Book on the Rise of the Colored Elite in 19th century Suriname

Neslo dissertation

Peter Jordens shares a post on a new book by Ellen B.A. Neslo: Een ongekende elite: De opkomst van een gekleurde elite in koloniaal Suriname 1800-1863 [A Formerly Unknown Elite: The Rise of a Colored Elite in Colonial Suriname, 1800-1863]. The text is a PhD dissertation (University of Utrecht, The Netherlands) published by HaEs Producties in November 2016.

Here is Jordens’ translated and edited extract of this Dissertation’s description (in Dutch) at

During slavery, there existed a colored elite in Suriname’s capital, Paramaribo. [They consisted of manumitted slaves and their descendants who were fairly well-to-do.] In her Ph.D. Dissertation, based on archival research, Ellen Neslo has examined this urban, colored elite. As it turns out, they were more successful than had previously been assumed. Carpenters and midwives could earn a good living. [The group also included administrators, legal experts, medical doctors, and artists.] They invested their money in [plots of land,] homes and plantations, and they also bought their enslaved relatives free. […] It appears that they already had an influential social role [before Emancipation in 1863].

These free coloreds also held slaves for economic gain. Because of their pursuit of economic independence, they were part of the dominant slavery system. Buying a slave’s freedom was a costly affair, averaging 1,500 guilders (11,000 euros today). One had to pay both the slave-owner and the colonial government. Still, the proportion of free coloreds who bought the freedom of enslaved persons was significant. It helped to slowly corrode the slavery system from within. However, coordinated actions on the part of the urban, colored elite to buy the freedom of slaves remained limited to a few cases. Only manumitted persons who had been born in Africa did buy slaves free in a coordinated manner, probably as part of a network. [. . .]

In a recent book review, Hilde Neus states that there are still a lot of gaps in [Suriname’s] history, which have begun to be explored, but have not yet been fully addressed. The latter is certainly important for a balanced understanding of the history of slavery. […] With this dissertation on an elite of former slaves, Neslo has filled an important gap and contributed to that desired balance. Her book is a major asset in Suriname’s historiography and will provoke commentary as she has dared to take on sacred cows. This publication, rich in source references and pertinent images, cannot be dismissed as a sidetrack. The data that Neslo has unearthed in her dissertation is qualitatively and quantitatively too convincing!

The complete, original review (in Dutch) is available at

Dr. Ellen Brigitte Aurelia Neslo (Paramaribo, 1959) studied law at the University of Utrecht where she has been employed since 1999. Since 2014 she heads the University’s International Service Desk. Neslo obtained her Ph.D. in November 2016.

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