A Gathering of Ancestors #3: Breaking the chains of ignorance

By Nigel Gordijk  Sunday, September 24, 2023

Linking together the stories of my ancestors' remarkable lives.

Published on the 182nd anniversary of the final time my last enslaved ancestor was sold to someone else.

Keti koti means "breaking the chains" or "the chain is broken" in Sranan Tongo (Suriname Tongue), which is the language that enslaved African people developed to communicate with each other as they were forbidden from speaking Dutch, the colonialists' native tongue.

Over the past two and a half years, researcher Peggy Plet has been steadily researching my father's family history. You can read about my reaction to her initial discoveries here.

Due to the nature of genealogy, Peggy's findings have come in bursts of information, creating a disjointed narrative. I decided to consolidate what I have so far, to give me a clearer story of my ancestors. There are still some unknowns in this account, but this is what I currently know.

All of the knowledge about my father's family that I've acquired since February 2021 is entirely due to Peggy's hard work and expertise.

Antoinette Wilhelmina Sanches 1897-1981

Sylvion Frederick Gordijk (1927-2003) was my father, and his mother was Antoinette Wilhelmina Sanches, the only grandparent who was still alive when I was born in 1965. Dad, Mum, Granny and I all lived in the same apartment (the top half of a house) in North Finchley, London until the mid-seventies, when she moved in with Dad’s brother, Elmo, and his wife, Doreen, in Wealdstone, a few miles away.

Antoinette’s parents – my great-grandparents – were Anna Mariana Rigot and J.J.C. Sanches.

Anna’s father – my great-great-grandfather – was Frederik Rigot. He was born into slavery and worked on a timber plantation called La Diligence. It was one of several timber plantations, which still exist, in a community called Jodensavanne. That area is now considered a “must see” tourist attraction for visitors to Suriname.

Jewish colonialists had plantations all over Suriname, and Jodensavanne was a very tight knit community with a few hundred Jewish settlers and 9,000 enslaved Black people. Founded in the 1680s, it includes the ruins of what is believed to be the earliest synagogue of architectural significance in the Americas, along with cemeteries, boat landing areas, and a military post. The settlement was abandoned after a huge fire in 1832.

From the World Monument Fund website:

Jodensavanne (Jewish Savannah) was settled by a population of Sephardic Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition on mainland Europe in the mid-seventeenth century. The English, and later Dutch, colonists encouraged the Jewish group to settle and own the land along the River Suriname, making this the first and only location in the New World where Jews were granted a semi-autonomous settlement.

From the Stichting Jodensavanne (Jodensavanne Foundation) website:

The first mention of Jewish colonists arriving in Suriname goes back to the beginning of the seventeenth century in the 1630s, but clearly confirmed is that Jews came to Suriname in the 1650s from Barbados with the English Governor-General for the West Indies Lord Francis Willoughby of Parham. Some sources note that Willoughby invited most of them to strengthen the plantation economy. Jews might also have come to Suriname from the Pomeroon settlement, which was the Dutch colony of Essequibo (today, the Republic of Guyana). While the exact demographic make-up of the Jews who settled Suriname may be debated, it is certain they were not a homogenous group.

The Jewish colonialists typically resided in Paramaribo, Suriname’s capital, and Jodensavanne, and they would travel back and forth with their house servants. There is a significant, well-documented cemetery in Jodensavanne where many of the Jewish colonialists are buried.

While major organizations push to have the colony and its cemetery officially recognized for the significance of its Jewish colonial heritage, no such attention is paid to the graves of the enslaved people of Jodensavanne who died and are buried there.

Aerial view of Jodensavanne Beth Haim cemetery. Copyright: © Jodensavanne Foundation

Comments from Peggy Plet about Jodensavanne:

La Diligence...was a timber plantation, as was the plantation where my [Peggy's] folks came from. As a matter of fact, both plantations are located in the same district.

Just some background info. Slaves on timber plantations had little supervision (they were ‘freer’) and were in ‘better’ condition than slaves on sugar and coffee plantations because they grew their own food and their work schedule was not dictated by the planting and harvest season.

However, these individuals had to be strong. Their job was to cut trees (men), carry the tree trunks back to the plantation (women) where they would saw them into planks (men), which were then shipped to the capital and then to Europe. So, all the nice hardwood in colonial buildings in Europe and US came from the timber plantations.

The enslaved people on timber plantations did not get to be old. Women often had chest problems, heart issues, and many other illnesses.

Lastly, the past few years La Diligence has been in the news because the descendants of former slaves evacuated current residents (squatters) claiming that they had no right to be there. Very messy. If you google it, you’ll find it.

