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The Cost of Sugar – Cynthia McLeod

The Cost of Sugar – Cynthia McLeod

Book Review

Historical Novel by Cynthia McLeod
Original Title: Hoe duur was de suiker?
Translator: Gerald Mettam
Publisher: HopeRoad Publishing
(September, 2013)
Available at:
Price: Paperback (298 pages) $ 17.00
Kindle $ 4.61

About the Author

Cynthia McLeod is a Suriname native. She gained fame as a writer of historical novels, some of which have been translated into English, German, Italian, and Swedish.

Mrs. McLeod (1936) was born Cynthia Ferrier, a daughter of Johan Ferrier – Suriname’s last Governor under the Dutch administration, who became the first President of the Republic of Suriname when the country became independent in 1975.

Cynthia McLeod2The author finished high school in Suriname and then took off to the Netherlands for studies. She met her husband there, Donald McLeod, and the couple returned to Suriname in 1962. Cynthia McLeod continued her studies in Suriname and worked as a Dutch teacher at a high school in Paramaribo until 1978. She then followed her husband to Venezuela, Belgium and the United States, where he was appointed Ambassador of Suriname. It was during her time abroad that Mrs. McLeod started writing and researching the history of Suriname extensively.
She published her first book in 1987: Hoe duur was de suiker?, the original version in Dutch of The Cost of Sugar. This debut instantly made her Suriname’s #1 author: the initial 3000 copies of the book were sold out in 6 weeks – this is a big deal in Suriname with its small population, that does not tend to spend much on books. To this day, Hoe duur was de suiker? remains the best selling book in Suriname as well as the best selling book abroad by a Surinamese author. In 2013, a Dutch crew turned this title into a motion picture of the same name.

Sweet Merodia - SurinameHere in Suriname, there is probably not a soul who does not know Cynthia McLeod. Either people know her as an author or as the Republic’s first President’s daughter or as the great storyteller that she is, or she has been their teacher back in school. And there is yet another reason for which Mrs. McLeod became known in Suriname and abroad. See this picture here of the barge by the name of Sweet Merodia*? A dream that Mrs. McLeod had came true when she was able to purchase an old flat bottom boat and convert it into a tourist vessel that cruised the Suriname River or the Commewijne River, along the coast where once hundreds of plantations were located. On board, she would talk about the history of the planters, their families, their plantations and their slaves. The tours were open to paying guests, who raised the money for the organization to be able to offer the trip to Suriname primary school classes at no charge. The purpose was to educate anybody interested and particularly Suriname’s youth on the country’s history. After a number of successful years, the maintenance costs of the old barge grew too high and the Sweet Merodia was docked for good. The historical tours are now carried out per bus and Mrs. McLeod also guides walking tours through the historical city center of Paramaribo.

* Merodia was the name of a plantation in Suriname, featured in Cynthia McLeod’s book “Vaarwel Merioda” (1993).

Story and Setting

October 1765 – Sarith and Elza are teenage step sisters. They live at the Hébron Plantation on the banks of the Suriname River, near Jodensavanne.
In their lives and times, Jodensavanne was Suriname’s most important town, larger and of greater economic importance than Paramaribo was back then. Today, the ruins, the cemetery and the tall, old trees are the silent witnesses that remain of this abandoned Jewish settlement. If only the trees could speak, they would tell us everything about life at the plantation, the business deals, the church formalities, the continuous concern for attacks by runaway slaves, the cruelties, the heartbreaks – the daily life that went down at that beautiful spot by the river.
The trees cannot speak, but Cynthia McLeod reveals what life could have been – and probably was – like for two young ladies growing up in the Dutch colony. The book covers 14 years of Sarith’s and Elza’s lives, during which they marry, learn to deal with life’s struggles and become mothers. The author describes life in the young colony in detail – we learn the names of real people, we read about their day-to-day activities and get a picture of how their communication must have sounded like.

Sugar Cane, Suriname
Sugar Cane

Suriname’s plantations produced cocoa, coffee, cotton and sugar. In the 18th century, the production of sugar reached it’s peak and profits were good. Sugar was the colony’s most important export product. Hébron was a successful sugar plantation. But producing sugar was a very labor intensive process. Enslaved Africans would start working the fields early in the morning, at sunrise. They would harvest the sugar cane and chop it into smaller parts using a machete. Then the sugar cane pieces would get pressed by large rollers and the laborers would boil the juice in large, round metal dishes until syrupy. This syrupy mass would go into large barrels, where it would thicken and get shipped off to Europe. The harvesting, pressing and boiling process was not only heavy duty but also a high risk job the slaves found themselves exposed to. Meanwhile, the planters were facing troubles of their own, constantly worrying about the continuous attacks on plantations by runaway slaves. The story of Sarith and Eliza is set against this background of the high cost of sugar.

Final Word

Cynthia McLeod writes historical novels which are set in the 18th or 19th century Suriname – the age of Dutch colonization, when slaves were toiling and plantations were booming. The events are true stories. The places are real places. Some of the people in the books are to be found in historical archives, while other names are fictional but based on real characters.

The book offers a touch of Dutch as well as Sranan. It contains an overview of consulted literature and an extensive glossary of terms, of which the following picture shows you an excerpt.

The Cost of Sugar - Cynthia McLeodYou will get a feel of the humble speech of the slaves (which is still recognizable in today’s speech!) and the degrading tone of voice their masters poured down on them. You will get an understanding of the situation in which Portuguese Jews and Dutch settlers got themselves into, and of the suffering the slaves had to endure. At the same time, you will enjoy the frivolous story of two maturing well-to-do young women who – each in her own right – tried to make the best out of life in the colony. Cynthia McLeod is a storyteller – once you pick up the book, you will find it hard to put it down.

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