini has found true love (Julius, Sarith’s ex-husband), Sarith takes revenge by having her black half-sister, the only person who ever loved her, forcibly abducted and sold to slave traders. Just before a slave ship would take Mini-mini away forever, Julius manages to buy her back from a Portuguese Brazilian slave trader, and to set her free.

Mini-mini has learned to read and write. She says that now she wants to write down all slaves’ names, so they won’t be forgotten. She says she wants to write how expensive sugar really is: costing human lives (a reference to the title of the film).

The film was recorded in South Africa. Not in Suriname, as there are no sugar plantations any more. The director paid much attention to “real” eighteenth century clothes and atmosphere. A minority of eighteenth century plantation owner families in Suriname was Portuguese Jewish. Including, in the film, Julius and Sarith. In a reference to Jewish culture, in the movie an orchestra plays Klezmer music. Klezmer, however, is not Portuguese Jewish music. It arose among eastern European Ashkenazi Jews. Few Ashkenazi Jews had emigrated to Suriname in the eighteenth century.

Most of the dialogue in the film is in Sranan language; some is in Dutch, English and Portuguese.

This video is about the première of the film in the Netherlands.

I saw the film in a cinema with two halls. In the big hall was the Dutch documentary about Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve De Nieuwe Wildernis. In the smaller hall was Hoe Duur Was de Suiker. A bit unexpected for cinemas which usually expect documentaries to play second fiddle to romantic love films.

Surinamese-Dutch author Sandew Hira had not seen the film yet, but wrote a sharp criticism of Ms McLeod’s book. He compared it unfavourably to Herman Heijermans‘ play Op Hoop van Zegen (as the book’s title alludes to a line in that play about the price of fish). Heijermans, Hira says, is about oppression and exploitation of Dutch fisher folk about 1900. But the oppression and exploitation of slaves in eighteenth century Suriname is not the main theme in McLeod‘s novel. The real main theme is men and women falling in and out of love, like in so many other novels. Wrong in a slavery context, says Hira in a sarcastic summary of the plot (translated):

Black, male or female, readers must identify with these white slave owners through extensive dialogues and reflections on what goes on in their women’s souls: love, a nice man and a nice life as slave owners during slavery. You think the story is about slavery, but it’s about love. The picture you get is that slavery was all love. The white women are in love with the white men. Black women are in love with the white men. The white men are in love with the black and white women. The black women love white women. And when a black woman and a black man fall in love with each other, then the black man lets the black woman down for another black woman. As happens with black men in colonial stories.

Hira continues, equally sarcastically:

Mini-mini is discussed briefly in the book, especially when Sarith cheats on her ​​husband. Who then falls in love with Mini-mini. The aim of that man is not sex, but love. Like all white men in the slavery days were not looking for sex, but for love of their black enslaved women. He pays to set her free, and that is a proof of his good character. One wonders: how about the other men and women whom he had enslaved? Have they no right to live as free people? Have they no right to love? Of course, those questions are not asked by any character in the book.

Sandew Hira criticizes a line, spoken by Mini-mini, in the trailer of the film, which Hira did see. That line expresses Mini-mini’s ‘slavish’ devotion to her mistress Sarith. Hira does not mention here (and the film also hardly explores this issue) that Sarith is not only Mini-mini’s slave owner, but also her (half-)sister. They are of the same age, they grew up together: arguably, making them more than only half-sisters: ‘half-twins’. Mini-mini is proud that her ‘half-twin’ Sarith is beautiful. Feelings for someone, who is one’s ‘half-twin’, however cruel and criminal, may be different from feelings about someone who is just an unrelated slave owner.

Some of Hira’s criticism may be more fitting against the novel than against the film. Some scenes in the book to which he objected are not in the movie. Mini-mini’s role is bigger in the film than in the novel. Maroons, fugitive slaves fighting against slave owners, proclaim that they will keep fighting till everyone is free. Really moving moments.

Jos van den Burg, film reviewer of Dutch daily Het Parool, has partly the same objections as Hira. He writes there is not enough about slavery in the movie, and too much about erotic relationships.

Author McLeod likes the film very much.

Caribbean Nations to Seek Reparations, Putting Price on Damage of Slavery: here.

Commemorating slavery in Suriname: here.


37 thoughts on “Slavery and love in Suriname, new film

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  20. White Lies and Black Markets

    Evading Metropolitan Authority in Colonial Suriname, 1650-1800

    Karwan Fatah-Black, Leiden University

    In White Lies and Black Markets, Fatah-Black offers a new account of the colonization of Suriname—one of the major European plantation colonies on the Guiana Coast—in the period between 1650-1800. While commonly portrayed as an isolated tropical outpost, this study places the colony in the context of its connections to the rest of the Atlantic world. These economic and migratory links assured the colony’s survival, but also created many incentives to evade the mercantilistically inclined metropolitan authorities.

    By combining the available data on Dutch and North American shipping with accounts of major political and economic developments, the author uncovers a hitherto hidden world of illicit dealings, and convincingly argues that these illegal practices were essetial to the development and survival of the colony, and woven into the fabric of the colonial project itself.

    Biographical note

    Karwan Fatah-Black, Ph.D. (2013), Leiden University, is a researcher and lecturer at that university. He has published on early modern maritime, colonial and Dutch history.


    All interested in the early modern European colonization in the Atlantic world and more specifically the history of North American traders and smugglers in the Caribbean, the Dutch in the Atlantic, and Suriname in the age of slavery.


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