Suriname - Background information


History
Natural history
People and culture

History

Abridged from the History section in Suriname: the Bradt Guide

Early Dutch colonisation

Under settled Dutch governance, Suriname emerged as a prosperous producer and exporter of sugar and other crops, including cacao, coffee and cotton. By 1740, at least 400 different plantations had been established along the Suriname, Commewijne and Cottica rivers, as well as in a hinterland irrigated by a vast network of natural creeks and artificial canals. The emergent town and port of Paramaribo was protected by the vastly expanded Fort Zeelandia, while the main buttress against attacks on more remote plantations was Fort Sommelsdijck, built on the confluence of the Commewijne and Cottica in the 1680s. Both of these older forts were eventually superseded by Fort Nieuw Amsterdam, constructed at the confl uence of the Suriname and Commewijne between 1735 and 1747. And while the Dutch administration centre at Paramaribo slowly emerged as Suriname’s main port, the Sephardic towns of Torarica and Jodensavanne, centrally located among the earliest plantations further inland along the Suriname River, remained thriving hubs of agricultural based commerce until the mid 18th century.

The plantation economy of Suriname was built almost entirely on slave labour. Many indigenous Amerindians were enslaved by the plantation owners, but their numbers were insufficient to feed the industry, so the colonists looked to Africa as a primary source of forced labour. Precise figures are not available, but over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries at least 300,000 captives were shipped to Suriname from the coast of West and Central Africa. This figure is all the more chilling when you consider that their descendants, assuming they had any, would almost invariably have been born into a life of slavery, yet the total population of the colony never exceeded 50,000. This is because the harsh working conditions and prevalence of tropical diseases on the plantations ensured a very high mortality rate. In addition, the law regarded slaves as a form of property, with no legal rights, and their owners had a free hand to mistreat them as whimsy dictated. As a result, many plantation owners routinely meted out cruel and often fatal punishments – cutting off the nose or limbs of slaves, burning them alive, or whipping them to death – for minor or imagined transgressions or acts of disobedience.

Fort Zeelandia Paramaribo Suriname by Ariadne Van Zandbergen, www.africaimagelibrary.comDating originally from 1640, Fort Zeelandia is the oldest building in Paramaribo © Ariadne Van Zandbergen

Ultimately, the biggest threat to the plantation economy of Suriname came not from outside attackers but from within. Over the course of the 18th century, thousands of angry slaves fled the plantations for the surrounding jungle and found the freedom they desired, but also faced a fresh struggle to survive in wild and unfamiliar conditions. Initially known as Bakabusi Nengre (Back-to-the-Bush Negroes) and then as Marrons or Maroons, these escapees organised themselves into small bands and started raiding the plantations to acquire food, other goods and women. Many plantations collapsed under the strain of repeated Marron raids, or were abandoned by their owners.

In 1762, the beleaguered colonial government signed a peace treaty with the notorious Saamaka Marrons. However, this concession seems only to have intensified the attacks led by other Marron groups, plunging the colony into a state of virtual revolt that was partially curbed by the construction in 1776 of the Cordon Path (a 94km defensive line dotted with military outposts) enclosing most active plantations between Jodensavanne and the coast. By this time, however, some 5,000–6,000 Marrons lived in the jungle outside the cordon, and the economy was in clear decline. It is also likely that the Marron threat was an important factor in the 18th-century decline of Torarica, no trace of which appears to survive today, and it certainly contributed to the gradual abandonment of Jodensavanne in the late 18th century, a process completed when it was razed by fire in 1832.

Natural history

Abridged from the Natural history section in Suriname: the Bradt Guide

Black spider monkey Suriname by Ariadne Van Zandbergen

Boasting a rare wealth of wetland habitats, the highest proportion of forest cover of any country in the world, and one of the lowest human population densities, Suriname packs a remarkable amount of biodiversity into a relatively modest area. It is home to at least 192 mammal, 720 bird, 175 reptile, 102 amphibian and 370 freshwater fish species, along with hundreds of thousands of invertebrates. Furthermore, since scientific exploration of its vast jungles and swamps has been rather patchy, it seems likely that a great many species still await discovery. Indeed, a three-week Conservation International expedition in 2012 discovered 11 previously undescribed fish species, one new snake, six new amphibians (including a unique cocoa-coloured tree frog) and several dozen types of insect to the remote southeast. Suriname currently has 16 established protected areas, covering a total of 21,383km2 (13.5% of the country’s territory), as well as four proposed reserves comprising another 1,320km2. The 15,920km2 Central Suriname Nature Reserve in the western interior is by far the largest of these protected areas. The other reserves all lie along or within 100km of the coast, and none is larger than 1,000km2.

Flora

According to a 2005 assessment by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, Suriname has the highest percentage of forest cover of any country in the world, estimated at almost 95%, the vast majority of which is still pristine. Around 90% of this comprises well-drained multi-storey dryland forest dominated by mesophytic trees, while the remainder mostly consists of seasonal or perennial swamp forest, and coastal and estuarine tidal mangroves dominated by Avicenniaceae and Rhizophoraceae trees. Small patches of ridge and savannah forest together constitute less than 0.5% of the surface area. The country’s vegetation can be divided into four main eco-zones, running from north to south. The estuarine zone follows the Atlantic coastline and typically runs up to 10km further inland. The greater coastal plains lie immediately south of that, giving way further inland to a narrow belt of northern savannah forest that grows on white sandy soil. Further south still is the vast tract of lowland forest that comprises around 90% of the country’s surface area, running all the way to the Brazilian border. This last zone is interspersed with patches of highland forest on isolated hills and mountains whose altitudes exceed 400m. 

