Indian and Caribbean Diaspora

The History of the Indian Diaspora to Suriname and The Netherlands

On 5 June 1873 the first ship Lalla Rookh arrived in Suriname (formerly known as Dutch-Guyana) with 399 British-Indian contract labourers. The last ship with labourers in 1916 was the steamboat Dewa. Between 1873 and 1916 approximately 35.000 British-Indian persons came to Suriname. 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 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.


Indian contract labourors, after arrival in Suriname. Photo from


Suriname has been a colony from The Netherlands for almost three centuries, from 1667 till 1975. The Dutch used African slaves 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 contract workers 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. When there were enough workers assembled they were shipped to Suriname. 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 contract workers were required to work for 5 years on the plantations. 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 poorly. They received free medical treatment and housing. Within the first 1 ½  years in Suriname almost 20% had died. The 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 contract workers.


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 Ramjanee as the leader. 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.

From 1873 until 1916 some 64 ships arrived in Suriname to bring 34.304 contract workers from 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 another contract or settled as a free citizen and they received 100,- guilders in lieu of the return ticket. Those workers 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 contract workers from British India was halted after 1916 because of Indian Nationalists pressure.

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 are two official holidays in Suriname, with roots going back to India. The Holi Phagwa of the Hindus and the Idul-fitre of the Muslims. Divali is not an official holiday, but is known as a Hindu celebration by everyone. Phagwa and Divali have been brought to The Netherlands by Surinamese-Hindustani people. The next video is about Phagwa celebration in The Netherlands.

A place in Suriname is named Calcutta. Lots of streets are named after Indian 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 contract workers came from different parts of India. In Suriname they developed Sarnami, a common language with its sources mainly from Bhojpuri and Avadhi. The official spelling of Sarnami was established in 1986. Because of the popularity of Indian cinema, Hindi 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 is the offspring from Indian ancestors, who migrated to Suriname as contract 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 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.