By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
On February 23, 1763, a group of enslaved Africans in Berbice, Guiana, seized their freedom from the Dutch men and women who for more than a century had kept them enslaved as an unpaid workforce. At the time, Guiana was a Dutch colony occupied by men and women from the Netherlands who bought, sold and brutalized enslaved Africans.
As a child growing up in Berbice, I heard stories from my elders about the brutality and barbarism of the Dutch slaveholders, who they deemed worse than the British. Not that the British were not brutal and barbaric in their treatment of enslaved Africans, but the elders were unanimous in their condemnation of the Dutch as worse.
From the pen of the Dutch governor of Berbice, Wolfert Simon van Hoogenheim:
“On 14 April 1764 – Rebel Pikenini captured…I listened in the greatest astonishment as his captors explained why his back had been cut up hanging in pieces. They stated that just to amuse themselves they had cut his back up with a saw.”
George Pinckard, a doctor visiting Demerara in 1796, described his observation of a Dutch woman brutalizing an enslaved African man:
“We suddenly heard the loud cries of a Negro smarting under the whip. Mrs. (name not listed) expressed surprise on observing me shudder at his shrieks and you will believe that I was in utter astonishment to find her treat his sufferings as matter of amusement.”
It is not surprising given the barbarity of the slaveholders that the enslaved Africans in Berbice decided as a group to seize their freedom. The story, as told in many history books, identifies the Africans as “rebels” instead of freedom fighters and their struggle as a “rebellion” instead of a revolution.
It is interesting to note the words used by Henry G. Dalton, a British author who, in 1855, published two volumes of The History of British Guiana, Comprising General Description of the Colony. Writing of the Berbice Revolution, which started on February 23, 1763 and lasted until March 1764, Dalton notes:
“1763, a terrible insurrection burst out, which convulsed the whole colony, and threatened its very existence.”
Some writers have tried to position the freedom fighters of the Berbice Revolution as a group of disorganized Africans who were forever squabbling with each other. However, even Dalton in his telling of the story acknowledges that “the Negroes had organized themselves into a regular government, had established a complete system of military discipline, and had chosen Cuffy, a young slave of courage and judgment, as their governor.”
Kofi, whose name has been distorted and Anglicized as “Cuffy” for generations, was an Akan man from the area of modern-day Ghana. His name identifies him as an Akan male who was born on a Friday. He was chosen as the leader of the revolution and the African governor of Berbice on par with the Dutch governor, Wolfert Simon van Hoogenheim, with whom he corresponded during negotiations for the freedom of the enslaved Africans.
The Africans were superior in numbers and could have crushed the Dutch and either driven them out of the colonies or exterminated the lot of them. The Dutch did not hesitate to brutally supress the revolution and displayed extreme barbarity in destroying the revolutionaries when their reinforcements arrived in the region.
At the time of the Berbice Revolution on February 23, 1763 (Berbice at the time was separate from Demerara and Essequibo), there were 346 White residents and 3,833 enslaved Africans in the colony of Berbice. Imagine if those Africans had done to the Whites what the White population eventually did to the Africans. Africans in Guiana would have been completely free since 1763. At least by the end of April 1763, the colony would have been free of the White enslavers.
However, while the Africans were negotiating in good faith, the Europeans were marking time until troops from neighbouring French, Dutch and British colonies arrived. Once reinforcements arrived in the colony and the Europeans regained control of Berbice, many of the Africans were brutally killed as a warning.
Forty were hanged, 24 broken on the wheel and 24 were burned to death. Some fled to neighbouring Suriname while others were re-enslaved, but Kofi was never captured. Many of the Africans preferred to die fighting, rather than surrender and become re-enslaved.
The occupation and settlement of Guiana began in earnest with the founding of the Dutch West India Company, which was chartered in 1621 and through this company the Dutch were encouraged to settle in numbers, first in Essequibo. However, there were Dutch settlers in the region before the founding of the Dutch West India Company.
For instance, in 1613 a group of Spaniards surprised the members of a Dutch settlement on the Courentyne in Berbice and destroyed that settlement.
To ensure the successful operation of their plantations, the Dutch were involved in the kidnapping and transporting of enslaved Africans to their colonies in the New World, which included Guiana.
The Dutch had been involved in the trading of Africans for a few years before they established the colony in Guiana. In 1598, the Dutch began building forts along the West African coast in competition with the Portuguese. In 1637, they captured Elmina from the Portuguese. Members of other European tribes, including the Danes, English, Spanish and Swedes, also became involved in the exploitation of Africa and Africans. It eventually became a free-for-all with the Europeans fighting each other for the opportunity to make their fortunes on the backs of Africans.
The Africans resisted their enslavement in various ways from the time they were captured on the African continent and continuing with struggles on board several slave ships. Once they were transported to the plantations, they continued the struggle for freedom, including fleeing the plantations and establishing Maroon communities.
The Dutch expeditions to capture the members of these Maroon communities were also exercises in displaying the barbarity of the White colonizers. A visitor to Guiana in 1796 wrote of witnessing the capture and destruction of some of the Maroons in what is now the capital city, Georgetown:
“Most of the ringleaders were taken and brought to Stabroek, where they were afterwards tried and executed. One in particular, Amsterdam…was subjected to the most shocking torture, in the hope of compelling him to give information but in vain. He was sentenced to be burnt alive, first having his flesh torn from his limbs with red hot pincers; and in order to render his punishment still more terrible, he was compelled to sit by and see 13 others broken upon the wheel and hung and then, in being conducted to execution, was made to walk over the 13 dead bodies of his comrades. Being fastened to an iron stake to be burnt alive. When the destructive pile was set in flames, his body spun round the iron stake with mouth open, until his head fell back, life extinguished.”
In spite of the White slaveholders’ attempts to keep enslaved Africans docile and oppressed through such barbaric acts, the Africans continued to resist. Although the revolution, which began on February 23, 1763 in Berbice, is the most well-known because of its extent and longevity, it was by no means the sole attempt by Africans in Guiana to seize their freedom. There were actions also in Demerara and Essequibo by Africans determined to be free of chattel slavery.
Guyana, as the country is called today, is now a republic, having gained its political independence from Britain on Thursday, May 26, 1966 under the leadership of then Prime Minister, Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham.
The country which encompasses the former Dutch colonies of Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo and (after the Dutch ceded control in 1814 to the British) the British colony of British Guiana, became the Cooperative Republic of Guyana on February 23, 1970, on the 207th anniversary of the Berbice Revolution.
Guyana, located on the northeast region of South America, is the only country on the continent where English is the official language. Slavery was abolished on August 1, 1834, but after four years of “apprenticeship” the Africans were finally free on August 1, 1838.
Guyana is known as the Land of Six Peoples, which includes Africans (kidnapped, enslaved and taken to the country by the Dutch beginning in the 1600s); Amerindians (the native people of Guyana); Chinese (immigrated as indentured labourers from January 12, 1853 aboard the SS Glentanner); East Indians (immigrated as indentured labourers from May 1, 1838, aboard SS Whitby and SS Hesperus); Europeans (first the Dutch in the 1600s, followed by the British, who seized the territory in the 1800s) and Portuguese (immigrated as indentured labourers from May 3, 1835, aboard SS Louisa Baillie).
The nation celebrates February 23, Republic Day, with a Mashramani celebration reminiscent of Trinidad’s Carnival and Toronto’s Caribana. It would be wonderful if the Berbice Revolution was also recognized on that day.