Pierre Jacques Benoit sketched the barbarity of slavery in an idyllic atmosphere

Who was the woman who had to stand there like a commodity, her arms folded under her bare breasts, her eyes down to the ground? She is approvingly watched by comfortable white gentlemen, one with a top hat and a smoke in his mouth, another leaning back loosely on a chair. There is a whip on the ground, branding irons hang in a barrel.

We’re at one vendua slave auction in Paramaribo, by Pierre Jacques Benoit (1782-1854) in his travelogue Voyage to Surinam. The image is not characteristic of Benoit, who usually painted peaceful or even lovely scenes of life in Suriname. His drawings of strolling townspeople, slaves on the plantations and Maroons in the interior became iconic in the Netherlands and Suriname.

It is unclear what prompted the young Benoit to travel to Suriname

How did he end up with that one vendu? According to the text, the sale concerned “a young, very beautiful Creole”, house slave of a Dutch friend who had fathered two children with her and intended to release and marry her. The friend’s sudden death put an end to those plans. The woman, “thought to be the lady of the house,” was sold, as were her children.

Benoit’s account, published in Brussels in 1839, is one of the best-known works on nineteenth-century Suriname, with the account of the Scotsman John Gabriel Stedman serving there as a soldier. Unlike Stedman, who denounced the cruel slave regime, Benoit paints an idyllic picture of tropical life. Reason to view his images with a critical eye, say historians.

Diamonds and pearls

After more than half a century, there is now a large-format, French-Dutch facsimile edition of the book. With all 99 plates in color and a nice introduction by Carl Haarnack, founder of the ‘Buku Bibliotheca Surinamica’ (a unique collection of books and prints about Suriname) and book historian Garrelt Verhoeven. Based on existing sources and (limited) own archival research, they provide a new, detailed analysis of Benoit’s work.

Little is known about the man himself. He left no diaries. Benoit was the son of an Antwerp jewelery merchant who did business internationally. When his father died in 1827, his household effects included diamonds, pearls, gold earrings, a library, mahogany gaming tables, liqueur bottles (and twelve nightcaps). It is unclear what prompted the young Benoit to travel to Suriname a few years later, in 1829/30. He may have been looking for gold or diamonds (although he does not mention this in his report), but he was also driven by wanderlust. His brothers Joseph and Charles were not inferior to him, they spent a long time in the Dutch East Indies.

How reliable is his work? The lecturers are clear about the text, which is often lengthy descriptions of the natural environment. It comes from one ghost writer, most likely writer and librarian André van Hasselt (1806-1874), who wrote the foreword under his own name. Haarnack and Verhoeven point out striking similarities with passages in the Description of Guiana or the Wild Coast (1770) by Jan Jacob Hartsinck (who had never been to Suriname himself) and the Description of the colony of Surinam (1769) by Philippe Fermin. Also with Stedman’s famous Narrative of a five years’ expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam from 1796, frequently used in anti-Dutch propaganda. The introductions even catch the lyricist using many later travel books: he saw “steam engines” along the Suriname River, but they did not come into use until years after Benoit had already left.

Exotic additions

Benoit’s fame is therefore not based on the text, but on the lithographs he had made of his drawings, initially in black and white. He awarded the job to the leading Belgian lithographers Jean-Baptiste Madou and Paul Lauters. They are idyllic scenes of city, savannah and forest, inhabited by “negro-maroons” and “semi-wild Indians” (according to the preface). Those drawings also appear to have had some final editing. A European deciduous tree disappeared behind a palm tree, a dog made way for a snake. Such exotic additions will probably have been made more often, but comparison is difficult because almost no originals of Benoit’s work are known.

And that happy atmosphere? Slavery historian Piet Emmer believes that Benoit’s music-making and dancing slaves show that the Dutch regime had become more lenient than in Stedman’s time. Historian Susan Legêne emphasizes the romanticization in Benoit, who turned Surinamese tent boats into a kind of Italian gondola. Haarnack and Verhoeven conclude that it is ‘perilous’ to simply regard both text and drawings as realistic. But: Benoit’s work remains “invaluable” as an iconographic “monument of nineteenth-century Suriname”.

True bohemian

A mist hangs over Benoit’s later life. The travel-loving jeweler’s son is said to have ended up as a “true bohemian” who lived by making “sloppy paintings and sometimes signs”, but at the same time “let it hang wide”. The introducers have not found a portrait of him, but they did find a description in the register of Amsterdam, which he visited in 1852: short in stature, thick nose, gray beard.

With their source research, the speakers believe they have almost certainly found out who the young woman was who was on the vendu in 1830 was sold: ‘Santje, with her child Amelia’, listed in the Slave Register as ‘Susanna’. She’s getting her name back now. For example, Benoit’s prints still serve to give a face to “the barbarity of slavery”.

Postcard Surinamese youthwith colonial characterizations: ‘Chinese. mulatto. Hindu. Javanese. Negress.” Light print in colour, Paramaribo, Eugen Klein, ca. 1905.

Photographic postcards

Names are also scarce in another beautiful publication about Suriname, with about five hundred photographic postcards. From his own collection and that of other collectors, Carl Haarnack stated Greetings from Paramaribo together, again with the cooperation of Garrelt Verhoeven. They are dozens of cityscapes, studio portraits, photos of parties, children, churches and professional groups, from about 1890 to 1940. One of the few people portrayed with a name on the cards is the smiling Raswantia, a ‘British Indian in gala’.

Photography was introduced in Suriname around 1847, twenty years later a few photographic studios were already in operation in Paramaribo. One of the most famous was that of the sisters Augusta and Anna Curiel (previously collected in Augusta Curiel photography in Suriname, 1904-1927,. KIT Publishers 2007). Picture postcards quickly became popular with the Dutch who stayed in or visited Suriname, but also with collectors.

Even in this small format, the diversity of Suriname comes to life, if only thanks to the open and penetrating gaze of the Creole, Javanese, British-Indian, indigenous and other people portrayed. The descriptions on the cards are openly colonial and racist. We see “a Mestiezan (Quadroon), 4th degree Negro race”, “young Bushnegroes”, an “idol temple” (at a ritual hut). And at a children’s home that asked for donations: “We girls, too, thank our benefactors in Holland!”

It is precisely that combination of living people and condescending colonial commentary that brings the reality of old Suriname closer than you might think, and sometimes wish.