THE SUGAR WORKERS

Erasmus Huis
PHOTO SOURCE  I  NATIONAL MUSEUM OF WORLD CULTURES

DSC_0127 125 years ago, the Dutch Empire began shipping Javanese laborers from its East India colony to work in sugarcane plantations in Suriname, owned largely by British and Dutch businesses.

The abolition of slavery in Suriname in 1863 and the pre-existing slaves uprising coming from the British-possessed India led to the workforce scarcity and the frantic search of cheap laborers.

These paid replacements from nearby continent, albeit with a meagre salary and much similar poor living condition, were sent in their maiden voyage in 1890. From 100 people in the first transport, the number of immigrants arriving in Paramaribo, Suriname gradually rose, averaging 700 people annualy up to 1916.

When most of Indian plantation workers left Suriname in 1916, and as the freed slaves, both natives and foreigners, left for better jobs in the city, the Javanese replacements grew in number tremendously.

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Workers cut the sugar canes during harvest season in a plantation. The biggest sugar cane plantation in Suriname was Marienburg.

Waged around 60 cents for men and even smaller for the women, the Javanese plantation workers signed a five year contract with sugar companies across the country. The state policy at the time gave advantage to the plantation owners with a privilege to enact a set of law with serious legal consequences for the laborers, such as fine or imprisonment.

This was known as de poenale sanctie, subjected to those who committed misconduct at work or missed the expected work output at a given target period.

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Women workers picked cotton in one of the cotton plantations in Suriname.

The large numbers of Javanese laborers among the native Surinamese had naturally brought together the distinctive culture and the mass identity by ethnicity or religion, later manifested into one of the country’s recognised communities.

After the gruesome five-year contract, the government, acting as the consituents of the Netherlands until their independence in 1975, gave the laborers an option to stay and be granted 100 gulden with a piece of cultivation land, but must answer to requirement working in the plantation on regular planting and harvesting dates, or else, the freedom to go home on the Surinamese government expenses.

At the onset of World War II in 1939, over 7600 Javanese laborers out of the total 33,000 working in Suriname opted for home. The last of such return policy was made in 1947 where 769 people boarded passenger ship Tabian heading for Java.

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A Javanese immigrant and the children stood in front of the house, suggesting a poor living standard among the community. Poverty caused many to return home.

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