Suriname gained its independence from the Netherlands in 1975, but signs of the Dutch legacy live on in the language and architecture and even in the paving stones used on the streets and sidewalks of this picturesque tropical city. While wandering around Fort Zeelandia, built in the 1600s by the Dutch colonialists to protect the nearby sugar plantations from other European powers, I could imagine myself strolling through a courtyard in old Amsterdam. A statue of Dutch Queen Wilhelmina–who ruled over colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas from 1898 to 1923–stands sternly sentinel outside the stone walls of the fort.
Echoes of Suriname’s past can also be heard in the rhythm of the drums played by the music and dance ensemble that performed for us on the grounds of Fort Zeelandia. The members are descendants of Maroons, Africans that escaped enslavement and established free communities in the jungles of the interior. There, they maintained their African cultures over the centuries, including complex drumming, call and response singing, and athletic dance traditions. It was a beautiful and powerful performance, one that reflected the essential role of music and dance in maintaining cultural traditions and connecting the people of the present to their ancestors.
Suriname’s multicultural history is embodied in its architecture. The impressive Saint Peter and Paul Cathedral, one of the largest wooden structures in the Western Hemisphere, rises colorfully into the sky. The massive Arya Dewaker Hindu Temple reflects the history of indentured servants from South and East Asia who came to the region beginning in the 1800s. Equally impressive are the giant mosque and Jewish synagogue that stand side by side, a symbol of the cultural melting pot that is contemporary Suriname. The synagogue is one of the last remnants of Suriname’s Jewish community, which at its zenith in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, comprised over 25% of the entire Jewish population of the Americas.
While our time in Suriname was short, the visit left a lasting impression. I look forward to returning someday to explore it more deeply.