Littell's Living Age/Volume 129/Issue 1666/Dutch Guiana - Part IV
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Volume 129, Issue 1666 : Dutch Guiana - Part IV.
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THE groups that had gathered to greet us as we landed at the large wooden stelling in front of La Paix, had an appearance not unbefitting the general character of the place itself. Mixed together, yet distinct, the slender, ornament-circled limbs and cringing gestures of the turbaned coolies by the wharf, contrasted strangely with the sturdy forms and independent demeanour of the bush-negroes, here present in great force, mixed up with the more disciplined creoles, many of whom were, however, scarcely more overburdened with apparel — or, rather, sensible of the want of it — than their maroon kinsmen around. There was no lack of that general good feeling and willing subordination that characterized the more civilized population nearer the capital; all were cheerful — the coolies, perhaps, excepted, but cheerfulness is not a Hindoo virtue either at home or abroad — and courteous, after a fashion, but somewhat wild.
A painted four-oar boat, with its commodious stern-cabin — the overseer’s conveyance — lay alongside the wharf; two broad, flat-bottomed barges were moored some way up the main creek that leads to the interior of the estate; and besides these were a dozen maroon corials, mere hollow tree-trunks, the simplest forms of barbaric invention — survivals, to borrow Mr. Tylor’s excellent nomenclature, of a pre-civilized era in river-navigation.
The owners of the corials — tall, well-shaped men of colour, ranging between dark brown and inky black, with a rag at most bound turban-fashion round their bullet heads, and another of scarce ampler dimensions about their loins — muster on the landing-place, and salute the governor with a courteous deference to which the fullest uniform could add nothing. The women, whose dress may best be described as a scanty kilt, and the children, boys and girls, who have none to describe, keep somewhat in the background — laughing, of course; all seem perfectly at home, without strangeness, or even shyness of any kind. Nor, indeed, are they strangers from far off; their villages on the banks of the upper Cottica itself, and of its tributary stream, the Coermotibo, are almost contiguous to the European estates. The main body of the tribe is, however, far away on the banks of the Saara River to the south, where their chief resides, and along the west bank of the Marowyne, the boundary river between Dutch and French Guiana. All this vast region, said by the few explorers who have visited it to be in no respect inferior for its fertility and the variety of its products to the best lands of Surinam, has been made over, partly by express treaty, partly by custom, to the maroons, commonly known as the bush-negroes, the first who in 1761 obtained a formal recognition of freedom and independence from their European masters. Of the entire district they are now almost the sole occupants, undisturbed even by dark-skinned competitors; for the Indian aborigines, believed to have been once numerous throughout these wooded valleys, have wasted away and disappeared, unable not merely to compete but even to co-exist with their African any better than with their European neighbours. A small Dutch settlement — that of Albina, on the banks of the Marowyne — alone varies the uniformity of negro possession in these lands.
Their mode of life is agricultural; their labour is partly bestowed on the field-produce sufficient to their own personal wants, partly on the growth and export of rice, with which they supply the estates and the capital. But their chief occupation is wood-cutting, and their skill in this department has secured them an almost absolute monopoly of the timber-supply that forms a considerable item in the trade-lists of Surinam. They hew, trim, divide the planks, and do whatever is requisite for preparing the wood for shipment; then bring it down in the form of rafts or boat-loads to Paramaribo, where they exchange it most commonly for arms, powder, cooking-utensils, and other household necessaries. Fortunately for themselves, strong drink is not a favourite article of barter among these unregistered and unbaptized disciples of Father Mathew and Sir Wilfrid Lawson. Indeed, in this, as in many other respects, they present an advantageous contrast with the besotted Indians, whose diminution and almost disappearance from the land has been occasioned by intemperance much more than by any of the numerous causes assigned on philo-indigenous platforms. With the negro, on the contrary, drunkenness is an exotic vice, and even where it has been implanted it does not flourish largely on his soil.
Their settlements, far up among the rivers, and in regions said to be admirably adapted for cultivation, though as yet rarely favoured by European visitors, are grouped together after the fashion of small villages, resembling, I am told, in their principal features the more accessible hamlet inhabited by emancipated Congo Africans, and called “Bel Air,” near Berbice. Their dwellings are reported to be neat and comfortable enough after a fashion. About fifty of these villages are recorded by name; the average number of souls in each equals three hundred, or thereabouts. The census of the entire bush-negro population is almost conjectural; some bring their numbers down to eight thousand, others raise them to thirty. Of the two extremes the latter is, I believe, the nearest to the truth. Negroes, like other Eastern tribes, when required to give an account of themselves, are in the habit of reckoning up their men only, omitting the women altogether, and even the male children if still at the breast. Fear of taxation is another common motive for under-statement, especially in the presence of official inquiry. Every village has its chief; his office is partly hereditary, partly elective, and he himself is distinguished from his subjects by a uniform, to be worn, however, only on rare and special occasions — a fortunate circumstance in so warm a climate. He also bears a staff of office. These lesser chiefs are, again, under the orders of the headsman of the tribe, who has right to wear, when he chooses — a rare occurrence, let us hope — a general’s uniform, and to bear in his hand a baton of rule surmounted by a gilded knob.
Besides the “grand man” of their own “skin,” in negro phrase, each tribe enjoys or endures the presence of a European official whom the colonial government appoints under the title of posthouder to reside among them, and whose duties chiefly consist in settling the frequent petty contentions that arise between the villagers themselves or their neighbours, regarding rights of property or land. Most other cases, civil or criminal, fall under the jurisdiction of the tribe itself, and are decided by the unwritten code of usage — often sufficiently barbarous in the punishments that it awards; though the cruelest of all, that of burning alive, is said not to have been inflicted on any one for a generation past. It was the penalty especially reserved for sorcerers, and its discontinuance is attributed to the fact that the sorcerers have themselves, like the witches of Germany or Scotland, disappeared in our day. The truth is that the negroes are less superstitious than of old, and having discarded the imaginary crime from their belief, have also discarded the real one by which it was supplemented from their practice —just as the erasure of heresy from the catalogue of sins was immediately followed by the extinction of heretic-burning faggots. The beneficent triumphs of rationalism, so ably chronicled by Mr. Lecky, are not confined to Europe and the European races, and the process of the suns brings wider thoughts to other men than the dwellers of the moorland by Locksley Hall.
