Suriname’s earliest inhabitants were the Surinen Indians, after whom the country is named. At 1500 Yáñes Pinzón, from Spain, explored the coast of what is todays Suriname. As he did not expect mineral resources, the Spaniards lost interest in the country. Spain explored Suriname in 1593 again, but by 1602 the Dutch began to settle the land, followed by the English. The English transferred sovereignty to the Dutch in 1667 (the Treaty of Breda) in exchange for New Amsterdam (New York). Although the territory formally changed hands many times between the Dutch, English and French, before finally being confirmed as a Dutch possession by the terms of the 1815 Treaty of Vienna. At this time, the majority of the population were slaves, working on the plantations. Colonization was confined to a narrow coastal strip, and until the abolition of slavery in 1863, African slaves furnished the labor for the coffee and sugarcane plantations. Escaped African slaves fled into the interior, reconstituted their western African culture, and came to be called “Bush Negroes” by the Dutch. After 1870, East Indian laborers were imported from British India and Javanese from the Dutch East Indies.
Known as Dutch Guiana, the colony was integrated into the kingdom of the Netherlands in 1948. Two years later Dutch Guiana was granted home rule, except for foreign affairs and defense. After race rioting over unemployment and inflation, the Netherlands granted Suriname complete independence on November 25, 1975. A coup d’état in 1980 brought military rule. During much of the 1980s Suriname was under the repressive control of Lieut. Col. Dési Bouterse. The Netherlands stopped all aid in 1982 when Suriname soldiers killed 15 journalists, politicians, lawyers, and union officials. Defense spending increased significantly, and the economy suffered.
A guerrilla insurgency by the Jungle Commando (a Bush Negro guerrilla group) threatened to destabilize the country and was harshly suppressed by Bouterse. The economic burden of the civil war that broke out between the regime and jungle-based dissident elements prompted the military regime to announce a return to civilian rule. A transitional constitution was agreed in March 1987. Elections in November gave 40 out of the 51 seats in the National Assembly to the Front for Democracy and Development – a pro-Bouterse party, created to engineer the return to civilian government without major policy changes. However, by this time, after a 1990 dispute with elected President Ransewak Shankar, Desi Bouterse had once again put the military back in charge via another coup. The new government was dominated by the Vice-President and Premier Jules Wijdenbosch. Wijdenbosch and his counterpart in the New Front (NF, the successor party to the Front for Democracy and Development), Runaldo Venetiaan, along with Bouterse, have since become the dominant figures in Surinam’s domestic politics. Free elections were held on May 25, 1991, depriving the military of much of its political power. In 1992 a peace treaty was signed between the government and several guerrilla groups. Venetiaan held the presidency from 1991 until 1996 – when he was replaced by Wijdenbosch – and then again, following the most recent national elections in May 2000.
Surinam’s most important foreign relations are with its near neighbours and with the former Dutch colonial power, which is its principal source of aid. In the case of the Dutch, relations have see-sawed since the early 1980s, depending
largely on the extent of Dutch aid and the extent of military influence over the Surinamese government. Bouterse, always a controversial figure in Dutch eyes, has been arraigned by Dutch courts for drug trafficking and the torture of political opponents. Relations with Surinam’s neighbours are generally good. A niggling border dispute with Guyana over territorial waters – the site of possible oil deposits – was settled in the summer of 2000, only for it to simmer enough for a UN tribunal to have to be set up in June 2004 in order to resolve the long-running dispute. However, the other main territorial dispute, with Brazil, has also yet to be resolved. In January 2004, the government introduced a new currency, the Surinamese dollar, to replace the guilder.