Frederik and his sister Jeanette were both owned by Willem Johannes Koorndijk, and they were freed by manumission in 1840, 23 years before emancipation in Suriname. So far, I don’t know how or why, but they were probably both young children.

Three decades later, in 1870, Frederik married Albertine M. Troonap – my great-great-grandmother – who was also manumitted on the same date as him. It’s probable that Frederik and Albertine knew each other when they were both owned by Koorndijk, who was formerly enslaved himself.

There was some kind of relationship – business or familial – between Koorndijk and a Jewish slaveowner called Josua de la Parra, but the connection is not clear.

Frederik and Albertine’s dates of birth and death are unknown.

Shortly after he was freed in 1840, Frederik bought an elderly enslaved woman called Abemi, who was possibly his mother –my great-great-great-grandmother – so she could be free, too. Even though formerly enslaved people did engage in the slave trade themselves, paying for someone who was so old doesn’t make much sense unless they were related.

Abemi was born in 1784, died in 1858, and was brought to Suriname on a slave ship from Africa. There's a strong likelihood that the country of origin is Ghana.

Abemi’s mother was Acoesa, who was my great-great-great-great-grandmother. Both their names are African. There are no dates of birth or death recorded for Acoesa.

Illustrations showing how Africans were transported in the hulls of European ships during the Transatlantic slave trade; circa 1791.

From “Approved by the Bible. The Slave Trade of the Dutch West India Company” (The Low Countries website):

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a slave ship shipped an average of 350 enslaved people from West Africa to the colonies in the West. WIC (West India Company) ships regularly carried more enslaved people, averaging about six hundred. It is estimated that the WIC shipped at least 85,000 enslaved people from West Africa to the Atlantic before 1674, and at least 180,000 after 1674. Added together, this means that the WIC was responsible for about half of the total number of enslaved people shipped by the Netherlands from West Africa to the Atlantic; approximately 300,000 in total.

An estimated 600,000 enslaved Africans were traded by the Dutch.

It is difficult to say how many enslaved people died aboard WIC slave ships. It is estimated that the average death rate aboard WIC ships between 1674 and 1740 was about 16.5 percent. Yet, that figure is debatable. The archives of WIC are only partially preserved. There is also a certain group that is structurally missing from the archives: babies who were born on board and also died there. They are almost entirely invisible in the archives.

A glaring example of the high mortality rate aboard WIC slave ships is the Leusden: This ship made ten slave voyages between 1719 and 1738, shipping a total of 6,564 enslaved Africans. Due to the wretched conditions on board, a quarter of them died on route. During the Leusden’s last voyage in 1737, the ship carried nearly seven hundred enslaved Africans that were to be sold in Suriname. Due to bad weather, captain Jochem Outjes made a major navigational error: instead of sailing up the Suriname River, he sailed up the Marowijne River, causing the ship to run into a sandbank and to start sinking. The hundreds of people on board tried to get to the upper deck to save themselves from drowning.

But the crew made the ruthless choice to batten down the hatches, which meant death for the 664 enslaved people on board. The crew themselves managed to escape the wreck. Sixteen enslaved people eventually survived the disaster, because they were allowed to stay on the upper deck for unknown reasons. Two weeks later, they were sold in Suriname.

Jodensavanne links:

James Johannes Gordijk 1887-1964

My father, Sylvion Frederick, and his brothers were all born in Guyana while it was still under British control.

His father was James Johannes Gordijk, and he was married to Antoinette Wilhelmina Sanchez. The couple moved back and forth between Suriname (Dutch Guiana) and Guyana (British Guiana).

James served in the British army and reached the rank of lieutenant. He died in 1964, the year before I was born.

Antoinette died in Wealdstone, London in 1981, at the age of 84.

James Johannes Gordijk’s birth certificate.

James’ parents were Frederik Willem Gordijk (1859-1938) and Sofia Maria Benjamin (? – 1914).

Frederik’s mother was Betje (1822-1898), who was also known as Bebe or Elizabeth, and when she was born, she didn't have a last name. She didn't acquire the surname Gordijk until she became free. Betje – my great-great-grandmother – was the last person in my family to be enslaved.

Betje was owned by multiple people and sold several times. Her final owner, Anna Pieternella Groenhout, was a Black woman who had been enslaved herself until 1839. Two years later, on 24 September, 1841, she bought my ancestor as a housemaid from S.C. Stallard.

Betje had six children: Anna (born 1842); Johannes (1843); Josephina (1850); twins James and Jane (1852; Jane died at eight days old); and Frederik (1859).

