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Life on the plantations

For the slaves, life on the sugar plantations was harsh. All the slaves - men, women and children - worked long hours. It was hard work, the huts were primitive and food was often scarce. The hardest work was the dredging of the ditches that crisscrossed the estates. In the short time the slaves were not working for the estate, they grew their own crops, hunted, fished and kept poultry. The plantation consisted of two worlds: the world of the African workforce and the world of the European masters.

Most slaves had little clothing. Men wore a cloth, a kamisa, which covered no more than their genitals. Women wore a pangi, a loincloth. In the course of the 19th century clothing for slaves improved. The wife of a slave-owner invented the koto misi. It was for female slaves: a succession of skirts, a jacket buttoned to the neck and a headscarf. This complete body covering was designed to conceal the flesh of the slave women from men's eyes. Today, the koto misi is part of the traditional garb of Surinamese women descended from African ancestors.

The slave huts on each plantation formed a village in which one generation after another grew up. At first, the slaves had to build and maintain their own huts. In the 19th century, planters began to install barracks: long wooden buildings divided into several dwellings with one or more room. In fact the slaves preferred their huts, which gave at least a sense of freedom.

There was little care for the sick on the plantations. If a person became ill, the manager of the estate would come to check, and a slave would be appointed as a nurse. In the event of a serious illness, the local plantation doctor would be called. A sick slave might even be brought to a doctor in the city. Many slaves used their own remedies and herbs to treat complaints and diseases.

Fear reigned in the plantation world. And not just among the slaves. The masters maintained their authority by violence. They were afraid of the slaves, who were far more numerous. They set slaves to control slaves and the whip was their principal weapon. A slave who turned up late in the field might be subjected to fifty lashes. In the second half of the 19th century corporal punishment tended to be replaced by confinement and loss of privileges. Yet the whip never really disappeared. Even in the 1850s, a person might receive fifty lashes for poor performance of their task.

Unique forms of language, religion, music and stories developed in the slave villages. A significant genre is that of slave songs. These were full of secret references that the slave-owners could not understand. For the masters, the most obscure element of slave life was the religion, which played an important part in making their miserable existence endurable.

Life on the plantations video and audio

  • "De stille plantage" De Nieuw Amsterdam  0:57
  • "Wacawa" Muzik di zumbi  0:30