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A Visit to the English-Speaking Labourers in Surinam, or Dutch Guiana

By Francis James Wyatt

From Mission Life, Vol. VIII, Part 1 (1877), pages 6-14.

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, 2006




OUR voyage to the Dutch capital was rather slow, but very comfortable. At six o'clock on Monday evening we made the Surinam River; but the tide was falling, and it was nine before we anchored off Paramaribo, not more than twelve miles up. On the stelling we were received by Mr. Farrar's brother-in-law, at whose house we were to reside during our stay.

Tuesday, May 9.--This morning we were invited to witness the opening of the Coloniale Staten, or Local Parliament. The ceremony was similar to that observed in Demerara on the opening of the annual session of the Combined Court, which by a coincidence also takes place to-day. Shortly before nine the approaches to the house were guarded by a small body of militia and regular troops. Punctually at the hour his Excellency Jonkheer C. P. J. Van Sijpensteijn, Governor [6/7] of the colony, attended by two aides-de-camp, drove up in his carriage, the military and militia bands playing the National Anthem. His Excellency was received by the members of the court--the official section dressed in court uniforms, and the elective members in ordinary evening dress. The reading of the speech occupied but a few minutes, and then his Excellency retired with the same ceremonies as attended his arrival, and the States, with our worthy host as President, commenced the ordinary work of the session.

In the course of the morning Mr. Farrar and myself were presented to the Governor at Government House by the resident British Consul. There was a grand reception this evening in honour of the opening of Parliament, and his Excellency, in asking our attendance, assured us that we should meet all the (State) clergy. This we have since found to be one. The ecclesiastical establishment in Paramaribo consists of two churches--the Lutheran, with one minister, and the Dutch Reformed, with two. One of these latter is in Holland on a two years' furlough, and his colleague died some months since; so that the Lutheran minister is the only representative of the national religion at the capital. In the country districts there is not one, except the dominie at the Nickerie Point.

Wednesday, May 10.--As our first public service was to take place this evening, the day was fully occupied in making all necessary arrangements. The greatest difficulty fell to the lot of Mr. Farrar, who undertook to superintend the musical portion of the service. The Dutch Reformed church was readily placed at our disposal, and the organist was most obliging, but we had no choir to depend upon, and the congregation, as really turned out to be the case, were sure to be timid.

Unfortunately the evening was very wet, rain falling continuously; but to our surprise the building, which is a large and handsome one, although as unlike a church as possible, was nearly full, and a considerable number of Barbadians, in their working clothes, blocked up the entrance, as if ashamed to enter.

The congregation, as might have been expected, was a very mixed one, a large number of Dutch being present as well as English. All, however, understood our language; but, with one or two exceptions, the English themselves seemed to have forgotten the service, and to be at a loss as to where to sit, stand, or kneel. The hymns were sung in so low a voice as to be scarcely audible; and now and again a pause in the responses showed that the readers had missed their places in the book. Mr. F. read prayers from the handsome mahogany pulpit, which offered the only accommodation for the minister; and prayers ended, I took his place and delivered the sermon. I noticed that during service two collections were made from the whole [7/8] congregation. This appears to be their usual custom, one collection being for the poor, and the other for church expenses.

Thursday, May 11.--Our host had kindly arranged that we should start this morning, himself accompanying us, on a visit to some of the estates on the Commewyne River, which runs into the Surinam at a very little distance from the sea.

At seven o'clock a Government steamer left the stelling with a fair complement of passengers. We met on board a district judge on his way to hold court at one of the river stations, and a Moravian Missionary going with his family to take up a vacant post on the Commewyne. His station is on the next estate to the one which is to be our head-quarters for a day or two; and he most considerately has placed his chapel at our disposal for service.

Friday, May 12.--Yesterday and to-day visited some of the estates in the neighbourhood. From what we have seen of the Barbadians we fear that they have retrograded, even in civilisation. And no wonder. On some estates not a Bible, not a Prayer-book can be found. With no help, and at the same time no restraints, from the outward observances of religion, it is but natural that they should lose their self-respect and become careless and indifferent. As one woman said, "There has never been any one here to care for us, so it is no use for us to care for ourselves. If I am sick, there is no one to read, or say a good word to me. And if I die, I am just buried like an animal." "Yes, just like a cow," chimed in another woman.

