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Exhibition on Suriname reveals a hidden history

Who still remembers that Leiden attracted a lot of reds from Suriname during the 1970s? The exhibition ‘Dynamic Suriname’ offers a number of surprising insights on the links between Leiden University and Suriname, which is celebrating the fortieth anniversary of its independence this year.

Leiden was a 'red town'

Conservator of Special Collections Jef Schaeps (photo) and Suriname specialist Rosemarijn Hoefte organised the exhibition.
Conservator of Special Collections Jef Schaeps (photo) and Suriname specialist Rosemarijn Hoefte organised the exhibition.

Professor Ruben Gowricharn, who was born in Suriname, still remembers: ‘If you were from Suriname and had left-wing sympathies in the 1970s, you just had to come to Leiden because it was a ‘red town’.’ It’s not clear how that reputation reached Suriname at the time, but Gowricharn and many other migrants from Suriname were unpleasantly surprised when they arrived and found that the opposite was true: liberal tendencies had the upper hand in Leiden at time.

Incorporation of the collection

Gowricharn’s story and that of other alumni from Suriname are brought together in a short documentary made by Christiaanne Alvarado, which forms one element of the ‘Dynamic Suriname: Migration and Culture’ exhibition in the University Library. The exhibition follows the incorporation of the collections from the Royal Netherlands Institute of Southeast Asian and Caribbean Studies (KITLV) two years ago. However, it is above all focused on the independence of Suriname, which was declared forty years ago this year.

Waves of migration

The exhibition was developed by Curator of Special Collections Jef Schaeps together with Rosemarijn Hoefte, who as surinamist took care of most of the work. According to Schaeps, many visitors are particularly surprised about the close connections that exist between Leiden and Suriname, but also about the dynamic and diverse population that Suriname actually has. This population is the result of the two large migration waves that are central to this exhibition: the wave following the abolition of slavery in 1863, and the wave that followed the declaration of independence in 1975, which immediately resulted in 70,000 people migrating from Suriname to the Netherlands.

Paul Christiaan Flu

‘Few people also know,’ Schaeps reveals, ‘that Leiden was the first university in the country to appoint someone with non-Dutch roots as rector magnificus: Paul Christiaan Flu. That was truly remarkable at the time.’ Renowned medical doctor Flu (1884-1945) was born in Suriname and was appointed rector magnificus in 1938. Flu was known as a champion of the university’s freedom, which came under a lot of external pressure during the war. It was also particularly harsh that Flu was imprisoned in a concentration camp during the war, while his son was murdered by the Germans. Flu died in late 1945, physically broken by all he had to endure.

Slave letters

Suriname’s roots in slavery are also recognised in the exhibition, and can be most directly seen in the so-called slave letters. Schaeps: ‘These are curious, remarkable documents that prove that the slave was freed and that the previous owner received 300 guilders per slave in compensation. It’s very special to hold one of these letters in your hand.’

Stolen book

One of the most remarkable pieces is an edition of Wij slaven van Suriname (We slaves of Suriname), a critical book written in 1934 by activist Anton de Kom. ‘That book was outlawed Suriname,’ Schaeps explains,’ but when students from Suriname discovered it in Leiden during the 1960s, they stole it from the library to copy and use it for their own political ends. We only found a new copy two years ago.’ 

Read more

The ‘Dynamic Suriname: Migration and Culture’ exhibition can be visited in the small exhibition hall in the University Library until 12 January 2016. Admission is free of charge. A concise version of the exhibition can also be found  online.

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