Hindostaanse contractarbeiders in het immigrantendepot, Hendrik Doijer, 1903 - 1910
Hindostaanse contractarbeiders in het immigrantendepot, Hendrik Doijer, 1903 - 1910

Suriname death records reveal fate of Hindustani indentured labourers after slavery

Wednesday 17 April marks an important step in making Suriname's history visible after the official end of slavery in 1863, with the online publication of death certificates from the period 1846-1915. This addition to the Historical Database of Suriname and the Caribbean sheds new light on the presence of the first generation of Hindustani contract workers, previously largely missing from other archives.

The Historical Database of Suriname and the Caribbean (HDSC) has been committed to making the archives of Suriname and the former Netherlands Antilles accessible online since 2017. Publishing the slavery registers of Suriname and Curaçao online between 2018 and 2020 was the first step in an ambitious plan to make information about all inhabitants of Suriname and Curaçao from about 1830 to 1950 available in a large database. The new addition will be published online at 4pm on Wednesday 17 April. It includes the death certificates of Paramaribo (1858-1915) and of the districts where the plantations were located (1846-1880). 

Number as surname

Among other things, this makes information available about an underexposed group of people who had to replace the former enslaved people on the plantations: some 34,000 Hindostans, indentured labourers from India who came to Surinam from 1873 - after the abolition of slavery, in other words - because the country had a great shortage of workers. 'Upon their arrival in Suriname, they were given a number instead of a surname,' says Van Galen. 'Later, another 32,000 Indonesians came to Suriname. In fact, the British no longer wanted Hindus to be shipped to Suriname because they were treated so badly there. Slavery continued to work even after 1873.' 

The contract history of many of these people is something of a black box. The books in which they were registered are sometimes gone. Van Galen: 'Thanks to the death certificates that are now coming online, we now know where some of them ended up. That is very interesting for research, but it is especially hugely valuable for their descendants. The fate of indentured labourers is attracting increasing attention in the Netherlands too.'

Volunteers wanted

The new addition to the database of death certificates was made by hundreds of Dutch and Surinamese volunteers working on the Historical Database of Suriname and the Caribbean (HDSC). In addition to the Surinamese slave registers (1830-1863), birth certificates from 1828 to were already published online thanks to the help of these volunteers in 2023. Van Galen: 'By combining these databases, a lot of things start to fall together, allowing you to reconstruct people's lives with information that was previously unavailable. But we are far from there. The records go on until 1950 and we notice that interest is now also coming from other islands, such as Curaçao. So we are always looking for new volunteers to help enter this important, historical information.'

The new information is published on the website of the National Archives Suriname. The HDSC is a partnership of archives, universities and volunteer participants in the Netherlands, Suriname and the Antilles. The project is coordinated from Radboud University Nijmegen and made possible with support from PDI-SSH, the Gerda Henkel Stiftung, RICH and CLARIAH.