Sorcerers, indeed, have, it is said, though from what cause I cannot readily determine, been of all times rare articles among the negro colonists of Surinam. So, too, though the large majority of the bush-negroes are yet pagans — as were their ancestors before them, when, cutlass in hand, they hewed out their way to freedom — obeah, so notoriously widespread throughout Africa, and, if report say true, not unknown to some West-Indian regions, is scarcely ever heard of among them. Yet, did it exist in any notable degree, it could hardly have failed, by the natural contagion of evil, to have established itself also among the creole blacks, their immediate neighbours and kinsmen, who are, however, in general remarkably free from any imputation of the kind. Nor, again, are the bush-negroes — nowadays at least — addicted to the indiscriminate fetish-worship so often described by modern travellers as prevalent in Africa. Perhaps they may have been so formerly. At present the ceiba or cotton-tree, that noblest forest growth of the West Indies, enjoys almost alone, if report says true, the honours of negro worship, avowedly among the maroons, furtively in the creole villages. I myself have often seen the traces of offerings — fowls, yams, libations of drink, and the like — scattered round its stem; the spirit-dweller of its branches, thus propitiated, is said to be of an amiable disposition; unlike its demon-brother of the poison-tree, or hiari, also venerated by some, but out of fear. Idols in the strict sense of the term they certainly have none; and their rejection of Roman Catholicism, a circumstance to which I have alluded before, is asserted to have had at least for its ostensible motive their dislike of the image-worship embodied in that system.
I would willingly indulge the charitable hope that the Moravian bush-negro converts may possibly have acquired some kind of idea of the virtue commonly designated, though in a restricted use of the word, by the name of morality. It is a virtue with which their pagan brethren are, in a general way, lamentably unacquainted. On principle, if the phrase may be allowed, they are polygamists; but the frequency of divorce renders, it is said, the dignity of a bush-negro’s wife more often successional than simultaneous. Indeed their avowed laxity in this and analogous directions is sometimes asserted, but how truly I cannot say, to be one of the chief hindrances to the increase of their numbers. Without going into the particulars of an obscure and unpleasant subject, thus much is clear, that a child which has for its parents “no father and not much of a mother,” a normal condition of things in the bush-negro villages, must necessarily commence the infantile struggle for life under somewhat disadvantageous conditions. To this may be added a total absence of medical practitioners; a circumstance which however might, by a cynical mind, be rather reckoned among the counterbalancing advantages of forest existence.
In form and stature the bush-negroes of Surinam may rank among the best specimens of the Ethiopian type; the men are often six feet and more in height, with well-developed limbs and pleasing open countenances; and the women in every physical respect are, to say the least, worthy of their mates. Ill-modelled trunks and disproportioned limbs are, in fact, as rare among them as they are common among some lighter-complexioned races. Their colour is in general very dark, and gives no token of the gradual tendency to assume a fairer tint that may be observed among the descendants of negroes resident in more northerly latitudes; their hair, too, is as curly as that of any Niam-niam or Darfooree chief, or native of Senegal. I have heard it asserted more often than once, that by long domicilement in the South-American continent the negro type has a tendency to mould itself into one approaching that of the Indian aboriginal; and something of the kind might be looked for, if anywhere, among the bush-negroes of the Surinam interior. But in the specimens that I saw, and they were many, I could not detect any such modification.
Their language is a curious and uncouth mixture. When it is analyzed, English appears to form its basis; next on the list of contributors comes Portuguese, then Dutch, besides a sprinkling of genuine African words thrown in at random; and the thick soft African pronunciation over all. But of this jargon the negroes themselves make no use in writing, for which they employ Dutch, thereby showing themselves in this respect possessed of a truer feeling of the fitness of things than, I regret to say, their Moravian friends, who have taken superfluous pains to translate books of instruction and devotion into the so-called “negro language” for the supposed benefit of their half-tamed scholars — an instance, one amongst many, of being too practical by half.
Fortunately for the bush-negroes themselves, their ultimate tendency in language, as in everything else, is to uniformity with the general creole colonial type; one not of the very highest, it may be, but much superior to the half or three-quarters savagery in which they at present live. Their little, and, so to speak, accidental nationality, is composed of elements too feeble, and too loosely put together, not to be ultimately reabsorbed into the more vigorous and better-constructed mass to which, though under differing conditions ,it once belonged. Old mistrusts and antipathies are fast wearing themselves out in the daily contact with European life; and contact with Europeans never fails to produce, where negroes are concerned, first imitation, then assimilation. So long as slavery lasted, this was of course an impossibility for the bush-negroes; it is now a mere question of time, longer or shorter according to the discretion and tact of the colonial government itself. And we may reasonably hope that the sagacity and moderation by which that same government has thus far always distinguished itself will not fail it in this matter either.
Freedom from taxation and internal autonomy are the special privileges which the bush-negroes in their present condition enjoy; by the latter they set some store, by the former much. On the other hand they are fully aware of the greater advantages and enjoyments of a more settled and civilized form of life than their own, and would sacrifice much to make it theirs. The result of the exchange would be undoubtedly a very beneficial one, not only to the bush-negroes themselves but to the colony at large. Labour is the one great requisite of Surinam; rich in every gift of unassisted nature, she is poor of that which alone could enable her to make a profit of these gifts. In these maroon subjects of hers close at hand she possesses a copious and as yet an unemployed reserve-force of labour, superior in most respects to the coolie or Chinese article, and, which is a main point, cheaper by far. The complete incorporation into colonial life and work of the negro element, now comparatively isolated and wasted in the bush, would add about a third to the progressiveness and energy of Dutch Surinam.
