March 21, 2022
From ROAR Mag

The story of Cornelis Gerhard Anton de Kom might seem one of those hard-to-believe Hollywood-style legends. Born the son of a formerly enslaved Surinamese farmer in 1898, he would go on to lead a national struggle against the ruling Dutch Empire before being imprisoned and banished to the Netherlands. Once in exile, he joined the resistance against German occupation, was captured and died of tuberculosis in a Nazi concentration camp at the age of 47.

The seeming contradiction of a Black anti-imperialist that would come to fight and die on behalf of his oppressor nation, coupled with an unrivaled position as a Dutch colonial historian, intellectual and artist, should put De Kom among the ranks of civil rights heroes like Frantz Fanon, CLR James, Fredrick Douglas and W.E.B. Du Bois.

The fact that De Kom’s life and works have remained in relative obscurity, with the first Dutch reprint of his formerly censored history of Surinamese slavery, identity and capitalism, We Slaves of Suriname, only appearing during the Black Lives Matter uprisings of 2020, could be seen as an indictment of the continued repression and denial in a country famed for its supposed tolerance and liberal attitudes. It is also simply an important mark of the Dutch language barrier that has trapped much of the Netherlands’ history and international relevance from view.

This year, We Slaves is published for the first time in English — nearly 90 years after its completion — and De Kom’s story and messages are beginning to enter global consciousness, replete with rediscovered artworks, children’s stories and major films in the works.

De Kom’s history of Suriname is written as a poetic memoir, history, part fiction and political discourse. He paints a narrative of the country’s captivity and brutalization, the suppressed identity of its people under Dutch colonial rule and their continued exploitation following the abolishment of slavery in 1863.

We Slaves is in many ways similar to CLR James’ Black Jacobins, which — also written during the 1930s — details the French slave trade in present day Haiti and the only slave-led insurrection that brought about a Black ruled state — which went on to become a kind of resistance manual for oppressed Afro-Caribbean communities in post-war Britain.

De Kom’s writing, however, never had such a profound influence in the Netherlands. And while We Slaves also recounts and honors numerous stories of slave revolts and resistance acts, no such successful revolution emerged in Suriname as did in Haiti. It is a tale of the unrivalled cruelty of the Dutch slave trade — something even recorded in horror by numerous French, British and Spanish slavers throughout the period.

Also similar to CLR James’ work, We Slaves gives a Marxian explanation of the causes of slavery’s abolition in Suriname. Rather than a sacrifice made by Western powers inspired by enlightenment ideals, slavery became, for numerous reasons, unprofitable during the industrialization of the 19th century. The abolitionist movements in Europe and North America then became a convenient tool for their national rulers that allowed them to paint over an economic evolution as an ethical renaissance.

Duco van Oostrum, a senior lecturer in American literature at the University of Sheffield, emphasizes that: “De Kom’s analysis of slavery, abolition and post-slavery all hinges on economic analysis and a reflection of capitalism. His emphasis on the Dutch ‘koopje’ (bargain) is central and he challenges this idea of the Dutch being some kind of moral leading nation.”

While De Kom’s contemporary CLR James is comparatively similar in these regards, We Slaves was more inspired by African American authors such as W.E.B. Du Bois and Fredrick Douglas, whose works also use interwoven historical narrative, cultural critique, autobiographical accounts and fiction.

Van Oostrum highlights this literary style as a key driver behind De Kom’s work. In 1937, De Kom even requested help in obtaining a scholarship to study in the US.

“There is plenty of evidence that De Kom was familiar with African American movements and his desire to travel to the US,” says Van Oostrum, “and that connection is also there in the methodology of We Slaves and the challenges to ideas of national literature formation.”

“From the invocation of the American slave narrative to Du Bois’ genre busting in Souls of Black Folk to the embracing of a socialist agenda and activism, De Kom’s book challenges Dutch literary cohesion in the profound ways African American literature has challenged the idea of American literature.”

His connection to Otto Huiswoud, a Surinamese activist regarded as the first Black member of the American communist movement, for whom De Kom wrote an article during the Harlem Renaissance, is further evidence of his ties to African American legacy. He also later campaigned for various US civil rights cases such as the Scottsboro Boys.

