Javanen van Suriname - Vertellingen    


by Santo Koesoebjono **)   


At 9 August 1890 the first Javanese went ashore in Suriname. Between 1890 and 1939 some 33,000 people migrated from Central and East Java to Suriname, a country four time the size of West Java and located in the northeast of South America (Ismael, 1949; Suparlan, 1976; de Waal Malefijt, 1963). They were lured into working in plantations by the Dutch colonial administration. They were promised riches by the end of the five-year contract when they would return to their villages. These promises turned out for many of them to be false. By the end of the contract many Javanese were not rich. Around 7,600 persons were "carried back" in the first half of the 20th century (Ismael, 1949).

At present the Surinam Javanese migrants are divided into three main groups. The first group is the majority who remained in Suriname, got married and formed the Javanese diaspora. This community strives to preserve and develop its culture in the new homeland. The Javanese form the third largest ethnic group in Suriname after Creoles and Hindus of Indian origin, and represent some 20 % of the total population of around 400,000. In contrast to the Hindustanis, who also arrived as indentured labourers, the socio-economic development of the Javanese in Suriname is still poorly documented (Hoefte, 1998) . 1   

The second group consisted of persons who returned to Indonesia 2    . A large group went back with the ship Langkuas of the Rotterdam Lloyd in 1953. This group counted some 300 Javanese families (approximately 1200 persons). They wanted to settle in Java or Lampung but their request was not approved by the Indonesian government at that time. Instead, they were directed to Western Sumatra and settled down in Kampung Tongas (Kabupaten Pasaman), north to the city Padang. They had to open up new land and build their houses but they had little problems integrating with the Minangkabau society notwithstanding the fact that most of these Surinam Javanese were Christians. Intermarriage with the people of Minangkabau who are preponderantly Moslems was quite common and deceased persons were buried in the Islamic cemetery 3    . The present generation of Surinam Javanese residing in Indonesia feels more Indonesian than Surinamese 4    . They still, however, have some contacts with their families and friends in Suriname and The Netherlands and some visited these countries.

The third group is the Surinam Javanese who came to The Netherlands in the 1970s. Their number amounts to approximately 20,000 to 25,000 people. The residence of these families is concentrated in and around cities like Groningen, Amsterdam, Den Haag, Rotterdam, 's-Hertogenbosch and Zoetermeer (Koesoebjono, 1991a, b). Although they are very well integrated in the Dutch life and culture, the Surinam Javanese families are making efforts to preserve their Javanese identity such as having a Javanese association in some big cities that organize frequently manifestations. One such manifestation was the celebration of the 110th anniversary of the first arrival of Javanese migrants in Suriname in 2000. Most of them still have families in Suriname to whom they send parcels and money. Many among them visit regularly Suriname.

In the course of time quite a number of Javanese have gone to Indonesia from Surinam and The Netherlands to see their place of origin, the place where their ancestors presumably came from, although most of them do not know where that place might be. Moreover many places of origin are changed due to local development and modernization processes and eventual relatives or friends of their (grand)parents are already dead or have moved to other places. Looking for the roots has proved for many persons a disappointment.

Preserving the culture

Studies report that the first generation of Javanese who migrated to Suriname resented their being sent to Suriname. Almost all described their initial recruitment in terms of ‘being tricked’. Most spoke of fear of being humiliated or shamed if they ever returned to Java (Dew, 1996). This has caused them difficulties in adjusting to the conditions in Suriname. Despite the feeling of disillusionment and demoralization with their new circumstances, the Javanese managed to reconstitute many of the traditional folk institutions they had known in Java. These, perhaps more than the formal practice of Islam, provided bonds that held the Javanese community together vis à vis the other ethnic groups (Dew, 1996).

The Surinam Javanese have been striving to preserve their ethnic identity. The desire to maintain and develop the Javanese culture can be seen in their efforts to pass down Javanese language, traditions and cultural expressions from one generation to another. Shadow puppetry, gamelan, jaran kepang (horse dance) (Gooswit, 1988), tayuban (courship dance), as well as performing ceremonies like slametan, celebrating the end of the fasting month (lebaran or bodo), wedding, mitoni (seventh month of pregnancy) and circumcision, are some of the traditions that have been preserved. Like in Java, they also have persons with special skills to perform these ceremonies, e.g. dukun bayi (birth attendant), dukun manten (for wedding ceremony) and dukun sunat (for circumcision).

