Historical Footprints: Why Are There so Many Javanese in Suriname?

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Historical Footprints: Why Are There so Many Javanese in Suriname?

Suriname, a small country on the northern coast of South America, may not be well known to many people around the world. However, behind the tranquility of this country lies an interesting migration history of the Javanese, one of the largest ethnic groups in Indonesia. Did you know that in Suriname there is a Javanese community that currently makes up about 15% of the total population?

The main reason for the Javanese presence in Suriname is the Dutch colonial period and the slave trade. In the 19th century, Suriname was under Dutch control and the region boasts lush and abundant natural resources. Behind the beauty, however, there were serious challenges that led to a shortage of good human resources in Suriname.
Efforts by the Dutch private sector to bring in workers from other colonies such as Spain, Portugal and China failed miserably. Workers from these regions were not suited for Surinam horticulture and agriculture. As a result, an alternative solution was needed, and so began a new chapter in the history of migration in Suriname.
The emergence of the slavery system became a temporary solution, and thousands of slaves were brought from Africa to Suriname to work on sugar and rubber plantations. Over time, however, slavery was finally abolished in this country. With the abolition of slavery, the Dutch turned to a system of indentured labor from other countries such as India, China and the Dutch East Indies, especially the island of Java.

Java, one of the Dutch colonies in the early 19th century, has remarkable similarities to Suriname in its natural wealth and fertility. The very fertile soil in Java allows all kinds of plants to grow easily and abundantly.

Behind its natural wealth, however, Java faces an equally great challenge. The dense population and high poverty rate are serious problems in this region. However, amidst the difficulties of the Javanese people, especially the lower classes, the Javanese are known to be hardworking and good at farming. They have special skills in agriculture.

Seeing this condition, the Dutch colonial government took political steps to send Javanese people to Suriname as indentured labourers. This policy was based on the belief that the Javanese could bring their expertise in agriculture and horticulture to Suriname, which also had fertile natural conditions. The migration of Javanese workers to Suriname was a bold move that was expected to overcome the shortage of human resources in Suriname and at the same time provide economic opportunities for Javanese living in Java.

On the other hand, the Javanese have different reasons for their decision to become workers in Suriname. Some of them were forced to leave because they faced difficulties living in Java and hoped to improve their economic conditions. However, it was not uncommon for some to arrive in Suriname because they were deceived or even kidnapped.

In 1890, the Dutch colonial government in Suriname began to import workers from Java, based on Article 70 of the Dutch Royal Decree No. 27 of March 22, 1872. This decree stipulated that the Javanese had to work for five years. After that, they had the right to return to their homeland unless they had received a certain premium.

As contract workers, they were placed in various coffee, chocolate and sugar cane plantations, as well as in bauxite mines owned by the Aluminum Company of America (ALCOA). These contracts bind them for five years, during which they must work hard in a new land, seeking opportunity and hoping for a better future.

After four years of working on the plantations in Suriname, the work of the Javanese proved very satisfactory to the Dutch government. As a result, workers from Java were regularly invited to Suriname from 1890 to 1939. The process of sending Javanese workers lasted 49 years with a total of 32,956 people.

Javanese Struggle in Suriname

Contracts are supposed to give contract workers the right to return home free of charge at the end of their contract, but this right is not fully respected. Javanese migrants faced difficulties in returning home and tried to return in various ways. Especially after Indonesia's independence, the desire to return home intensified, and this triggered the "Mulih Njowo" movement, or the wave of return of Javanese migrants in Suriname to Indonesia.

The Mulih Njowo movement did not mean returning to Java, because in reality they could not return to Java. Java was already densely populated. Instead, they planned to settle in the Lampung area. However, later developments showed that the group of Surinamese repatriates could not be settled in Lampung, but in West Sumatra.

Javanese from Suriname who wanted to join the group repatriated to Indonesia under the leadership of YTA (Yayasan Transmigrasi Asal) were required to pay a sum of money for transportation to Indonesia. This was a condition for joining the repatriation program.

During the period 1890-1939, a total of 8,120 people returned home. By 1947, the number had dropped to 1,700, and by 1954, only 1,000 had returned. Over time, the majority of indentured laborers who had completed their contracts chose to remain in Suriname as free laborers.

Although initially present as contract workers, many of them chose to settle down and blend in with the local community. Although homesickness always burns, they have steadfastly accepted Suriname as a second home, maintaining their traditions while adopting elements of the local culture.


Muh Asyakri Hasbullah (2021) PENGARUH BUDAYA JAWA TERHADAP HUBUNGAN ANTARA INDONESIA DAN SURINAME. S1 thesis, Universitas Muhammadiyah Yogyakarta.

Susanti. (2016). Nasionalisme dan Gerakan Mulih Njowo, 1947 dan 1954. Jurnal Sejarah Citra Lekha, 1(2), 107-120

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