One of the great benefits of doing archival research in a place with family is, well, precisely that: family. Family you can catch up with after a long day in the archives, family you can chat with, reminisce with, laugh with, and commune with. And family that you can eat with, and that know the kinds of things that you like best.
So it was that when I arrived in Suriname in 2015 for the first time in over forty years, there was a whole basket of stuff waiting for me – all delivered to my apartment hotel by my aunt earlier in the evening.
In addition to homemade guava jelly and a mango from her tree, my aunt had also left a tub of maizena koekjes, a traditional Surinamese cookie made with corn starch (no picture, because I forgot and then I ate them!).
I hadn’t had maizena koekjes in years, likely not since spending a summer with that aunt and uncle, then living in Barbados, when I was 11. The cookies were both oddly familiar – as though I’d just had one the day before – and curiously new at the same time.
I’m not sure where maizena koekjes come from and why or how they developed in Suriname, of all places. They do share some similarities with other butter cookies, including shortbread, but the cornstarch makes them something altogether different.
In any event, last week I decided it was time to bake up a batch.
“Gluten free!” a friend with a celiac partner wrote, when she saw the recipe I posted online. “I’m bookmarking this one for sure.”
The recipe is super simple; really, it looks similar to my go-to shortbread recipe (highly recommended, by the way), but for the cornstarch and the egg. Butter, sugar, egg, vanilla, and cornstarch.
Whip it all up until it makes a sticky ball. Roll into tiny balls. Use a fork to flatten them and then sprinkle with rainbow sprinkles. Toss in the oven for 15 minutes and you’re ready to go.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the cornstarch, the texture of the cookie dough is like a firmer version of goop, that fun cornstarch and water kid science trick that’s both solid and liquid at the same time. (We once thought about doing it in large scale for a kid birthday party – doesn’t it look like a blast?)
The teenagers were not entirely convinced by the recipe itself (cornstarch? no flour? this was dubious), but they’re usually game to try anything that has the word ‘cookie’ in it, so they were already hovering around the stove before the cookies were finished baking. It took some effort on their part to wait until they were cool enough.
“These are strange,” said teenager the elder, even as helped himself to a second cookie. By cookie #4, he’d changed his tune: “It’s not that I don’t like them, I do; they’re just weird.”
“They’re like cornstarch bombs,” said teenager the younger, reaching for his third cookie, “You take a bite and everything explodes and cakes itself around the inside of your mouth.”
By cookie #4, face scrunched up: “It’s an interesting experience. It’s like what I would think eating a bath bomb would be like.”
Cookie #5: “They taste so good, but I can’t eat another one at all.” (for the record, cookie #6 followed about ten minutes later).
Strangely addictive they definitely are. The texture is both comforting and alien, the melting experience simultaneously seductive and strange. There’s really no way to stop at one, or even, at two (or, if you’re my kids, at five or six), which is too bad because really, they’re better after a day or two.
My verdict? In the end, I’d say they turned out alright, especially for a first go. I didn’t have butter, which I imagine affected not only flavour but also texture. I suspect that I added too much cornstarch (the recipe says that the dough should be plakkerig– sticky – but not too plakkerig). I also didn’t quite bake them long enough. Although the recipe asks people to watch out that they don’t get too brown, mine were not quite brown enough, and lacked a bit of crispness. They aren’t as good as the ones I had four years ago, but I’ll get there. I know what to do next time, and given the kids’ responses, that will likely be soon!
I’m used to people rolling their eyes when they hear that I like wandering through old cemeteries (the older the better…). Both passion and eye rolling started sometime when I was in junior high. And really, the passion has only grown stronger over the years (perhaps the eye rolling has, too, except now I don’t pay much attention). This was the first time that I was in a room filled with other cemetery-loving oddballs. OK, there were only six of us, total, but still…
We started with informal chit chat: would you pick berries in a cemetery (“Hell, no!” to “Obvs – they’re always big and juicy there”), and as the day progressed, wandered through a range of topics related to cemetery preservation and safeguarding.
Along the way, we talked about changing meanings of cemeteries: from seventeenth and eighteenth-century burial grounds (like Halifax’s Old Burying Ground) to nineteenth-century graveyards where folks sometimes gathered for picnics (at which point I recalled that Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Percy Shelley professed their love for each other at her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft’s grave, and, indeed, may have had sex there as well), and finally to the more serious cemeteries, or places of rest, as we understand them today. The Victorians would likely have had no qualms eating the rich and juicy berries that grow in cemeteries; today, however, we are generally much more puritanical.
So what did I learn, and why does any of this matter?