It is to be expected that the first emigrants from the over-crowded population of any country will consist to a large extent of the lowest dregs of the community. But there can be no doubt but that their being thrown loose upon a new country, amongst people just emerging from slavery, and at a distance from any visible profession of religion, must tend still further to lower the character of these people. And; as usual, the women sink the lowest--are the most miserable in condition, and the rudest and boldest in manner.

Of course there are exceptions; and on some estates there are more industrious and better behaved people than on others. I am induced to think that where there are large numbers, especially if the manager of the estate takes an interest in them, they get on better than when isolated in little groups. But, unless they were married before they left their own country, there seems, even among the most respectable, no idea of living otherwise than in concubinage. They give the same reasons as in Nickerie; they dislike the idea of being married by a magistrate, looking on such a ceremony as no marriage at all, and the fee, which I heard differently estimated, is, at any rate, a heavy one for a poor man.

Our service this evening was well attended, the building crowded, [8/9] but not entirely by English people. Several of the Dutch planters and a still larger number of Dutch labourers were present, but all understood English. Some of the Barbadians told me that they had been in the colony five, six, or seven years, and that this was the first service they had attended. An English planter, a gentleman from Buckinghamshire, had also been settled on the Commewyne for seven years, and had never before had an opportunity of attending an English service. The talkee-talkee of the Moravians he could not understand.

Saturday, May 13.--Up before 4 A.M., and by five o'clock in the Estate's boat en route for town. We had six oars, but going down the Commewyne the tide was against us; and in ascending the Surinam the men managed to lose so much time that before we got to Paramaribo we had the tide against us again, and the journey, which, I am sure, cannot be more than fifteen miles, took us five hours to accomplish.

During our absence from town preparations have been going on for to-morrow's services. On Wednesday we felt the want of hymns, for beyond what we brought with us none were to be had. So the hymns selected for use to-morrow have been printed; an harmonium has been engaged, and upwards of twenty ladies and gentlemen have been practising each evening. To-night there was a grand rehearsal under Mr. Farrar's precentorship, so that we are looking forward to heartier and more reverential services than our first one on Wednesday.

Sunday, May 14.--Nor have we been disappointed. Our first service was held in the large reception-rooms of our host's house, as the church was engaged. With not more than fifty persons present, there was no difficulty in regulating the kneeling and standing. The old Church Service had gradually come back to the minds of many, and the responses were hearty. It was only a private house, but the service was a strikingly impressive one, and, as I have good reason to know, refreshing to others besides ourselves.

At evening in the kirke it was arranged that the prayers should be said at a table in front of the pulpit, but on the ground floor, and not, as on Wednesday, in the pulpit itself. A trifling matter this, but preaching prayers, or rather the appearance of doing so, is uncomfortable to an English clergyman. Our "choir" were seated on benches in the vacant space in front of us, and they led the congregation admirably. Not only were the hymns sung most heartily, but the whole service appeared to be joined in and appreciated by a crowded congregation. Mr. Farrar preached an admirable sermon on I Cor. xv. 35, on a subject not only well handled, but well chosen, for if any of the congregation have not yet learnt scepticism, it is, at any rate, being carefully taught them.

[10] Monday, May 15.--Visited, by appointment, the Moravian establishment.

Its completeness, order, and extreme cleanliness are very striking. Besides a large chapel and separate school-houses, with play-grounds for boys, girls, and infants, there are a printing-office, a bakery, a smithery, a chocolate factory, &c., and large "stores" for the sale of general goods to the public. In fact, the establishment forms a village in itself, consisting of sixteen to eighteen European families (who all take their meals in a common hall), besides a large staff of servants and labourers. In connection with this central establishment they have some twelve or fourteen stations in different parts of the colony, and the influence they exercised amongst the Creoles during the time of slavery must have been extremely beneficial. The Governor has more than once expressed to me privately his high opinion of their services. But whether, under the altered circumstances of society in the colony, they will continue to exercise the same influence I must confess to feeling somewhat doubtful. Indeed, this doubt must be shared by themselves, as I have heard in the last few days more than one remark of disappointment at the failure of their work since emancipation, and more than one hint that they purpose transferring their Missions to the "runaway slaves" in the interior or to the Indian aborigines.

