Marienburg plantation, Suriname

Buildings at Marienburg, now derelict

Suriname, 14 February.

As I mentioned, we arrived at Marienburg plantation.

I have blogged about Marienburg before. When I wrote about an exhibition in Amsterdam about the history of sugar and slavery in Suriname and other countries:

The exhibition deals extensively with Marienburg sugar factory in Suriname, for instance.

However, it never mentions the major strikes by its workers there in the twentieth century.

When I asked someone of the museum for the reason for this, she replied that there are writings on, eg, the Marienburg strikes.

However, she thought just writings, without photographs or other interesting looking exhibits, would not really interest the visitors.

The plantation closed down in 1989. An ex-worker tells how things used to be.

Before 1863, Marienburg was a sugar (later sometimes: coffee) plantation worked by African slaves, like many others in Suriname. However, in 1863, after much pressure, as one of the last European countries, the Dutch government officially abolished slavery.

Well … officially. The ex(?) slaves had to sign contracts that they would keep working for low wages for their ex(?) slave masters for ten more years at the plantations.

In 1873, the repressive contracts ended. Most African-Surinamese went away, hoping to get good jobs in education, administration, etc. in the capital Paramaribo. Today still, agricultural jobs are not popular among most African-Surinamese. The European plantation owners had to find new sources of labour to exploit.

They did so, first in British India. Then, in Java in Indonesia, then a Dutch colony. There was much poverty in both countries. Dutch propaganda used that to depict Suriname as a land of golden opportunities. However, it did not tell the Hindustani and Javanese workers that the plantation bosses expected to exploit them, in many ways similarly to the slaves before emancipation. Somewhat like the ex slaves before them, many Javanese and Hindustani workers left the plantations as soon as possible, in order to return to their native countries. Or, eg, to start a small shop or farm in Suriname. Many of them had been peasants in India or Indonesia, the soil in Suriname is fertile and the country is sparsely populated, so in principle there is much acreage to start a farm on.

So, there was a chronic dilemma for the plantation owners. How to prevent the workforce from leaving? With the big stick of oppression, or with less harsh methods?

In 1880, Marienburg plantation which had become derelict by its old owners, was bought by the Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij (NHM), one of the biggest businesses in the Netherlands. After several mergers, today it is one of the biggest financial corporations in the Netherlands, called ABN AMRO now. ABN AMRO and other Dutch banking and insurance corporations have a slavery past. Lately, ABN AMRO has been in the Dutch media because of fat cat golden handshakes for bosses and of billion euro government bailouts paid for by the taxpayers.

In the 1880s, the NHM aimed at making the sugar business in Suriname profitable again by building a sugar factory at Marienburg. They did not expect to plant sugar themselves; they expected that the sugar plantations owned by others around the factory would bring their sugar to them to be processed. However, world sugar prices went down in the 1880s. Quite some plantation owners cut back their sugar cane acreage, in favour of cocoa.

So, in order for the factory to have enough sugar to process, the NHM had to plant sugar at Marienburg themselves. This meant a lot more workers than they had planned. Most of them were imported from Java. Marienburg became by far the biggest business in Suriname, with over 2,000 workers.

These workers did not work under good conditions. Daily wages for a male worker were 60 cents, for a woman worker 40 cents.

In 1902, discontent by the workers about bad wages and other conditions, and sexual abuse of women workers by managers, led to an uprising. The Dutch colonial army drowned the uprising in blood, killing 24 workers. “Well”, said the ex Marienburg worker, “24 is only the number of the mortal victims whose name is known. So, probably more. After the massacre, the dead bodies of the victims were buried in a mass grave. Then, quicklime was thrown over the dead bodies to erase the evidence of the army’s violence. The bodies have never been found again.”

Surinamese author Cynthia Mc Leod has written a novel on the 1902 Marienburg workers’ uprising. See also here.

In 1964, the NHM sold Marienburg to the Amsterdam rubber corporation RCMA. Conditions for the workers continued to be oppressive. Work started at six in the morning, until six in the evening. Six days a week; so, a 72 hour working week. Our spokesman started working at Marienburg in 1960, because there was no more money for school. He made 90 cents a day then, after all the inflation in the twentieth century. In the sugar factory it was dirty, noisy and hot. The workers did not wear shirts.

Managers demanded that workers should kneel down if addressing bosses; reminiscent of Suriname slavery days; and of Indonesia, when it had been a Dutch colony and the RCMA corporation had originated there. In 1968, workers founded a trade union. At first, under very moderate leadership. However, the workers became dissatisfied with this after six months, and elected a new executive, including Eddy Bruma, which made the union a member of the militant trade union federation C47.

Sometimes, the management provided some entertainment. In the 1960s, they brought Dutch speaking Belgian singer Will Tura to the factory hall to perform for the workers. Also, United States cowboy or Tarzan films were sometimes projected in the factory hall.

The workers’ actions managed to win some improvements. However, the RCMA exploited the factory while just looking for short-term profits, neglecting long-term investment. This brought Marienburg on the verge of bankruptcy. In 1974, they sold the plantation to the government of Suriname.

The bus went back to Leonsberg. About that, in a later blog entry.