By Stanley Solomillo
African, Asian and multiracial adults with monoracial, biracial, and multiracial children standing in front of an unidentified school in Suriname (c. 1910). Courtesy Janet Reiziger.
In 1910 a photograph was taken of children and adults in front of an unnamed school, possibly in Paramaribo, the capital of the Dutch colony of Suriname (1667-1954). One can imagine the cacophony that was produced by the subjects as they were told to “stand still,” “stop talking,” and “look straight ahead,” while a European photographer, whose head and hands were partially hidden beneath a black cloth, focused the lens of his view camera, then repeatedly cocked and released the shutter.
Recorded for posterity and viewers to ruminate over 105 years later, the photograph provides a glimpse of the offspring of contemporary monoracial and interracial unions in this South American country. There are children who are phenotypically identifiable as well as those who are not. At the top left of the photograph, a Chinese man holds a biracial toddler, whose mother may have been European. At the bottom left, a European girl holds her younger brother. In the front row on the far right there are a pair of Afro-Chinese toddlers. Two rows up and toward the middle as well as on the right side of the photograph are two Chinese girls. In the second row from the back, on the right side of the photograph, an African woman holds a biracial toddler, whose father appears to have been multiracial while another African woman coddles a boy whose father may have been indigenous. There are two young girls who look South Asian on the left side of the photograph, children who look African in the third and fifth rows, and a vast array of mixed ethnicities scattered throughout.
Suriname’s history included its founding as an English (1650-67), then a Dutch colony that was traded in treaty for New York (1667), as well as a slave-based sugar economy, that transitioned with later immigration by a diverse work force. The indigenous populations of Arowak (Lokono), Carib (Kaliña) and Warau collapsed following European contact and their lands were re-populated by African slaves with Dutch as well as other European and Jewish owners. The colonial Dutch government maintained the institution of slavery from 1667-1863, abolished it in the latter year, but did not grant Suriname slaves emancipation until 1873. Indentured Chinese or “coolie” laborers were brought to the country from 1853-76, followed by the importation of workers from India (Calcutta) and Indonesia in 1873-1916 and 1900-40, respectively as well as Portuguese, Syrians and Lebanese. Suriname saw its share of slave uprisings, anti-immigrant campaigns and racial violence. However, the children in the photograph provide tangible evidence that interracial marriages nonetheless occurred in the country, though the frequencies remain the subject of research.
Wilhelmina van Eede, a biracial or multiracial Surinamese woman who was photographed at the age of 17 in fashionable attire in a studio in Paramaribo (1883). Courtesy Prince Roland Bonaparte Collection, Smithsonian.
Lisa Lowe, PhD, Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature at Tufts University, notes in “The Intimacies of Four Continents” (2015) that few historiographies have “examin[ed] the connections, relations, and mixings of Asian, African, and Native Peoples in the Americas.” Her observation recognizes an emerging pattern that suggests that there has been “mixing” for almost four hundred years in the Americas. Its frequency has remained unrecognized in the United States largely because of racial bias. Consequently, it has either been denied outright, severely downplayed, or under-reported.
Like the photograph of the children in front of the Suriname school, other obscure images are now surfacing, perhaps for the first time since they were archived in the late nineteenth or early twentieth centuries. An 1883 portrait in the Smithsonian by French photographer, Prince Roland Bonaparte, of a Surinamese woman named Wilhelmina van Eede, serves as an example. Although the circumstances that produced the image as well as her story remain unknown, this young woman of color has a Dutch surname. Since she was born in 1866, during the decade between abolition (1863) and emancipation (1873), she most probably acquired it from a former Dutch owner when formal names for slaves were assigned in the latter year and/or may have also been the child of an interracial union whose father was Dutch. Combined with later populations who immigrated to the colony, Wilhelmina and her descendants became members of a multiracial society that was described in an Ebony Magazine article that was published in February 1967.
“For the sake of the children” used to be popular parlance in the United States that often found utility in keeping people apart who wanted to marry or keeping people in marriages who wanted to part. It may still be of value today when “swirling” along with the following recommenda-tions:
Always remember that you are not alone in your attractions and choices. You have contemporaries and ancestors who may have opted similarly. Always know and believe that you are and always have been beautiful, intelligent, and highly desirable by others. Strive to select partners who affirm those attributes and provide nurturing and safe environments for your own sake—and for the sake of the children.
Buku Biblioteca Surinamica. “Wilhelmina van Eede, Koloniale Wereldtentoonstelling Amsterdam, 1883.” https://bukubooks.wordpress.com/home/ Accessed March 19, 2015.
Ebony Magazine. “Ebony in Suriname.” February 1967. https://bukubooks.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/ebony.jpg Accessed March 18, 2015.
Harrison, Faye V. “Reflections on Indigenous research in Suriname.” Institute of Graduate Studies and Research, Anton de Kom Universitei van Suriname, 2011. https://www.academia.edu/5141071/Reflections_on_Indigenous_Research_in_Suriname_-_course_paper Accessed March 19, 2015.
Nationaal Archief, Nederlands. “Q and A[:] I’m Looking for an ancestor who was a slave in Suriname.” https://www.gahetna.nl/en/vraagbaak/onderzoeksgids/i’m-looking-for-an-ancestor-who-was-a-slave-suriname Accessed March 20, 2015.
Reiziger, Janet. “Untitled [Suriname School].” https://www.pinterest.com/pin/148407750195566201/
Accessed March 19, 2015.
Sang, Erik Tjong Kim. “History of Surinam.” https://ifarm.nl/suriname/history.html Accessed March 18, 2015.
Smithsonian. Surinam Woman (front), Wilhelmina Van Eede, 17 Years Old, from Paramaribo, in Costume with Ornament 1883. Catalogue No. NAA INV 02548300. Prince Roland Bonaparte Photograph Collection of Mongolian, African, Chinese, Indian, and American Indian peoples, circa 1884.