Unearthing history: Indian workers killed 110 years ago in Suriname

An archaeologist’s plans to locate the graves of Indian indentured workers killed 110 years ago in Suriname has revived interest in a long buried episode in the history of the Indian community in the South American nation, Shubha Singh reports in this article for ummid.com.

The 1902 workers’ uprising or the Marienburg massacre was one of the significant events in the Indians’ struggle for their rights in Suriname. Dutch colonial forces had fired at striking agricultural workers at the Marienburg sugar factory killing 24 workers, whose bodies were later dumped in a mass grave.

Indian indentured workers were taken to Suriname, then a Dutch colony, after the abolition of slavery in Dutch territories. Between 1873 and 1916, about 35,000 Indians were recruited to work on the sugarcane plantations in Suriname.

Archaeologist Benjamin Mitrasingh plans to excavate in the grounds of the Marienburg estate using modern technology to locate the mass graves. Dr Mitrasingh made it clear that he did not plan to exhume the bodies; he just wanted to locate the graves.

“The community wants to know where the graves are. I want to locate the graves and place a marker on them,” Mitrasingh said in an in e-mail interview to IANS.

 The location of the mass grave of the workers has remained unknown all these years. According to oral history in the region, the colonial soldiers had dumped all the bodies in a pit that was dug along the train track that carted the sugarcane to the mill.

The pit had been covered with a layer of lime to prevent stench and to help decompose the bodies quickly. No one was allowed to go anywhere near the area.

The presence of lime in the soil should show up in aerial surveys, it is believed, as it would have rendered the soil infertile and also changed the texture and colour of the soil. The graves are likely to be in a barren stretch of land within the thickly overgrown vegetation along an unused rail track.

Marienburg was a sugar plantation when it was bought over by the Netherlands Trading Society (NHM) which set up a central sugarcane factory to cater to all the sugarcane plantations in the region.

 A 12-km rail track was laid, the first railway in Suriname, to bring the cut cane to the sugar factory. At one time, the Marienburg sugar factory and its sugarcane plantation were among the biggest businesses in Suriname. The Marienburg factory finally closed down in 1986 and was later opened to the public.

Conditions on the sugar plantations in Suriname were distressing. Workers complained of low wages and high workload with penal punishments for not completing assigned tasks, especially when the price of sugar crashed in the international market.

In 1902 the workers at Marienburg went on strike protesting against the very low wages. During the agitation, the Scottish supervisor, James Mavor was chased and killed by a group of angry workers.

 Massa Mewa as he was known was accused of cutting wages of workers, mistreating the workers and harassing the women. The Dutch authorities sent in the army to restore order and in the ensuing operation 24 workers were killed.

The Marienburg incident has long agitated the Indian community in Suriname. Persistent demands from the Indian community resulted in a monument being erected in July 2006 to commemorate the workers’ uprising.

 The Marienburg story has always remained one of those subjects simmering just below the surface. 

”This story is one that I learned about when I was still in high school in the history class in the 1980s. It is part of the country’s history but I imagine it did not get a lot of traction before Suriname gained independence in 1975,” said Marvin Hokstam, editor of Devsur.com, a premier news website in Suriname.

” There is so much about Suriname’s history that remains hidden because it got suppressed. Every so often lately, something that was obscured by the colonisers is unveiled,” he added.

For the original report go to http://www.ummid.com/news/2012/November/22.11.2012/indian_wrkrs_killed_in_suriname.htm

Bottom photo by Serge Sanramat. For a gallery of his photos of Marienburg go to http://www.sanramat.com/shs/index.php/gallery/24-myfolio/58-marienburg-suriname

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