Cemeteries are storied spaces. They aren’t just about the dead; they are fundamentally about the living. They are about how we make memory, and how we sustain it. They are about how we tell the stories of who we are.
But cemeteries are also selective spaces: Whose remains are recognized? Who warrants a tombstone, or even a written acknowledgement of their living and dying? Whose remains are allowed to rest within a given cemetery, and whose are not?
The Nieuwe Oranjetuin cemetery in Paramaribo was about the elite, many of whom, in the eighteenth century at least, paid in sugar for their right to be buried there. The burial grounds of the enslaved, meanwhile, have largely disappeared; some have eroded and washed away into the ocean.
In Paris, overcrowded cemeteries led to the creation – in the eighteenth century – of the Catacombs, which house the bones of over 6 million individuals and are now a tourist attraction. My mother tells me that one of the houses she lived in as a child was apparently built on the site of a former cemetery, and that they played among the worn down gravestones in their back yard.
How do we navigate memory? How do we ensure its material manifestations? Who lived here? Who died here? Whose stories are told? Whose stories are erased, excavated and destroyed in the name of development? How do we make room for the dead in the land of the living?
Cemeteries are social spaces; they are as much about the living as they are about the dying. They tell stories of families, and also, of communities. Logy Bay-Middle Cove-Outer Cove has a proud regatta rowing history Among those interred at St. Francis of Assisi Cemetery, for example, are some who rowed to a 9:13 finish in the 1901 Royal St. John’s Regatta. Their tombstones commemorate this history. Other stories, too, emerge in oral history interviews and conversations.
Cemeteries might also be understood as “participatory museums,” Dale Jarvis said, referencing an article he’d read. They are intriguingly democratic spaces shaped and maintained by those who remain. Family and community are actively involved in the memorialization process. This is visible in tombstone design, decoration, and language, but also in how the space around the tombstone is kept up, maintained, and used.
One tombstone we recorded this afternoon memorialized a husband and wife. But in a tiny beach stone, there was a handwritten memorial to their dog (whose likeness was carved into the main headstone), who had died a number of years after them. Other, more recent tombstones, offered intimate glimpses into personal lives, interests, and passions: hockey teams, long distance truck hauling, farms, and more.
Cemeteries also tell stories of migrations. The Protestant Cemetery in St. John’s, where over 12,000 are interred, was apparently the general catch-all cemetery for anyone who wasn’t Anglican or Catholic. It might be understood, said Dale, as the immigrant cemetery. Not only are there many Presbyterians (who came over to Newfoundland from Scotland), but also Chinese immigrants, and there’s also a Swedish person (likely Lutheran, I imagine) buried there. So, too, is there a small Muslim section. A few Buddhists were also buried there.
All of this reminded me of the Nieuwe Oranjetuin cemetery in Paramaribo, which served as a colonial burial ground for over three hundred years. Within its walls, you can find Chinese immigrants, American sailors, European plantation owners, and others.
Tombstones, our host Dale Jarvis said, have a life cycle. They are never permanent. They interact with weather and land, and as such, they are constantly changing. They sink into the earth, they are battered by wind and rain. Over the years, their faces erode. In this way, Dale said, it might be worth thinking not of preservation, which suggests that we can maintain something in its current state forever, but rather, of safeguarding, which acknowledges the various stages of a tombstone’s life (and also, its ultimate death as is erodes and sinks into the earth).
We learned that there are, however, ways to speed a tombstone’s demise. Here’s a list of things best avoided: do not spray shaving cream on a tombstone so you can read the inscription more easily (seriously?). Nor is it a good idea to use bleach (which makes things sparkly white for a while, before eating away at marble…), or any sort of mechanical cleaning device (No, your Dremel Rotary Tool is not a good tombstone cleaning or refurbishing tool). Don’t paint the text a different colour in an effort to get it to stand out. While it might look good in the beginning, in the long run, this will get eaten away from the inside. Don’t place a broken tombstone in concrete in an effort to strengthen it. Or in plexiglass (!!). Or screw it into a metal frame Or in another hard stone. If at all necessary, go for a stone that is weaker than marble. It’s not even a good idea to do tombstone rubbings, as these can also wear away at the stone.
Instead, use light (a small, high power LED flashlight from the dollar store can work for this, but also consider time of day: dawn and dusk are ideal times for photographing tombstones), or photograph editing effects to get as much information as possible.
After our morning workshop, we headed out to St. Francis of Assisi Cemetery where we got to practice for real. We were tasked with identifying numerous elements of a tombstone, from its size, to its condition, material type, form, design details, and more. Our afternoon’s work will add to the records held by Logy Bay-Outer Cove-Middle Cove Museum, and hopefully, be of some use to researchers.
