The Cost of Sugar (Suriname)

Suriname Mapby Cynthia McLeod

1765. Suriname. Jewish plantation owners in a Dutch colony. Slavery.

A cracking great read; heartbreaking and infuriating by turns to people with modern sensibilities. It was a bit like Gone With the Wind, only set in South America. Instead of Scarlett O’Hara, you have Sarith A’haron, a spoiled and selfish Jewish plantation heiress who poaches every man she sees, including her own stepsister’s husband.

The role of meek Melanie Wilkes is played by Elza A’Aharon, who shares a father with Sarith. Elza isn’t Jewish because her mother wasn’t a Jew. Unlike Sarith, who thinks nothing of having a slave whipped to death for displeasing her, Elza actually considers other people’s feelings–and she considers slaves as almost people.

She and her husband Rutger see the terrible human cost of sugar (and coffee and cocoa).

Maroon village, modern

Maroon village, modern

Meanwhile, the Maroons–a group of escaped slaves who live free in the jungle and raid the plantations, are wreaking havoc on Suriname society. It is a society in which the Jewish planters are walking on quicksand, because while they are considered white here, they still aren’t as good as the Gentile planters.

The Writing

It’s a page-turner. The pace is terrific; it’s an easy read with some characters you love and some you don’t. (I couldn’t wait for Sarith to get her come-uppance for example.)

The Author

Dutch ParamiraboCynthia McLeod knows a ton about Surinamese history. Her father was the first president of Suriname. In the foreword, she says that when she wrote the novel in the 1980s, she was told that it wouldn’t sell, because “there was no tradition of literature in Suriname”. (One wonders if this is because she is a Black author. Hmm.) Anyway, there is now, and the novel is still the most popular novel in the Dutch-Surinamese literature.

Deservedly. A cracking good read.

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