By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
On February 23, 1763, a group of Africans in the Dutch colony of Berbice, South America (now a county in Guyana), seized their freedom after deciding that they had enough of being treated inhumanely by the Dutch colonizers.
The Africans had been kidnapped from their homes and transported across the Atlantic under barbaric and horrific conditions in the holds of ships manned by White Christians who claimed to worship a God of love. When, later, these Africans were told of hell as imagined by Christian missionaries, they could very well have imagined that it would be comparable to their journey from Africa to the New World.
Kofi, an Akan man born in Ghana, is the recognized leader of what many consider the first Revolutionary War of Independence in the Americas, which was waged in the Dutch colony of Berbice, from February 1763 to March 1764.
To put the lie to the myth of the docile “house slave”, Kofi is one of several enslaved Africans who led their people in their fight for freedom. Toussaint L’Overture, one of the leaders of the Haitian Revolution, was also a “house slave”. It is important to recognize that enslaved Africans had no choice in where they were forced to labour. So being a domestic worker or a field worker could not determine the feelings of an African towards their unfortunate state of captivity.
It has been surmised that Kofi was captured from his home in Ghana as a child and taken to Berbice. This is not surprising, since the Dutch had been involved in the European slave trade from Ghana since 1598 in competition with the Portuguese.
The documented business of the enslavement of Africans by Europeans began in 1482 when the Portuguese built a “castle” on Ghana’s central coast, ostensibly to trade with the Africans for gold, ivory and spices. Now known simply as ElMina, the building once carried the lofty title, Castle São Jorge da Mina.
Even though their supposed aim was to trade in gold, ivory and spices, in what today might be considered a crime of opportunity, the Portuguese began what would become the scourge of the African continent. While sailing along the coast of West Africa and happening upon an isolated group of Africans, the Portuguese sailors, under the leadership of Antão Gonçalves (sometimes spelled Antonio Gonsalves) and Nuno Tristão, took the opportunity to kidnap these unfortunate people and transport them to Portugal where they were presented as gifts to the Portuguese monarch.
In his 1996 book, The Negro in the Making of America, African American historian, Benjamin Quarles, wrote: The modern traffic in African slaves began in the mid-fifteenth century, with Portugal taking the lead. In 1441 Prince Henry the Navigator sent one of his mariners, the youthful Antonio Gonsalves, to the West Coast to obtain a cargo of skins and oils. Landing near Cape Bojador, the young captain decided that he might please his sovereign by bringing him gifts. Taking possession of some gold dust and loading ten Africans on his cockleshell, Gonsalves made his way back to Lisbon. Henry was greatly pleased by the gold and the slaves, deeming the latter of sufficient importance to send to the Pope. In turn, the Pope conferred upon Henry the title to all lands to be discovered to the east of Cape Blanco, a point on the West Coast some 300 miles above the Senegal. Thus began a new era.
On August 8, 1444, another unscrupulous Portuguese kidnapper, Lançarote de Freitas, arrived in Lagos, Portugal with 235 captive Africans. The Portuguese cemented their position in Africa on January 19, 1482 with the arrival of 12 sailing vessels loaded with men and materials to build ElMina.
In James Stanier Clarke’s 2010 book, The Progress of Maritime Discovery: From the Earliest Period to the Close of the Eighteenth Century, it is made very plain that the Europeans were there to stay without asking “leave or licence” of the Africans. This chillingly enlightening quote from the book is pertinent information about the mindset of the Portuguese who arrived determined to build their “castle” on African land:
Early on the ensuing morning the Portuguese commodore landed with his followers, who had weapons concealed in case of resistance.
By 1481, when the Portuguese monarch sent Diego d’Azambuja to build ElMina, which would include a dungeon where Africans were imprisoned before being forced unto the slave ships, Africans were being regularly kidnapped and taken to Europe. The infamous “Door of no return” is worse than Dante’s Inferno in the minds of many Africans in the Diaspora, when we think of the horrors the Europeans visited upon our ancestors. A powerful representation of this horrific crime against humanity is dramatized in the movie Sankofa named for the mythical bird flying forward while looking back, one of the Adinkra symbols.
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 coerced, unpaid labour of enslaved Africans was used to enrich Europe, Europeans and their descendants and develop countries throughout the Caribbean, Central, North and South America and Europe. The canals, kokers, seawalls and other infrastructure that made Guyana habitable for Europeans during their colonization of the country were built by enslaved African labour. The Europeans forced the enslaved Africans to work with no consideration for their health and well being. Many of them were worked to death within five to seven years of their enslavement.
With the inhumane working and living conditions, coupled with the brutal punishments inflicted on them, some Africans resisted while others escaped into the forests. Those who were recaptured suffered horrible deaths or mutilation as punishment, meant as a deterrent to others who might have thought of escape. Some of the Berbice escapees managed to reach Suriname where they joined the Djukas (Suriname Maroons.)
On February 23, 1763, Kofi led the Berbice group of enslaved Africans in what would become a year long struggle that they almost won, except that they believed the Dutch were engaging in talks that would lead to a negotiated settlement. The Dutch, however, were biding their time, waiting for military reinforcements while engaging in a meaningless negotiation process. The Africans, with superior numbers, could have effortlessly wiped out the Dutch but they trusted the manipulating, underhanded Europeans. When the reinforcements arrived, the Dutch struck, cruelly and mercilessly, slaughtering the Africans.
Kofi is said to have shot himself, rather than fall into the hands of the men who he realized, too late, had no honour and did not consider him a human being.
Kofi (his name Anglicized to Cuffy) is the National Hero of Guyana. His legacy has been immortalized in bronze with a monument located in the Square of the Revolution in Georgetown, Guyana, which depicts Kofi with his lieutenants Atta, Akara, Accabre and other Africans who held the county of Berbice free for one year. The monument was unveiled by former Guyanese President, Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham, on May 23, 1976. Designed by sculptor Philip Moore, it is 10.1 meters (33 feet) high and is built on a concrete plinth designed by Albert Rodrigues.
On February 23, Guyanese celebrate with the Mashramani parade. Hopefully, the celebrants do remember Kofi and the Berbice Revolution.