Citizen science project will map Surinamese society in its entirety

On 14 September, a large citizen science project will begin in which historians, together with citizen volunteers, will map the entire Surinamese population between 1830 and 1950. The historians want to gain more insight into the effects of slavery and the colonial era on Surinamese society. The project builds on the Surinamese slave registers that have already been made available online. The project is an initiative of the Historical Database of Suriname Foundation, a collaboration of historians of Radboud University and the Anton de Kom University of Suriname together with the National Archives of Suriname and the Netherlands.

On the basis of an inventory of the public civil registry of Suriname from the period between 1830 and 1950, which is the information about all free inhabitants of Suriname, the researchers want to map out the web of Surinamese society. Using certificates of birth, marriage and death, they will gain insight into matters such as people's literacy, their professions and their relationships with each other. Like the slave registers, the results will also be published online for the public.


Citizen science project gaat gehele Surinaamse samenleving in kaart brengen

Malibatumstraat te Paramaribo 1904 (KITLV 93371)

The effects of slavery

"With the publication of the Surinamese civil registry, it will finally be possible to trace all free inhabitants of Suriname between 1830 and 1950, so also all people released from slavery in 1863", says project leader Coen van Galen, a historian at Radboud University.

For Van Galen, Suriname is also a model for other former colonial societies. Because the population of Suriname was relatively small (rising from 55,000 people around 1830 to 177,000 in 1950) and because the Dutch colonial administration registered almost everything during the colonial period, this society offers a structural insight into the effects of slavery from generation to generation.

"In the first phase of the project, we start with the birth certificates", explains van Galen. They include the name of the declarant (often the father) and mother and two witnesses, their occupation, age, place of residence and whether the children were born inside or outside of wedlock. You can also see whether the declarant and witnesses are literate or not. If, for example, a cross has been drawn, it is very likely that they are illiterate. This offers us a picture of the people in Suriname and their network."


Citizen science project gaat gehele Surinaamse samenleving in kaart brengen

Follow-up of the ‘Make Surinamese slave registers public’ project

A few years ago, Van Galen and Maurits Hassankhan of the Anton de Kom University of Suriname organised a similar project concerning the Surinamese slave registers. Van Galen knows from his previous project that many volunteers found it a very rewarding project. "Solidarity is great. And by working with them, you learn a lot about the people and the society they lived in. For many volunteers, it was almost like Sudoku: every document was an exciting puzzle to solve." At instructional meetings, both online and offline, participants were able to practice deciphering the records.

More than 300,000 pages of personal records have to be entered as part of the project. "We estimate that it could take up to three years. We therefore hope that as many volunteers as possible will help us", says van Galen. After three years, we should have a database that can be used for further scientific research and in which anyone with roots in Suriname can look up his or her family online, including a picture of the birth, marriage and death certificates.


Citizen science project gaat gehele Surinaamse samenleving in kaart brengen

The online publication of the Surinamese civil registry is a sequel to the earlier project in which the Surinamese slave registers were made public. The project is a collaboration between the National Archives of Suriname and the Netherlands, the Anton de Kom University of Suriname and Radboud University Nijmegen, with the support of NiNsee, St. Suriname Genealogy, PDI-SSH and the Gerda Henkel Foundation.

Want to know more? Get in touch with

  • Coen van Galencoen.vangalen [at] (coen[dot]vangalen[at]ru[dot]nl)
  • Radboud University Public Relations and Media Relations Office, media [at] (media[at]ru[dot]nl), 024 361 6000