HISTORY LESSON SURINAME

Suriname is an unusual cultural enclave with an extraordinary ethnic variety deriving from Dutch colonization, the early importation of African slaves and, later, indentured laborers from India and Indonesia.

 Map of Suriname

History

The original inhabitants of the Guyanese coast were Carib Indians. Covered by mangroves, the thinly populated, muddy coastline failed to attract Spaniards in search of gold, though they made occasional slave raids. Interior tropical forest peoples such as the Macushi and Tirió also survived in relative isolation.

The English established sugar and tobacco plantations on the west bank of the Suriname River around 1650 and founded the settlement now known as Paramaribo. Two decades later, the Dutch took possession in one of the silliest property deals ever transacted, by swapping New Amsterdam (present-day New York) for the English territory in Suriname. To expand their plantations, the Dutch imported West African slaves. From the mid-18th century, escaped slaves formed Maroon (Bush Negro) settlements in the interior, and retained many African customs. The abolition of slavery led to labor shortages in the early 19th century, and indentured laborers were brought in from the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), India, China, Portugal and Lebanon.

Despite limited autonomy, Suriname remained a colony until 1954, when it became a self-governing state; another 20 years passed before it gained independence. A military coup in 1980 brought Desi Bouterse to power. His brutal regime saw that all political opponents were murdered and also carried out a vicious campaign to suppress a rebellion of Bush Negroes. Posing as a Marxist, Bouterse flirted with Cuba (to the alarm of the USA and Brazil) and then with Libya (to the alarm of French Guiana). In 1987 free elections were held and a multiracial government was formed.

Although Bouterse no longer holds power, he staged another coup in 1990 and still lingers in the background as the main opposition leader. Despite leftist rhetoric, Ronald Venetiaan's coalition government proved amenable to multinationals, such as Suralco (a subsidiary of Alcoa), which control the country's lucrative bauxite industry. Venetiaan has also granted gold and timber concessions to North American and Asian companies in Suriname. Attempts to push through economic reforms continue to be hampered by political infighting and a populace to whom widespread poverty seems a poor tradeoff for happy accountants.

Facts at a Glance

Full country name: Republic of Suriname
Area: 163,270 sq km (63,675 sq mi)
Population: 440,000
Capital city: Paramaribo (pop 240,000)
People: 35% East Indian, 32% Afro-Surinamese, 15% Indonesian, and 10% Bush Negroes (descendants of ex-slaves who inhabit the upland forests)
Language: Dutch, and also English, Sranan (an English-based Creole), Hindi, Javanese and Chinese
Religion: 27% Hindu, 25% Protestant, 23% Roman Catholic, 20% Muslim
Government: Republic
President: Jules Wijdenbosch

Environment

Suriname lies on the northern coast of South America, squeezed in between Guyana and French Guiana to the west and east, and Brazil to the south. The majority of Surinamese inhabit the Atlantic coast, where most of the country's few roads are located. The densely forested interior is accessible only by air or via the north-south rivers, though rapids limit the navigability of most rivers.

Temperature and humidity are high. The major rainy season is from April to July, with a shorter one in December and January.

Economic Profile

GDP: US$1.7 billion
GDP per head: US$3700
Annual growth: 0.5%
Inflation: 18.9%
Major industries: Bauxite and aluminium, palm oil, rice, shrimp and fish, bananas
Major trading partners: USA

Culture

Suriname's ethnic mix is reflected in the religious allegiances of its people. The most important Christian denominations are Roman Catholic and Moravian Brethren, but many Christian groups also practice traditional African beliefs such as obeah and winti. About 80% of the East Indian population are Hindu.

Although Dutch is the official language, the vernacular Sranan (also known as Surinaams), an English-based creole, is widely spoken. Hindi, Javanese, Chinese, Djuka and Saramaccan (both English-based creoles) and various Amerindian languages are also spoken.

The development of a strong national arts scene has been hampered by the fact that many of the country's intelligentsia live abroad (mostly in the Netherlands), partly because of greater economic opportunities and partly because of military repression. However, gamelan offers an insight into the cultural life of the Indonesian community; sculpture and carvings express the values of the Amerindian and Bush Negro populations.

Suriname's food is an exotic mix of East Indian, Indian, Creole and Chinese cuisines; the cheapest eateries are warungs, Javanese food stalls serving fried noodle and rice dishes.

Events

The Hindu New Year's festival, Holi Phagwah, is held in March or April, while the Muslim holiday Id ul fitr celebrates the end of fasting at Ramadan.

Facts for the Traveler

Visas: Virtually all visitors require a visa in advance. There are Surninamese embassies in neighboring countries, the Netherlands, Germany and the US.
Health risks: Malaria, rabies, typhoid, dengue fever, cholera
Time: GMT/UTC minus 3 hours
Weights & measures: Officially metric but, in practice, imperial measurements are used (see the conversion table.)