The lead up to We Slaves and De Kom’s connection and involvement in African American activism was a long one. He first began learning of Suriname’s history from the stories of his aunts, who had lived in slavery, before becoming an assistant bookkeeper at a rubber company, where he witnessed with his own eyes how the exploitation of Surinamese laborers continued after the abolition of slavery.

In 1920, De Kom left Suriname for the Netherlands, where he spent a year enlisted in the Dutch military as a cavalryman. After his post, De Kom became a bookkeeper again, this time in the Hague, and began to conduct further research into Surinamese history. It was during this period in the late 1920s that De Kom also began mixing with left-wing activists, writing groups and protestors — many of them Indonesian resistance groups spreading propaganda against the Dutch Empire.

He found a huge lack of resources and organization for a Surinamese independence struggle, particularly in comparison with that of Indonesia. De Kom began to redress this gap, writing articles for communist-sympathizing publications like Links Richten (Aim Left) and preparing detailed investigations for a manuscript that would later become We Slaves.

In 1932, he returned to Suriname, and upon his arrival in Paramaribo, was greeted by hundreds of local people who heard of his work and intention to subvert the country’s repressive regime. Ruling authorities had likewise got wind that a “communist agitator” was on the way and began making preparations to control what could become an uprising.

Speaking of the indentured servitude that had replaced outright slavery in Suriname, De Kom wrote: “We aim to show one thing: colored compatriots, you once were slaves, and you shall go on living in poverty and misery as long as you do not put your faith in your own proletarian unity. A smallholding here or there and a shovel or plow on credit will not help us’”

“We need a great plan of national reconstruction, a plan that includes collective corporations with modern equipment, owned by the workers of Suriname… but first, our country’s proletarians must develop class consciousness and a spirit of struggle; having thrown off their old slave chains, they must now throw off the old slave mentality.”

While De Kom was prevented from giving speeches or spreading his ideas publicly, he opened a consultancy at his father’s house in Suriname’s capital Paramaribo and was visited by a constant stream of people. Over 1500 Hindustani, Javanese, Creoles, Indians and Maroons — communities of formerly enslaved people who had escaped into the bush — visited “Papa De Kom,” and he recorded their myriad stories of abuse, poverty and trauma in a notebook. “Every district of Suriname is teeming with malaria sufferers. Most of them are as good as dead, because they have no money… tuberculosis has become a full scale massacre,” he wrote.

“Maybe I will find a way to make them [my fellows] feel some fraction of the hope and courage contained in that one powerful word I learned in a foreign country: organization.”

These actions were too much for the local government, who began defaming De Kom and discouraging any contact with him among local people. This backfired tremendously and the number of visitors increased so dramatically that within a month, the police brought the entire neighborhood surrounding De Kom’s house to a standstill.

De Kom became the target of active surveillance by the colonial authorities and anyone thought to be colluding with him were threatened by the police. De Kom refused the weapons offered to him by his supporters, fearing descent into armed struggle and a bloodbath. Instead, he made a vain attempt at negotiating with law enforcement, and handed himself in at a local police station. He was immediately arrested on suspicion of plotting a coup d’etat, and incarcerated at the infamous Fort Zeelandia prison. His notebook containing records of local suffering disappeared.

A crowd of thousands then marched on the jail demanding his release and were dispersed by gun fire, killing two and wounding around 30 others. Without any evidence to convict De Kom of a supposed revolutionary plot, authorities secretly stowed him aboard a ship back to the Netherlands with his family. Nevertheless, state sponsored newspapers wrote that they feared De Kom’s departure would not bring an end to the “tensions in the colony” that he had stirred.

This stint in Suriname only sought to inflame the next period of De Kom’s life and works. Having seen the unremitting fear of revolution felt by the Dutch colonial rulers in Suriname, he continued to study and write voraciously in The Hague, now under constant surveillance by local intelligence agencies. Working day after day from the local library, his manuscript for We Slaves was published in 1934, less than a year after his banishment from Suriname. Two years later, a copy was translated into German, as Nazism was rapidly cementing its power throughout Europe, but the book was quickly banned by the Third Reich.