As Suriname is tropical, plants flourish everywhere. More than 5,000 plant species have so far been identified, many of which are put to use as food or medicine, or to meet other requirements. Orchids, helliconias and flowering trees coveted in other parts of the world abound, but perhaps the most celebrated plant is the giant water lily Victoria amazonica, which grows on the canals in several towns, as well as the moats at Fort Nieuw Amsterdam. The world’s largest water lily, its leaves can attain a diameter of 3m and support the weight of a baby, while the stalks can reach a length of 7–8m. At dusk the lily’s flowers open slowly, eventually blooming a brilliant white. At the same time they emit a strong odour and increase their temperature, attracting the beetle that pollinates them. Roughly 24 hours later, when the flower blooms again, it is a pinkish-red colour.

Fauna

Among the species of mammals documented in Suriname are some of the largest in their family or genus, including the capybara (the world’s bulkiest rodent), giant anteater, giant river otter, false vampire bat (largest bat in Central and South America) and jaguar (largest cat in the western hemisphere). Other mammals that don’t get to claim a record but are still much sought after include five additional cat species, as well as the manatee, tapir and eight species of monkey.

Reptiles and amphibians 

At least 175 reptile and 102 amphibian species are present in Suriname. Highlights include poison dart frogs (Dendrobatidae), which come in a range of colours including orange, black, blue and yellow, and are used by some Amerindian tribes to poison their arrows and blow-gun darts. Another striking species is the Suriname or star-fingered toad (Pipa pipa), a very flat, almost leaf-like forest dweller that can grow up to 20cm long, has tiny eyes, neither tongue nor teeth, and is notable for being incubated through to tadpole stage in honeycomb-like pockets on the female’s back.

Besides the four species of sea turtles that nest on the coast, there are a few other chelonians of note. Probably the most common, and most likely to be seen by tourists, is the hulking yellow-footed tortoise (Chelonoidis denticulata), which is the world’s third-largest mainland tortoise, and easily recognised both by its yellow feet and the pale yellowish patches on its shell. The endangered giant river turtle (Podocnemis expansa) is found in the interior, but like the marine turtles its population is endangered because its meat and eggs have long been considered delicacies. The female turtle, which typically weighs around 23kg and measures 60cm in length, is easy prey for hunters because it nests in large colonies. The matamata turtle (Chelus fimbriatus) is certainly one of the more bizarre turtle species. Its shell is covered with horny plates that make it look like a rough dead leaf, but it’s the head that’s really strange. Its large and flat head and neck are covered with ridges, warts and numerous other bumps. It has a very wide mouth and long snout used to breathe while submerged, and it sucks prey into its mouth like a vacuum. Its head also has flap-like appendages that allow it to sense fish swimming by, which is necessary due to its poor eyesight.

Birds

Although Suriname is somewhat overlooked as a birdwatching destination, at least compared with certain other South American countries, the national checklist of around 720 species is very impressive given its relatively small size. And you don’t need to be a dedicated birdwatcher to appreciate some of the country’s more spectacular feathered creatures. Almost anywhere outside central Paramaribo, visitors will encounter colourful parrots and macaws screeching overhead, gaudier bill-heavy toucans and aracaris perched in the treetops, raptors such as the striking swallow-tailed kite soaring in the skies, and herons, ibises and other shorebirds picking along the river margins.

For more serious birdwatchers, Suriname’s avifauna is well documented. Some of the most useful printed resources include WWF Guiana’s Annotated Checklist of the Birds of Suriname, the hefty Vaco-published Birds of Suriname and Helm Field Guides’ comprehensive two-volume Birds of Northern South America. Excellent websites written partly or totally in English include Birds in Suriname and Birding in Suriname, the latter being run personally by the country’s only resident professional ornithologist, Otte Ottema, who also leads or can arrange birding tours.

Invertebrates

Although rainforest accounts for little more than 10% of the world’s surface area, it is thought to support around two-thirds of its insect species. This means that Suriname, with its wealth of tropical rainforest and wetland habitats, is home to an immensely diverse range of insects and other invertebrates. And it is these (mostly very small) critters – ants, millipedes, centipedes, spiders, butterflies, beetles, ticks, flies, gnats, bees, roaches, scorpions, etc – that tourists to Suriname will generally see the most. This is, however, perhaps a mixed blessing. Some invertebrates, such as mosquitoes or ticks, are notable mostly for their nuisance value, while others are too secretive or small to catch the attention.

People and culture

The national population of Suriname stood at 541,000 in the 2012 census and is estimated at more than 550,000 today. This gives Suriname the sixth-lowest population density of the world’s 206 sovereign states, ahead only of Iceland, Australia, Namibia, Western Sahara and Mongolia, and the lowest population density of any country that isn’t dominated by desert or icy habitats. Most of Suriname’s population is confined to the coastal plain, with some 45% centred on the capital Paramaribo and another 33% split across the small but relatively urbanised neighbouring districts of Wanica, Para and Commewijne. The rest of the country is very thinly populated, with the only other towns of any stature outside a 50km radius of the capital being Nieuw Nickerie and at a stretch Moengo, Albina, Apoera and Wageningen.

Children in traditional Amerindian dress by Ariadne Van Zandbergen, www.africaimagelibrary.comChildren in traditional Amerindian dress © Ariadne Van Zandbergen

Although Suriname has a small population, ethnic diversity is high, reflecting several waves of forced and voluntary migration since the post-Columbian era. The oldest inhabitants of the country are the indigenous Amerindians; the major population groups are Hindustanis, Marrons, Creoles and Javanese, while the country also supports small numbers of Europeans, Chinese, Sephardic Jews and Brazilians.

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