Celebrating the extraordinary life of Elisabeth Samson: the first black self-made female millionaire in the 1700’s in the Americas.
Elisabeth however appears prominently in most respected history books in Suriname, not because of her achievement in having amassed great wealth, but because she was the first black female, who wanted to officially marry a white man in the colony of Suriname. Historians wrongly assumed that the source of her massive fortune must have come from “being the mistress of a white industrious plantation master who must have left her his entire fortune upon his death”. Nothing could have been further from the truth! Elisabeth took her life in her own hands and was an extremely brilliant and successful business woman in the 18th century as irrevocably proven through research by Cynthia McLeod. Mrs. McLeod is a prominent author and noted researcher on historical and cultural topics, in particular on Elisabeth Samson. Elisabeth was born in 1715 as a free “negress” in the former slavery colony Suriname, which was one of the most rigid slave places during that time.
Suriname is located in South America, and is part of the Guyana shield. Its history as quoted by mrs. McLeod is also rooted in tales of struggle, freedom, slavery and indentureship.
Just as a quick FYI: Suriname which is today the only Dutch speaking country in South- America went from Spanish to English hands till during the 2nd Dutch War between Britain and the Netherlands the Dutch famously swapped Manhattan, then known as Amsterdam, for Suriname
This left Ms. McLeod with the questions:
How could a female, let alone a black female, in the height of slavery and in a country harshly ruled by their colonizer, be born free and amass such extreme wealth? In the coming weeks we will post excerpts from Cynthia McLeod, the foremost authority on colonial history, who did a 12+ years research into the life of Elisabeth in The Netherlands (The Hague) where the archives on Suriname were kept and Germany.
Around 1700 a Dutch planter, Jan van Susteren, relocated to Suriname from St.Kitts, bringing along with him some male and female slaves. Among them was one female slave, Nanoe, with whom he had 2 children, Charlo and Maria. All remained his slaves until his death in 1712. In his will he instructed his wife to free Nanoe and her 2 children. (In the meantime however, Nanoe had six more children by other men, all Negroes.) Thus Nanoe, Charlo and Maria were freed in 1713. One year later, the newly freed daughter, Maria, married a wealthy Swiss planter, Pierre Mivela, who owned Plantation Salzhallen. In 1715, the freed mother Nanoe legally changed her name to Mariana and as a free woman she conceived one more child: Elisabeth Samson. Maria, half-sister to Elisabeth, had no children. So when her husband Mivela died, she remarried Frederick Coenraad Bossche and since she was childless they took Elisabeth into their home where she was raised. Elisabeth must have been an extremely intelligent girl; she could read and write, which in itself was exceptional for a black girl at that time. Maria’s husband was a businessman and importer of liquids and other materials.
Elisabeth was trained at a very young age to help him with his companies and got involved in businesses of her own. While doing her research, Author Cynthia McLeod found a list from 1734 with names of people with “possessions/properties” and Elisabeth’s name was amongst them. She was just nineteen at the time. In the meantime Maria’s brother Charo, became a carpenter, built houses, churches and repaired church pews with the goal to make enough money to obtain the freedom for all his blood relatives. He succeeded; by 1732 the entire still enslaved family members were free.
As author and researcher Cynthia McLeod wrote: her early life was not all happiness.
She got in serious problems with the political council and government in 1736 thanks to vicious remarks made by the wife of a colonist against the governor, Elisabeth happened to overhear and reported. She was accused of attempted manslaughter, since, if she was believed, and the woman and her husband, were found guilty, the couple could’ve been sentenced to death (the ultimate punishment for remarks against the governor).The verdict of the counsel was banishment from Suriname forever. Bailed out by her brother in law she was immediately sent to the Netherlands where she started an appeal, which took about 2 years. She was found not guilty and returned to Suriname in 1739.
Elisabeth, already the owner of plantations, started her life during this period with the German Otto Creutz, who resided in the house of her sister and brother in law. He did work for the governor and received in return land for a plantation. He had land but she had money and labor (about 200 slaves), was the business person; controlled the plantations, the household, did negotiations and wrote the letters. They lived in grand luxury and possessed everything money could buy. All properties and homes she and Creutz acquired during their time together were held jointly with the exception of slaves. Practice at the time was that slaves were part of the inventory, but Elisabeth documented that her slaves never belonged to the plantations, but were her own private possessions. This raises the question: why did a negress own slaves or would want slaves? During the time Elisabeth lived, it wasn’t only the height of slavery, Suriname was a plantation colony, which was the only way to make money in 18th century Suriname. Anyone who wasn’t a slave owned slaves in the 18th and beginning 19th century. Elisabeth owned plantations yes, but wanted to demonstrate that she could do everything better than the white colonizers, including in her treatment of slaves. There is proof that her slaves were treated well by her and lived in good homes. So in this case we should judge Elisabeth according to the knowledge and norms and customs of that time.