- “Not a word, a word, we stand upon our manners.
- Come, strike up.” (Music: here a dance.)
BUSH-NEGROES are fine fellows of their kind; I have seldom seen finer. Indians are, within certain limits, picturesque; Chinese, if not ornamental, are decidedly useful; and coolies, though not unfrequently neither, are sometimes both. But, after all said, to be innocuous is the Indian’s highest praise; and any notable increase in West-Indian lands of “Celestials” is — for reasons not all celestial, but much the reverse — not a thing to be desired; while coolies are expensive to import, and, as settlers, offer but a dubious future. Negroes, with all their defects, are now, as of old times, West-Indian labour’s best hope; and since “saltwater” blacks and purchased gangs are no longer to be had, creole negroes must to the fore. In this view, if in no other, they are worth study, and where can we study them better than at Munnikendam?
And here I would like, though I am not going to do it, to insert a sketch of the little village — not so little, neither — near Bel Air, on the way to Berbice, where live the liberated Congoites, or Congoese, or Congonians, rescued by our cruisers from the slave-ships to which they had already been consigned, and brought hither at a recent date. It is a village absolutely picturesque in its details; and what is, perhaps, more to the purpose, it offers to view in itself, and in its garden surroundings, abundant evidence of industry, skill, and the manly independence that lives by its own labour, and is content to live so. Another sketch, too, I would willingly give — that of the new quarter of Paramaribo, the one, I mean, situated on the westernmost outskirts of the town, and called “The Plain of the 13th May.” That date last year was the jubilee of the Dutch king’s reign, and to celebrate the occasion the governor had offered prizes to the negro workmen who would best excel in laying out the roads and digging the trenches of the proposed suburb. It was opened on the day itself with great pomp and ceremony, and distribution of rewards, by his Excellency in person, and was at once made over to its present inhabitants, a class resembling in every respect the tenants of Bel-Air. A pretty patchwork of cottages and gardens, well-doing, diligent freemen to maintain them in order and comfort, a sight to justify the pride that its originator takes in it, a successful experiment on a small scale, indeed, but arousing a wish for more.
And this is exactly what, not I only, but every landowner, every proprietor, every planter in the colony, would wish to see — namely, a greater abundance of villages and settlements like those just described, only to a wider purpose and on a larger scale. Certainly I have no desire to disparage the good qualities of the slave-descended black creoles, or to join in the vague outcries, contradicted everywhere by facts, that ignorance, and still more prejudice, have raised against them. But this much must be allowed, that from the very circumstance of being slave-descended, they bear, and long will bear, traces of the deteriorating process to which they have been subjected in the persons of their ancestors, a deterioration not moral merely, but mental, and even physical. In fact, their rapid, though as yet only partial recovery from this very degradation is one proof among many of the wonderful elasticity of the negro character. Hesiod, if I remember rightly, or, if not he, some other old coeval Greek, has said, “When Jupiter makes a man a slave he takes away half his brains from him;” and a truer thing was never said or sung. Cowardice, duplicity, dislike of labour, a habit of theft, sexual immorality, irreflectiveness, apathy — these are the seven daughters of slavery, and they but too often live persistently on, though their ill mother be dead for generations past. Hence the negro who has never been a slave, or who, at any rate, has never experienced that most crushing form of slavery, the organized taskmastership of a foreign and superior race, has a decided vantage-ground, not only over his enslaved fellow-countrymen, but over the descendants of such, on whom his father’s sins, and still more the sins of his father’s masters, are by hereditary law visited even to the third and fourth generation.
Now assuming that of all races the negro is by physical constitution the best adapted to the South-American tropics, and that negro labour is of all others, not the cheapest merely, but also the most efficient in this soil — both of which are propositions that few experienced planters or overseers will dispute — why not organize migration from Africa to the West Indies after a regular and durable fashion? and as the east-African races are undoubtedly superior alike in mind and body to the western, why not establish an emigration agency on the east coast — why not fix a locality at Zanzibar? Have we not lately closed in principle, and shall soon, by means of our cruisers have closed in fact and deed, the east-African slave-trade, doing thereby a deed worthy of England, worthy of ourselves? True, and we look at our work, and justly pronounce it to be “very good.” But what if some of the immediate results of our work, in order to be rightly called “very good,” also require careful management, and the dexterity that not only destroys what is bad, but replaces it by something better? Have we not, while forbidding the further outpourings of the poison-stream that has for ages flowed in tears and blood from the ports of the east-African coast, driven back in a manner the hitter waters to eddy on themselves; and while stopping a recognized outlet of the unemployed and superabundant population, a wasteful and a wrongful one it is true, yet an outlet, created a novel surplus in the inland African labour-market, where violence and captivity are the only laws of exchange and supply? Have we not also, while depriving Zanzibar of its hateful but long-established trade, the trade that alone gave it importance and wealth, curtailed the revenues, and with the revenues the very kingship of one whose patrons we had before consented to be, and whom we had ourselves taught to shelter his authority, nay, his very existence, under our flag?
