A former sugar cane plantation and factory in the Commewijne district of Suriname
, site of a massacre of indentured workers during a mass revolt, commemorated by a monument. And the former factory is now an exceedingly alluring abandoned industrial site – urbex
in the tropics! Pretty unique.
More background info:
Mariënburg was one of the many sugar cane plantations in the Commewijne area of Suriname
, founded in the mid-18th century, by one Maria de la Jaille (who obviously named the place after herself, in the usual fashion – see also Jonestown
!), and for a while it was a coffee plantation too. In the later 19th century sugar cane production was upped again and a central factory for processing the cane into sugar proper was built. A distillery to make rum was added too, and the very first railway line was constructed to bring in the cane from the farther parts of the plantations whose crop the factory processed (these days Suriname has no railroads any longer).
The whole operation was owned by the “Nederlandsche Handel-Maatschappij” (NHM, ‘Dutch Trading Society’) which relied on large numbers of Indonesian and Indian indentured workers, who were mostly housed in simple lodgings in the immediate vicinity of the plantation/factory.
As the sugar cane plantation industry had already begun to wane around the turn of the 20th century, the NHM simply cut the already low wages of the workers to an even more pitiful pittance, causing resentment and strikes – and some workers revolted. Things escalated in the summer of 1902, when a major strike took place. On 20 July, Mariënburg’s director James Mavor was attacked by angry striking workers and killed. The revenge meted out by the authorities was brutal: they sent in an army consignment who shot 17 of the workers dead, and wounded another 39, of whom seven later died as a result of their wounds, bringing the fatalities to a total of 24. The victims were simply dumped into an unmarked mass grave.
The incident left a very black mark on Suriname’s history and formed the real-life event that is the core of the story of the otherwise mostly fictional book “It Happened at Marienburg, Suriname” by local author Cynthia McLeod (see also under Suriname history
), which follows the life story of one mixed-race woman from Mariënburg, beginning just before the 1902 massacre and reaching into the 1970s.
The factory closed for good in 1986 and the site has been practically abandoned ever since. Twenty years later, and over a century after the event, a memorial commemorating the 1902 massacre was erected, later joined by one marking the arrival of Indonesians at Mariënburg. The site has became a low-key tourist attraction, with tours given by former workers.
The brand name Mariënburg, by the way, is still in use in Suriname, namely for a range of overproof white rums (now made elsewhere), the strongest of which comes to an eye-watering 90% vol! I actually brought back a small bottle of this to use in the kitchen, namely for “cold flambéing” (at that strength you don’t have to heat up the rum before setting it alight, it’s already flammable at room temperature).
What there is to see:
My visit to Mariënburg was part of a whole-day excursion from Paramaribo
during my August 2019 grand tour of the Three Guianas (see under Guyana
). When we arrived at the site after lunch, our driver/guide handed us over to a local on-site guide, a former worker at Mariënburg who took us round the abandoned factory compound.
Dominating the complex is the main factory building, whose central part is about six storeys high. Inside you can look all the way up – but the rickety rusting metal stairs leading to the top would quite probably not be safe to use any more, and so we didn’t even attempt it. I presume this tall part of the building must once have housed the column distilling apparatus for making rum.
Our guide warned us against getting too close to the steel support beans – as swarms of wasps were nesting inside them. I also spotted an old motorcycle helmet that was scarily infested with big brown wasps!
You also had to watch your step: not only was there debris strewn about and wasps to avoid, there were also manholes with no cover with steps leading down into the depths of some flooded basement. You don’t want to fall into that!
After this fascinating bit of urbexing
in the tropics we emerged at the rear of the factory building and explored the back yard. Here large rusting machinery from the sugar processing can be marvelled at. In particular there are giant cogwheels, over 10 feet (3 metres) in diameter, engine parts and sugar pressing machinery that must have been dangerous when active – if you can squash sugar cane between all these cogs, then a human arm would also be very crushable in it!
All around the jungle was creeping back in and the machinery sat in dense undergrowth, and little lizards were basking in the sun on the rusty surfaces! Most impressive, though, were the trees growing in the dilapidated buildings, with roots slowly swallowing the structures in a way that reminded me of Ta Prohm in Cambodia
! (See also Îles du Salut
!) – the photos below
illustrate this better than any verbal description can.
We then made our way back to square in front of the main building. En route I spotted a few signs, amongst them a faded “no smoking” sign in Dutch, but also a plaque on a machine that was all in German, and dated from only 1971! So they must still have invested in new machinery as late as that, just 15 years before the whole place shut down.
