Loot. 10 Stories

Staff from Suriname

This staff is part of a collection of over 40 objects from Suriname acquired in 1901 by the Ethnologisches Museum (Ethnological Museum, formerly the Royal Museum for Ethnology) in Berlin. They were purchased from Paul Körner, a German traveller to the region. Archival records reveal that a shop clerk at the Moravian mission station in Wanhatti stole it from an unsuspecting Surinamese villager. The owner and perhaps creator of the staff was a member of the Ndyuka, a Maroon community descended from enslaved Africans who had fled the plantations to settle deep in the rain forests of Suriname, in northern South America. The exact meaning of the staff is still unknown. The double-sided figure on the upper end likely represents an ancestor; the sections on the lower end refer to the clans of the Ndyuka.

The Protestant Moravian Church began mission work early on, determined to spread the Christian faith across the world. The Moravians were very active in Suriname when it was under Dutch colonial rule. They studied the languages and customs of the indigenous people but also ran plantations to finance these activities. Slavery was the rule here rather than the exception. The missionaries’ regional activities and contacts made them useful middlemen for European museums seeking to create ethnographic collections. Over the course of the 19th century they began to systematically collect objects and artworks for export, using means that were not always legal. Many religious items were stolen to prevent their owners from engaging in ritual practices; others were surrendered by new converts.

The documentary on view here follows the poet Onias Landveld, whose maternal uncle is a chief in the Wanhatti region. After Onias’ encounter with the staff, the Ethnology Museum started an in-depth research and building a relationship with the Maroon community.

Documentary about the staff from Suriname, 2023
4:04 Min
Jongsma + O’Neill


‘Maroons’ is a collective name for several ethnic groups in Suriname. The largest six are the Ndyuka, Saamaka, Aluku, Kwinti, Matawai and Paamaka. They are descended from former enslaved people who fled the plantations. To avoid being recaptured by the Dutch, the Maroons settled in Suriname’s inaccessible forests, where they lived side by side with the indigenous population. While the art, religions and customs of the Maroons reflect both African and indigenous influences and cultures, they also have qualities that are entirely their own.

Wood carving

Wood carving plays an important role in Maroon culture. In the mid-19th century, Maroon men began to decorate wood-carved benches, combs, stirrers, canoes and single-blade paddles with engravings and reliefs. While American and European researchers initially saw this as an authentic African art form, it is now clear that Maroon wood art has its own stylistic features. There are also major regional differences between Maroon communities in terms of their formal languages and craftsmanship. The Ndyuka, for example, tend to use more figurative motifs, such as lizards, snakes, birds and humans.


It has proved difficult to ascertain this staff’s significance to its original owners, as the information available is limited. Many Maroon artefacts have been stolen from their original owners, resulting in a significant loss of knowledge. To date, no similar staffs have been discovered that might provide more insight into the object’s history. However, after examination by several experts, it can be concluded that the staff’s stylistic features, such as the rough contours, are indicative of early wood carving styles. Also notable are the engraved dots on the face, stomach and legs of the female figure, which may represent scarification, a common form of body decoration among Maroon women.

Moravian Brethren in Wanhatti

In 1735, the first Moravian missionaries settled in Suriname with the aim of converting the population to Christianity. Between 1892 and 1907, they were active in the village of Wanhatti. While the Moravian Brethren took time to build up a relationship of trust with the local population, converting them proved rather difficult. In their annual reports, the missionaries recounted how they sometimes lost heart as the Ndyuka clung to their own rituals. Because ‘pagan idols’ were thought to stand in the way of the conversion, these were confiscated and collected by the Brethren. Sometimes the objects were taken by force, at other times narcotics were used.

The Objects in the Exhibition

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Loot. 10 Stories