Because the cultural heritage is passed orally and through tradition, various aspects have become blurred and missing from the original and new interpretations have arisen in the course of time. The interpretations of traditions and the use of words vary by community, reflecting differences in ancestral places of origin and the formal practice of the Islam (Koesoebjono, 1999). An important figure in the Surinam Javanese society in The Netherlands stated that the Surinam Javanese culture has been influenced by other ethnic groups in Suriname as well as by the western culture (Koesoebjono, 1991b). Moreover, the first generation of migrants who brought with them the Javanese tradition and culture, were not specialists in this field. They were not dancers, gamelan players, wayang makers or dukun. They were from farmers’ and labourers’ communities. So they practice or perform and then pass on the traditions and cultural expressions to their children as they saw and learned them in Java. Preparing typical Javanese food is also an aspect that has been modified over time. Although they have the same name such as saoto, pecel and gule, the taste of foods in Suriname are slightly different from that in Java. They have to adjust the spices and ingredients, using what are available locally. With these modifications the Surinam Javanese culture started its own path and developed into a form that differs from that in Java.

The Javanese language is part of the cultural expressions. The language spoken by the first generation of migrants was the Jawa ngoko (the Javanese spoken by people of lower status) rather than the kromo. It is then this type of Javanese language that has been taught and transferred to the younger generations 5    . In Suriname the Javanese is spoken in 17 % of the home of Javanese families (Dutch 33 %, and Sranantongo 28 %). There are four widely spoken languages in Suriname : Dutch, Sranantongo (Taki taki) (a Creole admixture of African, English, Dutch and Portuguese roots), Sarnami (of Hindu and Urdu origins with Dutch and Sranantongo additions) and Javanese (Dew, 1996). Sranantongo is the dominant language of the market place and on the streets, whereas Dutch is the language of government, education and media. The struggle to maintain the Javanese language in Suriname can be illustrated by the presence of three radio stations that use the language (Koesoebjono, 1999) 6    . They advertise forthcoming Javanese cultural performances in the country, requests for music and obituaries. They also broadcast western pop music translated into Javanese. A magazine (Negara Express) published by one of the broadcasting stations gives in each issue a lesson in Javanese language next to other informative articles, such as a Javanese bedtime story kancil and the Javanese days (pasaran).

Lack of equipment and skills has forced the people to look for alternatives and stimulate their creativity. For instance, with limited skills and materials they had to make a gamelan set. As they did not have the technology to make a round gong, they have created a flat form gong that produces a similar sound. People like to watch the shadow puppet (wayang kulit) but there is no artist specialized in carving the wayang kulit. The eighty year-old set of puppets used at this performance is hence very much treasured. Communities conducting a wayang show often rent this set, like the gamelan set. Also the dalang and the sinden travel all over the country when they are invited to give a performance. The dalang told the story in high Javanese language. To organize such an evening means hiring performers and renting materials from different communities. It requires good logistics next to enthousiasm among the organizers and visitors. This shows the person’s love for their cultural heritage and the strong bond among the Javanese. Most visitors are of the older generations who still command the Javanese language and know the story.

Another aspect perceived as part of the Javanese tradition is the Islam religion. Among the Javanese Moslems two groups have emerged, namely the reformists (Sahabatul Islam) and traditionalists (Ahmadiyah). The principal issue dividing them is the proper direction of prayer: West for the traditionalists - since this was the practice in Java, and East for the reformers - as this is the closest direction to Mecca. This division between "aliran Barat" and "aliran Timur" prevails to today and can still be seen in the direction of the "kiblat" of the mosques. Some facing East, others West. This issue has been divisive in social and political life (Dew, 1996; Gooswit, 1988). According to someone of the third generation descendant, the traditionalists tend to practice the Javanese custom (kejawen).

Towards a new "Javaneseness" 7   

The Surinam Javanese have encountered various obstacles in their efforts to preserve the Javanese language and culture. The education system and lifestyle of the younger generation alienate them from their Javanese tradition, culture and language. They speak the official language (Dutch) at school and work, maybe some Javanese at home but more likely Sranantongo, mostly used with friends. Javanese is not taught in schools. "My children had to learn Dutch when they entered school. As small kids they spoke Sranantongo. Must we then burden them with learning Javanese, too?", that is a question frequently asked by many parents.

