Content warning: mention of suicide, enslavement, indentured labour, concentration camps, and colonial violence.
From 2 to 6 degrees south latitude, from 54 to 58 degrees west longitude, it stretches between the blue of the Atlantic Ocean and the inaccessible Tumak Humak Mountains, which form the watershed with the Amazon Basin, clutched between the broad expanses of the Courantyne and Maroni Rivers, which separate us from British and French Guiana, rich in formidable forests, where the yellow lapacho, the barklaki, the kapok, and the prized wacapou grow, rich in wide rivers, where herons, wiswisis, ibises, and flamingos find their nesting places, rich in natural treasures, in gold and bauxite, in rubber, sugar, bananas, and coffee… poor in its human population, poorer still in humanity.
Suriname, as the Dutch call it.
Their country’s twelfth and richest, no, their country’s poorest province.
From ‘We Slaves of Suriname’ (1934) by Anton de Kom.
Last year, instead of studying in Scotland as originally planned, I was stuck at home in the Netherlands, when I was invited to join an archival research project at the Dutch Museum of Literature in the Hague. The project was a collaboration with the National Archives in Suriname, and I was to research the literary estates left by several Surinamese authors.
As a child of Surinamese and Dutch descent this chance to conduct research linked to my own heritage presented itself at the perfect time. Growing up in The Netherlands, I was mostly acquainted with Dutch writers through my schooling, and only a few Surinamese authors rang familiar to me. I knew that Anton de Kom was very important and well ahead of his time, but not well-known outside of Surinamese circles. I had not read the work of Bea Vianen or Edgar Cairo when I was younger, and when I chose to pick up de Kom’s book ‘We Slaves of Suriname’ as a young teenager, I found the old-fashioned Dutch difficult. The opportunity to dive into these archives was a reintroduction to these people and their writing – and sometimes, an introduction altogether.
Photo credit: Dutch Literary Museum Archives.
At the archive, I was provided with a list of people whose literary estates were present in the archive’s depot. Much of the material on these authors was still uncatalogued, so there was a record showing that there was something on authors like Anton de Kom, Bea Vianen, Albert Helman, Rudie van Lier, and Edgar Cairo, but beyond a rough sketch on the content and number of folders or boxes, there was not much else. My job was to find starting points for further research, so that the works could be displayed in the museum and online. While I was in the archives, scenes kept moving though my head, reading between the lines I found myself trying to imagine how certain pieces of the puzzle fit together.
I imagine: A mass of boxes, dusty with contents so special they seem to emanate their own light. Treasure. A handwritten manuscript of a book that is nearly a hundred years old and has just become a bestseller.
What I find: Two boxes, not that big, not at all dusty. Neatly labelled. Most of the contents are handwritten: poems, letters, a screenplay. There is a stack of notebooks containing handwritten, never-published books. Not the original manuscript of anything published.
The manuscript I hoped to find was ‘We Slaves of Suriname’ [Wij slaven van Suriname]. It is a fiercely anti-colonial book, written by the Black Surinamese author Anton de Kom (1898-1945).
Anton de Kom, right. Photo credit: Dutch Literary Museum Archives.
De Kom’s family had donated the archive to the Museum of Literature in the Hague several years earlier. His fame had since increased dramatically, after his name had been added to ‘the canon of the Netherlands.’ The canon was commissioned by the government and lists fifty themes to summarise Dutch history and enable the teaching of it. This propelled ‘We Slaves of Suriname’ into classrooms, newspapers, and living rooms of people who had not known him before. Printed in 1934, ‘We Slaves of Suriname’ became a bestseller in 2020, nearly ninety years after its first publication.
In the book, Anton de Kom directly addresses the appalling and violent way the Dutch treated people in Suriname when it was a plantation colony run on enslaved people’s labour. Suriname – a former Dutch (and briefly English) colony is part of the Caribbean but sits squeezed in between Guyana and French-Guyana on the South-Eastern coast of South America. The country gained independence from the Netherlands in 1975. The writer’s work offers a counter narrative to the Dutch colonial mindset, a historical account from the author’s point of view: that of the enslaved people and their descendants who suffered Dutch rule. The opening paragraph of this blogpost is the way de Kom sets the scene of the first page of ‘We Slaves of Suriname’.
De Kom was the child of a man who was born into slavery (Dutch colonies only gained their freedom in 1863, after which followed the ‘apprenticeship’ period, which meant another decade of unpaid labour for the formerly enslaved). De Kom’s writing addresses the state of his country, the way people continued to be treated, but also how the Dutch skewed this history to their own advantage. He saw how all history that was taught in Surinamese schools was Dutch history. ‘We Slaves of Suriname’ rejects all the praise sung for Dutch heroes, who in reality were colonisers, enslavers, and plantation owners. In the words of de Kom: “No people can reach full maturity as long as it remains burdened with an inherited sense of inferiority. For that reason, this book aims to rouse the self-respect of the Surinamese people.” The book gives an account of the evils of Dutch colonialism, as well as it presents heroes to look up to that weren’t white seafarers or colonial governors, but enslaved people who freed themselves, and leaders of enslaved peoples’ rebellions.
