Narrative of a Five Years Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam
The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776–1848
Robin Blackburn’s monumental book The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery reproduces on the front of its dust jacket the extreme right-side portion of John Trumbull’s patriotic painting The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill. A young American lieutenant, “wounded in the sword hand, and in the breast,” as Trumbull described the scene, turns in hesitation as he flees the American redoubt on Breed’s Hill, wondering if he should sacrifice his life in a vain attempt to save General Joseph Warren. Close by his side stands “a faithful negro,” actually a black combatant named Peter Salem, who holds in readiness a cocked flintlock musket. So at the outbreak of the American Revolution, a black rifleman stands shoulder to shoulder with a white American patriot holding a sword in his left hand and wearing a plumed hat.
General Thomas Gage’s Redcoats were not the only European troops shipped out to quell a colonial revolt. During the week in June 1775 when the Americans inflicted over one thousand casualties on the British at Bunker Hill, Captain John Gabriel Stedman reported that a detachment of Dutch colonial troops in Suriname had, while wading through a deep marsh, been ambushed by the rebels they were pursuing. As we learn from the account Stedman later wrote, now published for the first time in an accurate edition, the news jolted Stedman’s professional marines, who had been sent over from Holland more than two years earlier, into a state of high alert.
In Suriname, in contrast to the North American colonies, the rebels in this “First Boni War” (1765–1777) were all escaped black slaves or the descendants of fugitive slaves. Such people were called maroons thoughout the Caribbean islands and marronnage had been a chronic problem for Europeans from the time of their first settlements in the New World; communities of maroons appeared and often flourished in the wilderness from Río de la Plata to Virginia. Nowhere, however, were maroons more successful in defending their independence than in the Dutch colonies of Guiana, particularly in the colony of Suriname. Today the six tribes descended from these maroons, living primarily in the interior rain forests, make up over 10 percent of Suriname’s population.
In 1760 and 1762, after a century of struggle, the two major groups of Surinamese maroons—the Djuka and Saramaka—had won treaties from the Dutch colonists acknowledging their independence and even promising a regular supply of arms and supplies. But in the colony of Berbice, to the west of Suriname, the black slave population rose in a mass revolt in 1763, seizing control of much of the sugar colony until troops sent from Holland, Suriname, and other neighboring colonies finally crushed the rebels’ dreams of founding an independent black kingdom.
Although the Djuka and Saramaka of Suriname had pledged themselves to return fugitive slaves (as had Jamaican maroons in 1739), their inland communities were an inducement to slaves to desert. In …
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It Wasn’t Peter Salem May 18, 1989