At the same time there is a strong curiosity to know about Javanese ethics, philosophy of life and thoughts. Notwithstanding this need, there is little contact with Indonesians in Suriname. Some Surinam Javanese have a kind of reluctance (sungkan) when they meet Indonesian Javanese, being aware of the fact that their Javanese is different from the one spoken by the Javanese from Indonesia. On the other hand, the Indonesian government makes little effort to support the development of the Javanese culture in Suriname 8    . The Indonesian Embassy in Paramaribo provides courses in Bahasa Indonesia and since a few years ago it also gives courses on (modern) Javanese dances and the martial art pencak silat 9    . Due to limited resources these cultural activities can only reach people living in Paramaribo and its surrounding. Lessons in playing gamelan and dances are also provided by the Surinam Javanese themselves in the cultural centre Sana Budaya in Paramaribo.

The desire to be close to the Javanese way of life is evidenced by the popularity of imported goods varying from peci and blangkon to stagen, kain and the well known kretek cigarettes, from cassette tapes with songs in the Javanese language to handicrafts and furniture. The great majority of vendors at the Sunday market in northern Paramaribo is Javanese. They sell Javanese spices and other edible products next to imported goods. A Surinam Javanese importer visits frequently Indonesia to look for new products. The Indonesian Embassy in Suriname informed that the balance of trade is in favour of Indonesia.

In the course of time the Javanese community has been carried along by the development of Suriname and at the same time it has participated and contributed to this development. Their political parties are playing a key role in the politics as an intermediary between the rivalling Creole and Hindustani parties. Javanese ministers have been leading two ministries (agriculture and social affairs & housing) for a long time. Javanese also occupy high-ranking posts at various ministries, governmental and private organizations and at the diplomatic service. The number of university graduates is increasing. Many Javanese are active in small enterprises such as restaurants, shops and slaughter houses where chicken are slaughtered in traditional Islamic way and sold as "halal" chicken meat.

Closing remarks

Since its arrival the Javanese made various efforts to maintain their culture and traditions they have brought with them from Java as a means to survive in the new environment where they had to compete with migrant workers from other ethnic groups. These traditions are passed down from one generation to another. In the course of time the form of the Javanese cultural expressions have diverted from the original version and have their own development. Other ethnic groups, the socio-economic development of the country and the impact of "globalization" are instrumental to this process. The Surinam Javanese culture has developed into a unique entity. It will be interesting to study and to monitor the development towards a new "Javaneseness" among Surinam Javanese in Suriname.


This article is based on the paper presented at the 12th Workshop of the European Social Science Java Network/ESSJN held in Amsterdam, 20-22 January 2000.


The writer visited Suriname as consultant.



Recently a data base on Javanese in Suriname is available on internet.
It should be noted that there are also persons who returned from Indonesia to Suriname or who moved to The Netherlands next to those who returned from The Netherlands to Suriname.
The position of this group in West Sumatra was awkward during the Permesta affair in 1958 as they were considered as disguised followers of the enemy (i.e., central government in Jakarta). The Permesta movement was an anti-government insurgence.
Every year the association of returned Surinam Javanese in Indonesia, Paguyuban Keluarga Besar Asal Suriname in Jakarta, organizes a party commemorating their arrival on 4 February 1953. According to the present Chairman the membership is declining and those present at the party are mostly the elderly. At this party some typical Surinams dishes are prepared with specific vegetables such as bitawiri and tayawiri.
The sound of the Javanese spoken by Surinam Javanese is influenced by the common sound of the languages spoken in Suriname and differs from the sound of Javanese spoken by those from Java. A friend said to me: "from far people will think you are a Javanese who live for a long time abroad seeing the way you are walking and are dressed, but when they hear you talking then they will realize that you are not a "wong Djowo" or Javanese from Suriname".
The first Javanese language radio station was set up some four years ago.
This term is used by J.-L. Maurer at the 12th ESSJN Workshop in Amsterdam.
During his visit in 1995 the former president Suharto of Indonesia, supported the construction of a cultural centre and donated a set of gamelan. The Indonesian government provides two scholarships for short term traineeship in Indonesia each year but these are not specifically allocated for Surinam Javanese. On the other hand, the consequences of the reckless investment of the Indonesian logging company Musa in the 1990s that contributed to a wide deforestation left painful memories (The Jakarta Post, May 1, 1999).
There are regular contacts between the Surinam Javanese associations and the Indonesian Embassy in The Netherlands.

Netherlands, januari 2001
Info About This Article: Santo Koesoebjono
update: juli 21, 2004