European studies blog

26 October 2023

Repairing the Past: on We Slaves of Suriname

On Monday 30 October the Dutch Centre hosts an event to mark the new translation by David McKay of a seminal work on the history of Suriname: We Slaves of Suriname, by Anton de Kom.

Cover of 'We Slaves of Suriname'

Anton de Kom, We Slaves of Suriname, translated by David McKay (Cambridge, 2022) YC.2023.a.2655

Photograph of Anton de Kom

Anton de Kom. From: Wij slaven van Suriname 10th ed. (Amsterdam, 2001) YA.2002.a.34205.

Anton de Kom (1898-1945) tells the history of Suriname and how it was shaped by slavery from a Surinamese perspective. He adds a passionate attack on Dutch colonial rule, a system that keeps many of the structures of the past in place, thereby keeping the Surinamese people in poverty and powerlessness. His main aim in writing the book was to instil a sense of self-worth and pride into the Surinamese people. Thus he created both a historic account and a book of historic importance, according to Michiel van Kempen’s Een Geschiedenis van de Surinaamse literatuur.

The Dutch language edition, first published in 1934, is the first text about Dutch colonialism in Suriname, written from a Surinamese, anticolonial perspective. It stands at the beginning of a tradition of anti- and postcolonial writing, inspiring authors such as Tessa Leuwsha, Albert Helman and Astrid Roemer. De Kom himself took inspiration from Max Havelaar, written by Multatuli, pseudonym of Edward Douwes Dekker, a white Dutch civil servant based in the Dutch East Indies, in the 1860s.

Title page of 'Wij slaven van Suriname'

Title page of Anton de Kom, Wij slaven van Suriname (Amsterdam, 1934) X.529/73312

De Kom had aligned himself with the communist community in the Netherlands, because they were the only political group that opposed colonialism. However, they were not free of racist prejudice. When De Kom offered the manuscript to a socialist publisher, they believed him to be illiterate, based on his appearance and accent. A Dutch publicist Cees de Dood was enlisted to review the manuscript. He regarded the language to be ‘bad Dutch’, dismissing the text wholesale. He should have known better, because De Kom had published articles in communist journals and magazines before (under the pen name Adek). De Kom agreed the manuscript needed improvement. De Dood asked Jef Last, a good friend of his and a well-known socialist publicist to help improve the manuscript. Last reviewed the manuscript together with De Kom putting more emphasis on the communist political message that slavery is exploitation of the proletariat by the capitalist system. He even claimed to have written the book himself, but later retracted that claim. However, this falsehood remained in circulation for a long time, again reaffirming racist ideas prevalent at the time.

It would take far too long in this space to recount the full range of events that surrounded publication of Wij Slaven van Suriname, fascinating though it is. Instead I refer to the article by Rob Woortman and Alice Boots ‘De geschiedenis van een manuscript: De wording van Wij slaven van Suriname van Anton de Kom’. Central in their piece is the question what part Jef Last played in re-writing the text and the role of the CID, the Central Intelligence Service in censuring the text.

In the end Gilles Pieter de Neve, of the Contact publishing house agreed to publish the book. He and De Kom rewrote the entire manuscript, taking out the most strident communist passages that might fall foul of the CID, and finally, in 1934 the book was published. De Neve had added a subtle rebuke to the CID, not included in later editions: ‘In conjunction with the interest shown in this book from certain quarters, the publishers deem it necessary, in order to ensure the undisturbed circulation of the work and in agreement with the Author, to change a number of passages in the book, without diminishing the value of the book.’

Foreword from the first edition of 'Wij Slaven van Suriname'
Preface to the first edition of Wij Slaven van Suriname, published by Contact in 1934. X529/73312.

Contact had only started as a publishing house the year before, when Hitler came to power in Germany, in order to warn the Dutch against the dangers of national-socialism and fascism.
It is therefore all the more tragic that De Kom would fall victim to the Nazis in 1944, when he was arrested for his activities in the Dutch resistance. He died in a concentration camp in Germany in April 1945. He is buried at Ereveld Loenen, the Field of Honour in Loenen. 

