“They escaped into the jungle,” says Marvin, lifting his paddle from the hazel water and pointing toward the tangle of verdure. “Just running and running. Not knowing where to go. Not knowing what to eat. Lost and day by day starving and cut all over from the thorns, and the soles of their feet bloody but still running because to be a slave is worse.”
Marvin lays his slim blade inside the dugout and starts rolling a joint in his lap. He stops paddling whenever he tells a story, as if in deference to the primacy of the tale. Frankie and I keep pulling the boat downstream, plunging our long, fish-shaped paddles into the warm Suriname River.
“They slept hiding beneath big leaves and then ran more,” continues Marvin in his vaguely Rastafarian lilt. “They ran for weeks. All the way to the top of this river. So deep in the jungle only the jaguar knew where they were.”
Marvin learned his stories in the bush camp from his grandmother, at night, after the men and boys had spent the day clearing a plot and the women and girls had planted rice or cassava. Most of Marvin’s yarns were humorous allegories involving clever monkeys or parrots or caimans with human weaknesses. But this one was the tale of his people, his forefathers, the Saramaka maroons, so he was uncharacteristically grave.
“They knew they were not safe even this far back in the jungle,” he says. “They were escaped slaves. Escaped slaves that never come back give other slaves ideas. They maybe start to think they could be free themselves. This is impossible for the white people. So they sent out hunting parties. Men with muskets and swords guided by Indian trackers who knew the trails of the jungle.”
Marvin smokes, contemplating the passing wall of impregnable green. There is no hurry. He passes the cigar-size joint back to Frankie and exhales.
“They were hunted like animals. My grandfathers’ fathers. Sometimes they were killed in the jungle, but this was bad, because no one saw them die. Mostly they were beaten and whipped and had iron shackles locked around their necks and their ankles and were dragged back to the plantations. Then the tortures began. All the slaves on the plantation were forced to watch. Tortures so cruel it is impossible to imagine. You can’t believe what they did to us . . .”
We are now gliding between islands of flat black rocks, the river pouring through channels like chocolate. I can hear rapids. Marvin lifts his paddle and in one sweeping, powerful stroke turns our dugout toward a tiny island cove. He will take the unstable craft through the rapids singlehandedly, while Frankie and I hopscotch over the rocks. We step out and Marvin twirls the canoe back into the current, yelling, “This story is not finished!”
Then he disappears. A lone black man in a small burnt-black dugout against white water.
I’d come to Suriname, a country slightly larger than the state of Georgia on the right shoulder of South America, to canoe through the homeland of the Saramaka people. Descendants of escaped slaves, the Saramaka have, for centuries, sustained a remote wilderness civilization in the country’s jungle interior.
As with most Saramaka, Marvin’s family history is based on fact, not folklore. Runaway slaves were called maroons, a term derived from the Spanish word cimarrón, which means “wild one” and originally referred to feral cattle. The first maroon absconded just as the slave trade was beginning, in 1502, into the mountains of Hispaniola, the island that today comprises Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Thousands followed, banding together and creating fugitive settlements.
“The wilderness setting of early New World plantations made marronage and the existence of organized maroon communities a ubiquitous reality,” writes Richard Price, a leading authority on maroon culture, in his book Maroon Societies. “Throughout Afro-America, such communities stood out as an heroic challenge to white authority and as the living proof of the existence of a slave consciousness.” Between 1672 and 1864, more than 50 maroon settlements were established in North America, with hundreds more in the Caribbean, Central and South America.
Suriname operated perhaps the most savage slave system in the Western Hemisphere. From 1668 to 1823, over 300,000 slaves were shipped into the country, yet at the end of this period, the total black population was only 50,000. Slaves were deliberately worked to death. John Stedman, a maroon hunter in Suriname in the late 18th century, describes a planter who flogged a slave until he was flayed open and died. “It being a Rule in the Colony of Surinam that by paying a fine of 500 florins per head you are at Liberty to kill as many Negroes as you please.”
Today, Suriname is home to the largest extant maroon population in the world. Like many emerging postcolonial states—Suriname received its independence from Holland in 1975—this nation of 460,000 citizens has slogged through military coups, guerrilla wars, colossal corruption, land settlements, and embryonic parliamentary government. Of the six distinct maroon peoples living in Suriname today—the Saramaka, Kwinti, Matawai, Ndjuka, Paramaka, and Aluku—the Saramaka, 20,000 individuals residing in some 70 settlements along the Suriname River, have arguably been the most successful survivors.
To reach Saramakaland, I’d taken a one-hour bush flight from Paramaribo, the port capital of Suriname, to Bendekonde, a pleasant village on the banks of the upper Surinam River where cashew and palm trees are planted along the footpaths but there is no electricity, no telephone, and no running water. There I’d spent days searching for a boat and boatmates.
