Written by Mitchell Esajas and originally published in Dutch in newspaper Trouw on February 22, 2020. Read the original article here (in Dutch).
I can't remember the first time I read a book by my hero, Anton de Kom. What I do know is that my mother, born in a large farmers family in Coronie, Suriname, had a gorgeous edition of 'We slaves of Suriname' in her library. It was an edition that had the portrait of De Kom on it; above the portrait there was the title, in bold pink and orange letters. It was the fourth print, from 1975. That was, according to the book cover, the year in which Suriname would become independent. According to the cover this was the year Suriname would seize its independence.
I can't remember the first time I read this book, by my hero Anton de Kom. What I do know is that my mother, born in a large farmers family in Coronie, Suriname, had a gorgeous edition of 'We slaves of Suriname' in her library. It was an edition that had the portrait of De Kom on it; above the portrait there was the title, in bold pink and orange letters.
Now, there is a new edition. A bitter occasion, because this new edition is being reprinted due to its current relevance. In 'We slaves of Surinam' De Kom showed us in a moving, intriguing and clear-cut style how colonialism, even after the abolishment of slavery, continued to impose social inequality.
Anton de Kom (1898-1945), born in Paramaribo, left Suriname in 1920. He became active in The Netherlands in leftist organisations, and got married there. At the end of 1932 he returned to Suriname, but was arrested at a procession moving towards the governor's house. He was repatriated to The Netherlands again in 1933, and his book, 'We slaves of Suriname' was published as a censored edition the following year. During the war, De Kom was active in The Hague as part of the communist resistance, and was arrested again in 1944. In April 1945 he lost the battle against tuberculosis in a German concentration camp in Sandbostel.
A lot has changed, but unfortunately in 2020 the heritage of colonialism is still felt and experienced. Since 1934, many generations have been able to find strength and inspiration through De Kom's work.
One of the reasons is that he was the first Surinamese person to make a razor sharp analysis of the way racism and class functioned within the colonial society of Suriname. Even after July 1st 1863, many former slaves and recently dispatched contract workers were still doing hard labour whilst large companies and the predominantly white colonial elite profited from their work.
De Kom noticed the differences between attitudes towards contract workers from the then Dutch and British Indies, and European immigrants. He also made clear how they were being exploited by 'making them sign, under false pretences, contracts which suppressed wages and working conditions in Suriname and which kept the old enslaved mentality alive.’
In addition to this, he also tangibly highlighted the level of degradation faced by the contract workers and formerly enslaved, and the poor circumstances they were essentially forced to work in as so-called 'balatableeders'. Working deep in the bush of Suriname on the coffee and sugar plantations, they received meagre wages for their work. De Kom describes the contrast between the treatment of the black and brown workers and a group of white German labourers who settled down in the colony in 1897: ‘The contrast is heartbreaking: a large portion of the black and brown contract workers did not even survive the journey to Suriname due to 'bad food, insufficient air and dirty sleeping arrangements.'
De Kom did not, however, hold all white people accountable for the suffering and exploitation of the Surinamese. On the contrary; during the period in which he stayed in The Netherlands, he came into contact with communists, socialists and nationalists, from Indonesia and elsewhere. These experiences lead him to see the connection between racism and the economic system. “We ask the Dutch labourers: slavery has been abolished in Suriname, but do you call the ones who have to work under a contract such as this one truly free?”. De Kom saw the white workers not as enemies or competition, but as potential fellow fighters in the battle for a humane existence for all.
In the communist magazine, ‘The Negro Worker of 1934’, an article was published by De Kom called 'Starvation, hunger and misery in Dutch Guyana', in which De Kom presented his sharp criticism on the colonial system in Suriname with an international audience.
He wrote: “We remember the 16 million guilder that The Netherlands gave to white slave owners as compensation for their freed slaves. De bakras (whites) got those millions as a reward for their inhumane trading of the enslaved, our ancestors (in De Kom's time it was customary to use the n-word, which I now experience as colonial and offensive, M.E.). But for the slaves from back then, and for the free [racialised person] now, not a penny. Their only reward was unemployment, misery and hunger. Only by self-organising and fighting can the labourers of Dutch Guyana improve their living situations, and successfully rise against exploitation and slavery which is imposed on them by the Dutch colonial authority. Only by solidarity and a unified battle of the workers from capitalist and colonial countries there is a chance to end one common enemy: imperialism. Labourers, fighting against exploitation, unemployment or hunger! Demand independence for Dutch Guyana!”
The style of the article carried significant similarities to that of 'We slaves of Suriname', which was also published in 1934. What was remarkable was how he explicitly called for the independence of 'Dutch Guyana': Suriname. And De Kom wanted to unite workers from all backgrounds. “Maybe I will succeed in getting rid of the division which was the weakness of the coloured, maybe it won't be entirely impossible to make Afro-Surinamese and Hindustani, Javanese and Indigenous peoples see how only the solidarity of mother Sranang can unite us in the battle for a humane life.”