I imagined: Finding the original version of ‘We Slaves of Suriname.’
What I find: Unpublished manuscripts, all handwritten in notebooks, that tell new stories I haven’t heard before.
Anton de Kom’s literary estate turned out to comprise two brown boxes of uncatalogued material. In the midst of the intensified attention on his legacy, this was a treasure trove. The holy grail would have been the original manuscript of ‘We Slaves of Suriname’. Unfortunately, an initial search through the boxes showed it was not there. As I delved deeper into the papers and read the correspondence between de Kom and his publisher in 1933-1934, it occurred to me that I could be “hunting the snark”; looking for something that does not exist. De Kom’s edits were so extensive at such a late stage that the publication date had to be delayed and the book published was likely quite different from the original manuscript. Original manuscript or not, the two boxes were full of treasure. ‘We Slaves of Suriname’ is the only book that de Kom published in his lifetime alongside some poems and articles. However, from his boxes I lifted a notebook with children’s stories about the spider Anansi, a novel about formerly enslaved people leading a rebellion, half a novel reflecting the abysmal working conditions of the ‘balata bleeders’ who tapped rubber trees, loose pages with poems. On the bottom, I found a full screenplay: handwritten and typed out, accompanied by a big brown book with hand-drawn columns that detailed everything for every scene: the clothes, the set, the dialogue, you name it. The writing showed a wealth of ability and ambition, but little opportunity. Letters show that de Kom’s publisher declined the spider stories because they did not publish children’s books. De Kom also tried to get his screenplay produced, but never managed to. The other manuscripts disappeared from view altogether.
Another author I came across during my search was Bea Vianen (1935-2019). There was no complete archive; she only passed away in 2019 in Suriname, and her belongings will likely end up at the National Archive in Paramaribo (Suriname’s capital city), but it is unclear where her literary estate resides now. In The Hague, however, there were several documents regarding her first novels and some of her travels in the archive of her Dutch publishing house, Querido. Vianen was a novelist, poet, and reporter who wrote in Dutch, and she was the first female Surinamese author who got published and was represented by a Dutch publishing house.
Bea Vianen. Photo credit: Dutch Literary Museum Archives.
The depot holds a folder with all the images that were used for the cover of her book ‘Het paradijs van Oranje’ [‘The Paradise of Orange’]. And I found that her book was described as a ‘migrant novel’ in some of the reviews. The story is about a man of Indian descent who migrates from Suriname to The Netherlands, and the difficulty he experiences at the hands of Dutch society—a situation which has everything to do with colonialism and its aftershocks. After slavery was abolished in the Dutch colonies, and as the ‘apprenticeship’ period ended, the Dutch struck a deal with the British and got indentured labourers from India to work at the Surinamese plantations. Of (mixed) Indian heritage herself, Vianen writes her first novels about the descendants of these indentured laborers.
I came across a letter she wrote in Amsterdam that seemed to hint at a close experience of what she wrote about in ‘The Paradise of Orange’; she opens it saying there are days when she feels she will resolve to do one of two things: either she would jump off a bridge, or get the next flight back to Suriname. There is also a stack of typed pages from her time in Peru and other countries in South America, where she was sent as a reporter by the Dutch glossy magazine Avenue. The pages show a trip that was anything but easy for a woman of colour with a passport from a newly independent country. Vital information about what happened is missing from the piece, with the result that it reads more like a thriller than a travel report.
Also Edgar Cairo’s (1948-2000) name rang a bell from childhood; I had seen some of his books on the bookshelves at my parents’ house. There was only little material in the archives, but I hoped for something similar to Vianen’s documents, or an unexpected discovery like de Kom’s unpublished manuscripts. The small folder did not tell me much about Cairo’s own work and words. What I did find were things about him, flyers from performances or about his work, but no manuscripts or letters. One flyer is printed in English and mentions a play called ‘Daybreak Plantation’ and I can sense a link with de Kom’s work on rebellions on plantations and alternative heroes. Despite my excitement the trail ends here, and I could not find anything else about it.
