Amsterdam Elsewhere: For 450 Guilders, You Had a Slave

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A slave and her two children being auctioned off in Suriname in 1839. Photo Spaarnestad

AMSTERDAM ELSEWHERE

With their wanderlust and mercantile spirit, our ancestors have spread the cultural heritage of Amsterdam across the globe throughout the centuries. Each month, Amsterdam Elsewhere tells about various places where the Dutch once were.


Amsterdam held absolute sway over colonial Suriname, which for centuries derived its wealth from the exploitation of enslaved Africans. In 1765, Governor Jan Nepveu made notes about Suriname, its blacks and whites, and an exceptional marriage.

For 450 Guilders, You Had a Slave

by MARIËLLE HAGEMAN

All of Suriname was in turmoil, observed the Amsterdam plantation owner and administrator Jan Nepveu in 1765. Elisabeth Samson, a black woman, wanted to marry a white man. Elisabeth was a successful businessperson, one of the wealthiest people in Suriname, but that made no difference: blacks simply could not marry whites. A marriage like that would endanger the inequality between blacks and whites, Nepveu believed, and the entire Surinamese economy was based on the total mastery of whites and subjugation of blacks.

Jan Nepveu was born in Amsterdam in 1719 and had come to Suriname as a young boy. His father, a goldsmith, died when Jan was eight years old, and after that, the large family was short of money. While his mother tried to earn something by baking bread and cultivating a piece of rented land, Jan roamed through the streets of Paramaribo and saw black slaves dancing on the square in the evenings.

The blacks had been enslaved and forcefully brought from Africa to Suriname to do the heavy work on plantations along the rivers, where sugarcane especially was grown, and more and more coffee and cocoa. A slave cost 450 guilders, estimated Jan Nepveu later, in addition to 400 for a mule and an extra budget item for roughly 10 dead slaves a year who had to be replaced – a great inconvenience. Most of the approximately 400 plantations had around 100 slaves working on them. And there were homes in the only city, Paramaribo, that had 30 or sometimes even 50 slaves, wrote Nepveu. Almost all of the craftspeople were slaves or free blacks. Elisabeth Samson, as the daughter of a freed slave, had even been born a free person. For every white, Jan Nepveu counted at least 30 blacks.

The colony was administered by a private company, the Society of Suriname. It had three shareholders, one of which was the City of Amsterdam. The other two were the Dutch West India Company, in which Amsterdam also had a big voice, and the immensely wealthy Van Aerssen family, which would sell its share to Amsterdam in 1770, after which the city became the supreme authority in Suriname.

Amsterdammers earned good money on the colony, for sugar and coffee were enormously popular. The fort built between 1734 and 1747 on the strategic spot where the Commewijne and the Suriname rivers came together was not called ‘New Amsterdam’ for nothing.


Plantation owner

Jan Nepveu started out as a jack-of-all-trades, but by 1742 he was secretary to the governor. After that he made a career for himself in the Surinamese civil service and could buy plantations of his own, including the Spieringshoek coffee plantation.

Elisabeth Samson also became a plantation owner. She lived with a German and ran his coffee plantations as his partner. After his death, she inherited part of her holdings and bought the other part together with her sister, Nanette. She ended up with a whole series of plantations: Belwaerder, for instance, and Clevia and Catharinasburg. She became one of Suriname’s most important coffee producers and even had a ship of her own built in Amsterdam. Black slaves worked on Elisabeth’s plantations too.

Elisabeth Samson was almost 50 when she decided to marry Christoph Braband, a white sexton. Wealth she already had; now she also wanted the standing that such a marriage would bring her. When the government in Suriname would not allow it, she turned to the States-General of the Netherlands. It took three years, but Elisabeth received permission to marry, for such a marriage was not forbidden in the Dutch Republic. By that time, Christoph Braband had died. But on 21 December 1767, Elisabeth Samson married the 30-year-old Hermanus Zobre.

Jan Nepveu also got married that year, to Elisabeth Buys, a mulatto. This, however, was a commonly accepted practice, partly because there were not so many white women in Suriname. His bride’s father was a Dutchman from Amsterdam; her mother was Surinamese. This Elisabeth owned a number of plantations too, such as Hecht en Sterk, Stolkersvlijt and Buyslust. In 1768, Jan Nepveu became governor of Suriname. At the time, he earned about 10,000 guilders per year. He estimated the income of Elisabeth Samson to be between 80,000 and 100,000 guilders. When she died in April 1771, her estate was worth a million. Her white husband inherited all of it.

Jan Nepveu died in 1779. He owned eight plantations with around 1100 slaves as well as seven houses in Paramaribo with 80 slaves. It took until 1863 for slavery to be abolished. The former slaves then had to remain working on the plantations for another 10 years. After that, contract workers were brought to Suriname from India and Java.

Nowadays, Fort New Amsterdam is a museum. The old governor’s mansion in Paramaribo is now the presidential palace of the Republic of Suriname. The coats of arms of the Society of Suriname and of Amsterdam that had adorned its façade until this year were replaced on July 1 with Suriname’s own coat of arms.

This article is made available by Dutch newspaper Het Parool. “Amsterdam Elsewhere” is the translated version of the newspaper’s article series called “Amsterdan Elders”. The series shows how Amsterdammers, with their wanderlust and mercantile spirit, have spread the cultural heritage of Amsterdam across the globe throughout the centuries.

This project has been realized with the support of the Shared Cultural Heritage Programme.

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