A history of colonial labor and migration has produced a unique community far from Indonesian shores
Javanese immigrants arriving in Paramaribo
KITLV Special Collections
A colonial historyWhy are tens of thousands of people of Javanese descent living in Suriname? It all has to do with the abolition of slavery and the importance of the plantation system in this colony. In 1863, the Dutch government freed more than 33,000 slaves in Suriname. In the aftermath of this abolition, the authorities followed other Caribbean colonies by importing indentured workers from British India to supply the plantations with cheap and submissive labour. The five-year contracts detailed the rights and the duties of the indentureds. Crucial to the contract labour system was the so-called penal sanction, which gave the employer the right to press criminal charges against indentureds who broke their labour contract. Between 1873 and 1916 more than 34,000 British Indians came to Suriname. Soon, however, doubts arose on the source of this contract labour. The main problem was that the British Indian immigrants remained foreign nationals, and therefore a considerable proportion of the population of Suriname would soon be British. Moreover, these subjects could appeal against the decisions of the highest Dutch authority and request assistance of the British consul, which would not enhance the submissiveness of the labour force. Additional worries were the reliance on a foreign country for labour and the growing nationalist movement in India, which fiercely attacked the system of contract migration. Indeed, in India the system was abolished in 1916.
Turning to JavaJava was considered as an alternative source of labour. Initial attempts to import people from Java came to naught because the Dutch government did not permit the migration of Javanese when there existed the possibility of acquiring labour in India. Yet the movement to recruit Javanese gained strength in the 1880s due to the changing political climate in India. Another advantage was that the Dutch themselves would be in control of the recruitment and immigration process and would not have to compete with other recruiting nations, as was the case in India.
Javanese cultural traditions have proven to be strong, even though changes and adaptations in Suriname, for example in language, were inevitable
A family of Javanese peasants at Meerzorg plantation
KITLV Special Collections
Politically, the importance of the Javanese population group is indisputable. The Javanese often hold the balance between the larger and more powerful Afro-Surinamese and Hindustani (former British Indians) groups. At present, Paul Slamet Somohardjo is the first-ever Javanese Speaker of the National Assembly. Their socioeconomic development was slower, but since the 1960s the Javanese have been catching up with other population groups, even though the urbanisation rate is still lower than that of other large groups. Following the demise of the plantations in the first half of the twentieth century, many Javanese found work in the bauxite industry and the agricultural sector. Only in the last decades of the last century did the Javanese presence in businesses, the professions and the civil service increase. Demographically, the Javanese have long been the third largest population group, but the Maroons (descendants of runaway slaves) narrowly surpassed them in the most recent census of 2004. According to these figures, the Hindustani group counts 135,000 people, followed by the Afro-Surinamese (87,500), Maroons (72,600), and Javanese (71,900). The Javanese have added a unique ethnic and cultural element to the Caribbean and Latin America. Yet, this has not generated much research interest in the Javanese and their culture. Therefore it would be good to gain more knowledge about the lives, culture, and progress of the Javanese in Suriname. It is certainly worth it!
Politically, the importance of the Javanese population group is indisputable