Afro-Surinamese Religions

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AFRO-SURINAMESE RELIGIONS . The Republic of Surinam, formerly Dutch Guiana, lies on the northeast shoulder of South America, at 2°6° north latitude, 54°58° west longitude (163,266 sq km), bordered by Guyana, Brazil, French Guiana, and the Atlantic Ocean. The ethnically diverse populationnumbering about 380,000 in Surinam (Du., Suriname) and another 180,000 now living in the Netherlandsconsists of approximately 38 percent "Hindustanis" (descendants of contract laborers imported from India during the late nineteenth century), 31 percent "Creoles" (descendants of African slaves), 15 percent "Javanese" (descendants of Indonesians imported as contract laborers in the early twentieth century), 10 percent "Maroons" (descendants of African slaves who escaped from plantations and formed their own communities in Surinam's forested interior), and smaller numbers of Portuguese Jews, Chinese, and Lebaneseplus the eight thousand remaining Amerindians whose ancestors were once the country's sole inhabitants. Except for the Maroons and some Amerindians, almost the whole population lives along the coastal strip, with nearly half residing in the capital, Paramaribo.

Historical Background

The first large-scale permanent settlement of Surinam came in 1651, when one hundred Englishmen from Barbados established a plantation colony. The Dutch took over in 1667, and during the next century and a half imported more than 300,000 Africans as slaves, drawing on a remarkable diversity of African societies and language groups. All indications point to an unusually early and rapid process of "creolization," with the slaves creating new institutions (e.g., languages and religions) by combining and elaborating their various African heritages with very little reference to the world of their European masters.

Slave Religion

The new Afro-Surinamese religion created by plantation slaves during the earliest decades of settlement already contained the central features of its two main present-day variantsthe religion of the coastal Creoles (often called Winti) and the religions of the various Maroon groups. Among Surinam slaves one found, for example, many forms of divination to uncover the specific causes of illness or misfortune; rituals, including complex drumming and dancing, in which individuals were possessed by the spirits of, among others, ancestors and snake gods, and by forest and river spirits; beliefs about multiple souls; ideas about the ways that social conflict can cause illness; extensive rites for twins; secret male-warrior cults; and a focus on elaborate and lengthy funerals as the most important of all ritual occasions. Even the whites, who witnessed only a tiny proportion of slave rites, depended on the Afro-Surinamese slave religion for their own well-being. One eighteenth-century report describes how, in spite of the presence of eight white physicians in the colony, the slaves "play the greatest role with their herbs and their pretended cures, both among Christians and among Jews" (Nassy, 1974, p. 156). And the most famous slave curer-diviner, the eighteenth-century Kwasi, near the end of his life became accustomed to receiving letters from abroad addressed to "The Most Honorable and Most Learned Gentleman, Master Phillipus van Quassie, Professor of Herbology in Suriname" (Price, 1983).

Afro-Surinamese slave religion, through its interlocking beliefs and rites, provided the focus of slave culture, binding individuals ritually to their ancestors, descendants, and collaterals; expressing a firm sense of community in spite of a crushingly oppressive plantation regime; andon many occasionsserving as the inspiration and mechanism for revolt. One European described this latter aspect of a 1770s "winty-play" on a plantation:

Sage Matrons Dancing and Whirling Round in the Middle of an Audience, till Absolutely they froath at the mouth And drop down in the middle of them; Whatever She says to be done during this fit of Madness is Sacredly Performed by the Surrounding Multitude, which makes these meetings Exceedingly dangerous Amongst the Slaves, who are often told to murder their Masters or Desert to the Woods. (Stedman, 1985, chap. 26)

Coastal Creole Winti

The folk religion of Surinam Creoles (that majority of the Afro-Surinamese population who are not Maroons) is most often referred to by outsiders as Winti (said to derive from the English wind) or Afkodré (from the Dutch afgoderij, "idolatry"). But like many folk religions (such as Haitian Voodoo), it has no special name that is used by its adherents. For them, it is simply the core of their way of life. Since emancipation in 1863, the great majority of Creoles have also been nominal Christians; the most recent figures show somewhat more than half to be Protestants (with Moravians the most numerous) and the remainder Roman Catholics. Afro-Surinamese differ from most other Afro-Americans in the extent to which their Christianity and folk religion are compartmentalized. All observers of Winti have been struck by the remarkable lack of syncretism, in a comparative context, between Christian and Afro-American beliefs and rites in Surinam. In spite of the participation of Creoles in modern, Western-style Caribbean life, Winti continues to operate in contexts that are largely untouched by Christianity. Winti also plays a major role in the lives of many of the Surinamese who now reside in the Netherlands.

Winti provides an all-encompassing but flexible design for living. The everyday visible world is complemented by a normally unseen world that is peopled by gods and spirits of tremendous variety, who interact with humans constantly. Scholars have often tried to classify the great variety of Winti gods into four "pantheons"all ranged below an otiose, distant, West-African-type sky godthose of the air, the earth, the water, and the forest, but such classifications may well impose an inappropriate rigidity on a shifting set of beliefs and rituals that are called into play to deal with diverse and very practical everyday human needs. The major gods and spirits include a variety of kromanti (fierce healing spirits), apuku (often-malevolent forest spirits), aisa (localized earth spirits), vodu (boa constrictor spirits), aboma (anaconda spirits), and a great host of others. Like the spirits of the dead, who intervene constantly in the lives of the living and are the focus of much ritual activity, these nonhuman gods or spirits can speak through possessed mediums. Frequent rites, involving specialized dances, drumming, and songs, are used to honor and placate each type of spirit, and the spirits themselves appear on these occasions, through possession, to make their wishes known. Such rites are led by bonuman or lukuman (who may be men or women), many of whom specialize in particular kinds of spirits. But Winti is a strongly participatory religion, in which every individual plays an active role, and specialization or special knowledge is widely distributed among the population.

