Indian and Caribbean Diaspora

The History of the Indian Diaspora to Suriname and The Netherlands

On June 5th, 1873, the first ship Lalla Rookh arrived in Suriname (formerly known as Dutch-Guyana) with 399 British-Indian indentured labourers. The last ship with labourers arrived in 1916 with the steamboat Dewa. Between 1873 and 1916 approximately 35.000 British-Indian persons came to Suriname; the records with names and other info that were saved from 28775 persons have been digitalised and are available (as a joined Dutch-Surinamese project) on the site of the National Archive of The Netherlands. About one third of the migrants returned to India, after finishing their contract period. In the same period about 2.500 British-Indians came to Suriname as (free) immigrants. Nowadays the offspring of these indentured labourers and immigrants together make up about 30% of the population of Suriname, as Hindustanis from Indian descent. In The Netherlands 1.3% of the citizens are Hindustanis, mainly from Suriname. In Suriname and The Netherlands they are called Hindustanis/Hindostanis (instead of Indians), which is derived from ‘Hindustan/Hindostan’. There is a photostream showing pictures of Hindostani families and persons in the Flickraccount of the Suriname Museum.


Indian indentured labourers, after arrival in Suriname. Photo from

Suriname has been a Dutch colony for almost three centuries, from 1667 till 1975. The Dutch (The Netherlands) first used enslaved indigenous people to work on their plantations. After a short while they traded enslaved Africans to Suriname to work on the plantations till 1873, ten years after the official abolition of slavery in Suriname on July 1st, 1863. After 1873, the hard work on the plantations still needed to be done and the Dutch came up with a plan to get other people to replace the African slaves. On September 8, 1870, the Dutch colony on the coast of Guinea was ceded to Great Britain in return for granting Suriname the rights to recruit workers from British India. The collecting of indentured labourers began in 1872. The government of Suriname had appointed an emigration agent with an office in Calcutta. The labourers were collected in an main depot in Calcutta, the capital city of Bengal. The main recruiting happened in the United Provinces, now known as Uttar Pradesh en West-Bihar in the valley of the Ganges in Northern India. For the recruiting sub-agents were used, so called Arkaathi’s. The sub-agent received 25 rupees for a male and 35 rupees for a female recruit. With false promises and nice words the collectors urged the people to follow them to sub-depots in Benares, Allahabad, Basti en Muzzafarpur. From these sub-depots the recruits were transferred by train to the main depot in Calcutta. They were shipped to Suriname when there were enough labourers assembled. With a sailing ship the voyage took three months, with a steamboat about 6 to  8 weeks.


Map of Suriname. In the south Suriname is bordered by Brazil, in the north by the Atlantic Ocean.

On June 5, 1873 the sailing ship Lalla Rookh arrived in Paramaribo with 399 workers on board. There were 279 men, 70 women, 32 boys and 18 girls under 10. These indentured labourers were required to work for 5 years on the plantations; they were the replacement of the enslaved Africans and did the same work as the enslaved, but now under some regulations: a work week was 6 days and 7 hours a day for field work or 10 hrs for factory work. They could not leave the plantation during work hours without permission and were paid and treated poorly. They received free medical treatment and housing. Within the first 1 ½  years in Suriname almost 20% had died. The special British consul in Suriname reported this to the British government and emigration was stopped till 1878. The planters were also not satisfied with the quality of the indentured labourers.


One of the first revolts of the British-Indian contract labourers against the plantation and colonial authority took place in 1879 on the plantations Alliance and De Resolutie. In September 1884 there was rebellion against a number of colonial authorities on the plantations Zoelen and Zorg en Hoop, with the freedom fighter Mathura as the leader. A military detachment ended the rebellion. Even after this uprising the colonial authorities didn’t listen to the complaints of the immigrants. Again there was a revolt on Zorg en Hoop, with Challoo Ramjanee as the leader. (Later we would come to learn about the role of Janey Tetary in this revolt.) Hundred and more labourers fought for their rights with sticks and machetes. Militaries opened fire from a short distance, killing seven of the British-Indian workers. Six years after this again workers from the plantations Zoelen and Geertruidenberg revolted. The military police killed five labourers and injured many more. In 1902 the Scottish director Mr. Mavoe of the plantation Mariënburg was killed by a furious mob of 200 workers, lead by Jumpa Ray Garoo. The next day, during an official investigation from the government, 17 labourers were shot dead, 39 were wounded of which later 7 died. About these events, in 2013 a film was published, directed by Ramdjan Abdoelrahman, born and raised in Suriname, living in The Netherlands.

Janey Tetary (1856-1884)
One of the rebellion leaders was Janey Tetary (alongside Ramjanee). But this was an unkown fact till around the year 2011. The following information is from a piece written by Eric Kastelein (writer of a book about statues in Suriname), published in Dutch on the website Hindorama, translated in English.