Now so it is that of both the evils I have indicated, and neither of them are imaginary, a remedy is within easy reach, a remedy not only efficacious with regard to its immediate object, but beneficial in its ulterior results. “Easy reach,” did I say? Yes, easy enough if only well-meaning ignorance will stand aside, and have the grace to permit what it cannot comprehend, But this is a piece of good fortune to be wished for rather than hoped, and already I seem to hear a horrified outcry of “negro-kidnapping,” “disguised slavery,” “slave-trade re-established,” and the rest, rising from every platform, and re-echoed from every bench of the Anti-Slavery Association and its kindred supporters. What! supply the deficit of West-Indian labour by negro importation from the East Coast! give the seyyid, sultan, or sultanlet of Zanzibar, perhaps him of Muscat, too, a nominal patronage and a real percentage of an emigration-agency! load ships with African semi-slaves! bear them “far from home and all its pleasures,” to the coasts of Surinan, of Demerara, of St. Vincent, etc.! what is all this but to revive the monster we have ourselves so lately slain, to stultify our own wisdom, annul our own decree?
Nothing of the kind; say rather it is to hinder the brood that the monster has left from coming into life, to confirm the decree of self-maintaining freedom; to complete what else if left imperfect might speedily bring in question the wisdom of our former deeds. It is to transfer, not by compulsion, but by their own free consent, those who, if they remain at home, cannot by the nature of things be other than slaves or slave-makers, to the conditions of honourable labour, self-support, and security; to bring them into the full possession of whatever benefits organized society and equitable law can confer; to substitute, so far as their own former masters are concerned, a fair and beneficial for an unjust and cruel gain; to bestow on the lands of their destination advantages that no other means, no other colonists can equally secure.
It is certain that, if conducted under regulations and safeguards similar to those provided for the coolie emigrants of Bengal and Madras, and with the same or analogous provisions in matters of engagement, voyage, and occupation, the unnecessary and burdensome obligation of a return passage being alone omitted, east-African emigration would be much less costly, and at the same time much more profitable to the colonies, than Indian or Chinese. The negro is of himself a better agricultural labourer than the Hindoo; he is stronger, healthier, more readily domiciled, more easily ruled, and, an important point, more likely to devote himself to field and country work after the expiration of his indentures. He is also much less disposed than either coolie or Chinaman to swell the town population and the criminal list. I have said that in his case the option of a return passage might be safely omitted, for no negro, the solitary hero of Mrs. Hemans’ ballad excepted, has any great to revisit his own natal land; his country is not where he was born, but where he is well off; no local worship, no sacred rivers, no ties of caste, draw him back to his first home. In him, therefore, is the best if not the only hope of supplementing the great, the urgent want of the New World, an indigenous population — for the Guiana Indian must unfortunately reckon for nothing, either in number or in available worth — and thus the benefit derived from him as an indentured labourer would be followed by the still more lasting benefit of an acclimatized and a useful colonist. And, to return to our friends of the Anti-Slavery Association, the evidence collected on all hands may surely have convinced the members of that respectable body, that coolie emigration and coolie labour in the West Indies are further removed from hardship, injustice, and slavery, than are too often the means by which our own agricultural labour-market is supplied, or the conditions by which it is governed. Let them then rest assured that the same system would have no worse result for the east-African negro also.
Enough of this. The subject is one that cannot fail to be taken up sooner or later, not in speculative view, but in experimental practice; till then let it rest. Perhaps the time is not come yet; the very extent of the prospect suggests its distance. But, a little sooner, a little later, not the less surely it will be reached. An African colony, the Arab, has already half peopled the East; an African law, matured in Egypt, promulgated on the shores of the Red Sea, remodelled and re-promulgated in the deserts of the same coast, rules over half Asia this day. Already the Lybian sibyl prepares to turn the next page of her book; its writing is the West. A new creation is wanted here; and creation of this sort is a work not for the European or his half-cousin the Hindoo, it belongs to the elder races. The Aryan of our day, the Indo-German, can elaborate, can perfect, he cannot originate ; art-trained, art-exhausted, the productive energy of nature is his no longer. Unmodified by science, unpruned by art, the rough offshoots of the over-teeming African stem are vital with the rude vitality of nature; like her they are prolific too.
Is it a dream? Possibly so; a nature-sent dream, as under the hot sun we float in breezeless calm down the glassy black waters between high walls of reed and forest, bright flowers, broad leaf, and overtopping palm up to the intense heaven all aglow, till here before us on the left river-bank rise the bower-like avenues of Munnikendam. Here let us land, and from the study of the long-settled creole negroes of this secluded estate let us draw, if so disposed, some augury as to what their brethren of the east-African coast, the colonists of our visionary or visioned future, are likely to be in and for South-American Surinam.
This at any rate is no dream. Two hundred and seventeen acres, two hundred and sixty labourers, all without exception negro creole; average yearly produce, seven hundred and fifty hogsheads of sugar, beside molasses and rum; so much for Munnikendam statistics. Machinery of the older and simple sort; factory buildings corresponding; planter’s dwelling-house large, old, and three-storied, Dutch in style, with high roof, and fantastic wolves topping the gables by way of weathercocks; a wide double flight of steps in front with a paved space, surrounded by an open parapet before the hall-door; the garden very Dutch in its walks, flower-beds, and statues; long avenues, some of palmiste, some of areka palm, some of almond-trees, with sago palms intermixed; around a green turfy soil, and a crescent background of cane-fields and forests; so much and enough, I think, for general description. Negroes very sturdy, very black, very plainly dressed, or half-dressed, in white and blue; the women rejoicing in variegated turbans; children à la Cupid and Psyche as to costume, though not perhaps in feature, or shape; three or four white men, overseers, straw-hatted, of course lastly, for visitors, the governor and his party, myself included; such are the principal accessories of the picture. Time, from five or so in the afternoon to midnight or thereabouts; we did not very accurately consult our watches.