I wanted to canoe from Bendekonde to Atjoni, a village on the edge of Saramaka territory, where the first dirt track wriggles out of the rainforest. It was a distance of 50 river miles, past about 40 villages and down dozens of small rapids.
There are no roads in this region. The one highway is the river, hence the Saramaka are expert canoeists and canoe-builders. Up until the present generation, it was incumbent upon every husband to carve a dugout for his wife so she could paddle to and from the fields. Every family still owns a dugout—it’s the vehicle of choice and is used daily. But since the introduction of gas engines in the 1960s, no one paddles great distances anymore. Now there are bigger dugouts fitted with outboard motors that, like shuttle buses, transport people and goods up and down the river. I met one 89-year-old man who had canoed all the way to Paramaribo—“a difficult eight-day journey”—but he’d done it half a century ago.
“Canoe to Atjoni! It’s very crazy, my friend,” Marvin Pansa shouted gaily the first time we met. He was tall and tattooed, his long limbs glistening with sweat. He was in the midst of a ferocious soccer match in a pasture. Word had gotten around that there was a white man looking to canoe the river.
“Who knows how long it could take,” Marvin said. “Three, four, five days.” Frankie Pansa, Marvin’s short, non-English-speaking sidekick, appeared behind him. “Me and Frankie will have to paddle the canoe back upriver.”
Marvin grinned, revealing a gold front tooth. “You pay for both directions?”
I met them on the riverfront at half past six the next morning. They were in shorts and flip-flops, Marvin sporting a Nike visor, Frankie wearing a Giorgio Armani T-shirt. Each had a sealed five-gallon plastic tub with his belongings inside—hammock, pants, extra shirt, toothbrush—and a hand-carved paddle. Their supplies for the journey consisted of one bottle of 90-proof Mariënburg white rum, a bag of homegrown ganja, a machete, and a shotgun.
Marvin, 20, lives in Bendekonde. He has a wife and young child and a girlfriend who is pregnant. (Traditionally, the Saramaka are a polygamous, matri-lineal society; most people in a village have the same last name—as Marvin and Frankie do—even if they are only distantly related.) Marvin knew he needed money, which is why he volunteered for this trip. Besides, he had experience with bakaa (Saramaka for whites). His father owns a tourist camp in the bush, and Marvin had guided Dutch bakaa on rainforest eco-tours.
Frankie, 22, had borrowed his grandmother’s dugout. The intricately carved upturned bow and stern that Saramaka boats are known for (often reinforced and decorated with hammer-patterned metal fittings) had both broken off, and the normally smooth, elegant clapboard gunwales nailed to the hull were battered. But it floated. Almost.
We pushed off into cobwebs of mist, and within an hour the dugout, christened Oma—“Grandma” in Dutch—was sinking. Marvin and Frankie were unperturbed. Marvin started bailing with an oil can while Frankie stood up, machete in hand. Hiking up his shorts and pulling down his boxers, he sliced off a strip of fabric and plugged it into a bubbling crack in the hull. Then he cut off a second strip and sealed another leak.
Over the course of the journey, Frankie would use up his underwear chinking old, cracked Oma.
Outside of total insurrection, marronage was what most frightened planters. They called it “the chronic plague.” Runaway slaves threatened the very structure of the New World economy during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Without slave labor, the sugarcane, tobacco, and cotton industries would collapse and rich, aristocratic planters would become paupers. Thus, the most demonic punishments were reserved for recaptured runaway slaves.
According to Surinam criminal court records from 1730, “the Negro Joosie shall be hanged from the gibbet by an Iron Hook through his ribs, until dead; his head shall then be severed and displayed on a stake by the riverbank, remaining to be picked over by birds of prey. As for the Negroes Wierrie and Manbote, they shall be bound to a stake and roasted alive over a slow fire, while being tortured with glowing Tongs. The Negro girls, Lucreita, Ambira, Aga, Gomba, Marie and Victoria will be tied to a Cross, to be broken alive, and then their heads severed to be exposed by the riverbank on stakes. . . .”
Maroon outposts were fortresses in the wild, located in the most inhospitable terrain. Paths leading to a village were concealed and booby-trapped with pits of sharpened stakes. The only way into or out of some villages was either through an underwater tunnel or by passing through a narrow defile; most communities were surrounded by wooden palisades.
To feed, clothe, and defend themselves, maroons became masters of outdoor survival, domesticating jungle plants, concocting medicines, fishing, hunting, wood carving, and weaving.
Always outnumbered and outgunned, maroons also developed guerrilla warfare tactics. Using ambushes, night maneuvers, and hit-and-run attacks, maroons sometimes managed to vanquish European mercenaries trained in regimented fighting. The most powerful maroon societies regularly raided plantations—stealing slaves into freedom—which eventually forced their former masters and colonial governments to sign accords granting them not only their freedom but also land ownership and trade opportunities.