Cemetery transcription offers a way to archive as many details about tombstones as possible, so that future researchers can learn not only about those who lived and died, but also about broad design traditions and iconography, stone choices, and even, about the tombstone carving business itself.
Would I pick berries in cemetery? Yes, of course I would.
Would I, like Mary Shelley, profess my love for my partner at my mother’s grave (my mother is hale and hearty, by the way. I’m speaking theoretically here)? Not so much.
Over a period of about ten years of thinking and researching for other projects, the book’s author, Jenny Higgins gathered snippets and hints of stories that interested her and plopped them in a file. Along the way, she developed an interest in children’s books, and alphabet books in particular, and at some point, she made the connection: she could make an alphabet book about the women of this place, and she could start with Agnes Ayre (A squared!), a botanist, artist, and suffrage activist. Ayre, she decided, would also narrate the book.
Agnes Ayre’s ABC of Amazing Women follows a similar format to Higgins’ other books: it takes a scrapbook approach that allows the story to emerge not just through text, but through vignettes, photographs, letters, drawings, and more. For someone like me, a magpie easily distracted by shiny things, this is a perfect format. I can pop in and out of the page, exploring all the shiny bits as they come to me. And more than this, I can see how images and text work together to create the “big story” for me.
The book’s illustrator, Jennifer Morgan, talked about the role of the illustrator. “I can tell a story the author didn’t even intend,” she said (I’m paraphrasing here). In other words, by putting a picture to a story, she has the power to create that story for readers/viewers.
Jennifer also talked about the stories that pictures and documents tell (and indeed, don’t tell): she told us about the size of Agnes Ayre’s botanical drawings (massive!), about the black and white photographs that made it impossible for her to figure out Agnes’ exact hair colour, about her desire to show the handwriting on postcards, and also, about the struggle to balance image and text on the page and their ultimate decision to layer the various elements.
All of this made me think back to my own research process. I spent many hours working with text-based archival materials. But even then, I was never solely interested in the words. Texture. Smell. Size. Colour. I use all of my sense in the archives (well, except taste, which would get me kicked out pretty quickly)
I also drew inspiration from online image archives. The Rijksmuseum’s Rijksstudio and the Suriname Museum’s Flickr account were particular inspirations. Through them, I could travel through time. I was able to follow Hindustani indentured labourers when they first arrived in Suriname, and later, as they settled in the colony. I could see photographs and paintings of plantations. I could see what life was like for the well-heeled folks in Paramaribo, getting insight into their tea parties, family dinners, and outings. I could also catch glimpses into the lives of the enslaved.
Gerrit Schouten’s dioramas (a few are on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; others are at the Surinaams Museum in Paramaribo) offer a window into life in the early nineteenth century.
Jacob Marius Adriaan Martini van Geffen’s drawings, gathered in an album, present both people and plantations in the mid-nineteenth century (because they’re in public domain, I was able to turn some of them into postcards that I’ll have available at my book launch!)
Like the text-based archival materials that I consulted, none of these images are neutral, of course. They show what the artists wanted us to see (and what they themselves wanted to see), and also, perhaps, in the case of Schouten, who sold his dioramas, what audiences wanted to collect.
These drawings, paintings, and photographs – many others like them – stayed with me as I worked through text-based archival material, and also, as I travelled in and around Paramaribo. While What the Oceans Rememberincludes only a handful of images, hundreds of others shaped my thoughts, reflections, and imaginings.
I sent off my last set of proofreading comments/changes a couple of weeks ago.
While I was working on those last changes, at home we were embarking on a massive rearrangement and renovation project that has involved pulling up flooring, laying new flooring, installing new cabinets, putting together Billy bookcases for our endlessly proliferating books, and moving rooms around (well, not the physical rooms, but their occupants and their contents). One of these steps involved moving our shared office space from the basement up to kid the elder’s former bedroom on the second floor.
In the process, I found all the hard copy drafts of What the Oceans Remember, a few reams of paper’s worth printed over the past couple of years.
Although it may look like it, I didn’t print out every draft. I didn’t even print half. Or even a quarter.
It took many, many (many, many, many) drafts to write this book. Before and in between these paper drafts were others: from tiny snippets of writing, way back in the beginning, to larger chunks as I moved into a book format, and finally, into a number of full drafts.
Now, there’s no more massaging left to do.
