As a child most of my days were spent analyzing the books at home, flipping through pages of encyclopedias, or reading about the unmasking of a killer in Agatha Christie’s novels. I loved to read, and it didn’t really matter what I was reading. The book just had to be nice and thick, and heavy, and needed to have an interesting cover. One of those thick, heavy books with an interesting cover was a book on the jubilee of the Moravian church in Suriname. I don’t remember the front cover that well. But the back cover had an image of the painting this blogpost is about.
I remember seeing the painting and even at that young age, I was intrigued by it. The detail all proved that this was painted by an exceptionally skilled painter. But I was mostly touched by the level of human expression and relation that the painter was able to capture. It’s like you can almost see what the people were thinking. I spent many days scrolling through the book, looking through the pictures. And then one day I must have lost interest in the book and forgotten all about it, and this painting.
That’s until a couple of weeks ago. I was going through my WordPress feed, reading all the wonderful posts of the bloggers I follow. One of those posts was by art historian, writer, curator and researcher Esther Schreuder 1 . She posted a review of the’ Grote Suriname tentoonstelling’ (translated Great Suriname exhibition)1, where this painting called “De slavendans” (the slave dance) was also featured. And in the post she noted very important details about this painting that I had never been aware of. You see, this painting could actually be featuring enslaved people who participated in an 18th century slave revolt.
And not just any revolt, since revolts in itself were relatively common in 18th century Suriname. No, it’s a painting featuring participants of a revolt of which the cause and the course of said revolt were one of the most extremely well documented in the history of the country. This through the preserved court testimonies of the actual witnesses and participants2.
The following account is a summarized translated account of Esther Shreuder’s blogpost1 and Frank Dragtenstein’s account of the revolt in OSO, a magazine for Surinamese linguistics, literature and history2.
The situation on the plantation
This particular revolt took place on the 7th of June 1707 on the sugar plantation Palmeneribo. As was common in those days, the plantation owner lived in Europe, and had his plantation run by a group of wardens and or administrators who did live locally. In the year of the revolt, this group of wardens/ administrators consisted of only three white men. The newly appointed warden Westphaal, who was given the orders to increase the yield/profit and restore order and discipline on the plantation. Another administrator who split his duties between Palmeneribo and another nearby plantation. And also Dirk Valkenburg, officially a financial administrator but also the painter of this particular piece of art. Because of his abilities as a painter, Valkenburg was also supposed to provide an impression of the plantation to the owner since the owner himself had never visited the plantation and didn’t know what it looked like. Hence why this painting came about. The painting features a pree which could be interpreted as a either a dance, or African Surinamese religious ceremony at plantation Palmeneribo, and was rumored to painted at the beginning of 1707. These prees * were somewhat tolerated by the colonial authority.
The enslaved population living on Palmeneribo consisted of 156 people, who were mostly men and of Luangu origin (present day Congo, Gabon, Cameroon, Angola). Dragtenstein also mentions some being Papa and at least one being of Coromantijn descent (present day Ghana). They had a certain level of freedom that other enslaved people didn’t have. For example, they were ‘free’ on both Saturdays and Sundays and this time was used to tend to their own kitchen gardens and livestock. There was a lot of hard physical labor involved on sugar plantations, and because of this, it was generally advised to sugar cane planters to employ more men than women. Because of the shortage of women, many of the enslaved men had wives and children living on other nearby plantations and it had become custom for these men to visit their families during their free time. They did so freely, without permission, with their canoes being the main form of transportation.
As stated earlier, warden Westphaal was given the order to increase the yield and restore order and discipline. To effectuate this, one of the measures he took was bringing down the amount of free time from two days back to one. He also wanted to limit the free traffic from and to neighboring plantations to only those with explicit permission. Westphaal would also occasionally shoot and kill the livestock owned by the enslaved people, because according to him the animals were ruining the sugarcane crop. Of course this all didn’t go off well with the enslaved people.
Incidents leading up to the revolt
The main figures in the revolt were the three brothers Wally, Mingo and Baratham. There was also Charle, an enslaved who came to Suriname through Cayenne, the capital of Suriname’s Eastern neighbor, and Joseph who played a less important role. The three brothers were noted as being young Creoles (black people born within Suriname) .
From the witness statements and other documentation, we can gather that the three brothers were well respected figures on the plantation, and were not afraid of the white authoritative figures. Mingo was said to regularly refuse orders given to him by either the black overseer or the director, and had also resisted against punishment resulting from this refusal. One time the Europeans did manage to overpower him. Mingo was hung by his bound wrists so that he could undergo his punishment. This caused a tumultuous situation on the plantation and Baratham, supported by the other Africans, cut his brother loose so that he could escape punishment.
This same Baratham had also once approached and cussed out Westphaal for killing one of his chickens. Westphaal ordered him to shut up and go home, but when he tried to chase him away with a stick, Baratham threw the dead chicken at the warden’s head, and said, “You shot him, you eat him!”.
Wally also enjoyed respect from the residents of Palmeneribo. He encouraged the others to work less hard, when Westphaal had announced the plans for a reduced amount of free time. There was also another incident between Wally and Westphaal that happened when Wally’s wife had secretly visited him on Palmeneribo. The warden had found out and had made his way to the houses of the enslaved with the intention of single-handedly taking Wally’s wife away. Wally had blocked him from entering his home, but at an unguarded moment Westphaal had managed to enter the house and capture her. Wally managed to free his girlfriend by throwing Westphaal to the ground. Westphaal, overpowered once again, backed off. Wally was not punished for this.
