The Maroon Book of History

October 2, 2011 § 1 Comment

Alabi’s World (Price, Richard)

 I have come to understand how societies decline or come into being; and to realize that those great historical upheavals, which, when one reads about them in the textbooks, appear to be the outcome of anonymous forces working in profound obscurity, can also, in a moment of lucidity, be brought about by the vigorous determination of a handful of talented young people.

“The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-tree
Are of equal duration. A people without  history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments…”
TS Eliot, Little Gidding

The years between 1760 and 1820 are a historian’s delight. They encompass the careers of Napoleon Bonaparte, Horatio Nelson, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Catherine the Great and Simon Bolivar. Wars were waged between mighty nations, treaties signed, maps redrawn. Entire continents were lost by superpowers, even while others were being colonized. Two bloody revolutions shook the very foundations of society, as did a bloodless (Industrial) one, which exploded to life during this very period with Crompton’s Spinning Mule and Watt’s Steam Engine. Science made gigantic strides during these years, with seminal contributions from Lavoisier, Gauss, Fourier, and Laplace. Rousseau’s Social Contract saw the light of day at this time. So did Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. So did the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the United States Bill of Rights. Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn were in their pomp during this period; so was Francisco Goya. William Wordsworth was in full flow, as was Johann Wolfgang Goethe. The New York Stock Exchange came into existence in this era. The London Stock Exchange quickly followed suit. Lloyd’s of London was instituted in Cornhill – and the world of business was never the same again. In short, much of what we know and are today had its origins in this time period.

Nevertheless, Richard Price turns his back on all this action, and trains his spyglass instead on to a tiny community at the outer edge of nowhere. Suriname is a small country – in fact, the smallest independent country in South America – with a population of less than half a million souls. This tiny population is incredibly diverse, and includes people of Amerindian, Dutch, African, Indian, Indonesian, Chinese, Jewish, Lebanese and Brazilian origin. Barely a tenth of the total is made up of Surinamese Maroons.  One of the six clans of Maroons are the Saramaka, numbering some 22,000 individuals today, and it is a small portion of their history, roughly covering the period between the years 1760 and 1820, that is traced by Price in this extraordinary book.

Field Work: Funeral Ceremony of a Saramaka chief, 1989 - courtesy

Mind you, the Saramaka are an interesting people. They are descended from African slaves who escaped from the coastal plantations of Dutch colonists in the 17th and 18th centuries and fled to the dense jungles of interior Suriname, where they organized themselves into villages and clans, and fought a bitter war of attrition against the colonists, eventually winning the right to operate a semi-independent state-within-a-state. They spent the next two centuries in a state of uneasy peace with the Dutch government in Paramaribo, never assimilating with the Dutch or Creole way of life, and according to many accounts, continue to have their own unique customs and culture – and continue to be a severely marginalized jungle community even after Suriname won its independence from the Dutch. The years covered in this book are the first sixty of their sovereign existence in the jungle villages, during which many of their customs, traditions, superstitions, folklore, language and identity evolved.

As interesting as the story is, I can safely say, along with a vast majority of mankind, that the Saramakas of Suriname have had little or no impact on our life today. It is therefore difficult for me (and probably you) to get excited by long and complicated genealogies of Saramaka families, detailed descriptions of their interminable funeral ceremonies, or the many mundane miseries of Moravian missionaries as they struggled, with little success, to overcome the diseases, the searing heat, and the stubborn refusal of most Saramakans to abandon their heathen beliefs.

Yet there are three good reasons for reading this book.