Night had fallen; but no—this is a phrase well enough adapted, it may be, to the night of the north, the heavy murky veil slowly let down fold after fold over the pale light that has done duty for days — here it is not so; transparent in its starry clearness, its stainless atmosphere, night rises as day had risen before, a goddess succeeding a goddess; not to blot out the fair world, but to enchase it in a black diamond circle in place of a white; to change enchantment for enchantment, the magic of shadow for the magic of light. But I am anticipating. A good hour before sunset the covered barge of the estate had set us ashore on the wharf, where, with flowers in their hands, songs on their lips, smiles on every face, and welcome in every gesture, the boys and girls of the place received us from the stelling. Between this double human range, that like an inner and more variegated avenue lined the overarching trees from the water’s edge up to the dwelling-house, we passed along, while the merry tumult of the assembled crowd, and the repeated discharge of the small cannon planted at the landing-place and in the garden mingled, together to announce and greet our arrival. The warm although almost level sunbeams lit up the red brick lines of the central mansion, the tall tower-like factory chimneys, the statues in the garden, the pretty bush-embosomed cottages of the estate, and tipped with yellow gold the plumy cane-fields beyond. This lasted some time, till the sun set, and for a little while all was orderly and still in the quiet evening light.
But soon night had risen, and with her had risen the white moon, near her full, and now the merry-makers who had dispersed to their evening meal reassembled on the gravel-walks and clean-kept open spaces of the garden in front of the dwelling-house to enjoy the sport of the hour for in the West Indies as in Africa, in Surinam no less than at Damascus, the night is the negro’s own time; and no member of Parliament in the latter months of the session, no fashionable beauty in her fourth London season, can more persistently invert the solar allotment of the hours than does the negro votary of pleasure; and wherever and however pleasure be attainable, the negro is its votary.
Group by group, distinctly seen in the pale moonlight as if by day, only with an indistincter background, our creole friends flocked on. The preparations for the dance were soon made. Drums, fifes, a shrill violin, and a musical instrument some say of Indian, some say of negro invention, consisting of a notched gourd that when scraped by a small stick gives out a sound not unlike the chirping of a monster cricket, and accentuates time and measure after the fashion of triangles, were brought from heaven knows what repositories, and with them the tuneful orchestra was complete. The dancers ranged themselves; more than a hundred men and women, mostly young, all dressed in their choicest for the night’s sport. The men, with few exceptions, were attired in white trowsers and shirts of various colours, with a predominance of red; some dandies had wrapped gay sashes round their waists, and most had provided themselves with sprigs of flowers, jauntily stuck in their hat-bands. The women’s dresses consisted chiefly of loose white sacques, without the cumbrous under-layer of petticoats, or the other “troublesome disguises” that Europe conceals her beauties withal, and reserved their assortment of bright but rarely inharmonious colours for their fantastic turbans, some of which were arranged so as to give the effect of one or two moderate-sized horns projecting from the wearer’s head, while other girls, with better taste, left an embroidered end hanging down on one side, Eastern fashion. Many of the women were handsome, shapely figures, full-limbed and full-bosomed; but — must I say it? — the particular charm of delicate feet and hands was universally wanting; nor indeed could it have been fairly looked for among a throng of field-laborers, female or male. As to faces, the peculiarities of the negro countenance are well known in caricature; but a truer pattern may be seen, by those who wish to study it, any day among the statues of the Egyptian rooms in the British Museum: the large gentle eye, the full but not over-protruding lips, the rounded contour, and the good-natured, easy, sensuous expression. This is the genuine African model; one not often, I am aware, to be met with in European or American thoroughfares, where the plastic African too readily acquires the careful look and even the irregularity of the features that surround him, but which is common enough in the villages and fields where he dwells after his own fashion, among his people, most common of all in the tranquil seclusion and congenial climate of a Surinam plantation. There you may find also a type neither Asiatic nor European, but distinctly African, with much of independence and vigour in the male physiognomy, and something that approaches, if it does not quite reach, beauty in the female. Rameses and his queen were cast in no other mould.
The governor and ourselves were seated with becoming dignity on the wide open balcony atop of the steps leading up to the hall-door, thus commanding a full view of the garden and the people assembled. Immediately in front of us was a large flower-bed, or rather a labyrinth of flower-beds, among which stood, like white goblins in the moonlight, the quaint statues before mentioned, methodically arranged after the most approved Dutch style, and flanked by two pieces of mimic artillery. Such was the centre-piece, and on either side there opened out a wide clear space, clean-swept and strewn with “caddy” the usual white mixture of broken shell, coral, and sand, and in each of these spaces to right and left a band of musicians, or rather noise-makers, squatted negro-wise on the ground. Round these centres of attraction the crowd soon gathered in a double group, men and women, all noisy, animated, and ready for the dance. The moon, almost at the full, glittered bright overhead, and her uncertain light, while giving full effect to the half-barbaric picturesqueness of attire and form in the shifting eddy of white-clad figures, served also to veil from too exact view the defects — and they were many — in the clothes, ornaments, and appearance of the performers. Around the garden, and behind it, dark masses of palm, almond-tree, acacia, saman, and kindred growths, rose against the sky, loftier and denser in seeming than by day. The whole formed an oval picture of brightness and life amid a dark and silent frame-work of shadow, a scene part gay, part impressive, and very tropical above all.
