Kindly contributed by Carrie Gibson, author of the new book Empire's Crossroads, a scholarly, readable history of the entire Caribbean from Cuba to Haiti, Jamaica to Trinidad. Gibson begins in 1492 and ends in the 20th century, covering five centuries with panache.
If it were not for the fact that it was humid, and I was crowded into an overstuffed van, sandwiched between a driver who constantly spat out the window and a heavily pregnant woman, I might have thought I was in the Netherlands. The countryside that sped by as we rushed towards Paramaribo by was green and flat, crisscrossed with canals. Such familiarity was at once obvious – Suriname was a Dutch colony until 1975 – and also a surprise. I was on the ‘Wild Coast’ of South America and wasn’t expecting a European landscape.
Paramaribo was well worth the 12-hour trek, which involved a taxi ride in Guyana, a ferry crossing, much queuing, and the cozy van journey. The capital is not without a bit of chaos, but the Suriname River that gives the city its shape also lends it an air of calm. The stretch of river along Waterkant street is lined with historic houses on one side and food stalls and kiosks selling cold Parbo beer on the other, making it a favorite route in what is a very walkable city. There is a great deal of colonial architecture, not least the 17th-century Fort Zeelandia, and much of inner Paramaribo has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. The British and Dutch fought over this territory until it finally fell under Dutch rule in 1667 when Britain received New Amsterdam in exchange. Sugar and slavery fuelled the coastal economy, though some African slaves escaped to the dense jungles – already home to many different groups of indigenous people – where they set up their own communities. Slavery was abolished in 1863 and indentured labourers from China, India (known as Hindustani in Surnime), and Java arrived to work, adding to the already diverse population.
Suriname’s transition to independence was complicated. A 1980 military coup led by Desi Bouterse was followed by the 1982 killing of 15 dissidents, known as the ‘December murders’. Another coup was mounted, and there were more years of violence and unrest until the 1990s when a democratically elected civilian government was established. However, Bouterse managed to rehabilitate his political career, despite his checkered legacy, and was elected president in 2010.
The past is sometimes best understood in seeing how such complicated legacies are lived in everyday life. There is much to see by simply people-watching (and listening – the Surinamese language is a fusion of its many contributors), but perhaps Suriname’s diversity and history is best summed up by the city’s main houses of worship. On Henck Arronstraat sits the impressive Catholic cathedral – one of the largest wooden structures in the Americas – St Peter and Paul. A few streets away, on Keizerstraat is an imposing mosque and next door is the Neveh Shalom Synagogue, the site of which dates back to the 18th century. Tolerance has a long history here.
There is plenty of pain in Suriname’s past, but for the moment there is peace, and Paramaribo has emerged a cosmopolitan city perched on the edge of the continent. Carrie Gibson is the author of Empire’s Crossroads: A History of the Caribbean from Columbus to the Present Day (Grove Atlantic, November 2014).