Before the advent of Europeans, the territory that is now Suriname was inhabited by tribes of Arawak, Carib, and Warrau Native Americans. Most Native Americans lived in small, independent villages in which kinship ties formed the basis of community. They lived by hunting and farming, mainly of root crops such as cassava (manioc). The coastal peoples spoke Arawakan languages; those in the interior spoke Cariban languages.
Dutch, French, and English traders established stations along the coast of Suriname in the late 16th century. English traders began to colonize the region during the first half of the 17th century. The first permanent European settlement was a plantation colony established in 1650 on the Suriname River by a British group. A fleet of the Dutch West India Company later captured this colony. With the Treaty of Breda in 1667, the English ceded their part of the colony to The Netherlands in exchange for New Amsterdam (later New York City), and Suriname was officially brought under Dutch rule. Thereafter, The Netherlands ruled Suriname as a colony, except during two brief wartime periods, from 1795 to 1802 and from 1804 to 1816, when the British retook it.
Plantation agriculture was the initial basis of the colony’s economy. The Dutch established many plantations and imported large numbers of Africans to work as slaves. The chief crop was sugarcane, but there were also plantations that grew coffee, cacao, indigo, cotton, food crops, and timber trees. The plantation economy expanded continuously until about 1785. In that year, there were 591 plantations, of which 452 grew sugar and other commercial crops and 139 grew food crops and timber. In the last years of the 18th century, however, agricultural production declined. By 1860 only 87 sugar estates were left, and by 1940 there were only 4.
As in other slaveholding colonies that grew sugar, Suriname’s society was divided into three levels. At the top was a small European elite. It consisted mainly of government officials, merchants, a very small number of plantation owners who resided on their holdings, and administrators who managed plantations for absentee owners. A majority of these Europeans were Dutch, although some were also German, French, or English. Beneath this elite was a middle level of free citizens. This racially diverse group included people of European descent born in Suriname, the offspring of European men and slave women, and slaves who had been given their freedom or had been able to buy it. At the bottom of the social scale were the slaves, who made up a large majority of the population.
Slavery in Suriname was noted for its severity. Slaves were a form of property, and as such they had no legal rights. Under colonial laws, the masters had the greatest possible authority; still, slave escapes were a constant problem for the planters. Runaway slaves went up the rivers beyond the rapids to remote areas, and they established independent villages in isolated regions of the rain forests. These escaped slaves maintained their independence despite numerous attempts by the colonial militia to recapture them. Their descendents still inhabited the region at the end of the 20th century.
During the early 19th century, European sentiment increasingly favored abolishing slavery. After the English and French enacted laws freeing the slaves in their colonies in the mid-1800s, the Dutch began preparing to free the slaves in their colonies. The planters in Suriname feared that the slaves, once emancipated, would refuse plantation work. It was therefore decided to require the slaves to work on the plantations at minimum wages for a ten-year “period of state supervision” following emancipation. After emancipation in 1863, however, the newly freed slaves faced the necessity of earning wages to support themselves. They began migrating toward the city of Paramaribo, where better-paying jobs and superior educational opportunities were available.
To replenish the plantation labor supply, laborers were imported from Asia. Between 1853 and 1873, 2,502 Chinese were brought into the colony; between 1873 and 1922, 34,024 workers from the Indian subcontinent were brought in; and between 1891 and 1939, 32,965 Indonesians were brought in. These immigrants came as indentured workers who signed contracts binding them to jobs in the colony for a specified number of years. The vast majority worked as agricultural laborers. By the end of the 20th century, the descendants of these people made up a majority of Suriname’s population. World War II (1939-1945) brought many new foreigners, particularly U.S. soldiers, into the colony; it also brought foreign capital, especially for U.S. military construction.
For most of the colonial period, a Dutch-appointed governor administered Suriname, assisted by two courts. These courts were staffed by Suriname residents who were appointed by the Dutch from among nominees elected by the colony’s voters. In 1866 a parliament replaced the courts, but the governor could veto its acts. The Dutch government gradually eased the strict property and educational qualifications for voting, so that parliament was dominated first by plantation owners, and then, after 1900, by upper- and middle-class citizens. However, the number of eligible voters never exceeded 2 percent of the population until 1949, when the vote was extended to all adults.