It is this astute and militant message, which is described in alternately poetic, literary, and historical manner, that keeps on inspiring generations. If we talk about black history, we quite often think of Martin Luther King Jr., Marcus Gravey, Angela Davis, Malcom X or Frantz Fanon. Anton De Kom fits with both his words and deeds in this line of black intellectuals and freedom fighters that have left behind a timeless oeuvre.
'We slaves of Suriname' was forbidden during World War II, which made it, even after the war, hard to come by for a long time. This changed when a Surinamese student by the name of Rubia Züschen found a copy in the library of the University of Leiden during the sixties; She was one of the leftist students that fought for the decolonisation of Suriname. Her fellow students found the book so inspiring that they decided to transcribe the whole manuscript and spread around illegal copies.
Anton de Kom was a shining example for Surinamese who studied in The Netherlands during the fifties and sixties, because he was the first one to brutally uncover the depths of colonialism in Suriname. He put words into action, and returned to Suriname himself in 1933. During protests for his liberation at least two people were shot by the colonial regime. De Kom was exiled to The Netherlands.
In the seventies, the anti-colonial awareness amongst Surinamese both in The Netherlands and Suriname grew, partly under the influence of the international decolonisation battle in former colonies in Africa and Asia. In 1972, the ‘Ons Suriname’ (Our Suriname) association squatted an empty building in the centre of Amsterdam, baptizing it the 'Centre of Anton de Kom'. The monthly magazine ‘adek’ (Anton de Kom) brought abuse to light which Surinamese residing in The Netherlands had to deal with; racism, discrimination and police violence, besides political injustice and unemployment in Suriname.
In June 1988, the Anton de Kom memorial was organised, with people who had known De Kom personally from the World War II resistance. His daughter, Judith de Kom, who also fought colonialism, contributed to the commemoration.
In a petition, Surinamese activists plead for rehabilitation of Anton de Kom's name. As a result of this, in 1991 a square in Amsterdam-Zuidoost, close to the now metro station Bullewijk, was named after De Kom. Since 2006, his statue oversees the square.
De Kom is, unfortunately, still largely unknown outside of the Surinamese community; within it he is a hero who is part of our collective memory. This became clear on July 1st, 2014, in Oosterpark, Amsterdam, when a group of Surinamese, African and Caribbean Dutch people performed an intervention. It was on, of all days, the memorial day of Keti Koti, and enacted right before then Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Social Affairs, Lodewijk Asscher, was going to speak. “We are here today with the utmost respect for our ancestors. We are here for Anton, Boni, Tula, Baron, Sophie, Joli Coeur, Tata, Karpata, Toussaint, Nanny and countless other invisible fighters and victims of the Dutch wealth and prosperity. We are here to make sure no foreign body enters their memorial. Minister Lodewijk Asscher represents the Dutch government: the same government that treated the black community without respect, which doesn't want a national commemoration, that ignores UN agreements and doesn't care about the pain and sorrows of the black community.”
Even though slavery was, on paper, abolished 157 years ago (in 1863), the heritage is still visible and palpable, for many who experience it day-to-day, in the shape of institutional racism as well as structural inequality. Within the education system, black children struggle with discrimination by fellow students and teachers alike, paired with a one-sided curriculum in which the shadow side of colonial history is very often neglected.
Endless research has shown that applicants with an immigrant background have less job opportunities than white applicants, due to the colour of their skin, name or cultural background.
In recent years, there has been a growing movement against institutional racism in The Netherlands. In November 2019, an all time low was reached when a confederation of the action group Kick Out Zwarte Piet was disturbed, with violence, by a radical group of pro-Pieten. This shows us that Anton de Kom's fight still needs to be continued.
De Kom understood that education is an essential tool to achieve equality and justice: “No better tool to insert a feeling of inferiority with a peoples, than this history education in which only the sons of other peoples are being named and praised. It has taken a long time before I'd freed myself completely from the obsession that a [racialised person] always and unconditionally should be less than every 'white'.”
In 2020 we can reverse these words. I believe that most Surinamese people have already freed themselves of the oppressive, colonial inferiority complex towards white people. There are, however, still white people who, possibly unconsciously, harbour these feelings of superiority. This manifests itself, among others, in the intensity and aggression with which traditions such as Sinterklaas are defended, symbols of colonial relations that De Kom fought. But we also see it in the institutional racism that still affects many black people and people of colour.
The fight of Anton de Kom is unfortunately not finished yet, but his work and ideas continue to inspire generations to come. 'We slaves of Suriname' also offers me, time after time, new insights with every read, next to the knowledge that the movements against racism use the works by giants such as Anton de Kom as building blocks.
And now, The Netherlands has installed a proper statue of De Kom, made by Jikke van Loon. Furthermore, during the exhibition 'Afterlives of Slavery' (Heden van het Slavernijverleden) in the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, there was a copy of 'We slaves of Suriname' in the showcase. It was my mother's copy.