Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1875
The history of New World slavery has been an increasingly rich and revealing research field, as historians, ethnographers, sociologists, and other scholars of culture pick through the archival records left by Europeans and Americans revealing the brutality, inhumanity, and racism that created and sustained what after C. Vann Woodward has come to be known as “the peculiar institution.” Carrying on the legacy of C. L. R. James, whose pioneering Black Jacobins (1938) set the standard for historical criticism, many historians and ethnographers have concentrated on showing how slavery, while it degraded and humiliated its exploited objects, did not go unchallenged, virtually from the first. The picture of abject, powerless Africans who meekly accepted their unhappy fate has become less and less tenable as the record of slave revolts and everyday resistance has been gradually filled in. Slavery, we must now recognize, was a complex system of domination and resistance in which slave-holders, while they undoubtedly held the upper hand, were never wholly omnipotent.
Alabi’s World is Richard Price’s second major study of the origins of the Saramakas, a Suriname maroon community that was established in the course of the eighteenth century in a long series of wars followed by a tense, conflicted peace between the Saramakas and the European colonizers. It is a sequel to his First-Time: The Historical Vision of An Afro-American People(1983), which detailed the rise of the Saramakas as they themselves have preserved this history in the present and explored the role of this historical imagination in contemporary Saramaka social life. The new study, while it is concerned with much the same period, takes a some what different tack, interweaving three distinct kinds of source materials: once again, the accounts of their own history narrated by contemporary Samarakas; second, the records of Dutch colonial administrators charged with controlling the runaway slave problem as well as with negotiating with the Saramakas; and third, the diaries, letters, and other extant records left by the Moravian missionaries who tried and (for the most part) failed to convert the Saramakas from their indigenous religious practices to the exceedingly odd version of Christianity professed by this German Protestant sect. These last are perhaps the most intriguing and difficult documents to handle, since, as Price observes, he is attempting not merely to condemn or ridicule the missionaries—surely an easy mark for the modern historian and his or her audience—but to produce a similar kind of sympathetic understanding to that more readily achieved for the Saramakas themselves. It is an open question whether he succeeds in this last aim.
Price opens this narrative with the arrival of Alabi’s ancestors—indeed, they are, according to tradition, the ancestors of the entire maroon community—the West African slaves Lanu and Ayako. The story of their escape from captivity, their being taken in by sympathetic Amerindians, and their predatory raids on local plantations is told principally from the evidence of Samaraka tradition preserved into our own era, with some small additions from Dutch official records and diaries. Price himself interpolates these materials deftly, but it is fair to say that the burden of this tale is left to the Saramaka tradition, which Price records, one presumes, faithfully. At this point, and in principle throughout the book, Price draws no sharp distinction in possible authority or verisimilitude between Saramaka oral tradition and the archival documents from which he quotes so extensively. Neither form of historical recollection is privileged, although Price does, again and again, attempt to draw various sources together for comparison, while trying to see through the more obvious distortions of fact, particularly when these latter derive from the cultural opaqueness of one group to another. It should not require emphasizing that such incapacity to understand an alien society is equally apparent in the Europeans and the Saramakas.
Alabi’s father, Abini, the principal architect of the peace treaty between the Saramakas and the colonizers signed in the 1760’s, was largely responsible for establishing the lineaments of themodus vivendi that would dominate maroon-colonizer relations up to the end of slavery—and in many ways to the present day. The principal condition of the peace was the agreement of the Saramakas to return all runaway slaves, for which they would regularly receive tribute from the Paramaribo government. Price devotes numerous fascinating pages to the complicated negotiations that inevitably ensued when the terms of the treaty were to be met. Both sides sought to gain advantage: The colonial administrators attempted to limit the goods delivered; the Saramakas, in turn, constantly balked or dissembled when it came time to deliver up runaways. With good reason. The standard punishments for recaptured or returned runaways were torture and death. Price observes often the Saramakas’ clever evasion of the peace treaty’s explicit provisions; they handed over precious few of their brethren while continually extorting powder, shot, muskets, cloth, and other manufactured goods from the Dutch. In fact, it is difficult not to conclude from Price’s account that, on balance, the Dutch were largely powerless to influence or dominate Saramaka life in any significant way; the best the colonizers could hope for was that the maroon community would not engage in active predation against the plantations. In this they were largely successful, and the rewards gained from the plantation economy throughout the eighteenth century were probably sufficient that the colonizers required no more favorable situation.
