By André R.M. Pakosie (1996) (edited)
An analysis will be offered of the power bases of Maroon leadership, gaanman (Paramount Chief), kabiten (village headmen), and lanti (the council of advisors). Maroon leaders are shown to occupy an intermediary position between the city state and the people of the interior. Jointly they share responsibility for a good relationship between human and the world of gods and spirits. This latter fact is often misunderstood by outside observers.
Africans, Enslaved and Maroon
Suriname is situated on the northern coast of South America. Together with the Republic of Guyana, French Guyana, northern Brazil and eastern Venezuela it forms the region known as GUYANA. During the 17th and 18th centuries the Dutch colony of Suriname was one of the most important plantation areas in the world. The colonising efforts started in 1650 by the English, and continued by the Dutch after they seized the colony in 1667, led to the forced relocation of many sons and daughters, my ancestors, from West and Central Africa to Suriname. Each year thousands of people were shipped from various African ports to provide the colony with its labour force. Approximately 300,000 people from the continent of Africa entered the colony of Suriname in chains. They arrived empty-handed.
Many historians assert that working conditions were among the worst in the so-called New World. The people from several parts of West and Central Africa who were enslaved and transported to the Dutch colony of Suriname suffered a fate that can hardly be comprehended. To this very day Maroon historians tell their children about these sufferings. They often narrate the ordeal of those who had to work in Suriname’s muddy soil to dig trenches used for draining and transport.
Den wooko di den be e dwengi u fu du, na ogii. Dey anga dey den e poti u wooko a ini tokotoko! (The work that they let us do was terrible. Day after day we were digging away in the mud!)
Maroons will never forget the memory of those days as they may return.
It should therefore not come as a surprise that through rebellion they managed to free themselves. They threw off the yoke of slavery, and withdrew into the South American rain forest. It must be more astounding for the colonial authority that these Maroons soon managed to establish viable communities in the interior. Using the cover of the dense tropical rainforest, Maroons were fortunate enough to survive the first few years of liberation, and went on to form six politically autonomous Maroon communities. Under the vigorous leadership of their gaanman and headmen an intensive [liberation] offensive was mounted against the planters and their mercenaries. But already, in the opening years of the plantation colony, in the 17th century, the insurgents withdrew from the plantations to take refuge in the rain forest of the Guyanas.
Around the middle of the 18th century several consolidated Maroon groups emerged in different parts of Suriname’s interior. Until the year of abolition (1863), enslaved Africans and African Americans escaped in great numbers from Suriname’s plantations. Many were caught; others, unable to survive in the harsh conditions of the tropical forest, returned to the world of slavery bondage. Hundreds of refugees, however, managed to keep themselves alive; they settled on the upper reaches of rivers, and sought protection from their pursuers by withdrawing behind rapids and waterfalls, and many miles of almost impenetrable rain forest. When small bands of Africans who freed themselves, coalesced to form larger groups, the Loweman as these Maroons called themselves, they began to pose a military threat to the plantation colony. Early in the eighteenth century pitched battles were fought between the colonial troops and the Maroons, but small-scale raids on plantations also continued to occur. Motives for such raids varied: revenge is sometimes mentioned as a reason for the assault; more often Maroons sought to capture food, women, equipment, and weapons, or attempted to liberate kinsmen who were still in bondage.
When the losses of plantation owners grew, and the cost of military expeditions mounted, the planters opened negotiations with the Maroons, their former subjects. In the meantime, three main groups of Maroons emerged: the Ndyuka or Okanisi in the south-east, near the Marowijne and Tapanahoni rivers; the Saamaka in the centre, in the upper part of the Suriname basin; and finally, along the upper reaches of the Saramaka River, the Matawai. Peace Treaties were concluded with the Ndyuka in 1760, the Saamaka in 1762, and with the Matawai in 1767. The amazing fact is that a century before the abolition of slavery bondage in Suriname, thousands of Maroons had regained their freedom. Estimates of their numbers at the time of the Peace Treaties vary considerably, but to put both Ndyuka and Saamaka between 2,500 and 3,000, would not be far off the mark; the Matawai probably numbered about 300.
Soon after the Peace Treaty of 1760, Ndyuka started to leave their first settlements on the Ndyuka Creek and move to the Tapanahoni, which they named Ndyuka liba (River of the Ndyuka People). They exchanged the cramped and isolated territory bordering a shallow creek for the Tapanahoni, a stream often more than half a mile wide, with many tributaries. First they built their villages along these tributaries, but gradually they began to occupy islands in the middle of the river. These new locations offered them access to the vast expanses of territory drained by this river, and to large tracts of forest, needed for hunting and swidden agriculture. [Slash-and-burn agriculture, or fire–fallow cultivation, is a farming method that involves the cutting and burning of plants in a forest or woodland to create a field called a swidden. From Wiki. DG] The Tapanahoni flows into the Marowijne, a geographical fact that enabled them to establish communications with various Amerindian groups, with other Maroons and with the whites on the coast. The move from the Ndyuka Creek to the Tapanahoni was completed around 1790.
In the east of Suriname, however, war continued. By 1768 hostilities between the government of planters and the Aluku, a coalition of smaller groups of Maroons under the leadership of Boni, was beginning began to pose a formidable threat to the plantations (Hoogbergen 1985). Between 1768 and 1777 an army of mercenaries drove them out of the plantation colony. In 1789, when the Aluku hit the plantations again, the colonial army followed them to their new villages along the Maroni (Marowijne) River, the border river separating Dutch from French territory. The colonial troops destroyed one settlement after another. They set the Ndyuka and the Aluku against each other, and the Aluku attacked the Ndyuka. In 1792 the Ndyuka struck back and defeated the Aluku. Other smaller groups of Maroons, such as those later known as Pamaka, were left in peace by the planters’ army. The tension between the Aluku and the Ndyuka was clearly caused by the colonial power. Of their own accord these two communities would never have chosen to be hostile to each other.
Ndyuka would, for instance, secretly establish relations with the ‘Non-pacified Maroons,’ i.e. with Pamaka and other smaller groups of Maroons. In 1805, they went even further by granting asylum to a group of mutinous Black Rangers, former enslaved who were forced by the colonial government to serve as mercenaries in the Dutch army. Ndyuka offered the Rangers a place to settle at the confluence of the Tapanahoni and Lawa rivers, with the obligation to stand sentry over the entrance to the main Ndyuka area of settlement, the Tapanahoni River.