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History of Suriname

The first people to arrive to the region that is today Suriname is unknown. Estimates date the first people to have arrived sometime between about 13,000-3000 BC, which is a huge range. If nothing else, what this says about the region is that very little is known of the first settlers and little is known about their descendants and later arrivals. None of these people had a recorded history so what is known about this time is severely limited.

Among the earlier settlers of the region, one group was the Arawaks, who lived off the land as hunters, gatherers, and fishers. They lived a nomadic lifestyle, but little else is known about them. Another group, the Caribs lived in a similar manner and again settled along the coast, which they eventually took over from the Arawaks. Both groups were heavily dependent on the Caribbean Sea and both eventually settled the Caribbean islands; in fact the Caribbean Sea is named after the Caribs, who occupied the islands when the Europeans arrived.

There were also indigenous groups of people that lived further inland, however the dense forestation of the region meant travel and communication inland was difficult so contact between these various groups was very limited. No matter the group, these people had very different languages, customs, houses, dress, and lifestyles. The major similarities came in the fact that they all lived off the land and they were sparsely populated.

Although the land that now makes up Suriname was spotted by a number of explorers, likely many Spanish explorers, the first to make any attempt at settling the area came with the British in the 1630s. The British sought the land for its potential to grow crops, including tobacco. The settlement was a failure at first, but the British continued to attempt to settle the lands as they were quite fertile. They eventually had limited success, but this came at the expense of slave labor.

Despite early British settlement attempts, the indigenous people changed little until the British introduced slavery in order to increase their agricultural production. They enslaved many of the indigenous people, but more commonly brought in slaves from Africa; with them came new foods, languages, dress, and customs. The British also encouraged free labor to immigrate by granting freedom for all voluntary settlers.

This settlement not only changed the culture, it also changed the ethnic dynamic as the African slaves and indigenous people (many of whom were free, but living inland) greatly outnumbered the British population. Despite this, it was the British who controlled the economy and political framework.

In 1667 the Dutch easily took over the region as the British had no true defense on the lands. Despite resistance and some later battles, the British and Dutch came to an agreement, which allowed both countries to settle the region, although in reality this marked a shift in power from the British to the Dutch.

While the British held little value on the land and few ethnic British settled, the Dutch encouraged settlement and made the region one of their strongest footholds in the Americas. This divide later separated the lands into what is today Suriname (which the Dutch essentially controlled) and what is today Guyana (which the British essentially controlled).

The Dutch continued the trend of slavery and agriculture into the 1700s as they grew cotton, coffee, cocoa, and sugarcane among others. They also continued bringing in slaves from Africa, while the economy expanded as it relied heavily on trade with the Netherlands.

Although the economy was improving, the individual land owners struggled as slaves often escaped the plantations. Many of these escaped slaves had nowhere to flee to except the nearby forests, which were dense. These escaped African slaves began a new culture in the forests as they were called "maroons" as they regularly raided the plantations for supplies and people.

This division among the people, between the native people, the maroons, the slaves in captivity, and the Dutch was quite pronounced. Each developed, or maintained, a unique culture over time with an entirely different focus and way of life. As more slaves were brought into the country the slave and maroon culture began to become the most populous, although these people had no economic or political control.

The end of the 1700s and the early 1800s were a tumultuous time for Suriname. In 1799 the British took over the country as the Netherlands was pre-occupied with war as France. The British legally freed the slaves, although in reality they weren't granted freedom until 1873. However, at this time they stopped bring in new slaves so their working population suffered and the Dutch turned to Chinese, Indonesian, and Indian (East Indian) immigrants for a new workforce.

Although the Dutch economic base in agriculture and their control over the political system didn't change in the 1800s, the population and dynamic did. Despite the fact that many of these new immigrants weren't granted full rights, they, along with the former slaves, dominated the population as they introduced new foods, languages, religions, and customs.

Into the 1900s this economic state continued, but there was more interest in the land as gold and bauxite were discovered and the new labor force from Asia provided much needed labor to exploit these mines. However political stability was again a question as war broke out in Europe and the Netherlands was occupied with World War I, then World War II. During this time little attention was paid to Suriname and at the end of World War II the people began demanding greater rights.

In 1945 Suriname had a primarily free election and in 1954 they gained self-rule, but not complete independence, which they didn't obtain until 1975. Independence arrived with great growing pains and little optimism. Many people, including most of the ethnic Dutch immigrated to the Netherlands. Then the violence started as the early 1980s were riddled with coups. By 1982 the government was run by a military dictatorship, which was killing opposition party members without much hesitation.

The tensions have eased in recent years as free elections were held in 1985 and have been held since, but political division and violence has not ended. These protests seem to stem from control and culture as the maroons regularly initiate the protests and the government regularly responds with violence.

This page was last updated: February, 2013