Today I happened to visit the Judensavannah in rural Suriname, about 25 miles (or 40 km) away from the capital of Paramaribo upriver along the Suriname River. At this location a group of Jewish-owned slave plantations existed from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. At the site, currently present, is a small dock on the Suriname River, an information center that was closed when we were there, the ruins of a synagogue, a medicinal well, and two cemeteries, one of them for free blacks and mixed-race people from the area plantations and the other for Jews. There are, to be sure, a great many research opportunities present on this site for those who are interested in studying Jewish history. There is the question of the interaction of the Jewish slaveowners with the Dutch Atlantic world. There is the question of the relationship between Jews in the capital and those on the agricultural hinterlands, as well as the international networks of Jews in areas like New York and Amsterdam and other places as well.
Nor do these exhaust the opportunities for research that could take place at a site like this. One could look at the construction of the synagogue and examine the connection between the architecture and plans of the synagogue there with other synagogues elsewhere in the New World or Europe. The main research opportunity I was thinking about, though, involved the gravestones of the Jewish cemetery there. Though some of the inscriptions are at this point hard to read, while I was visiting the cemetery I was able to read some of the inscriptions as they were in a mixture of Portuguese and Hebrew (and sometimes both of them together), and from what could be seen there was a mixture of professions as well as ages and genders in the cemetery. Someone could find in this cemetery alone enough profitable information to complete a doctoral thesis on various aspects of Hebrew life in rural Suriname, without the fear that there would be a great deal of competition for the information given that so few people know about the location or its importance to Jewish history.
Suriname’s importance springs from the fact that the Dutch colony was one of the few places where the Jews were able to enjoy the life of a plantation-owning or business-owning elite in peace and freedom. To be sure, a plantation owner is not someone we are likely to view with sympathy at present, but the importance of such plantations of cacao, coffee, tobacco, and sugar to the economic life of colonial Dutch Guiana, the Netherlands, and the Dutch Atlantic world as a whole is something worth exploring. The resulting opportunities for research would be most of interest either to Atlantic historians or Jewish historians, aside from those who are interested in doing history relating to Suriname, of which there are likely to be few people. For those who are ready to brave the tropical climate and the somewhat remote place, this location is a goldmine for research opportunities with the likelihood of little competition for one’s research.
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