It is not merely that the Creoles are becoming more and more scattered, and therefore more difficult of access, but under a new sense of freedom they will yearly become less amenable to discipline--less inclined to submit themselves unreservedly even to spiritual masters. The general body of Moravian Missionaries seem to me, moreover, men of no very high stamp--men drawn, I should think, from the small shopkeepers and artisans, if not labourers, of Germany--not men of liberal education. There must, of course, be some exceptions; but most of those I have seen stationed in the country districts seem very good, but very dull.

I am surprised to find their ecclesiastical organisation so imperfect. Avowedly claiming apostolic succession, they have no resident Bishop, but are all dependent on the central authority at Herrnhut. If a man leaves Germany without ordination, as, I believe, a majority of them do, after a certain period of probation in the colony, his orders as deacon or presbyter are conveyed to him from Herrnhut by letter from a Bishop, unless he should happen to pay a visit to Europe on the ground of health, and there be ordained by imposition of hands. It is difficult, indeed, to understand the object with them, of a threefold ministry. Their deacons administer Holy Communion, and "the episcopal office," I learn from a memorandum they gave me [10/11] to-day of their constitution, "is purely spiritual and ministerial. The Bishops, as such, have no administrative authority."

Their rules, with regard to leave of absence, seem exceedingly strict. Only once in their lifetime they are allowed to visit Europe, and then only after twenty years' service. This must be the more trying, as their children (and they are all married) are invariably sent to Germany at six or seven years of age for education; and unless the parents visit Europe during the time the children are at school, they never see them again. The children of Missionaries, they tell me, seldom become Missionaries themselves. Their education opens to them other and more advantageous positions in life; but if they should devote themselves to the work of the ministry, they are seldom, if ever, I understand, sent to the same field of labour as their parents.

Our trip to the Commewyne last week was too hurried to allow us to visit the estates higher up the river. There is one especially on which two hundred Barbadians are settled; and it was arranged on Saturday that Mr. Farrar should start again by to-day's steamer, visit Plantation Alliance, and if possible advance into the Cottica River, still higher up, while I proceeded in an opposite direction to the Saramacea district.

Tuesday, May 16.--A short distance above Paramaribo a canal connects the Surinam River with the Wonika Creek. The Wonika flows into the Saramacea. At nine o'clock this morning our good host and myself left town in a comfortable tent-boat, and soon after two entered this latter river, a fine broad stream, down which we turned our course, reaching Anna Catherina about dusk. During the whole day the boat hands never left the boat, never, indeed, stopped the oars or paddles, except for a few moments once or twice to eat a piece of bread.

Wednesday, May 17.--This and the neighbouring "Plantage" are cocoa estates, worked by Creoles of the colony and coolie immigrants. Lower down the river are sugar estates, on which Barbados and Demerara labourers are settled. So after spending an hour or two in the cocoa fields, we started down stream, and at Catherina Sophia were warmly received, not only by the manager, whom I had known as a planter in Berbice, but also by the Moravian Missionary. The English-speaking labourers we found already assembled in the chapel, about fifty in all, and I had an opportunity of speaking to each one individually. Almost all admitted that they were living careless, loose lives, but insisted on the circumstances of their position being sufficient excuse for their demoralisation. I found one Bible and two Testaments among them. Fortunately I had brought some Prayer-books with me, which I distributed on condition of their being lent from house to house, and the same with some numbers of the Gospeller.

[12] It so happens that the Moravian Missionary, from a residence of some years in Australia, has a fair knowledge of English. It is not probable, however, that he will remain in this district, as he has lately lost his wife somewhat suddenly, and has applied to be removed to town, where his children can be cared for. But he assures me that he has striven to the utmost to bring the Barbadians to his chapel, and for some time conducted a service once a month in English. He has given it up now, simply in despair. At the public service, which we held this evening, he very kindly played the harmonium, and really seems to take an interest in the people.

Thursday, May 18.--At nine o'clock last night we started homewards; slept at Anna Catherina, and early this morning were again in the boat. A large portion of the passage was against tide, as well as against stream. But the men pulled cheerily, and soon after seven this morning we were comfortably housed in Paramaribo.

