Today is Keti Koti (Sranantongo for “the chains are cut”) Emancipation Day – the end of slavery – in Suriname. The day is also known as (Prisiri) Maspasi, meaning “Emancipation (Festival)”. Slavery was abolished by the Netherlands in Suriname and the Dutch Antilles in 1863. However, slaves in Suriname would not be fully free until 1873, after a mandatory 10 year transition period during which time they were required to work on the plantations for minimal pay but without the many formerly state sanctioned abuses. After 1873 many slaves left the plantations where they had suffered for several generations, in favor of the city of Paramaribo.
The first Europeans who came to Suriname were Dutch traders who visited the area along with other parts of South America’s ‘Wild Coast.’ The first attempts to settle the area by Europeans was in 1630, when English settlers led by Captain Marshall attempted to found a colony. They cultivated crops of tobacco, but the venture failed financially.
In 1650 Lord Willoughby, the governor of Barbados, fitted out a vessel to settle a colony in Suriname. At his own cost he equipped a ship of 20 guns, and two smaller vessels with things necessary for the support of the plantation. Major Anthony Rowse settled there in his name. Two years later he went in person, fortified and furnished it with things requisite for defense and trade. ‘Willoughbyland’ consisted of around 30,000 acres (120 km) and a fort. In 1663 most of the work on the 50 or so plantations was done by native Indians and 3,000 African slaves. There were around 1,000 Europeans there, joined by Brazilian Jews, attracted by religious freedom which was granted to all the settlers by the English.
The settlement was invaded by seven Dutch ships (from the Zeeland region), led by Abraham Crijnssen, on 26 February 1667. Fort Willoughby was captured the next day after a three-hour fight and renamed Fort Zeelandia. On 31 July 1667, the English and Dutch signed the Treaty of Breda, in which for the time being the status quo was respected: the Dutch could keep occupying Suriname and the British the formerly Dutch colony New Amsterdam (modern-day New York). Willoughbyland was renamed Suriname. This arrangement was made official in the Treaty of Westminster of 1674, after the British had regained and again lost Suriname in 1667. In 1683 the Society of Suriname was set up, modeled on the ideas of Jean-Baptiste Colbert to profit from the management and defense of the Dutch Republic’s colony. It had three participants, with equal shares in the society’s responsibilities and profits—the city of Amsterdam, the family Van Aerssen van Sommelsdijck, and the Dutch West India Company. The Van Aerssen family sold its share in 1770 and the Society came to an end in 1795 when this kind of trade and business was abolished.
In South America, slavery was the norm, even though countries such as Argentina kept this part of their history under wraps for many generations (Buenos Aires was a major slave trading port). There were not enough indigenous people as workers and consequently the Atlantic slave trade supplied the workforce for the plantations. The plantations produced sugar, coffee, cocoa, and cotton, which were exported for the Amsterdam market. In 1713 for instance most of the work on the 200 plantations was done by 13,000 African slaves. Their treatment was terrible, and slaves periodically escaped to the jungle from the start. These so-called Maroons (also known as “Djukas” or “Bakabusi Nengre”) attacked the plantations in order to acquire things they needed that were in short supply. Notable leaders of the Surinam Maroons were Alabi, Boni, Joli-coeur and Broos (Captain Broos). In the 18th century, three of the Maroon people signed a peace treaty, similar to the peace treaty ending the First Maroon War in Jamaica, whereby they were recognized as free people and received a yearly tribute that provided them with the goods they used to “liberate” from the plantations. A contemporary description of the war between the Maroons and the plantation owners in Suriname can be found in Narrative of a Five Years Expedition Against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam by John Gabriel Stedman.
Suriname was occupied by the British in 1799, after the Netherlands were incorporated by France, and was returned to the Dutch in 1816, after the defeat of Napoleon. The Dutch abolished slavery only in 1863, although the British had already abolished it during their short rule. The slaves were, however, not released until 1873. In the meantime, many more workers had been imported from the Dutch East Indies, mostly Chinese living there, creating a Chinese-Surinamese population. From 1873 to 1916, many laborers were imported from India, creating the Indo-Surinamese. After 1916, many laborers were again imported from the Dutch East Indies, especially Java, creating the Javanese-Surinamese.
Surinamese cuisine is extensive, given that the current population of Suriname originated in so many countries. Now Surinamese dishes include roti, nasi goreng, bakmi, pom, snesi foroe, moksi meti, and losi foroe, plus many more that originated overseas, but have been amalgamated and transformed. Basic foods include rice, tayer and cassava. Well known dishes are moksi-alesi (mixed boiled rice with salted meat, shrimp or fish, and any vegetable), rice and beans, and the original Javanese nasi goreng and mie goreng.
Within the Surinamese community, in both Surinam and The Netherlands, Pom is the most popular and best known festive dish. Within the Surinamese community Pom is frequently referred to as a dish of Creole and/or Jewish origin. It was introduced by the Portuguese-Jewish plantation owners as the Portuguese potato (“pomme de terre”) oven dish. Because the potato did not grow in Suriname and had to be imported it was soon replaced with the root of the tayer plant. Pom combines three main ingredients: chicken, citrus juice and pomtajer (Xanthosoma sagittifolium). Only the latter is indigenous, and although all plant parts are edible, only the underground part of the main stem is used as an ingredient in preparing Pom. The main stem or corm is most frequently designated as pomtajer or pongtaya (lit. the tajer/taya for Pom). Finding it will be your challenge. Without it you cannot make Pom.
The first published description of Pom comes from Encyclopedie van Nederlandsch West-Indië (1914–1917) which describes the dish as follows: ‘the big tajer, of which the stalk grows above the earth, is grated and treated with the juice of bitter oranges, afterwards with chicken or fish, made into a pie, which dish is known as ‘pom’.’
In a baking dish, put sautéed chicken pieces between two layers of raw, grated pomtajer which is mixed with citrus juice and a sauce made from oil, onions, tomatoes, salt, pepper and nutmeg. Bake the dish in an oven for at least one hour or until the Pom becomes golden brown. Once baked, Pom is cut into pieces and either served hot with rice and vegetables or cooled and placed between slices of bread in a sandwich or bread-roll.
In Amsterdam alone there are over 120 establishments serving Surinamese food. Other Dutch cities such as Rotterdam and The Hague have a growing number of caterers, eateries and take-aways. Most establishments serve Pom, and often also “broodje pom” (pom on a bread-roll), a derivation of the national dish. In particular, “broodje pom” is rapidly gaining popularity and starting to appear on the Dutch menu. It can sometimes even be ordered in Dutch take-aways and for home-delivery. In recent years, more and more recipes for Pom have appeared in Dutch cookbooks, newspapers and on websites. In 2007, an exhibition about Pom was held at Imagine Identity and Culture, an Amsterdam-based centre for the representation of migration and cultures as seen from their own perspective.