Money & Costs

Currency: Surinamese gilder

Relative costs:

  • Budget room: US$6-20

  • Moderate hotel: US$20-40

  • Top-end hotel room: US$40 and upwards

  • Budget meal: US$2-5

  • Moderate restaurant meal: US$5-10

  • Top-end restaurant meal: US$10 and upwards

Suriname is moderately expensive. The cheapest accommodation is very basic and costs US$6 per night, while a good room is at least US$25. A reasonable restaurant meal is at least US$5. Budget travelers can get by on around US$25 per day, while those looking for more comfort should expect to spend closer to US$50 per day.

US dollars are the most common foreign currency in Suriname, but Dutch guilders and other major currencies are accepted at banks. Banks are open weekdays from 7 am to 2 pm. Changing money can involve time-consuming paperwork. In practice, many businesses will accept US dollars at the usual rate, and many quote their prices in dollars. Credit cards are accepted at major hotels and at travel agencies. American Express is more common than either MasterCard or Visa.

In restaurants, it is customary to tip about 10% of the bill. In general, waiters and waitresses are poorly paid, so if you can afford to eat out, you can afford to tip. Taxi drivers do not require tips, although you may round off the fare for convenience. Long-distance bus or shared taxi fares are negotiable. Purchases from handicrafts markets will be subject to bargaining and haggling on hotel prices is possible in the off-season or for long stays.

When to Go

Suriname's dry seasons, from early February to late April and from mid-August to early December, are the best times for a visit. From March to July, several species of sea turtles come ashore to nest at Wia Wia and Galibi reserves.

Attractions

Paramaribo

Suriname's capital Paramaribo (often abbreviated to 'Parbo') is a curious hybrid of northern Europe and tropical America. Imposing brick buildings overlook grassy squares and wooden houses crowd narrow streets, but towering palms shade some areas and mangroves still hug the riverside. Mosques and synagogues sit side by side, while Javanese vendors peddle satay and Dutch-speaking Creoles guzzle beer at sidewalk cafés. Central Paramaribo's focus is the Onafhankelijksplein (Unity Square), fronting the Presidential Palace. Immediately behind the palace is the Palmentuin, an attractive park with tall palms inhabited by tropical birds. To the east is Fort Zeelandia, a 17-century riverside fortification used for the detention and torture of political prisoners after the coup of 1980. The main market is found on the riverside boulevard, Waterkrant, and ferries for Meerzog, on the other side of the river, leave from nearby.

Brownsberg Nature Park

This park comprises an area of montane tropical rainforest overlooking one of the world's largest reservoirs, the W J van Blommestein Meer, about one and a half hours from Paramaribo by car. Guided tours are available and include a short walk on the Mazaroni plateau, which gives fine views of the reservoir to the east, and a longer hike which involves a steep descent into a canyon with small but attractive waterfalls.

Off the Beaten Track

Albina

Albina is a small, run-down village on the Marowijne River, the border with French Guiana. With permission from the Carib Indians (and a hired canoe), it is possible to visit the nearby Galibi Nature Reserve, where Ridley, green and leatherback turtles nest in June and July. Albina has no accommodation but it may be possible to find a bed in a private house or sling a hammock in the park.

Activities

Even parsimonious travelers should take advantage of guided trips to Suriname's rainforest and coastal reserves, to which access can otherwise be difficult. It is possible to travel up the rivers in small boats navigated by Maroons, and boats travel along the coast between assorted towns.

Getting There & Away

There are twice-weekly flights from Amsterdam to Paramaribo, but it may be cheaper to fly from Paris to Cayenne (in French Guiana) and travel overland to Paramaribo. Miami and Atlanta are the main departure points for flights from the USA, and there are also flights from various Caribbean islands, Brazil and Guyana. There is a rickety passenger ferry from Nieuw Nickerie across the Corantijn River to Springlands, Guyana; and another across the Marowijne River between Albina and St Laurent de Maroni (French Guiana).

Getting Around

Air services to the interior usually operate on a charter basis. Medium-sized buses on the coastal highway are frequent and exceptionally cheap, but crowded; taxis, which are faster though more expensive, travel along the same routes. To visit the interior and some coastal areas, river transport is the only option.

Recommended Reading

  • Suriname: Politics, Economics & Society by Henk E Chin and Hans Buddingh is a good general introduction to the country.

  • South America's National Parks by William F Leitch is a comprehensive guide for readers interested in wildlife.

  • Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice by Mark Plotkin touches on history, anthropology and environmental issues as it recounts the search for medicinal plants in the forests of Brazil and Suriname.

  • An acerbic chapter of VS Naipaul's The Middle Passage is devoted to Suriname.