As well as being enslaved, Betje also worked paying jobs. In the United States, many enslaved people didn’t work on Sundays, and they were able to go to market and sell vegetables that they’d grown on a small plot of land that they’d been given by their masters, as well as baked good that they’d made. It’s possible that enslaved people in Suriname did the same.

By 1853, Betje had earned enough money to begin buying her four children out of bondage through a practice called manumission.

Frederik’s sister Josephina was sold to James Smith in 1851, for the purpose of being manumitted. Smith was probably Josephina’s father, and he freed her in 1854. She became Josephina Petronella Nijeveen.

My great-grandfather, Frederik, was the last enslaved child to be freed by his mother at the age of two, which means that I am just three generations removed from slavery.

In 1862, Betje finally bought her own freedom.

Slavery was abolished in Suriname on July 1, 1863. If she had waited for Dutch emancipation, Betje might not have been truly free for another decade as the Netherlands government enforced a transition period whereby formerly enslaved people had to serve a 10-year “apprenticeship” with the people who had owned them.

Notice of sale in an 1853 Suriname newspaper of three “slavenkinderen” (slave children) by A.P. Groenhout to their mother, Betje. A fourth child, my great-grandfather Frederik, was sold to Betje in 1861. Translation: On behalf of His Excellency the Governor of this colony, it is hereby announced that, in consequence of such requests, Letters of Manumission have been granted to the following slaves, as: To the slave children, Anna 11 years old, Johannes 10 years old and James 1 year old, children of Betje, who used to belong to A.P. Groenhout.

Betje’s liberated children were the first to use the last name Gordijk, which was assigned to them, probably by a Dutch government clerk. Enslaved people were sometimes given muddled versions of Dutch names, so it’s possible that Gordijk is derived from Gorredijk, a town in the Netherlands. I am only the third generation of my family to be born with this last name.

Betje was born in 1822 and died in 1898 at the age of 76, having lived the last 36 years of her life as a free person. That was long enough for her to know and hold her grandson – my grandfather – James. That’s how close my generation is to slavery in my family.

Betje’s death certificate.

My great-grandfather Frederik Gordijk, who died in 1938, married Sofia Maria Benjamin on January 6, 1884. He was 25, and she was 24. Before his wedding, he had to produce his documents of manumission as proof of his identity.

Their wedding certificate notes that Frederik’s brother, Johannes, was present as a witness, and his profession is listed as “Tailor”. It also notes that Frederik's profession was “Writer”. This means he earned his living because of his superior penmanship, and his job was to write the details in certificates and other official documents.

Frederik and Sophia’s wedding license.

The couple had four children: Elizabeth Bianca, Josefina Petronella Antoinette, Dad’s father, James Johannes, and a child whose name I don’t know.

James Johannes Gordijk’s birth certificate.

My grandfather James’s birth certificate shows that he was born in the evening of March 6, 1891, and that his parents lived on Saramacca Straat in Paramaribo. This was in a well-to-do neighbourhood, which suggests that they had achieved stable financial status.

Frederik, a Catholic, divorced Sofia Maria and later married Annie Eliza Wade.

Great-grandmother Sofia Maria Benjamin’s parents were Nantes Aron Benjamin (1826-?) and Petronella Jacoba van Auca (?-?).

Nantes’s military record states that he was a merchant and a soldier. His appearance, when he was 28, is described as follows:

Face: oval
Forehead: round
Mouth: ordinary
Eyes: Brown
Hair: Black/grey
Colour: healthy
Nose: ordinary
Chin: round
Eyebrows: Black
Beard: Black
Special remarks: skin pock marked

The reference to “Colour” likely means that he looked healthy, not pale and sickly.

This document was signed with an “X”, which indicates that Nantes was illiterate.

Nantes had a criminal record in the Netherlands after he deserted from the army in 1852. His paperwork confirms that he was Jewish; under his religion, it says “Israelite”.

Petronella’s surname, van Auca, references Auca, a village in the Surinamese jungle, and it was also the name of a plantation. There are records that show individuals with that name were among the early free people.

Mixed-race marriages were permitted; marriages between enslaved and free people, regardless of race, were not. This shows that the relationship between Nantes, who was of European descent, and Petronella, who had African lineage, was consensual, as they were legally married.

Nantes (spelled as Nantus on his birth certificate) was born in Amsterdam in April 1826 to Aron Benjamin (?-?) and Sofia Jacob Cacaoboom (?-?). The family lived in a Jewish neighbourhood of the city.