Peace treaties with nascent maroon governments were inked in Hispaniola, Panama, Venezuela, and Ecuador in the 1500s, Mexico, Colombia, and Brazil in the 1600s, and Jamaica and Suriname in the 1700s. Despite these treaties, most maroon communities were eventually destroyed by colonial troops. And yet some—through a combination of intelligent diplomacy, fierce courage, and wilderness resourcefulness—survived. The Saramaka were one such group.
In 1762, they signed an agreement with the Dutch colonial administration granting them land rights along the Suriname River from 50 miles inland south to the headwaters. Remarkably, for the next two centuries this treaty was largely respected. During those many generations, the Saramaka built a world from the rainforest, creating their own language, their own animist religion, their own architecture, and their own cuisine.
We camp on the banks of the river or in small villages. I set up my tent; Marvin and Frankie string their hammocks. One morning I awake at 4 a.m. to rhythmic thumping and laughter. It is a sound I haven’t heard since my last journey to Africa, and it gives me enormous pleasure. I lie there listening, drifting through dreams, until dawn. When I unzip my tent I find a group of women using heavy, baseball-bat-size pestles and tree-trunk mortars to pound palm nuts into mush, which they will boil over wood fires to transform into palm oil.
That afternoon, we buy three catfish from a boy fishing with a string from a listing dugout. Frankie, being a quiet bachelor, turns out to be something of a chef, acquiring onions and tomatoes and rainforest vegetables I don’t recognize to produce an inspiring fish stew for dinner.
On the second evening, we paddle through a thunderstorm, a warm rain exploding the surface of the river. Marvin and Frankie just keep paddling and singing. I think it might be some ancient Afro-American river song.
“Hah!” Marvin shakes his head. “It’s a Saramaka rap tune, mon.”
One glassy morning I foolishly decide it is my turn to sit in the stern and steer. The dugout doglegs radically right, then left, then right again. I can’t get the boat to go straight to save my life. Marvin and Frankie peal with laughter.
When we stop to rest on rock islands, Marvin tells me about the Saramaka government. The Saramaka are divided into 12 matrilineal lôs, or clans. The gaanman, the king (currently Songo Aboikoni), holds office for life, and each village is administered by a kabiten, or captain. Crimes and disputes are settled through a kuutu, an oratory governed by elaborate rules and often conducted by captains and other village elders.
Near the end of the trip, I ask Marvin if he would like to boat on, past Atjoni, and cross W. J. van Blommestein Lake.
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“It is not possible,” he replies flatly. “This boat would sink and we would be eaten by piranhas.”
I chuckle, but Marvin is serious: “That part of Saramakaland is gone forever.”
Blommestein Lake is actually a 600-square-mile reservoir created by the Afobaka hydroelectric dam, built by Alcoa and the Surinam government in the early sixties. The reservoir, one of the largest in the world, flooded roughly half of the riverine land of the Saramaka, forcing the removal of 6,000 villagers.
“What you have seen is all we have left,” Marvin says.
In 1997, the Saramaka discovered a large Chinese logging camp in their territory. Without notifying them, the Surinam government had sold logging concessions to their land. Surinam military personnel guard these logging operations and prohibit the Saramaka from entering. The clear-cutting, like clear-cutting the world over, is devastating the land—destroying wildlife habitat, causing erosion that silts the streams, which kills the fish, and gutting a rainforest ecosystem that the Saramaka, through swidden agriculture and hunting and gathering, have maintained as a sustainable resource for 300 years.
According to witnesses, the majority of cut timber, much of it cedar, is simply bulldozed into piles and left to rot. Only the old-growth trees are trucked out, the ancient wood to be sawed into floorboards for shipping containers.
The Saramaka filed formal complaints with the Suriname government of President Ronald Venetiaan in October 1999 and October 2000 and never received a reply. In August 2002, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a request to Suriname’s government, including the attorney general and the minister of natural resources, asking that it “take appropriate measures to suspend all concessions, including permits and licenses for logging and mine exploration and other natural resource development activity on lands used and occupied by 12 Saramaka clans.”
Cognizant of their dire situation, the Saramaka presented a detailed map of their territory (surveyed by GPS) to the government in October 2002, requesting that they be recognized as the legal and rightful owners of this land.
To date, the government has not responded. And so the logging continues, devouring, acre by acre, Saramakaland.
In the last hours of paddling before we reach Atjoni, the river is as smooth as syrup. White-skinned, baobab-like trees reflect upon the dark water. The air is still, warm, wet. We have found our rhythm and paddle in harmony. Each stroke hits the water at a slightly different moment, like synchronized drumbeats.
We’re gliding downriver almost in a trance when Marvin starts to sing: “One love, one heart. Let’s get together and feel all right.”
Marvin wails out the whole song, Frankie and I doing the refrain.
Together we sing all the Bob Marley anthems we can remember: “Buffalo Soldier,” “Exodus,” “Get Up, Stand Up.”
We sing “Redemption Song” two times through, and then we begin to hum it, the melody sailing over the water and into the jungle.