The music, or what did duty for such, began. At first it was of a European character, or rather travestied from European — disintegrated quadrilles and waltzes to no particular time. The negroes around, shy as they always are when in the presence of those whose criticisms they fear (for no race is more keenly sensitive in regard to ridicule than the African except it be, perhaps, the semi-African Arab), did not at once venture to put forth all their prowess, and the performance opened with a few sporadic couples, women dancing with women, men pous-setting to men, and either seeming half-ashamed of their own audacity. But as the music continued and grew livelier, passing more and more from the imitation-European to the unfeigned African style of an unbroken monotonous drone with one ever-recurring cadence, a mere continuity of clanging sound, the dancers grew more animated. New couples, in which the proper interchange of sex was observed by the partners, formed themselves, till at last the larger group — that on our left — took up the genuine Ethiopian dance, well known in Oman, and witnessed by me there and elsewhere in the pleasant days, now long since gathered to the ineffectual past, when the East and I were one. A dance of life, where men ranged on one side and women on the other, advance, retreat, cross, join hands, break into whirling knots of twos and fours, separate, re-form in line, to blend again into a seeming maze of orderly confusion — a whirl of very madness, yet with method in it — the intoxication of movement and sound poured out in time and measure. He who has witnessed it, if there yet flow within his veins one drop of that primal savage blood without which manhood and womanhood too are not much better than mere titular names, cannot but yield himself up to the influence of the hour, cannot but drink of the bowl, join in the revel; and if any looker-on retains coolness enough to sneer or blame, why, let each follow his bent; but I for one had rather be on the side of David than of Michal, and the former had in the end, I think, the best of the jest and of the earnest, too.
A Bacchanalian orgie, yet one in which Bacchus himself had no share; Venus alone presided, and sufficient for all beside; or, if Bacchus seemed present to her aid, it was not he, but Cupid in disguise. Half an hour, an hour the revelry continued, while the tumult grew every minute louder, and the dance more vehement, till, with an impulse simultaneous in its suddenness, the double chorus broke up, and blending in one confused mass, surrounded his Excellency the governor, while, amid shouts, laughter, and huzzas, half-a-dozen sturdy blacks caught him up in their arms and bore him aloft in triumphal procession three times round the garden, while others gesticulated and pressed alongside, others danced before, all cheered, and we ourselves, aroused from our Africano-Oriental dream by the local significance of the act, hardly knew whether to laugh or to yield to the enthusiasm of the moment. That the governor, though maintaining as far as possible an appearance of passive dignity and deprecatory acquiescence, heartily enjoyed the spontaneous tribute of affection and loyalty thus tumultuously expressed, I have no doubt, and so would you have enjoyed it, my dear reader, had it been offered you. Besides, he told me as much when, after a tremendous outburst of huzzas, his living throne gently dissolved asunder and allowed him footing on the ground again.
Then after a half-hour’s pause, congratulations exchanged, healths drunk, and cordial merriment, in which all shared alike — performers, spectators, Europeans, negroes, and the rest — once more to the dance, but now in calmer measure and to a gentler tune. By this the moon, small and dazzling, rode high in the purple heavens, diving warning of midnight near, when, escorted down to the water’s edge by those whose sports we had witnessed, and perhaps in part shared, we reluctantly threaded the dark shades of the avenue river-wards, and re-embarked on our little steamer, that had yet to bear us a mile farther along the current before we reached the night’s lodging and rest prepared for us by the district magistrate, in his large and comfortable residence at Ephrata, — so the place was named.
“I wished you to see something of our black creoles as they are among themselves,” said the governor, as next morning we pursued our downward way to the river-junction at the Sommelsdyk Fort, and thence turned off southward to explore the upper branch of the Commeweyne, which we had on our way up passed by unvisited. Deep black, and much more rapid than the Cottica, its current flowed between noble forest scenes, alternating with cultivated spaces on either bank; but few large sugar-estates came in view; plantains, cocoanuts, cassava, with cocoa-bushes intermixed, seemed the more favourite growths. The yearly amount of sugar manufactured in this district does not exceed one thousand hogsheads; the mills are all of the simplest kind, and moved by water-power. In general character, the scenery and water-side objects of the upper Commeweyne nearly resemble those of the upper Cottica, and have been sufficiently described before; a gradual diminution of underwood, an increase of height and girth in the forest trees, and a greater variety in them and in the flowering creepers that interlaced their boughs, being for many miles up country almost the only distinct indications of approach to the higher lands beyond, though the practised eye of a naturalist might doubtless detect many significant varieties in the insects or plants of the region.
And now, as we slowly stem the liquid glass, black as jet yet pure as crystal, of the strong-flowing Commeweyne, we remark (the governor and I) the evident and recent increase in the number of small plantations, to the detriment — though a temporary one only, if events run their regular course — of the larger properties. This is a necessary phase of free labour, and through it the Surinam colony, like every other of like kind, must pass before it can reach the firm ground of self-sustaining prosperity. Till then, nothing is solid, nothing sore. Giant sugar-estates — propped up or absolutely maintained by extraneous capital, and excluding or dwarfing into comparative nullity the varied parcel cultivation of local ownership and resources, are at best magnificent gambling-speculations, most so when the price of their produce is not stored up, but at once applied to widening the enclosures, or purchasing some costly refinements of improved machinery. Establishments like these are every instant at the mercy of a sudden fluctuation of the market, of a new invention, of a tariff — in a word, they lie exposed to every accident of fortune’s caprice; and, capricious as she is throughout her whole domain, nowhere is the goddess more so than in the commercial province. Hence it follows that they who repine at the lengthening catalogue of five-acre and ten-acre lots -—- railing at their cultivators as idle pumpkin-eating squatters, and raising a desponding moan, occasionally an indignant howl, over the consequent withdrawal of labour from the five-hundred or thousand acre estates — are not more reasonable in their complaints than he who should fall foul of the workmen employed in digging and laying the foundations of the house, and declare them to be lazy loons, and their labour valueless, because they do not at once bestow it on raising the second story and furnishing the drawing-room.
