Finding Suriname’s legal history

Storage of archival records ready for return to Suriname - image F. van Dijk, Nationaal Archief, The Hague

Storage of archival records ready for return to Suriname – photo by F. van Dijk, Nationaal Archief, The Hague

Dutch colonial history is a subject which since 1975 with the Surinam independence sometimes came into view and in other periods seemed to recede into the shadows of neglect and disinterest. The activities surrounding the remembrance of the abolition of slavery in Suriname have rekindled public attention for this subject in the Netherlands. Since many years the Dutch National Archives helps the Nationaal Archief Suriname (NAS) in Paramaribo in creating finding aids and preparing the transfer of archival collections from The Hague to Paramaribo.

Apart from actions for the physical records of these collections, such as restoration and much more, digitization is one of the approaches to make them more accessible both for the people of Suriname and for everyone interested in their history. This week a tweet by the search platform Ga het NA – best translated as “Check it at the NA” – of the Nationaal Archief (@gahetNA) alerted to the online availability of 3,5 million scans, substantial results which merit attention. However, since much information on the websites of these two national archives is only given in Dutch I will provide here a concise guide to a number of the materials which touch aspects of Suriname’s legal history. The translation tools of the famous Grand Omnipresent Web Firm can redeem to some extent the problem of languages, but some guidance is helpful.

My interest in these digital archives grows steadily this month because I have at last added a page about digital archives in the digital corner of my legal history website Rechtshistorie. Adding the collections concerning Suriname certainly fills a gap. Instead of preparing this new page in silence and deploring its incompleteness I might as well invite you to look at it, and contribute your own constructive suggestions.

A tale of archives

Logo Nationaal Archief Suriname

In the forty years of Suriname’s independence much had to be done to provide the new nation with a proper national archive. Dutch support was certainly helpful, but not always completely welcome. The history of Suriname is documented in many archival collections at the Dutch Nationaal Archief, not only in those strictly dealing with parts of the Dutch colonial empire. A start at this more general level can illustrate this rapidly. At Ga het NA you can use 115 online indexes. An alphabetical overview of them takes three web pages. The first page contains for example a guide for Ghana, a country connected to Latin America by the slave trade. At the second page you should not only look for Suriname, but also for the West-Indies, in particular an index for pensions of civil officers. The third page continues with more indexes concerning Suriname and three indexes dealing with the Dutch West-Indian Company, one for the registration of investments at its Amsterdam branch (Kamer van Amsterdam) and two concerning the Dutch period in Brazil.

Logo Ga het NA - Dutch Nationaal Archief, The Hague

In the absence of a good site map at Ga het NA I have to refer you to the Dutch version of the fine research guide for Surinam history. You will quickly understand that politie stands for the police force, notarieel refers to matters dealt with by notaries, and the gouverneurs are the governors. The Raad van Justitie (1671, 1718-1828) and its successor, the Hof van Civiele en Criminele Justitie, were the main judicial courts. The Hof van Politie en Criminele Justitie (1684-1828) was another important court dealing with cases concerning public order and criminal offenses. The Rechtbank van Kleine Zaken was a minor court dealing with smaller cases. The Militaire Gerechtshof was the military court. The section for maps (kaarten) is also generous. Maps in the archival collection of the Topografische Dienst, the Dutch National Cartographic Service, have been digitized, as is the case for the collections Buitenland Kaarten Leupe and Leupe Supplement. The guide gives you also a succinct bibliography and some links to other websites. It would be most helpful to see immediately in such overviews where online scans are available, because this is exactly what many people today will foremost check for at any website. In a post about 200 years Dutch cadastral office I mention more collections with maps concerning Dutch colonial history.

Here the NAS scores clearly with a section simply called Archieven online. This overview contains currently 35 archival collections. The largest digitized collection with some 590,000 scans has been created by the secretaries of the government between 1722 and 1828, with some materials even dating from 1684 (Gouvernementssecretarie van de Kolonie Suriname, finding aid 1.05.10.1). Here you will find in particular some registers with plakkaten, ordinances (nos. 612 (1684-1782), 742 (an alphabetical index, 1781-1829), 788 (after 1796-1827)). Finding aid 1.05.11.14, Oud Notarieel Archief is the second largest collection with online scans. You can access here nearly half a million scans of notarial registers written between 1699 and 1828. The nos. 758-768 for the period 1707-1803 are registers of letters of exchange and other documents concerning trade, in particular maritime trade. Register 911 comes from John Martyn, “public notary residing at Paramaribo” between 1809 and 1814, during the period of English rule over Suriname. When you want to approach Suriname’s legal history from a comparative perspective such sources are invaluable.

First page of the 1839 dossiers of the Miiltiary Coirt, 1839

The only digitized surviving case record of the military court of Suriname, 1839 – NAS/NA, 1.05.11.5, no. 1, fol. 1r

For a combined civil and criminal court in Suriname, you can find digitized archival records in finding aid 1.05.11.13, Hof van Civiele en Criminele Justitie (1828-1832; 2,100 scans). For the same period there are scans of records from the Commissie tot de Kleine Zaken, a court for minor offences (finding aid 1.05.11.4; 533 scans). The collection for its forerunner with almost the same name, College van Commissarissen voor Kleine Zaken in Suriname (1740-1828) (finding aid 1.05.10.05) contains some 133,000 scans. The digitized records of the military court (Militair Gerechtshof) boil down to scans of a single case heard in 1839 (1.05.11.5). Among the 35 digitized collections I would like to point also to the Gecombineerde Weeskamer (1788-1828) (1.05.11.12; nearly 68,000 scans), an institution which dealt not only with orphans, but also with custody cases and belongings (boedels). A major addition to our knowledge of Jews in Latin America are the digitized records of the Portugees-Israëlitische Gemeente (1678-1909). Finding aid 1.05.11.18 gives you some 155,000 scans. You will find among the notarial registers mentioned above some volumes written by jewish jurators. By the way, the scans are currently hosted on a server of the Dutch National Archives. The faded quality of the case record shown here is a useful reminder how much work it takes to preserve and restore to useable conditions of records which survived tropical conditions and will return to a country near the equator.

Banner The Dutch in the Caribbean World

The NAS adds a generous links selection (in Dutch). Hopefully versions in Papiamentu (Sranantongo), English and Spanish will soon be added, following the example of the recently launched Dutch Caribbean Digital Platform, created by the Dutch Royal Library, the University of Curaçao and Leiden University. Its Dutch Caribbean Heritage Collections contains a few digitized books concerning law and government. Let’s not forget the general overview of archival collections held by the NAS. You can trace some 1,100 documents for Suriname and read transcriptions of legislative text using the portal The Dutch in the Caribbean World, c. 1670-c.1870 of the Huygens Instituut, recently moved to Amsterdam.

Even this concise introduction to a few highlights taken from a huge number of digital scans should convince you that the two national archives can be proud of their efforts to digitize, preserve and disclose priceless records of a country and a people. Suriname’s present condition is not at all good, but nevertheless it will hopefully help to have both physical and virtual access to records from another period where law and justice did not always reign supreme. Luckily having the originals back in Suriname goes together with creating worldwide access.

A postscript

In January 2017 started also a crowdfunding project to create online access to the slave registers of Suriname.

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