The land of the freed people

'We Slaves of Suriname' (1934) was the first study of Dutch colonial rule from the perspectives of the people who resisted it. It is has been published in English for the first time.

Anton de Kom circa 1924, photo originally published in De Correspondent (via Wikimedia Commons, public domain).

Anton de Kom was born in 1898 in Frimangron (roughly: land of the free people), a working-class creole neighborhood of Paramaribo, Suriname. Anton’s father, Adolf, was freed from slavery as an infant on keti koti, the abolition of slavery on July 1 1863, which took place in Suriname 30 years after emancipation in the British Caribbean. After a so-called transition period where the Dutch required “freed” slaves to keep working on plantations for another decade, authorities instituted compulsory basic education. In the language of the colonizer, schools were to promote “civilization” and impose a “unifying” language (Dutch) in a place they viewed as bewilderingly diverse, undisciplined and inefficient. Adek, as De Kom is known in Suriname, attended these colonial schools modeled on the Dutch system.

In Wij Slaven van Suriname (We Slaves of Suriname), first published in Dutch in 1934 and now in English for the first time, De Kom reflects on the ways colonial education taught him to loathe himself. Confined to the back of their classrooms and forbidden from speaking Sranantongo, Black children learned heroic stories of Dutch explorers” and colonizers. Writing 30 years before the Brazilian Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, De Kom recalls,

We, who searched our history books in vain for the names of the rebels Boni, Baron, Joli Coeur, did our utmost so that, when the exam came, we could quickly rattle off the names and days of the Dutch governors under whose administration our fathers had been imported as slaves.

“And the system worked,” he continues, remembering his childhood alienation from the beauty of Surinamese nature and his learned disdain for maroons (descendants of those who escaped plantation slavery by forming free communities deep in the rainforests), all while dressed “in our European clothes.” There is “[n]o better way to foster a sense of inferiority in a race, than through this form of history education, in which the sons of a different people are the only ones mentioned and praised.”

For a very long time, the name Anton de Kom would not be found in Dutch history books either. I completed the Dutch school system in the 1980s and 1990s where I witnessed what Gloria Wekker describes as the “stark juxtaposition between the Dutch imperial presence in the world, since the sixteenth century, and its almost total absence in the Dutch educational curriculum, in self-image and self-representations.” I only learned Anton de Kom’s name in 2018 in a text written by a US scholar, Melissa Weiner, who mentioned We Slaves (1934) alongside (and, not insignificantly, preceding) the seminal works of C.L.R. James (1938) and W. E. B. Du Bois (1935), the Anglophone decolonial scholars who guide my teaching and learning. The unfamiliar Dutch name jumped out at me and led me to a digital copy of the original 1934 edition of Wij Slaven van Suriname.

When young De Kom’s questions went unanswered at colonial schools, he set out to teach himself. Relatives remember him as a teenager with “his nose in a book.” Responding to his incessant questions, De Kom’s grandmother and aunts cautiously shared memories of slavery and hinted at maroonage in the family, though these stories were shrouded in mystery. Their words stayed with Adek, as he would later recall in We Slaves: “Never have the sufferings of slavery spoken to me so clearly as through the eyes of my grandmother when, in front of the hut in Paramaribo, she told us children her tales of the old days.”

De Kom finished middle school, the highest level of education available in Suriname at the time, and trained as a bookkeeper. He worked for the Colonial Balata Company where he observed the exploitation of workers. With the help of a storeroom assistant, De Kom covertly built relationships with the balata bleeders, many of whom were illiterate. He taught basic literacy and numeracy skills so the workers could guard against wage theft, his biographers note.

At age 20, De Kom boarded a ship to Holland (via Curaçao and Haiti) as a working passenger. His dream to enroll as a student in The Netherlands was never realized, but he built relationships with nationalist Indonesian students and Dutch Communists, the only left-wing group with an explicitly anti-imperialist platform. While working as a business agent for a coffee and tobacco company in The Hague, De Kom wrote for communist publications (his articles often focused on the exploitation of Asian contract workers in Suriname) and he maintained correspondence with Surinamese labor organizers. Adek immersed himself in literature, poetry, and libraries, starting work on the project that would become We Slaves in 1926.

We Slaves is an unusual text. Tessa Leuwsha reminds us in her foreword to the book’s 2020 edition that writing in the colonial language, De Kom played with genres and literary styles, interspersing his scholarly writing with intimate narration, poetry, subversive word play, and Surinamese odo (proverbs). While some white commentators focus attention on De Kom’s “bitter” remarks and “accusations” against the Dutch, We Slaves resolutely centers the Surinamese. The book’s opening chapters describe the establishment of racial slavery on the Guyanese Coast:

… Each new ruler drove out the last, yet each one, after taking violent possession of the settlements of other Europeans, would begin by making the solemn declaration that under the new regime the right of property – which is to say, the right to use and abuse one’s living chattels, to buy and sell our fathers and mothers – would still be held sacred and enforced.

In this manner, De Kom uses “we,” “us,” “our” and direct invocations to enslaved ancestors and deceased loved ones—“our fathers and mothers”—throughout We Slaves, as Duco van Oostrum discusses. Connecting Indigenous peoples, enslaved Africans, the Chinese, Javanese (Indonesian) and Hindustani (Northern Indian) contract workers, who colonizers trafficked to Suriname on fraudulent contracts to replace enslaved labor after emancipation, De Kom’s “we” explicitly include all exploited people in the category of slaves of Suriname. Some of the book’s most harrowing passages describe the misery, hunger and sickness among the Asian unemployed. We Slaves retells the histories of Suriname and the Dutch empire through stories of maronage, uprisings, and everyday resistance during the periods of conquest, slavery, and its aftermath.

