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A history interwoven with sugar

Editor’s note: This post is part of a series highlighting six photographers who were commissioned by the Dutch photography organization Noorderlicht to produce “The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar.” The project examines globalization by looking at the sugar industry in the Netherlands and its former colonies.

Suriname’s history with sugar is a complicated, diverse and sometimes painful one. Almost all Surinamese share a link with sugar, but the only physical remnants in the country today are mostly forgotten plantation structures and equipment.

“You’re chasing ghosts,” said photographer James Whitlow Delano, who spent three weeks in Suriname recently doing just that. As one of six photographers commissioned by the Dutch photography organization Noorderlicht to produce “The Sweet and Sour Story of Sugar,” Delano spent his time focusing on the people whose history is intertwined with the sugar production of Dutch Suriname.

“They sent me to ask the question, ‘What has happened to these peoples who were brought over to work the plantations?’” With a population of roughly 500,000, Suriname is the smallest independent country in South America. Its people descend from places including India, Indonesia, Africa and China.

In the early 18th century, Dutch plantation owners brought in slaves from Africa. After the abolition of slavery in 1863, contract workers arrived from Java, British India and China. Descendants of these original plantation workers form the four main population groups in Suriname today.

The Hindustani are descendants of people from northern Indian states who came after 1863. Creoles are descendants of West African slaves brought to Suriname by plantation owners. The Javanese trace their ancestry to Java and Indonesia. Maroons, who also descend from West African slaves, escaped slavery before abolition and fled the plantations to the interior of the country, where most of them remain today.

What Delano found during his time documenting these different groups of people were distinct cultures defined by ancestry, combined with a Surinamese pride all its own. “Suriname is a fascinating mix,” Delano said.

To tell the other half of the story, Delano traveled to the Netherlands to document the Surinamese communities living there. Until 1975, Suriname was part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Today there are about 350,000 Surinamese people residing in the Netherlands.

“What was fascinating about the Netherlands was that these component groups of peoples that are Surinamese kind of go their own way when they go to the Netherlands,” he said.

From the Javanese communities in Hoogezand to the Creoles of Amsterdam, Delano found a mix of Surinamese pride and cultural independence.

“They maintain their identity as who they are but they have, I think, assimilated quite well to life in Western Europe.”

– Raymond McCrea Jones, CNN

View last week’s post on the world of sugar consumption in Indonesia.