Janey Tetary  (contract number I / 491) arrives in Suriname together with her one-year-old daughter Boodhoo Burfasun (contract number I / 492) on November 26, 1880, after an arduous sea voyage of two and a half months. An image of her becomes visible from the immigration data. She is 24 years old, Muslim, 1.465 meters and has a brown complexion and a growth above the right eye. After her arrival she started working as a field worker at the Zorg en Hoop plantation of the planters G. Duyckinck and R.D. Currie in the Commewijne district. Recent source research shows her great social commitment, her fight against injustice and her natural leadership. Only just on board the sailing ship Aisla II, she enforces important medical provisions from the captain for the persons on board. On the plantation she demands a more respectful treatment of the women, both by the supervisors and by the Hindustani men. Mothers and girls come to her for counsel, support, and advice. When a young Hindu woman dies at Zorg en Hoop, Tetary adopts her six-week-old baby Soomaria.

Shot dead
The poor living conditions – heavy work duties, harassment of supervisors, appalling living environment, harsh punishments, fines – on the Zorg en Hoop plantation lead to an uprising on September 24, 1884 and the acts of war against ‘white officer’ (white overseer of the formerly enslaved and the indentured labourers – UM) Arthur Robert Knott. He is severely beaten and left wounded in a snaffle. The indentured servants refuse to extradite the perpetrators and put down their work. In response to this protest, the colonial authorities sent a group of fifty heavily armed soldiers to the plantation. On September 26, events get completely out of hand. Challoo Ramjanee, the leader of the uprising, asks Tetary to organize the women to end an armed attack by the military led by 1st Lieutenant W.H. van Pesch. In the battle that follows, Tetary is hit in the back of the head by a bullet. The young wife and mother dies on the spot. The same newspaper writes: (…) and after a half-hour battle in which six men and a woman were killed and one man injured, peace seems to have been maintained.

Janey Tetary was a relatively unknown heroine until 2011. On September 24, 2017, her statue (by artist George Ramjiawansingh) was unveiled in Paramaribo, the capital city of Suriname. The resistance woman stands on the corner of Grote Combéweg and Henck Arronstraat, in the shadow of the Presidential Palace.

Statue of Janey Tetary in Suriname. Copyright photo: Eric Kastelein

From 1873 until 1916 some 64 ships arrived in Suriname to bring 34.304 indentured labourers from British India. An additional 3000 came via the British and French West Indies. About 11.700 returned to India when their contract was completed. The others renewed their contract or settled as a free citizen, receiving  100,- Dutch guilders in lieu of the return ticket. Those people who decided to remain in Suriname upon completion of their contract were provided land. These were abandoned plantations which were divided in plots of 2 hectares. They could build their own houses (huts) and plant to provide for their own. Also they could find work during harvest time on adjacent plantations. Further importation of indentured labourers from British India was halted after 1916.

The commemoration of the Indian migration is always on the 5th of June. On that day the Surinamese government and people of the Indian Diaspora pay tribute to the Indian ancestors at the statue of ‘Baba and Mai’ (Father and Mother). This statue is situated at the spot where the first labourers entered Suriname on June 5th, 1873, in the then so called “Coolie depot”. Photo:

There were two official holidays in Suriname, with roots going back to India; recently this was increased to four official holidays. The Holi and Divali festival of the Hindus, and Ied-al-Fitre and Ied-ul-Adha of the Muslims. Holi (also known as Phagwa) and Divali have been brought to The Netherlands by Surinamese-Hindustani people. The next video is about the Holi/Phagwa celebration in The Netherlands.

A place in Suriname is named Calcutta. Lots of streets are named after Indian indentured labourers, their offspring or politicians from Indian descent. Monuments are present to honour the migration of the British-Indian labourers and the leaders of the revolts.

Of the 34.304 contract workers some 20% were Muslim and 80% Hindus. While later thousands became Christians. The majority of the Muslims were Sunnites but as of 1930 they have been influenced by the Reform Ahmadiya movement. 

The indentured labourers came from different parts of India. In Suriname they developed Sarnámi, a common language with its sources mainly from Bhojpuri and Avadhi. The official spelling of Sarnámi was established in 1986. Because of the popularity of Indian cinema (Bollywood), Hindi (and some Urdu) is still known by the younger generations. Hindi is mainly used by older persons and during Hindu religious ceremonies and Urdu or Arabic mostly by Muslims. Most speak Dutch, the official language of Suriname, or Sranantongo, the lingua Creole. 

Usha Marhé, writer and the owner of this website, is the offspring from Indian ancestors, who migrated to Suriname as indentured labourers. From her mothers side she is the fifth generation, the first generation arrived in Suriname in 1889. From her fathers side she is the third generation, the first generation (her adjie) arrived in 1909.

The movie
GUIANA 1838  is about the Indian Diaspora to British-Guyana, Suriname’s direct neighbour on the west side.  After the abolition of African slavery, Indian people were brought to work on the plantations in Trinidad, Suriname, Guyana, Martinique and other islands and countries in the West Indies.