There were more incidents noted in the documentation, but this post would become too long if I focused on all of them.
The main incident
According to Westphaal’s statement, he had been sitting in the frontroom of the planter’s house, when he saw Mingo mooring his canoe and entering the plantation. Mingo had been gone from the night before, and without saying a word, he had looked at Westphaal and had walked past him in the direction of the slave quarters. This was too much for Westphaal, and he took an ax and chopped Mingo’s canoe to pieces. When Mingo learned of this, he caused a great commotion by declaring that if he were not helped by those around him in his demand for a new canoe, he would slit his throat. That day, according to Westphaal, nothing happened. The rebellious men did talk to each other, made some radical statements like claiming that Westphaal was not man enough to catch or punish them, but mostly left it at that.
The next morning however, the whole enslaved community assembled in front of the house. Joseph and Charle demanded on behalf of Mingo that he’d be compensated for his canoe. Westphaal then escalated the situation by shooting, and hitting Charle in the leg. The community then proceeded to throw rocks at Westphaal who had by then entrenched himself in the planter’s house together with Valkenburg. It’s not entirely clear to me from the documentation why the Africans didn’t push through, but they didn’t.
It’s also not clear to me how and when the authorities were notified, but they were, and the previously mentioned enslaved men were arrested, and transported to the capital Paramaribo (not to be confused with the name of the plantation). It’s also not clear to me why this particular incident lead to the arrest of the men, but the other incidents hadn’t (I didn’t write about an incident involving them running away and staying in the jungle for a short amount of time, to limit the post length). Either way, this whole story is only known today, because of all the documentation related to the court case that was held about a month after the main incident.
After the final questioning in court, Mingo, Wally, Baratham, Charl, and Joseph were sentenced to be slowly burned alive. While burning, they had to be pinched with red-hot pliers until they died. It had to be long and painful. Then the heads had to be severed from the corpses and placed on spikes as an example to others.
The governor of Suriname was well aware of the unstable situation on the plantation. Besides the five men, nineteen residents of Palmeneribo were also found guilty of the uprising. To prevent further unrest, the governor sent a letter to Palmeneribo in which all residents were pardoned. He later said in the Court of Police that “they have gone to work and the plantation is now at rest”. The governor further stated that the insurgents had been severely punished to deter the other enslaved because he feared that the uprising would spread to all the plantations on the Suriname river. According to him, this was evident from the persistent complaints about rebellious slaves from other neighboring plantations of the same owner. He mentioned the escape of twelve people from the nearby Waterland plantation. Eleven of them were recaptured after some time and one of them had starved to death. In addition, all men, women and children from another nearby plantation had fled. It was clear to the governor that others would follow this example.
Baratham was granted clemency, because according to the governor he “confessed everything so voluntarily and had disclosed the existence of a plot on the plantation.” Whoever was involved in the plot is not mentioned, nor is it mentioned what this plot entailed.
Dirk Valkenburg returned to the Netherlands the following year. He died in Amsterdam in 1721. It’s unclear to me what happened to Westphaal.
Free at last
It would take another fifty years for the whole enslaved community from plantation Palmeneribo to collectively run away. Some of the babies in the painting would have been old men or women, had they still been alive. They collectively ran away during an attack by the Ndyuka Maroons during the very important Tempati uprisings. In that same front room in the planter’s house, where Westphaal was sitting when he saw Mingo entering the plantation, the Maroons left a letter addressing the authorities. This letter was written in Eghlish by Boston Band (sometimes also spelled Boston Bendt) who was also known as Adyaka, an important figure in Suriname’s history. Boston Band had come to Suriname as an enslaved man from Jamaica. During the Tempati uprisings he had fled the plantation where he was working to join forces with the Maroons. Because of his ability to write, he became an important figure in the peace negotiations between the Ndyuka Maroons and the colonial authorities.
*prees: Sranan, a Creole Surinamese language, doesn’t recognize plural form of nouns. However, for readability purposes, I did create a plural form for the word pree.
**I’ve tried so quote all relevant sources as best as I could. If this didn’t happen accordingly, please let me know, and I will gladly correct.
- Schreuder, E. (2020, april 13). Terugblik op de Grote Suriname tentoonstelling: De slavendans van Dirk Valkenburg. Retrieved from Esther Schreuder: https://estherschreuder.wordpress.com/2020/04/13/terugblik-op-de-grote-suriname-tentoonstelling-de-slavendans-van-dirk-valkenburg/
The first time I had ever read the name Esther Schreuder was when I shopping for new books, just after I had moved to the Netherlands. I stumbled upon her work ‘Black is beautiful, Rubens to Dumas‘, containing essays and images on African people portrayed in European artwork from 1330 to 2008. For more on the similarly named exhibition, and other exhibitions curated by Esther Schreuder, check out her blog here: https://estherschreuder.wordpress.com/exhibitions/
- Dragtenstein, F. (2004). De opstand op Palmeneribo. OSO. Tijdschrift voor Surinaamse taalkunde, letterkunde en geschiedenis. Retrieved from https://www.dbnl.org/tekst/_oso001200401_01/_oso001200401_01_0021.php
Frank Dragtenstein also authored the important work Alles voor de vrede: de brieven van Boston Band tussen 1757 en 1763 about the important historic figure mentioned in the last paragraph of this post.