On the way to visit an aunt who lives about an hour and a half outside of Paramaribo, my cousin casually mentioned that we should see Onoribo the plantation where our family is from. Her English is practically perfect, heavily accented to be sure but practically perfect. Still, I figured that “plantation” must mean something else because “the plantation where our family is from” simply did not compute. I was so puzzled that, for a moment, she doubted herself. I turned to look at my mother and asked, “does that mean the same thing in English that it does in Dutch?” She was as confused as I was but then there was the sign:
We drove across a road that was bright orange red because of the bauxite in the ground, and then there we were at a the head of what looked like a small compound.
I should stop here and describe my experience with plantations. I’ve lived in Mississippi and Louisiana, so plantations are not new to me. I remember taking a friend who grew up in New England to Natchitoches, Louisiana and showing him his first plantation. He was shocked by the elegance of it. Slavery to him was an ugly thing and he said he was imagining something like Auschwitz. We didn’t go on one of those awful plantation tours (I would never), but we were allowed to wander around the main house and to see the slave quarters in the back. The experience had no real effect on me. I might claim I’m Southern now because Louisiana is where I’ve lived the longest, but I’m not Southern; I might not be paying attention to my roots, but I know they’re not in the American South. Even knowing that my father’s family is from St. Kitts hasn’t solidified any sense of place for me. I have no desire to seek it out. Knowing I’m the descendants of slaves has been enough (and with a great-grandmother who everyone else thought was white, I have a very clear sense of my roots). Understanding that my family has it own immigrant relationship to the United States has also been enough. When the couple I met outside of London (the Matthews) announced so cheerily that their family once owned my family I wasn’t shocked at the news but at the jolliness of their pronouncement.
I don’t mean to make this sound like a new claim for myself, as if I’ve found some new identity. I’m too old and cynical for that. But it’s been two weeks, and I’m still gobsmacked to discover this very specific, living proof of my roots. It’s been weird to be back in Brooklyn, which I’ve come to consider home (because being rootless makes it easier for me to call different places home), but to experience Suriname as a homecoming once removed.
It looks like a compound, and it’s not very big (in what I’ve read on-line thus far it’s always described as a “small plantation”). There is no big house or mansion but small houses spread around. As we pulled into the grounds, my cousin explained that we’d probably have to stop and say hi because we’re related to everyone who lives there. Again, I thought I must have misunderstood her (I don’t even know if she said this in English or Dutch). While I was trying to process this she pulled up to a monument, and carved in wood and stone I saw my family’s name—my mother’s maiden name Raatle.
Last year, the president of Suriname had a monument erected to honor…I don’t know what it’s honoring. What is our connection to this place? How far back does it go? There’s a house there that one of my aunts built, and my mother remembers sending American dollars to set up the electricity. No one lives there now. According to tourist site about Suriname a (or Surinam as they spell it):
“In Surinam there are plantations like Republic, Four Children, Beseba, and Onoribo and many more than that have the possibility for recreation. After the abolition the slaves who worked on the plantations became owner of these plantations. Until today the descendants of these plantations can claim a piece of land. The land will never be owned by them but at all times remain the property of the foundation that manages the plantation. There is also a policy for non descendants to buy a piece of land ( lot) bud (sic) again the ownership of the land remains in the hands of the foundation. The plantations are not only used for weekend and week recreation, descendants are still living on the plantation so respect their standards and values and keep the plantations clean.”
Growing up Black in a country that wants desperately to diminish the depth and breadth of its slave history, the idea of some sort of reparations, the notion of monuments that attest to what slaves built has pulled me into a project to understand this space. “Project” is too lofty a word—like language you use for fellowship applications or to convince deans and provosts that your “work” is “serious.” It’s not a “project” but a persistent tug at my imagination. I know that I’ve been going to bed early with my laptop and scouring the internet for information and pestering my poor mother with questions. I’m fascinated by the idea of ownership/not ownership and sickened by thought of these places as destinations for tourists at the same time that the idea of sitting in that space is very appealing to me. I couldn’t tell why and still don’t know. Was it the quiet and the feeling of being in this gorgeous wooded area isolated in all the best ways? Would I feel like I wanted to be there even if I didn’t know the place was part of my distant, distant past, or would I be repelled by its history?
Onoribo is by a creek. I counted maybe four or five houses. There’s a graveyard I didn’t go visit because it’s not a thing that’s done in that space. I wanted to know if we had people buried there, but even before my mother told me not to, I didn’t feel like I should walk across someone’s lawn to visit it. There are massive old trees there I wanted to get close to, but my mother worried about snakes in the grass, and since we saw a dead poisonous one in the road, I listened to her pleas to stay close to the road.
I can describe a lot of things, but I don’t know how to describe walking around there. It was very quiet. There were chickens in a pen, and a little playground, and a road that is under construction. It’s tucked away from everything, so I suspect very soon Europeans will be biking out there to swing in hammocks. Apparently, that’s already happening. I’ve read on line that there’s talking of making it a recreational space, and the thought makes me sick to my stomach. That’s not hyperbole. When I read about plans to make it commercial, I had a physical reaction. I’m not sure what to make of of my attachment to a place I never knew existed and only visited for 15 minutes. I know there’s theory to describe what I felt, but theory had no place there, in that moment.
I’ve just started researching* its history and it seems to have been around as far back as the eighteenth century. There were skirmishes over it at some point. I’m reading how slavery in Suriname was different than it was in the United States. Plantations like Onoribo were isolated, so slaves could easily escape, and they often did.
I didn’t want to leave, but we had an aunt to visit and then some missionaries my parents have been supporting since I was a teenager (I stood on their front porch and watched a small herd of cows amble down the dirt road in front of their house). My aunt lives about five minutes from Onoribo. That fascinates me almost as much as discovering this place with documented proof of my roots.
*Again, “research” is too strong a word. I’m just poking around a lot.