Beginning in 1765, a new factor entered the equation of colonizer-maroon relations: the arrival of the first Moravian missionaries. It is this addition to the region’s cultural economy that principally distinguishes “Alabi’s world” from that of his father Abini and earlier generations in the Saramaka first-time. Not only would the missionaries remain during the better part of the next half century, tirelessly preaching conversion from local gods to Christian monotheism, but also they would achieve one spectacular success: the baptism of Alabi himself and the conversion of a large number of his kinfolk. Thus allied to one of the principal holders of power among Saramakas, the Moravians thought, not unreasonably, that they could achieve wide success in spreading the Christian word. The record of the mission’s utter failure to fulfill these hopes makes much the most fascinating reading in Alabi ’S World.
The richest portion of the Moravian mission’s record is derived from the extensive diary of Brother Johann Riemer, who arrived upriver in Bambey toward the end of 1779. Much of the chapter, “The Ringer of Bells,” consists of lengthy translations taken directly from this source. Riemer’s recollections (published in 1801) provide a vivid portrait of daily life among Alabi ’5 people as it was perceived and understood by Europeans. The diary’s general character will be familiar to aficionados of European travel literature, with all the trappings of European superiority and native exoticism. Nevertheless, with the help of Price’s informed commentary, a reasonably detailed image emerges of what one presumes were the mundane conditions of existence among the Saramakas at century’s end. Above all, Price’s persistent critique of the missionaries’ misunderstanding of particular customs, as well as their hubristic sense of always being in ultimate control of the situation—this was frequently far from the case—reveals the depth of Saramaka culture and its great resilience against European impositions. Despite the authority of Alabi’s conversion, the maroon community never produced more than a modest complement of Christian converts. Why should this have been so?
On Price’s account, it would seem that the primary Saramaka motivations for accommodating themselves to the missionaries involved the missionaries’ utility as intermediaries with the government, upon whom the Saramakas depended for obtaining manufactures, and recognition that the literacy skills which the missionaries offered were an important advantage in coping with the whites on their own terms. What developed was a complex system of negotiation between missionaries and Saramakas, as the latter sought to gain every advantage possible from the Moravian brotherhood, while the former tried to turn their teaching into occasions for indoctrination. It seems clear in retrospect that most of the advantages in this delicate game lay with the Saramakas, who were extraordinarily adroit in making concessions to the missionaries that never gave away anything fundamental—certainly not their basic commitments to sorcery, local gods, and long- sanctioned customs concerning burial, marriage, and governance. Equally clear is the fact that much of the blame for the missionaries’ failure rests squarely with the Moravians themselves. Even had the Saramakas been more inclined to abandon their ancestral rituals than they were, the Moravians’ incapacity to enter sympathetically into the lives and imagination of their “flock” would have made their goal of mass conversion all but unrealizable. While Saramaka religious practice, “like many of its African precursors, had from the first been additive and agglomerative,” Moravian Protestantism was inflexible, messianic, in short, otherworldly. It could not obtain any significant purchase on the material reality of Suriname life, and this, one feels, was its real Achilles’ heel. Religious conversion on a mass scale has historically occurred when the new religion offers relief from oppressive social conditions. The Moravians had no such doctrinal advantage over the autochthonous Saramaka practices, accepting slavery as a natural, divinely sanctioned institution, and offering deliverance from diurnal suffering and injustice only in the next world. Small wonder that the Saramakas typically saw nothing attractive in the new dispensation and viewed the Moravians at best in the manner of a tool for gaining advantages with the government, at worst a nuisance. That the missionaries could often, through insensitivity and ignorance, be positively threatening to the maroon community’s social stability is illustrated over and over again by Alabi’s adroit handling of various conflicts in which Europeans tended to run roughshod over local custom. Probably his signal achievement as tribal chief was to have maintained the peace when the potential for open, bloody conflict was constantly being opened by the Moravians’ foolish unwillingness to observe the local decorums.
Although Richard Price could scarcely have intended this purpose when he began writing Alabi’s World—much less when he first undertook his field research among the Saramaka during the 1960’s—this book is now dedicated to an urgent historic task. In showing how, in the course of achieving their independence by violent struggle, the Saramaka people simultaneously developed “the more subtle interethnic negotiating skills that were finely honed in Alabi’s world,” Price points a lesson that may be of considerable import in the current civil war that is blazing across Suriname. If it was possible in the eighteenth century for maroons and colonizers to keep a workable peace, however tense and conflicted, perhaps the contemporary descendants of these “first-time people” will be able to forge instruments for tamping down sociopolitical strife and accommodating their ethnic and cultural differences. Alabi’s world was born of bloody conflict, but it was sustained by a delicate sense for compromise and negotiation. In many ways, the lessons Price draws from this episode in the history of New World slavery are as applicable now as they were then—and not only to the Suriname case.
Sources for Further Study
Library Journal. CXV, July, 1990, p. 110.
The New York Review of Books. XXXVII, December 6, 1990, p.46.
University Press Book News. II, September, 1990, p. 12.
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