Book Review: Karin Sitalsing, Boeroes: Een Familiegeschiedens van Witte Surinamers (2016)

In 1845, a group of some 384 poor Dutch men and women arrived in Suriname.  By year’s end, half of them had died, probably from typhus and tropical diseases. In the next few years, the survivors were joined by more migrants from Overijssel and Groningen.  Now, 7 to 9 generations later, there have been an estimated 4,500 descendants, perhaps 2,700 of whom are still living.  It is a cultural minority that is mostly unknown, even in the Netherlands, and its history is mostly unwritten. They call themselves “Boeroes” from the Dutch word for farmer “boer.” Indeed, many, but not all of the them were farmers.  (See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dutch_Surinamese)

BoeroesThe author, Karen Sitalsing, was born in the Netherlands, but her mother was one of the Boeroes who migrated back to the Netherlands in the 20th century. The book is an attempt to recover the history of the Boeroes largely through the story of Sitsaling’s ancestors, the Tammenga family from the province of Groningen. Sitsaling is a journalist, and the book is a mixture of history and journalism. The historical sections are sometimes as narrow as the facts of her family’s history and sometimes as broad as the general picture of Surinamese or Dutch colonial history. The journalistic portions are Sitsaling’s first-person accounts of her visits to Suriname and her experiences learning about Suriname from her nuclear and extended family.

As Sitalsing tells it, the Boeroes are a generally forgotten group. They define themselves by their honesty and hard work, by their Calvinism, and their history of free (non-slave) labor.  On arrival, Suriname was a strange place from them. Then as now, Suriname is four times bigger than the Netherlands, but is 90% uninhabited. It is hot, humid, colorful, and diverse culturally and ecologically. After generations in Suriname, however, the country became familiar for the Boeroes and the distant Netherlands became foreign. The Boeroes remained ambivalent about their old country. After all, they had not fared well in the old country, and many felt bitter about the treatment they had received there.  In 1873, ten years after the emancipation of slavery in Suriname, contract workers from India and the Dutch East Indies began arriving in Suriname. These workers soon outnumbered the Boeroes and today form two of the largest ethnic groups in the multi-ethnic nation. Migration from the Netherlands to Suriname dried up, so the Boeroes received little injection of new blood from the old country.

Suriname was always there, just behind the scenes in the author’s youth in the Netherlands even when she wasn’t much aware of it. As a toddler, she visited her grandmother in Suriname, but of course could not remember that experience. But as a child, she heard stories from her mother and from her grandmother and other visitors. She explains that she was nine years old when she first realized that her mother had a Surinamese Dutch accent, the same accent and diction as a dark-skinned classroom at her primary school.  She learned about Surinamese food and culture, and had some general understanding of the country’s history.  So when she visited Suriname in the year 2000, everything was both familiar and strange. She made further trips to Suriname on journalistic assignment for newspapers in the Netherlands.

In her research, Sitsaling carried under her arm a copy of an old dissertation from 1937, full of “gegevens” (facts) but with no color.  This new book provides plenty of color, plenty of interesting anecdotes that is, to the story of the Boeroes, while not sacrificing an historical overview. It is a difficult research topic when there are few archival sources, and so it is perhaps best if an anthropologist or journalist approaches the story from the angle of oral histories and personal experiences. The story highlights the complexity of identities in the Dutch colonial world, the close relationship of Dutchness and whiteness, the effects of time, distance, communication technology, and global events on re-shaping cultural identities. A constant theme of the book is reunion, people and ideas that were once together but have split and now have come back together, sometimes many times over. Cultures are never isolated entirely, as memories and connections echo in time.

The story of Dutch migration to Suriname can serve as a useful comparison to the history of Dutch-America (U.S.) and Dutch-Canadian migration. Like the Dutch who followed Van Raalte and Scholte to the United States, the Dutch migrants to Suriname in the 1840s came mostly from the poor, rural working class. When they arrived in Suriname, the country was a slave colony, and remained so until emancipation in 1863. Even after emancipation, race remained a pronounced feature of life in Suriname. The Boeroes were proud that they had not been slaveholders, like the other Dutch who arrived in Suriname in the 18th century.  In fact, the arrival of the Boeroes brought some trepidation among the slaveholders in Suriname, who feared that the image of white field workers would lead black slaves to lose respect for their masters.

Race continued to play an important role in the development of the Boeroes identity. The Boeroes, it is clear, “wilden graag blank blijven” (wanted to stay white)  (p 166). Even in the twentieth century, they kept their children from playing with blacks and Asians. But after generations, it was almost inevitable that the groups would mix. Sitsaling, for example, had an Indian father, born in Suriname, from a mixed Muslim-Hindu family. Today, part of the problem of counting the number of Boeroes is that many are of mixed heritage.

The Boeroes, like the 19th Dutch migrants to the United States, were Calvinists, but they were members of the Hervormd church, not religious seceders. Sitsaling relates that her ancestor’s decision to migrate was personally influenced by Petrus Hofstede de Groot, the Groningen theologian on the other side of Hendrick de Cock’s secession agitation.  In a moment of discovery that many of us who have searched our own family history well know, Sitsaling relates how she discovered letters confirming her ancestor’s motives.  In comparing the North American Dutch with the Boeroes, one big differences is that the Boeroes kept their Dutch language, even some of the archaic forms of nineteenth century Dutch.  To some extent, it seems that Boeroes stayed Dutch (in part) because of their whiteness. The combination of religion, language, skin color, and the intensity of the group connections, along with a certain amount of isolation, kept the Boeroes a distinct group.

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