Tracing the Indian Diaspora in Suriname

All about the rich history and evolution of Indian migrants in Suriname

Image source:

By Shubhi Mangla

Suriname a small country, originally called Dutch Guiana, is located on the Atlantic side of South America, just above Brazil. This Dutch colony has a wide range of beautiful flora and fauna. Sugarcane, coffee,and chocolate are leading industries of this plantation-based country. The country owns a good amount of Alumina and Bauxite and also has majority of gold reserves and some crude oil as compared to any another country in Latin America.

Sugarcane plantations in Suriname Image:
Sugarcane plantations in Suriname

Initially, Suriname was settled by the British. The Dutch soon exchanged their colony of New Amsterdam with England and acquired Suriname in return. With prosperity in the plantation industry, the country surpassed the wealth of well-known places like Boston, New York and Philadelphia until a banking crisis emerged in Holland in 1773. This lead to a recession in Suriname from which it never recovered. However, the country managed to achieve independence from Holland in 1975.

Suriname today comprises of 37 percent of East Indian origin (Hindustani) population mostly from states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, who traveled as indentured workers to South America in the 19th century.

Indian arrival in Suriname- The Indenture Period

During the 17th and 18th century, most of the plantation work was fueled by slaves from Africa. Throughout the 19th century, the process of abolition of slavery was gaining momentum in the European colonies of West Indies. The Dutch government worried that the slaves would refuse to work once given a choice like it was happening in other places. There worries did come true, slavery was finally abolished in Suriname in 1863. The Dutch government faced shortage of plantation workers and approximately 90 percent of plantations were closed. After much resentment, Britain finally agreed to provide recruitment rights for Indian laborers to Suriname in 1870.  The Dutch government started importing large number of workers from India as contract laborers; they set up recruitment stations in India where workers were interviewed, underwent health checkups and signed the documentations that they were going as per their own will and will wait to be transported back. The workers were brought through ships; each ship had a doctor on board, to make sure that the immigrants look best upon their arrival. The doctors urged them to rub and massage themselves using mustard oil.

Indian indentured workers in Suriname Image:

There were some good reasons as to why laborers were recruited from as far as India

  • Firstly, British Indians (India was then a British colony) were increasingly replacing black slaves in Trinidad and Jamaica, as they held a good reputation of being hard-working and good farmers.
  • Secondly, India was a densely populated country comprising of large number of laborers but only little available land.
  • Native jobs were being eliminated due to rapid industrialization. Many people were eager to emigrate due to the prevalent caste system which was imposing restrictions on their activities.
Arrival of Indians in Suriname with the ship 'Lala Rookh' Image:
Arrival of Indians in Suriname with the ship ‘Lala Rookh’

On 5 June 1873, the first ship named ‘Lala Rookh’ arrived in Paramaribo, capital of Suriname carrying 452 Indians, most of whom came from eastern parts of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Overall a total of 34,304 Indian contract laborers arrived in Suriname between 1873- 1916. According to, ­­at least some of them seem to had been misled into believing that they were being taken to a place of pilgrimage called “Sri Ram” which turned out to be Suriname!

Evolution of Indian Diaspora

About one third of the workers chose to return to India after they were done with their 5 year contracts. The Dutch government tried to persuade the Indians to stay back by offering settlement rights on state-run plantations and a hundred guilders to those who stay back. Around 23,000 Indians chose to give up their right to a return transition, taking benefit of this offer.  After some time, the workers realized that the agricultural-based jobs were not worth continuing, they started switching over to other profitable areas. Some of them did not wish to end rice cultivation as it was their main occupation, so they started saving and bought small plots of land to cultivate rice. Even today, a number of Indians hold splendorous rice farms in Suriname.

Image source:
Evolution of Indian immigrants Image source:

In the beginning of 20th century, Indians locally known as Hindoestanen in Dutch, started exploring others areas of work, such as in the transport and trading industry. They began considering the importance of western education as a crucial tool to social upliftment through the proselytising practices of the Christian missionaries. They started sending their children to school, thus making the next generation eligible of taking up jobs in civil services. According to Dutch regulations, all people born in this colony as well as the children of Dutch parents were entitled to Dutch citizenship.

Education Minister of Suriname, Minister Ashwin Adhin says, “We have a lot of Hindi schools, the language is taught in the Hindi schools. The government supports the teaching of Hindi by allowing them to use school premises to hold Hindi language classes. Indians speak in Sarnami among themselves”.

Indians soon became visible in professional jobs like medical and law, judiciary, politics, banking, administration and diplomatic services.

Indo-Surinamese culture

By 1975, the younger generation of Hindustani people opted to migrate to Netherlands owing to Dutch citizenship laws and inter-racial tensions in Suriname. Those who stayed back were determined to preserve their Indian culture and traditions. Almost 80% of the Suriname community includes Hindus while Muslims make up 17.5% of the population. Both these communities succeeded in keeping their culture and language alive. They have set up foundations to run schools for their children and also socio-religious organisations such as the Arya Dewakar, Sanatan Dharma Maha Sabha and Islamitische Vereniging (Islamic club). Initially, both the Hindu and Muslim communities used Hindu and Urdu languages for socio-religious purposes. Even television and PIO (people of Indian origin) radio operated in these two languages. Sarnami eventually took a toll over Hindu and Urdu as the younger generations war less aware of these two languages whereas Sarnami was understood by all Indians. After the evolution of Indian immigration, indentured laborers spoke Bhojpuri language which is now largely spoken by all the immigrants. The modern day ‘Sarnami’ is a mixture of Bhojpuri and Awadi in addition to Dutch, English and Creole wordings.

Overall, the Indian immigrants have managed to integrate themselves in the Surinamese society. The people follow an ethnic lifestyle and have made visible contribution to the country’s trade, commerce, transport and other sectors.

Indians today

Minister Ashwin Adhin says, “We celebrate Diwali, Holi and Id ul Fitr. For the last three-four years Diwali is celebrated as a national day. We build the biggest earthen diya in the world. It is two-and-a-half meters across and is placed at the Independence Square in Parimariboo. People from across the whole nation participate in this festival. They bring ghee (clarified butter oil) from their homes and pour it into the diya. The diya is lighted on the Saturday before diwali and it continues to burn day and night till the last festivities of Diwali are over”, in an interview conducted by There is also an official holiday on Holi Phagwa and Id-ul-Fitr.

Holi Phagwa 2016, Suriname

In Suriname there is a placed named Calcutta. A number of streets are named after Indian workers, their children or Indian politicians in Suriname. Monuments are also there to honor the British-Indian indentured workers.

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Baba En Mai Image :

On 5th June every year, Suriname commemorates the arrival of Indians. On this day, the Surinamese government and people of Indian origin pay tribute to statue of Indian ancestors ‘Baba en Mai’ (Father and mother). This statute in located at the place where Indians first arrived in Suriname called the “Coolie Depot”.

Coolie Depot-
Coolie Depot–

Shubhi Mangla is a student of Journalism and Mass communication in New Delhi. She is currently working as an intern in Newsgram. Twitter @shubhi_mangla


  • Victorius M Remak

    The first picture in this article, is a picture of Indigenous Surinamese people not East Indian descendants