In Dutch Guiana, taking Paramaribo, the capital, for its centre, we may regard the rest of the territory as made up, after a rough fashion, of three concentric circles. The circumference of the innermost one would, for what concerns the east and the districts we have now been visiting, pass through the confluence-point of the Commeweyne and Cottica Rivers at Sommelsdyk Fort; the second would intersect through the estate of La Paix on the upper Cottica, and the corresponding estate of Abendsrust on the, upper Commeweyne; the external limits of the third would be correlative with those of the colonial frontier itself. Within the first circle, large estates, mostly owned by Europeans, or at any rate European creoles, predominate. Throughout the second or intermediate circle, smaller properties, mostly in the hands of coloured or black creoles, are more common. In the outermost space are the villages and provision-grounds, few and far between, of the bush-negroes, between whom and the European landholders the dark creoles thus form a sort of link, social as well as territorial; or, to vary the phrase, a connecting medium, destined, if our conjectures be true, to become ultimately an absorbing one, not only of the more savage but of the more civilized element also.
But we are forgetting his Excellency. “In the labourers of Munnikendam,” he continued, “you have a fair sample of our black creoles; throughout the colony they are everywhere essentially the same. Fond enough, as you have seen, of pleasure and amusement, when they can get them; but when at work steady, sober, willing, and, what is a fortunate thing for all parties, without a trace of social or political restlessness in any direction. Their only fault is that there is not enough of them, and what is worse, their numbers do not increase.”
Why not? Unhealthy climate, some will say; while others, in concert with a late author, talk in bated breath of gross and ruinous vices, rendering it a question whether negroes should exist on the earth at all for a few generations longer; and others again find in infanticide a third and convenient solution of the question. Let us look a little closer.
And first for the climate. Like British Guiana, its Dutch namesake is a low-lying plain, swampy in some places, forest-grown in others, and far within the tropics; none of them at first sight favourable conditions to salubrity of atmosphere. But where fresh sea-winds sweep over the earth day and night with scarce interrupted steadiness from year’s end to year’s end, an open plain is healthier by far than the sheltered valleys and picturesque nooks of a mountainous district; and among tidal streams on a tidal coast, the marsh-fevers, that render the moist shores of the stagnant Black-Sea pool scarce less pestilential than those of Lagos itself, find little place. Tropical heat, though here it is never excessive, does not certainly in the long run suit European residents; and at Surinam, where 79 F. is the yearly average — the highest ever recorded being 96 F. and the lowest 70 — the climate must be admitted to be a warm one. On the other hand, those who have experience of Africa, the negro’s birthplace, or have seen how much the black suffers in the comparatively moderate chill of winter season in the northern West-Indian Islands, will hardly consider the heat of Dutch Guiana to be too great for the species that forms a good four-fifths of its population.
As to the second-named cause, or collection of causes rather, it is to be regretted that the author of “At Last” should, from ignorance, doubtless, or prejudice, have ever lent such vague and baseless calumnies the sanction of his respected name. Without being either a “clergyman,” or even, though an official, a “police magistrate,” I have knowledge enough of negro characters and ways to warrant me in asserting, and my readers in believing the assertion, that what is technically called vice is among Africans nearer allied to philoprogenitiveness than among, it may well be, most other races; and without attempting to excuse, much less, as some seem inclined to do, to vindicate the extreme laxity of their theory and practice in regard of connubial fidelity or maiden virtue, one must allow that their faults in these respects tend much more directly to the increase of the population than to its diminution. And, to have done once for all with a topic the mention of which, though unavoidable, is unpleasing, it may here be added that excess in alcoholic drink — a fault decidedly opposed, as all who have studied the subject know, to the “increase and multiply” of healthy nature — is rare among the black creoles of the Surinam capital, and rarer still, indeed almost unknown, among those of the country. So much for the second cause assigned.
A mere inspection of the yearly birth-rate, averaging thirty per thousand, disposes of the third allegation. Murdered children are not entered on parochial registers, nor do the numbers given leave much margin for kindred crimes at an earlier stage.
And yet the annual death-rate exceeds that of births by at least one per cent., as is stated, and this at the best of times. Some years show two per cent., or even higher. How is this? and if neither climate, nor vice, nor crime be the cause, where is it then to be sought?
But here let some indulgence be asked and given. We are on board a pleasure-boat, and our attention is being called away every moment, now to gaze on a “tall tree by the side of the river, one half of which was in flames,” or rather flowers red as flames, and not less bright, “from the root to the top, and the other half green and in full leaf,” that might have reminded Geraint and Enid of their Celtic wonderland; now to acknowledge the shouted welcome of bright figures crowding to some little landing-place on the way; now by an opening vista of glittering plantain-groves; now by a tray full of glasses with appropriate contents circulating at frequent intervals round the deck. Amid interruptions like these it must be admitted that profound investigations, statistical columns, and a marshalled array of figures and facts, would be hardly less out of place than a sermon at a masked ball. But it is possible to say truth, and even serious truth, without sermonizing; ridentem dicere vera and the rest. We will try.
All have heard, and all who have not merely heard but seen will attest, the fondness of negroes for children; nor their own children only, but any, white, brown, or black — for children generically taken, in a word. Demonstrative as is their affection, it is none the less genuine; the feeling is instinctive, and the instinct itself is hardly ever absent from among them. I do not put it forward as a matter of praise, I mention it as a fact. If Sir S. Baker’s sweeping assertion regarding I forget how many negro tribes, that they have among them no acknowledged form of worship of the unknown, were exact, which it is not, the existence, the universality indeed, of baby-worship at any rate must be allowed, I think, even by that distinguished miso-African. Nor is this species of worship limited to the mother of the babes, or to the womankind at large; it is practised in the same degree by the men, who are not a whit behind the women in their love and care of children, especially the youngest.