In stark contrast to the little that is left of Cairo’s work, are the records of Lou Lichtveld (1903-1996) who wrote under the pen name Albert Helman. His literary estate was the largest I went through and comprised over 16 boxes with endless letters and research material. The amount of documents and information it contained was overwhelming. Initially skimming through the works to get an overview and I had to take a different strategy, from the one I had been using for the other writers. One of the most interesting things about it was that a box belonging to another literary estate had accidentally been brought up with Lichtveld’s boxes. They contained letters from the WWII period, showing both Nazi and allied censorship bands, showing where the mail has been opened and resealed. The letters belonged to Rudie van Lier (1914-1987) who happened to be a Surinamese writer as well. Both Lichtveld and van Lier belonged to the Surinamese upper class and went to The Netherlands to study. Van Lier wrote and published poetry as a young man and was part of a circle of Dutch writers for years before going into academia. The letters were nearly all from pre-war Dutch writers, but one lone letter was from the anthropologist Herman J. Melville. Melville is perhaps most famous for the monograph ‘The Myth of The Negro Past’ (1941), which was very popular among the Black Panther movement, although his position as a white anthropologist studying Africa and Africans is called into question today. Melville conducted fieldwork in Suriname with his wife in the early 20th century, and he writes to van Lier about going to Paramaribo, and possibly seeing him there.
The letters I found in the various literary estates showed me how much these Surinamese authors were connected to other writers and thinkers across the globe, and that only few were really isolated. But there were darker things in the archives, too. During WWII de Kom was in the resistance, writing for one of the resistance newspapers, and was arrested and imprisoned. From his jail cell in The Hague, he was sent to several concentration camps before he passed away in the infirmary of one of them. It took his family years of filing missing person reports with the Red Cross before they found out what exactly had happened to him.
Photo credit: Dutch Literary Museum Archives.
The day Anton de Kom passed away has only been known since the 1960s; he died in 1945, two weeks before the end of the war. All the documents regarding his missing person search are in the boxes. They are some of the saddest things I have ever seen and show years and years of effort, uncertainty, and mourning. There are letters in there of people testifying to de Kom’s resistance work—necessary steps if his widow, Nel, wanted to get a special war widow pension. I felt a great unease looking at these things, all the plans, desires, work, and life reduced to sums, schematic drawings of his teeth, descriptions of his skin and demise.
What I imagine: A reburial with full honours and official acknowledgement that he was a war hero. Some sense of justice after being banished from a beloved home country and recognition for being the important author he was.
What I find: A little card in his missing persons dossier. It is a typed and signed apology from an official. During his reburial to which all of his family had been invited to the honorary cemetery where de Kom and a few other resistance fighters would be reburied, officials ‘forgot’ to read out de Kom’s name during the ceremony. On the card it is explained away as both a technical (at the start), and a human (at the end), error of the note.
Of all the documents, that brief apology was the hardest to deal with. I was furious. I was impressed with his family, his wife, his children, who burned nothing down afterwards. There is something uncomfortable about being inactive while looking at de Kom’s literary remains—I can’t do anything because it is the past, but what has happened irks and offends me all the same. I have since tried to find other ways to engage with (rather than passively take in) this material and how I feel about it. Over the course of reading de Kom’s documents, deciphering his handwriting, seeing how he expressed the same (anti-colonial, critical) opinions from his book to his friends and family and even to strangers, seeing his work and his often expressed love and longing for Suriname; all of this made me feel sympathetic towards him.
The honorary cemetery where de Kom was reburied is close to my parents’ house, and after the work at the archive was done my mother and I decided to pay a visit. It is a beautiful cemetery that has a sense of calm on the crisp Autumn day we went there, softening the knowledge that de Kom wanted to return to his native country but never got to. Reminding me of the final lines of ‘We Slaves of Suriname’:
“Sranang, my fatherland, I hope to see you again the day all your misery has been wiped out of you.”
 Taken from the sample of the forthcoming English translation by David McKay, which can be found here: http://www.letterenfonds.nl/images/dossier/Kom-We-Slaves-David-McKay.pdf.
 Online literary exhibition of Surinamese writers at The Dutch Museum of Literature, available in Dutch only https://literatuurmuseum.nl/verhalen/surinaamse-schrijvers/de-weg-naar-een-onafhankelijke-literatuur
 The ‘Canon of the Netherlands’ website, with summaries in English: nhttps://www.canonvannederland.nl.
Thalia Ostendorf is a Dutch-Surinamese writer and cultural critic, and is one of the co-founders of Chaos Press (Uitgeverij Chaos), the only intersectional feminist publishing house in the Netherlands. She is currently a PhD candidate at the University of St. Andrews in the departments of Social Anthropology and Modern Languages—which is what brought her to Scotland.
Her research focusses on war literature and its influence on contemporary peace activism and remembrance practices in the U.K. and the U.S. She also writes short stories, which have been published in places like Cotton Xenomorph, Cipher Magazine and The Satirist. In 2020 she did archival research into the lives of Surinamese authors at the Dutch Museum of Literature.