Winti deals with everyday concerns. Typically, an illness, minor misfortune, bad dream, or portent suggests divination by a lukuman. Using any of a variety of techniques, he suggests the causefor example, a particular ancestor feels neglected, a jealous neighbor has attempted sorcery, a relative's snake spirit disapproves of a proposed marriage, the person's "soul" requires a special ritualand then prescribes an appropriate rite. During the course of a single case of illness or misfortune, large numbers of relatives and friends may need to be mobilized and considerable financial resources expended. Bonuman and lukuman are always compensated.

Maroon Religions

There are six Maroon (or "Bush Negro") groups living along rivers in the interior of the country: the Djuka and Saramaka (each numbering about twenty thousand people), the Matawai, Aluku, and Paramaka (each about two thousand people), and the Kwinti (fewer than five hundred people). Their religions, like their languages and other aspects of culture, are related to one another, with the sharpest division being between the eastern groups (Djuka, Paramaka, Aluku) and the central groups (Saramaka, Matawai, Kwinti). Descended from slaves who escaped from coastal plantations during Surinam's first century of colonization, they have lived in relative isolation from the world of the coast.

Maroons have always enjoyed an extremely rich ritual life, which is totally integrated into their matrilineally based tribal social organization. Christian missions have had differential impact on the Maroon groups: for example, the Matawai and several thousand of the Saramaka are nominally Moravians, but the great majority of Maroons continue to participate fully in religions that were forged by their ancestors, from many different African traditions, into a vibrant new synthesis. Resembling Winti in terms of many of the particular gods and spirits invoked, the Maroon religions stand apart in their more absolute integration of belief and ritual into all aspects of life. New World creations drawing on Old World ideas, these Maroon religions remain today the most "African" of all religions in the Americas.

Rituals of many kinds form a central part of everyday Maroon life. Such decisions as where to clear a garden or build a house, whether to make a trip, or how to deal with theft or adultery are made in consultation with village deities, ancestors, forest spirits, snake gods, and other such powers. Human misfortune is directly linked to other people's antisocial acts, through complex chains of causation involving gods and spirits. Any illness or other misfortune requires immediate divination and ritual action in collaboration with these spirits and others, such as warrior gods. The means of communicating with these entities vary from spirit possession and the consultation of oracle bundles carried on men's heads to the interpretation of dreams. Gods, spirits, and ancestors, who are a constant presence in daily life, are also honored and placated through frequent prayers, libations, and great feasts.

The rituals surrounding birth and other life crises are extensive, as are those relating to more mundane activities, from hunting a tapir to planting a rice field. Among Maroons, funerals constitute the single most complex ritual event, spanning a period of many months, directly involving many hundreds of people, and uniting the world of the dead with that of the living through specialized ritual action such as coffin divination, and extensive singing, dancing, and drumming. Specialized cultssuch as those devoted to twins, or to finding someone lost in the forest, or to making rainare the possessions of particular matrilineal clans, and individual Maroons may also specialize in the treatment of particular types of spiritual problems, or in particular ritual activities, such as drumming for snake-god rites. But most Maroon ritual knowledge is broadly spread; these are highly participatory religions.


The best overview of Surinam's social history, including religion, remains R. A. J. van Lier's Frontier Society (The Hague, 1971). Among the several useful English-language sources for the religion of Surinam slaves are the reports by David de Isaac Cohen Nassy and others in Historical Essay on the Colony of Surinam, 1788, edited by Jacob R. Marcus and Stanley Chyat, translated by Simon Cohen (Cincinnati, 1974), and by Captain J. G. Stedman in his Narrative, of a Five-Years' Expedition from the Year 1772, to 1777, new critical ed. by Richard Price and Sally Price (Minneapolis, 1985). For the study of Winti, the pioneering work is Melville J. Herskovits and Frances S. Herskovits's Suriname Folk-Lore (New York, 1936); the most ambitious survey is Charles J. Wooding's Evolving Culture: A Cross-Cultural Study of Suriname, West Africa and the Caribbean (Washington, D.C., 1981); and an analysis of its economic aspects is found in Peter Schoonheym's Je Geld of Je Leven (Utrecht, 1980). For the study of Maroon religions, an extensive bibliographical overview can be found in Richard Price's The Guiana Maroons (Baltimore, 1976); the role of religion in the making of Maroon societies is covered in Price's First Time: The Historical Vision of an Afro-American People (Baltimore, 1983); and messianic trends and recent changes are analyzed in H. U. E. Thoden van Velzen and W. van Wetering's "Affluence, Deprivation and the Flowering of Bush Negro Religious Movements," Bijdragen tot de Taal-, Land- en Volkenkunde 139 (1983): 99139.

Richard Price (1987)