Photo 2015-02-11, 2 46 02 PM
Fort Zeelandia, a small fort first constructed by the British, then taken over and expanded by the Dutch. This was the heart of the colonial administration in Suriname. Photo: Sonja Boon,

I’m a story person. I love narrative. I love reading voices and imagining the people behind them. It comes as no surprise, then, that I’m struggling with colonial archives of slavery and indenture. There are few conventional ‘stories’ here; rather, most of the stories remain are told only in charts.

Charts tell me how many people were enslaved at individual plantations.
Charts tell me when the enslaved were born and when they died.
Charts can allow me build odd family trees through the maternal line.

Charts also tell me how many indentured labourers came on ships and how many were born or died on the journey. They tell me how many had sexually transmitted diseases and how long they were hospitalized. They follow the progress of new immigrants through indenture, detailing criminal cases, reproduction, death, cohabitation, and official immigration. And they tell me, too, how much the government spent on provisioning the “koelie depot” and how much they spent on medical care.

Charts list names.
Charts list villages of origin.
Charts list bodily markings – scars, burns, birth marks.

It’s all interesting information, but there is so much about this that is frustratingly impersonal. The colonial officials didn’t care about these people as individuals. All they were interested in was labour and how that labour would benefit the wealth of the colony, and from there, the wealth of the motherland.

And so, I’ve had to read between the lines, finding stories from the gaps and silences, from the details that don’t seem to fit the conventional narratives.

If the average enslaved woman had four children, then what do we make of enslaved women with nine or ten? How do we reconcile those who had none?

Why did so many men try to escape from one plantation, while a neighbouring plantation recorded no escapes at all?

Even here, however, the personal eludes me. The enslaved and the indentured remain nothing more than numbers on a page. I can’t learn about their loves, passions, desires, joys, griefs, sorrows, angers, and frustrations here. And for a scholar of life writing, this has been and continues to be a challenge.

But there are some records that gave me pause.

For colonial record keepers, numbers needed to provide certainty; they needed to be clear and unambiguous. And this is why I was struck by numerical discrepancies in the logbook of the Medea, a ship that travelled from Calcutta to Paramaribo in 1873.

The Medea’s logbook is a large, mouldy document that is designed to record extensive detail about all the incoming “agricultural workers.” The different columns require information about the following: last name, first name, mother’s name, gender, age, religion or caste, region of origin, city of origin, village of origin, height, and any bodily markings. Each of these columns is carefully filled in with fine black ink. The original bureaucrat also took care to mark out families, bracketing family units together.

At some point after the labourers’ arrival in Paramaribo, another colonial official added new markings. Using a thicker blue or red pencil, this individual assigned the emigrants to their various plantations, according to the plantation requests that had been received by the colonial office.

There is also a third set of annotations, added in pencil. These annotations translate heights from imperial to metric, add data about skin colour, and, in some cases, add extra information about bodily markings.

More intriguingly, there’s a fourth set of markings: in some cases, the unknown official has changed some of the ages originally marked in the logbook. On the surface, this isn’t necessarily surprising; after all, it’s not uncommon to find that numbers have been incorrectly transcribed and need adjustment.

But these adjustments aren’t minor ones: sometimes the age difference is a matter of a decade or two.

Thus, for example, Goolam Daibee, a Hindu man indentured at the combined Leasowes-Sarah plantation along with his wife and two daughters, is originally listed as being 28 years old.  The penciled marking, however, lists him as 45.

Doorjun Gungoo, sent to Zorg en Hoop with his family, was also originally listed as 28 years old. By the time he arrived in Paramaribo, however, his age had changed – to 38.

More striking is the record of one Rampersad (last name unclear), who arrived with his wife and two sons, all of whom went to Groot Chatillon plantation. Originally, he’s listed as 36. His revised age? 60.

How can there be such great chasms in the records? What happened in those spaces between 36 and 60, 28 and 38, 28 and 45? How could the record keepers have gotten things so very wrong?

What I do know is this: such annotations mark complicated encounters between emigrants and colonial officials. They mark points at which the colonial bureaucracy broke down, points where the colonial drive for transparency, clarity, and certainty couldn’t be guaranteed; indeed, where this drive was fundamentally undermined.

Perhaps translation failed.
Perhaps stories changed.
Perhaps birth records went missing.
Perhaps they never existed to begin with.

How was age determined? Who decided how old a labourer was?

Perhaps these are the wrong questions; I’ll never be able to trace back exactly what happened.

What’s more important is the fact that something went awry. Something didn’t make sense. Something didn’t work within the metrics of colonialism. It’s in these cracks – in that space between 36 and 60 – that new questions might emerge, new stories might be told.

Photo 2015-02-09, 2 34 57 PM
Nineteenth-century officers’ residence, just outside the walls of Fort Zeelandia, Paramaribo, Suriname. Photo: Sonja Boon.


Scheepslijsten: Medea (1873), Agent Generaal (Immigratie Departement) 1853-1946. Inv. Nr. 616A Nationaal Archief Suriname.

(c) Sonja Boon, 2019.

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