The first is because of the novelty of its form, and the questions that the form raises, about the nature of history. Any good historian consults multiple sources for his story, from which he chooses those that are consistent with each other and his theme. Price has multiple sources for each story, too – but he tries to present it from each perspective in turn, even if that takes away from the smoothness and consistency of the narrative. He uses four primary sources – the oral story-telling tradition among the Saramakas, the diligent journals kept by the 18th century missionaries who lived in the villages, the journals of the Dutch government officials who negotiated with the Saramaka, and Price’s own imagination, which is based on the knowledge gained during his extensive stay and field work among them, and which he uses liberally to fill in gaps in the many accounts and  to weave them into a narrative.  Thus we are told of not only what the missionaries thought of the maroons and what the maroons thought of the missionaries, but also what the missionaries thought the maroons thought about the missionaries, and so forth. The author’s protests to the contrary, this book is strongly influenced by the postmodernist idea that all discourses are equally valid, and that truth emerges only when you superimpose all perspectives.

Should history be written this way? Is truth not the main concern of history? And if so, is it not better for a historian to present several opinions of each event, Rashomon– style, and allow the reader to ascertain the truth after inspecting them?

In my opinion, it is certainly an improvement over the much lazier approaches of a) going with the victor’s (or the historian’s compatriot’s) version of each story, or b) ignoring views that inconveniently contradict the historian’s own pet theory of what happened.

In balance, however, I find myself agreeing with Eric Hobsbawm (whose ‘On History’ discusses Price’s book and historiographical style in depth) that to merely present all views is, in some sense, to abrogate one’s responsibility as an expert. Sure, there is no single version of the truth – but like a doctor, or a policeman, or an auditor, a historian has the moral responsibility to be knowledgeable, to analyze the different versions, and decide for his readers what exactly happened. In my (possibly unfashionable) opinion, a historian simply has to take sides.

On the other hand, one could argue that history is not a collection of simple facts, and that “what exactly happened” cannot be understood except as an multi-vocal, multi-perspectival cacophony. And on the other, other hand, making sense of this cacophany is exactly what you pay a historian for, otherwise the entire lot of them could be replaced by the internet. And so on. Anyone who is interested in this debate will find ‘Alabi’s World’ an intriguing experiment.

Two, the book will fascinate those who are interested in the evolution of culture and traditions. Robert Graves hypothesises, in his Greek Myths, that when two cultures suddenly begin interacting closely with each other, societies go into churn, and it is out of these epic conflicts that entire systems of mythologies emerge. For most societies on earth, sadly, that point of origin is lost in the remote mists of time, and we may never know them for sure. Here, however, is that most uncommon of things, a recorded social experiment, where, by a curious sequence of events, a new race has been created and their stories documented as legend. Studying them could help understand how human attitudes and beliefs evolved in other societies as well. For just one instance, Price tells us that the Saramakan religious syncretism and even incorporation of Christian components into their religion is a natural survival response of an politically weaker culture to the proselytizing efforts of a politically stronger one. I wonder if the similarly tolerant and syncretic Hindu faith became that way as a survival tactic when confronted with wave after wave of external aggressors intent on conversion.

Finally, this is a history of a ‘people without history’, as Eric Wolf called them. What we generally read as world history is notoriously Eurocentric. Convention has it that Napoleon, Nelson, Washington, Jefferson, Catherine and Bolivar made history and did important things, while people like the Saramaka didn’t do historical things, and so had somewhat inferior identities. As Europe colonized the world, the European version of what subjects were appropriate for history books colonized the world of ideas, but it is time now for some of us to reclaim our identities and our own idea of national history, which for many of us is ultimately about oral traditions and folktales passed on from one generation to the next. It isn’t right for the writers of history on the winners’ side to determine who was right and who wasn’t, and it isn’t right for them to decide what is historical and what isn’t. Alabi’s world is every bit as important to the Saramaka, as George Washington’s to the Americans.

And if you are neither American nor Saramakan, but you call yourself a student of world history, maybe you should read both.


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§ One Response to The Maroon Book of History

  • The 'Cruel Youth' says:

    good, but i must disagree. there is no reason to not place several events and favor one, as that both shows why the reader should agree and gives the reader another choice.
    eurocentralization is more like american centralization. The relation goes back to america’s history…

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