Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

From Surinam to the Holocaust: Anton De Kom, a Political Migrant

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

From Surinam to the Holocaust: Anton De Kom, a Political Migrant

Article excerpt


This case study of a Dutch colonial person from Surinam or "Sranang",1 (meaning "Our Fatherland" in the popular language of Surinamers) living in forced exile as a result of repressive colonial policies in Surinam during the 1930s, and his subsequent incarceration and death in a German concentration camp during World War II, is a compelling chronicle of migration and political struggle. It addresses a number of crises faced by Caribbean and South American migrants, whose irruption into the often forbidden world of European politics fostered fear and contempt from increasing numbers of xenophobic Europeans. In this instance, the experiences of Cornells Gerhard Anton de Kom, an early twentieth-century Surinam migrant, are a testament to the pathological aspects of a Dutch colonial elite some thousands of miles away.2

This study examines those constraints that Anton de Kom confronted in Surinam and later Holland as an émigré during the first half of the twentieth century. Labelled a "foreigner", "an exotic", and "the Black" throughout his years of self-imposed and later forced exile in Holland, de Kom's life as an immigrant became a struggle against social anxiety, cultural paranoia and political repression. In this respect, his thoughts on nationalism, deeply rooted within the context of Surinam slavery and his own experiences as a colonial subject, had a powerful influence upon his development as a political migrant. Similarly, de Kom's experiences as an anticolonial activist and victim of German Nazism affords us an insight into the political predicament faced by south-north migrants of colour during the first half of the twentieth century.

The Post-Emancipation Period

The old Surinam proverb, Kakalaka no abie litie na fowroe movo3 ("the cockroach cannot assert its rights in the beak of the bird") is relevant to the country's post-emancipation period after 1863. During this period the Netherlands government began to de-emphasize its economic interest in Surinam and the Antilles, while increasing economic explorations in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia).4 The resulting decline of Dutchmen seeking their fortune in Surinam left a vacuum in the bureaucratic "sub-top" levels of the society that was quickly filled by resident Jewish and light-skinned "Afro-Surinamer" elites.5 While their numbers were relatively small, they provided a core of administrative types who sought government career work, and in so doing became caretakers of an increasingly disinterested Dutch colonial bureaucracy. These colonial bureaucrats or "sub-top" elites were provided a tenuous but tolerable lower-middle-class lifestyle within the colony.

Anton de Kom's father was one such individual, who found government employment not as an administrative aide but as a gold digger. Class expectations notwithstanding, this nascent group of "Creoles" as the Dutch defined them, were exemplified by their social perceptions and expectations of each other within the existing colonial reality.6 In this regard, even Anton de Kom's surname and his family's homestead in Frimangron, a district of Paramaribo, reflected Dutch colonial ideals.

A Dutch slave master in 1836 noted in his registry of slaves that Anton's great grandfather, an Ibo named Lender, was enslaved in Nigeria, brought to Surinam and given the Christian name Thomas. Similarly, an indigenous or "Indian" woman named Azemia, who was a field maid from the Molhoop plantation in the Commewijne district, is recorded as being Christianized and conferred the first name of Jacoba. Azemia and Lender had the same Dutch Jewish slave owner, whose last name was Mok. Accordingly they were listed in the colony's slave registry with "Mok" as their surname. While Christian marriages were illegal for slaves in Surinam, by 1850 an illegal church among the enslaved, called the Fabunto or church of faith, "legalized" the marriage of Thomas Lendor and Jacoba Azemia.7 By 1860 Azemia and Lendor were manumitted and chose to reside in an area of Surinam's capital, Paramaribo, that was designated for free coloureds called "Frimangron" or Freeman's ground. …

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