Here I found Mr. Farrar, who had returned from the Commewyne, a little over-fatigued and unwell, but cheered by his visit. His reception at Alliance had been most hearty. The manager takes great interest in his Barbadian labourers, and regrets exceedingly that there is no English clergyman resident in the colony. He arranged his own house for an evening service, and the place was literally crammed with labourers. Six of their children were baptized, and many of the parents, Mr. Farrar says, spoke most feelingly of their spiritual destitution. The next morning twenty-two more were baptized, besides a Chinese child, who was brought by her mistress. Mr. Farrar came back by steamer to town to hold a service on Wednesday evening, intending to return by the steamer on the following day. Besides a careful practice of the choir, he visited several invalids in town, baptized four children, and read the burial service over the remains of a Christian coolie. The public service last evening, he tells me, was well attended, and the singing wonderfully improved.

This morning Mr. Farrar was too unwell to start as he intended for the Cottica; but under the kind care of his sister-in-law, his indisposition had so far passed away that he was able to join the family party in the evening.

Saturday, May 20.--During the past two days we have had an opportunity of visiting some of the public institutions of the town. The hospital reflects the greatest credit on the Government--admirably arranged and kept beautifully clean. The gardens around the buildings are a pleasing feature. The almshouses, too, in the outskirts of the city are kept in the same good order, the cottages for the poor people being divided into several ranges on the sides of a large quadrangle. The Governor evidently takes a pride in this institution, and himself drove us to see it.

[13] We have had long and earnest conversations with many of the leading people with regard to the necessity of an English chaplain. being appointed as soon as possible. The British Consul has always taken the greatest interest in the project. When he first came to the colony, some two or three years ago, he made an appeal for help to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, but they were unable at the time to give any. He made application also in other quarters, but without success. It is not improbable now that the Government (Dutch) will entertain an application; but, as we have been careful to explain, the application must be made, not by Mr. Farrar and myself, who are only friendly visitors, without official position, but by residents on the spot, who are directly interested in the appointment.

Some provision must be made at any rate for the English labourers, or immigration from Barbados will soon cease. When it is known in the islands that none of the religious privileges, to which they have been accustomed, can be had in the colony, they will hesitate to come here, however poor they may be at home. A few of the very roughest sort may be induced to emigrate, but they are not persons who are likely to help the planters here very much in their difficulty.

To-morrow we propose to have an early service at eight o'clock, as we must leave by the mail schooner in the afternoon, and we have arranged to have a celebration of the Holy Communion. As yet we have had no public administration, for many reasons. (Mr. Farrar to-day administered private Communion to an English gentleman, too aged and infirm to leave his house, and I was thankful to see so many of his household joining in the service.) But on Sunday last we gave notice of our intentions, and invited persons desirous of communicating to meet us at fixed times this week. To our surprise, in addition to the few English communicants who have presented themselves, several members of the Dutch Reformed Church have most earnestly pleaded to be admitted to Communion to-morrow. They have no minister of their own, and the Lutheran minister is a free thinker, openly, as I understand, disavowing all revelation.

We are sorely puzzled what to do, being most unwilling in any way to interfere with any religious denomination in the colony; but under the circumstances we can hardly venture to refuse Communion to these people, who are practically, from no fault of their own, shut out from the Holy Eucharist.

Sunday, May 21.--We heard this morning that whenever the Holy Communion is administered--very rarely, of course--it is the only service of the day, and none but the communicants attend. We were not, therefore, surprised to find at eight o'clock that although we had given notice for a morning service before the Holy Communion, few persons, comparatively, were present. One gentleman had asked to [13/14] be allowed to make an offering of the elements required, and we found several bottles of wine and a basketful of bread. What was not used was given to the poor. The silver service of the church was offered for use; a most costly set it must have been--large, handsome, and beautifully chased. Upwards of thirty communicants received the Holy Eucharist; and our last service in Paramaribo, as was right it should be, was the most cheering and comforting of all.

Wednesday, May 24.--At four o'clock on Sunday we stepped on board the little mail schooner, amidst the thanks and kind wishes of many friends, who were not so much indebted for our little services as we were for their warm-hearted hospitality. Our voyage was not at first particularly pleasant, as the little boat was crowded with fifty or sixty passengers; and we reached Nickerie on Monday evening too late to enter the harbour. Next morning we got aground in attempting to get into the creek, and consequently were detained all day. But we started again about five o'clock yesterday evening, and running before a strong breeze entered the Demerara at daylight this morning. F. J. W.

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