Soon, very soon, the manuscript will head off to the hands of its makers – the printers who will transform all of this into a real, physical book. The prospect is alternately daunting and exhilarating. I’m suspended in a 2.5 month space between disbelief, excitement, trepidation, and fear.
(Who am I kidding? I’m terrified, plain and simple! But things that terrify you make you stronger, yes?)
As I let this manuscript-almost-book go, I have to remind myself of my friend Sandra Schulze‘s wise words in response to a social media post where I was bemoaning the misery of final proofreading.
“What do the masters of Persian carpets say?” she wrote. “Leave a small error or two, so as not to compete with the perfection of the divine.”
On April 4, 1837, the Harmonica Society advertised its first concert in the Surinaamsche Courant. The advertisement, nestled between advertisements for slave auctions, announcements about newly-arrived household wares, and notices of ship arrivals and departures, invited the public to share in an evening of music starting at 7:30 pm.
This was only the first of a series of over two dozen concerts, begun by the Pos brother—both violinists—most of which took place on the second floor of the Waag—the Weighing House—on Paramaribo’s waterfront.
What did the fashionable colonial elite listen to? What was their musical world like? Of course, these plantation owners and their families would have been surrounded by the music of the enslaved, longstanding oral traditions brought over from Africa. But they also performed—and listened to—European classical music. According to P.A. Samson, the Pos brothers organized a performance of the first act of Rossini’s Barber of Seville in 1840 (163). A decade later, in 1851, the celebrated Belgian violinist and composer, Henri Vieuxtemps performed a concert in Paramaribo (Kempen 147).
But the Harmonica Society concert series suggests an already flourishing musical community that must have existed even well before the 1830s. Indeed, an early nineteenth-century visitor, Albert von Sack, noted in 1807 that a group of music lovers organized regular weekly concerts (Kempen 147).
But what was on the concert programs? When I first went looking through early Surinamese newspapers (available online via delpher.nl), I wasn’t sure what I’d discover, but I anticipated that the music might have been somewhat dated. After all, Paramaribo was a remote colonial outpost on the edge of South America. But I was wrong. Paramaribo’s concert-going elite may have lived far from the centres of power, but for between 3 and 6 florins per concert, they could enjoy the latest in musical offerings.
In September 1837, the concert program featured a range of works by Louis Spohr (1784-1859), Anton Bohrer (1783-1852), Ferdinand David (1810-1873), and—be still my beating flutist heart—the German flutist and pedagogue, Antoine Bernhard Fürstenau.
The Rondo Brillant (possibly this one) was performed by a father-son duo: A.A. Samuels and son. As an aside: It’s possible that the A. A. Samuels listed here is the same Samuels named in the 1840 Almanac as owner of Ma Retraite plantation, a large coffee and cocoa plantation located right behind Fort Zeelandia (and now incorporated into Paramaribo proper).
Just a few months later, in January 1838, the program included a four-hand piano piece by Carl Czerny (1791-1857), a violin work by the French composer, Pierre Rode (1774-1830), and yet another work for flute, a Fantaisie by the celebrated French flutist and composer, Jean-Louis Tulou (1786-1865)!
Tulou wrote a number of Fantaisies for flute, but perhaps it was this one, the Fantaisie Op. 29, composed in 1821? In any event, it was performed by a Suriname-based organist, J.E. Kreutzer, who also composed and performed his own theme and variations for guitar on that same concert program.
Later that spring, another concert took place. This one featured a Mozart Overture as well as works for violin, guitar, voice, and flute by a range of composers including the Belgian Charles Auguste de Bériot (1802-1870), the German Peter Josef van Lindpainter (1791-1856), and the now well-loved Italian, Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868).
Few of these composers are well known to us today; in fact, I’d hazard a guess that some names are completely unfamiliar. However, the range and variety of composers and works suggests that the colonial elite were avid musicians and music lovers, keen to share the latest European offerings with friends, neighbours, and colleagues in Suriname. Oh, to have been able to observe these evenings….
What might this music have sounded like? How would it have been received? The first is a tantalizing question that I can explore. My flutes and I have ongoing dates with some early nineteenth-century music….
Kempen, Michiel van. Een geschiedenis van de Surinaamse literatuur. Deel 3: De geschreven literatuur van 1596 tot 1923. Paramaribo: Uitgeverij Okopipi, 2002.
Samson, P.A. “Aantekeningen over kunst en vermaak in Suriname voor 1900.” De West-Indische Gids, Vol. 35(1955), pp. 154-165
Surinaamsche Almanak voor het Jaar 1840. Departement Paramaribo der Maatschappij Tot Nut van ‘t Algemeen, z.p. 1839.