It seems ironic that the ship that brought De Kom to Suriname and back again in exile to the Netherlands in 1933 would carry copies of Wij Slaven van Suriname to Suriname in 1934. This was reported in the Surinamese newspaper De banier van waarheid en recht (‘The banner of truth and justice’) of 7 March 1934. 
For decades the book and its author remained relatively unknown. De Kom was shunned in the Netherlands as well as in Suriname because of his communist sympathies. So it wasn’t until 1971 that the book saw its second edition. From then on the only way was up, right to the top ten bestsellers in 2020, the year Anton de Kom was included in the Dutch Canon for History.

The latest Dutch edition, the 22nd, was published in 2021 by Atlas/Contact, with introductions by Tessa Leuwsha, Mitchell Esajas, and Duco van Oostrum. Atlas/Contact also published Rob Woortman’s and Alice Boots’ biography of Anton de Kom.

 

Cover of the biography of Anton de Kom woth a photograph of de Kom
Rob Woortman, Alice Boots, Anton de Kom: biografie 1898-1945, 1945-2009 (Amsterdam, 2016) YF.2022.a.928

In 1987 an English translation was announced by Palgrave/Macmillan, but for unknown reasons was never realised. It took another 36 years before another attempt was made, this time successful. On Monday 30 October we are going to celebrate that event at the Dutch Centre in London. Writer Gabriel Gbadamosi  will chair a discussion with guests Mitchell Esajas, Tessa Leuwsha and my colleague, curator and author Nicole-Rachelle Moore. The event is supported by the Dutch Foundation for Literature and the Embassy of The Kingdom of the Netherlands and programmed by Modern Culture as part of New Dutch Writing. Tickets are still available and can be booked via the Dutch Centre’s website.

Marja Kingma, Curator Dutch Language Collections

References/Further reading:

Albert Helman, Zuid Zuidwest. 8th ed. ([s.n.], 1948) 010058.f.30.

Michiel van Kempen, Een Geschiedenis van de Surinaamse literatuur (Breda, 2003) YF.2005.b.2101

Michiel van Kempen, Anton de Kom. Boek ‘Wij slaven van Suriname’ at literatuurgeschiedenis.org 

Anton de Kom, Wij slaven van Suriname. 8th ed. (Amsterdam, 1991) – with a preface by Anton’s daughter Judith de Kom. The verso of the title page mentions the publication year of the second edition as 1977, where it was 1971.

Anton de Kom, Wij slaven van Suriname; met een voorwoord van John Jansen van Galen. 10th ed. (Amsterdam, 2001). YA.2002.a.34205.

Anton de Kom, Wij slaven van Suriname, inleidingen Tessa Leuwsha, Mitchell Esajas, Duco van Oostrum. 22nd ed. (Amsterdam, 2021)

Tessa Leuwsha, Plantage Wildlust (Amsterdam, 2020) YF.2021.a.13192.

Tessa Leuwsha, Fansi’s Stilte : een Surinaamse grootmoeder en de slavernij. 4th ed. (Amsterdam, 2018). YF.2022.a.3364.

Nicole-Rachelle Moore, Sarah Garrod, & Sarah White, Dream to change the world: the life & legacy of John La Rose : the book of the exhibition. (London, 2018) YK.2019.b.783

Rob Woortman and Alice Boots ‘De geschiedenis van een manuscript: De wording van Wij slaven van Suriname van Anton de Kom’, OSO Tijdschrift for Surinaamse taalkunde, letterkunde en geschiedenis, Vol. 29, 2010 , pp 30-48. Available in full from the Databank Nederlandse Literatuur.

Duco van Oostrom, ‘“Someone willing to listen to me”: Anton de Kom’s Wij Slaven van Suriname (1934) and the “We” of Dutch post-colonial literature in African American literary context’ Dutch Crossing: Journal of Low Countries Studies, Volume 44: Number 1 (2020) pp 45-80, and available online via the White Rose University Consortium.

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