In 1922 Suriname became an integral part of The Netherlands, and in 1954 a new constitution elevated its status to that of a coequal member of the kingdom. This system created three equal members of the kingdom of The Netherlands: The Netherlands; the Netherlands Antilles, consisting of the Dutch-controlled islands of the Caribbean; and Suriname. Under the new constitution, the Dutch government controlled defense and foreign affairs and appointed a governor for Suriname, but the Surinamese elected a parliament that controlled domestic matters.
A coalition of political parties advocating total independence from The Netherlands won election in 1973 and formed a government under Prime Minister Henck Arron. The government began independence talks with the Dutch government. On November 25, 1975, the Dutch Parliament granted Suriname its independence. However, about 40,000 people chose to retain Dutch citizenship and emigrated from Suriname to The Netherlands. In the new republic’s first elections in 1977, Arron retained his majority.
A military coup overthrew Arron in February 1980. A group of army officers led by Lieutenant Colonel Desire (“Desi”) Bouterse formed the National Military Council (NMR). By February 1982 it had dissolved the parliament and suspended the constitution. It also ousted the last civilian official, President Henck Chin A Sen, who fled to The Netherlands, as did thousands of other Surinamese. Bouterse emerged as the nation’s leader and ruled by decree as commander in chief of the army. The government foiled coup attempts in 1980 and 1981, and it brutally suppressed a 1982 effort to organize a democratic opposition movement. In 1982 the army tortured and killed 15 leading citizens, prompting the Dutch to cut off aid to the country. Bending to domestic and external pressure, the NMR allowed a new parliament, the National Assembly, to form in 1985. A ban on political parties was lifted, and Arron joined the NMR, now renamed the Supreme Council.
A guerrilla war broke out in 1986, disrupting the nation’s economy. The insurgents, known as the Surinamese Liberation Army, aimed to restore the constitutional state. Within months they caused the shutdown of the principal bauxite mines and refineries. Meanwhile, a new constitution was drafted and approved by 93 percent of the electorate in September 1987.
The 1987 constitution restored civilian government. Elections in November gave only 2 of 51 assembly seats to Bouterse’s party, while the multiethnic Front for Democracy and Development won 40. In January 1988 the National Assembly elected Ramsewak Shankar, a former agriculture minister, as president, and Arron became vice president. The Dutch resumed aid in 1988, promising $721 million over the course of seven to eight years. Bauxite mining resumed.
Despite the return to constitutional rule, Bouterse retained power through his control of the military. He ousted the Shankar government in December 1990. New legislative elections were held in May 1991, and the New Front for Democracy and Development, a coalition of several political parties, won a majority of seats. In September Ronald Venetiaan, a former education minister and leader of the New Front coalition, was chosen as president. Venetiaan’s coalition was narrowly defeated in elections in 1996. He was succeeded by Jules Wijdenbosch, the presidential candidate of the National Democratic Party.
A succession of economic problems in 1998 and 1999, including high inflation, unpaid government salaries, and rising foreign debt, undermined support for Wijdenbosch’s government. A national strike in May 1999 coupled with mass street protests brought the country to a virtual standstill. Facing mounting resentment, Wijdenbosch scheduled legislative elections a year early, in May 2000. Venetiaan’s New Front coalition emerged with the largest share of seats, and in August 2000 Venetiaan was appointed president. The main opposition in the National Assembly was the Millennium Combination, a coalition headed by Bouterse.
In 1997 the Dutch government issued an international arrest warrant for Bouterse, claiming that he organized a drug ring that smuggled large amounts of cocaine into The Netherlands. Suriname, which has no extradition treaty with The Netherlands, refused to surrender Bouterse to the Dutch and claimed the charges were politically motivated. Bouterse was sentenced in absentia for drug smuggling by a court in The Hague, The Netherlands, in June 2000. In November 2000 a Dutch high court ordered prosecutors to investigate Bouterse’s role in the 1982 torture and killing of 15 government opponents.