Incidentally, the former Mariënburg worker who guided us through the pant also had a book with him, released in 1982 to mark the centenary of the founding of the factory, which featured many old photos from the days when the plantation and the factory were still active. It certainly helped in bringing the place to life. But overall, it was the very abandoned-ness and the urbex
character of exploring the site that fascinated me most.
Out on the sandy square in front of the old factory there’s also a small train on display on a short stretch of rails leading nowhere. I presume this must be a relic from that first railway line built in Suriname
The former director’s house, a grand mansion on stilts (many buildings in the Guianas are on such stilts, as a precaution against flooding, which can easily happen in tropical storms), used to house a museum about Mariënburg and its history, but that was closed at the time of my visit, and I was told that it had been closed for a while. Whether there are any prospects of it reopening at any point, I do not know. The building as such, just like others in the compound directly outside the factory, looked like it was beginning to simply rot away. That’s what easily happens to wooden buildings in this hot and humid climate. Nature just slowly devours them.
In front of the museum is a fairly new looking large monument including a group of white statues ascending up a slope – this is to commemorate the first stepping ashore in Suriname
of indentured workers and their families from Java, Indonesia
, in 1890.
And then there is the monument, unveiled in 2006, that honours the 24 victims of the 1902 massacre at Mariënburg (see above). This brings a sobering and very dark element to what was otherwise more an urbex exploration. Both elements belong together here, though. And I was glad this part of the tour was still included, on my specific request – the organizers at some point dropped it from the itinerary because of the closure of the museum, but I insisted that it was the site as such, not the museum, that was important to me. And so it was put back into the itinerary. In fact, in hindsight, I’d go as far as saying that Mariënburg was possibly the highlight of my dark-tourism activities in Suriname
south of the Commewijne River between Nieuw Amsterdam and Plantage Katwijk, ca. 8 miles (13 km) as the crow flies to the north-east of Suriname
’s capital Paramaribo
Access and costs: a bit off the beaten track, but not too hard to get too; not too pricey
I visited this site as part of a longer day excursion from Paramaribo
that also included Peperpot and Fort Nieuw Amsterdam
, which was part of my tailored package put together by the Georgetown-based company Wilderness Explorers (see under Guyana
), but it can also be done independently or by locally booked tour. If you want to go independently, getting to Mariënburg is the first obstacle. Unless you have a hire car, it’s a case of getting a boat (water taxi) from Paramaribo to the landing stage north of Mariënburg on the Commewijne River and then walking it; or you can cycle. There are also buses from Meerzorg, but those are least likely an option for tourists.
At the time of writing, the museum at Mariënburg is closed, though it nominally had the opening times of 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. The tours, if not organized by a tour company, can usually be arranged on the spot with one of the guides who normally linger at the site awaiting visitors. What the exact price for this is I do not know (as my tour was part of a package), but I can’t imagine it breaking the bank, probably a few dollars worth …
Note that you should wear long sleeves and trousers and ideally some sturdy waterproof boots, as the overgrown parts of the factory grounds can be muddy and the undergrowth thorny.
Time required: the tour of the abandoned factory takes about half an hour; add some 10–15 minutes to see the monuments and so on, plus extra time for the museum, should that ever reopen.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
most obviously that has to be Fort Nieuw Amsterdam
– which is only a few miles up the road. And since most tours to Mariënburg are likely to go from Paramaribo
, that city is also a natural combination.
- Mariental 01 - main factory building
- Mariental 02 - closer up
- Mariental 03 - inside
- Mariental 04 - abandoned
- Mariental 05 - looking up dilapidated stairs
- Mariental 06 - nobody there
- Mariental 07 - helmet infested by wasps
- Mariental 08 - into the abyss
- Mariental 09 - the jungle is taking over again
- Mariental 10 - rear of the factory
- Mariental 11 - trees clinging on
- Mariental 12 - Ta Prohm style
- Mariental 13 - anaconda-like tree
- Mariental 14 - back yard
- Mariental 15 - big machinery
- Mariental 16 - little green lizard on rusty steel
- Mariental 17 - big wheels
- Mariental 18 - heavy legacy
- Mariental 19 - piston
- Mariental 20 - do not get your hand caught in this machine
- Mariental 21 - brick kiln
- Mariental 22 - faded no-smoking sign
- Mariental 23 - sign in German
- Mariental 24 - stranded little train
- Mariental 25 - no longer lived in
- Mariental 26 - closed museum
- Mariental 27 - monument commemorating the 1902 massacre
- Mariental 28 - monument for the arrival of Indonesian workers
- Mariental 29 - time to leave