De Kom reads the silences in colonial records, travelers’ narratives, and abolitionists’ reports with his grandmother and aunts’ stories in mind. In the alarmist 1750 warnings of the director of Vlucht en Trouw plantation to the surrounding white population, for example, De Kom refocuses attention on the circumstances surrounding the reported slave insurrection. The enslaved rebelled when the manager flogged an enslaved woman to death. The woman had defended herself when the plantation manager attempted to rape her. When an elderly enslaved man protested on the woman’s behalf, the manager shot him too, for good measure.

With “our mothers and fathers” always in view, We Slaves writes Surinamese people back in to their own histories—as workers engaged in backbreaking labor, as people engaged in resistance and acts of solidarity in the face of the cruelest punishments, and as people cultivating knowledge about their own lives.

As De Kom recenters the enslaved and exploited in their own histories, he also offers insights into their oppressors. The planters’ “excesses” were not a result of their mismanagement or inefficiency, as the Dutch government (and abolitionists) maintained. Rather, De Kom shows, planter culture emerged precisely from the exploitative and violent relations that sustained them. Evoking their raucous feasts, De Kom directs the reader to consider the slaves who would have served the Surinamese slaveholders, the “silent” Black masses beyond their windows, and the “implacable armies of maroons” in the forest. In their “frenzy of sensual pleasures,” the reveling planters tried in vain to forget their fear of those they oppressed, fear living in each of their hearts.

Adek narrates his own short-lived return to Suriname in 1933 in the book’s epilogue, the only passage of the book previously translated into English. Beset by homesickness and worried about his ailing mother, De Kom undertook the long journey with his white Dutch wife and their young children. De Kom’s mother died before his ship docked. He was met at the docks by about 1,000 proletarians wearing their Sunday best. This multiracial group of workers may have remembered De Kom from his time at the Balata Company and spread the news of his return by word of mouth. Javanese and Hindustani workers, in particular, welcomed De Kom home as a liberator.

In the book’s epilogue, De Kom wrestles with his grief for his mother and his shock at witnessing the desperation of the Surinamese during the crippling economic crisis. He is labeled a communist and banned from public speaking. Drawing strength from his late mother’s example, he decides to set up an advice bureau in his family’s yard in Frimangron with the goal of listening to workers. Hundreds, and soon thousands, of struggling workers and unemployed— the descendants of African slaves, Asian indentured workers, Indigenous people, and Ndyuka leaders—traveled from plantations and forests to share their experiences of hunger, illness, exploitation and abuse. De Kom reflected on his political goals:

Perhaps I shall succeed in overcoming some of the disunity which has always been the great source of weakness of these colored people. Perhaps I shall succeed in driving it home to Negroes and Hindustanis, to Javanese and Amerindians, that only solidarity can unite all the sons of mother Sranan in their struggle for a life worthy of man’s dignity (Pomerans translation).

When police shut down De Kom’s listening project after a month, hundreds of Javanese workers staged an impromptu demonstration, squatting in the yard as officers tried to remove them. De Kom describes his first encounter with non-violent protest with awe: The Javanese did not “budge even a centimeter from where they sat.” The protests spread across Paramaribo during what came to be known as the February Uprising, as documented by historian Eric Jagdew. When De Kom was arrested, thousands more workers took to the street to demand his release. Authorities attacked the multiracial protestors, reserving particular brutality for the Javanese.

1933 protest for the release of Anton de Kom in Paramaribo. Originally published in Het Leven, nr. 10 (1933) 303 with the title “Unrest in the West” and reprinted in Fatah-Black (2017). Credit: Nationaal Archief/Collectie Spaarnestad/Het Leven/Fotograaf onbekend.

While Adek’s advice bureau notebooks were destroyed in the initial raid, We Slaves’ epilogue may be the first account of multiracial labor organizing in the Dutch empire. After three months in Fort Zeelandia jail, where plantation managers once brought the enslaved for brutal punishment, De Kom was deported to the Netherlands with his wife and children, where he completed We Slaves in exile. Though the manuscript was published in 1934, he faced censorship, repression, and depression. When Germany invaded The Netherlands, Adek joined the communist wing of the Dutch resistance. He was captured in 1944, perhaps after being betrayed, and died in a German concentration camp in April 1945, likely just days before the camp was liberated. Camp survivors recall a Surinamese man who spoke longingly of home.

We Slaves appeared destined for obscurity until a Surinamese student, Rubia Zsüschen, found a copy of the manuscript in Leiden University’s library in 1964 and immediately recognized the text’s significance. A group of leftist Surinamese students took it upon themselves to study the text, locate De Kom’s widow, and recover his other writings, some of which were later lost or stolen. The students, many of whom returned to Suriname in the 1970s, promoted We Slaves and disseminated bootlegged copies. These efforts and the work of De Kom’s daughter, Judith, spurred the book’s first reprint in 1971 and a Spanish translation published in Havana in 1981.

Thanks to the tireless work of generations of community organizers and study groups, We Slaves is read, known, and celebrated. Suriname’s only University was renamed after De Kom in the 1980s. Amsterdam-based scholar-activists The Black Archives spearheaded a much-lauded 2020 edition, which has been flying off Dutch bookstore shelves. De Kom was finally named in the Dutch history curriculum in 2020, the first Surinamese person to be included. Caught up in the fraught politics of memory work, as historian Karwan Fatah-Black documented, the publication of an English-language translation was delayed for decades. Polity’s 2022 translation now offers English speakers the first opportunity to the read We Slaves in full.

Further Reading