But in the very fervour and ecstasy of her baby-worship, the negress-mother persists in worshipping her little divinity irreflectively, recklessly, and by a natural consequence often injuriously, sometimes destructively, to the baby-god itself. Heated from field-work, excited, overdone, she returns in the late afternoon to her cottage, and the first thing she does when arrived there is to catch up her little brown sprawler from the floor and put it to her breast. The result needs no guessing. Half an hour later she is howling as only a negress can howl over her offspring convulsed or dead. Or perhaps, just as she was about to give, in more orderly fashion, the nourishment that the infant has been faintly waiting for some time past, a friend comes in to invite her to a dance or merry-making close by. Off she goes, having made heaven knows what arrangements for the small creature’s wants, or it may well be, in her eagerness for amusement, no arrangement at all; purposes to come back in an hour, stays away until midnight, and, on her return home, finds another midnight, the midnight that knows no sunrise, closed over her child. And thus, and more. On over-feeding, injudicious feeding; ailments misunderstood; quack-doctoring — always preferred by the ignorant to all others; on half-superstitious usages, not less injurious than silly; on violent outbursts of passion — the passions of a negress, and of a negro too, are at tropical heat, their rage absolute phrenzy — I need not dwell; suppose what you will, you will be short of the mark. But cease to wonder if, among the most kindly-hearted, child-loving, and, I may add, child-producing race in the world, births, however numerous, are less in computation than deaths, if one-third, at least, by statistical registration — one full half, if to its records be added unregistered fact — of the negro children in Dutch Guiana die even before they are weaned. The causes, ninety-nine out of a hundred, are those which I have stated or alluded to, and no other.
What is, then, to be done? An evil, or rather an agglomeration of evils like these, that threaten to cut down the main-stem of the future, to dry up the very roots, to destroy the existence of the colony, must be put an end to, all will agree ; but how?
There is a remedy, and a very simple one, tried before, and worth trying again. Let us go back in memory to the times when every individual negro life meant so many hundred forms to his owner, when the suppression of the “trade” had cut off the supply from without, and the birth of every slave child on the estate brought a clear gain to the planter, just as its death represented an actual and heavy loss hard to replace, not to the parents only, but to the owner of parents and children too. Negroes and negresses might be never so unthinking then, never so reckless about what concerned themselves alone, but their master took good thought that they should not be careless where his own interest was involved. And in few things was it so closely involved, especially after the treaties of 1815 and 1819, as in the preservation of infant life among the labouring stock, and no precaution was neglected that could ensure this, and supplement the defects of maternal care. Many means were adopted; but the chiefest of all was the appointment on every estate of one or more elderly women, appropriately styled “mammas,” chosen from among the negresses themselves, and whose sole duty was to watch each over a given number of infantile negroes, for whose proper care, nourishment, and good condition generally this foster-mother had to answer, and for whose loss, if they drooped and died, she was called to strict account. The history of slave-institutions has been not inappropriately called the “devil’s book;” but here, at any rate, is a leaf of it worth taking out for insertion in a better volume.
Now fill up this outline project with the proper colouring of qualifications, provisos, regulations, and the remaining supplemental details of theory wrought out into fact, and you will have a scheme for the preservation of infant negro life, or rather the hindrance of its prodigal and ruinous waste, more likely to succeed in its object than any that I have yet heard or seen in practice. Then combine these, or similar measures, with a reasonable supply of the two needful things, without which neither Surinam nor any other transatlantic colony can prosper, or, indeed exist capital and immigration. Not the capital of official subsidy, but of private enterprise; nor the immigration of costly and burdensome East-Indian coolies, or the yet costlier and yet more troublesome Chinese, but of vigorous, healthy, willing east-Africans, the ex-slaves of the Zanzibar and Oman markets. Then put these three requisites together, and stand up and prophesy to Dutch Guiana what golden-aged future you will; nor fear being numbered, in the latter days, among the false prophets —your place will be with the true.
The sea-ebb has set the dammed-up waters of the Commeweyne at liberty to follow their natural bent, and we float swiftly down the stream, admiring, commenting, and enjoying, now the ever-varying, ever-recurring scenes of life and labour, of tropical nature and European energy, of forest, plantation, mansion, cottage, and field that every river-bend unfolds; now the “feast of reason and the flow of soul” — a very hackneyed phrase — as we go; and now more substantial feastings, and the flow of various compositions, very congenial to the Dutch soul and body too, nor less to the English. But the distance was considerable, and night looked down on us with its thousand starry eyes long before we reached Fort Amsterdam and the broad Surinam waters. An hour later we disembarked at the governnent stelling of the silent capital, well pleased with our river-excursion and with each other.
Not many days after I was riding out with the governor on the high-road — that is to say, on the horse-path, for the true high-road here, as elsewhere in Guiana, is by water — leading towards the wooded regions of Para, south-west of Paramaribo, to which, in composition with some other Indian word, it has given its name. Its inhabitants are reckoned, exclusive of bush-negroes, at nearly five thousand; they live in villages, and occupy themselves to some extent in sugar cultivation, but generally in small lots, where grow cocoa, coffee, and plantains; indigo and tobacco are also among the products of the land. The ground is well raised above the water-level — to the south, indeed, it becomes hilly; the forest scenery is said to surpass in beauty, as in extent, that of any other district in the colony. “You can ride for seven days in one direction without ever getting out of the shade,” said the governor, as I noticed the noble outskirts of the woods before us; and he urged on me, almost as a duty, a visit to Para, where, amid the small creole proprietors and the forest-embowered villages, he assured me I should see Surinam negro life to better advantage, witness greater comfort and contentment, act spectator, or sharer, if the fancy took, of gayer festivities than even on the banks of the Cottica and at Munnikendam. But my hank of Surinam thread was too nearly spun out already, and the colours of other lands were now about to take its place in the fate-woven twine.
- ^ I am glad that so keen and so discriminating an observer as the late Mr. Winwood Reade concurs with this very opinion; in support of which he cites the authority of Livingstone himself. Vide “African Sketch-Book,” vol. i. p. 108.