By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
“On the 4th July 1762, the Dutch slave-ship de Eenigheyt slipped over the bar at the entrance to the Berbice River, and taking the deeper eastern channel past Crab Island, dropped anchor in front of Post St. Andries. Among the two hundred and eighty-six slaves packed in her reeking hold was a young man named Atta, who was destined to become one of the great leaders of the 1763 Uprising. Chained near to him was his ship-brother Quabi, who was to follow him loyally to the end of his life. At this point, Atta had less than two years to live, but before he met his death, he and others would rock the Dutch plantation system in the Guianas to its very foundations. Before the Dutch would be able to reassert control over their colony, they would have been forced to mount the most massive military expedition against their former slaves ever seen in that part of the hemisphere. Never again until 1791 would any European nation come so close to losing an entire colony to its slaves.”
Excerpt from “The Berbice Uprising 1763” by A. J. McR Cameron published in 2013.
On Wednesday, February 23, 1763 a group of Africans who had been enslaved by Dutch men and women in the country now known as Guyana struck a blow for freedom that is remembered in 2014, more than 250 years later. Articles and books have been written about the freedom fighting Africans who seized their freedom from the Dutch and became the first revolutionaries in the Americas. These Berbice revolutionaries made their bid for freedom before the American revolutionaries (1775–1783) or the Haitian revolutionaries (1791 – 1804.) Led by Kofi, an Akan man kidnapped from present day Ghana who was enslaved on Plantation Lilienburg up the Canje Creek, the Africans held the colony of Berbice for more than a year.
In 1762, the population of the Dutch colony of Berbice included 3,833 enslaved Africans, 244 Amerindians and 346 Europeans. The Dutch apparently kept meticulous records of the numbers in the colony. In the 1888 “History of the Colonies Essequebo, Demerary and Berbice; From the Dutch Establishment to the Present Day” the author Pieter Marinus Netscher writes of the numbers occupying Berbice: “Thus the total population amounted to 346 whites, 244 Indians and 3,833 negroes or 4423 souls.”
With the numbers at their disposal compared to the number of White people in the colony complete victory of the African revolutionaries was possible. However, the Africans showed human compassion and instead tried to negotiate a settlement of sharing the land with their White enslavers. The Dutch, like the proverbial fox, were cunning and crafty luring the Africans into a false sense of security as they pretended to negotiate. The Dutch were actually waiting for reinforcements to arrive from other European colonies in the area as well as from Europe. When those reinforcements arrived in the persons of European soldiers the Africans were hunted, rounded up and put to death in the most horrifically barbaric manner.
Netscher writes about what happened on April 28, 1764: “Next day the abominable execution took place: 17 of them were hanged, 8 broken on the wheel and 9 burnt, seven of them by slow fire. These last and most painful punishments which were inflicted on the rebel leaders displayed an ingenuity of cruelty which shows that in this respect the administration of criminal justice in 1764 since the execution of Balthazar Gerards had not become much milder. Almost all the negroes without a scream or groan suffered their punishment with steadfastness and really showed more dignity than some of the white spectators flocking to the execution.”
The most recent book about the freedom fighting Africans in Berbice was written by White British author A.J. McR. Cameron as a text book for secondary school students taking the Caribbean Examinations Council (CXC) examination. In her 2013 book, “The Berbice Uprising 1763” Cameron gives some reasons for the Africans’ decision to make a bid for their freedom: “Perhaps the most important single factor was the breakdown of Dutch authority, and the loss of administrative confidence which accompanied it. From 1762, the planters were nervous and panicky, seeing the shadow of revolt in every slave movement and whispered conversation. They were firmly convinced their slaves were on the brink of revolt and, in the end, their expectations were not disappointed. Their almost fatalistic attitude is illustrated by Burgher-Captain Kunckler, who fled immediately on receipt of the news of the 1763 Uprising, saying to his neighbour: ‘my dear neighbour, it is over for us and the Colony’.
Cameron continues: “The second reason the slaves gave for the Uprising was the cruelty of particular planters whom they named. These included Anthonij Barkeij and his overseer of Lelienburg; Widow Janssen of Nieuw Caraques, Van Staden of Elisabeth & Alexandria, Gysbert De Graef of Hoogstraaten, Burgher-CaptainVan Lentzing of Margaretha, Christina and Johan Dell of Juliana.”
In the 2007 book, “Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion, Volume 1” edited by White American history professor Junius P. Rodriguez, the beginning of the Berbice Revolution is described: “At the start of the revolt in February 1763, the Cuffy-led rebels captured several plantations, among which were Magdalenenburg, Juliana, Mon Repos, Essendam, Lilienburg, Elizabeth and Alexandra, Hollandia and Zeelandia and Fort Nassau. On March 3, 1763, the rebels took over Perboom.”
The reasons why the enslaved Africans attempted to seize their freedom are also explained: “Some claim the revolt was a direct result of harsh and inhumane treatment of the enslaved but historians of the slavery period see this revolt as one element of the endemic nature of protest against slavery using violence, the highest form of protest.”
The thought that no human being would willingly submit to enslavement regardless of how “good” the enslaver treated them does not seem to enter the minds of White historians. Resisting enslavement is a natural human reaction. Although at one point in the United States any enslaved African who resisted their enslavement was diagnosed as suffering from a mental illness known as “drapetomania”. In 1851 a White physician, Samuel Adolphus Cartwright, wrote an article entitled “Diseases and Peculiarities of the Negro Race” where he explained that “the Bible calls for a slave to be submissive to his master and, by doing so, the slave will have no desire to run away”. In Cartwright’s estimation any enslaved African who refused this “natural condition” of being enslaved by a White man or woman was suffering from the mental illness “drapetomania”.
The thousands of Africans who rose up against the Dutch enslavers in Berbice would have been considered to be suffering from mass drapetomania.
The Africans in Berbice in February 1763 began a movement that culminated in the eventual abolition of slavery in Guyana. Although the majority of those freedom fighters were eventually captured and cruelly executed the spirit of freedom seeking was not extinguished. There were several resistance efforts made by individual Africans and one major resistance from August 18 to 20, 1823 by enslaved Africans in Demerara.
The spark lit by Kofi and his followers as freedom fighters who inspired Guyanese to struggle for freedom from colonization was recognized with a public holiday to commemorate February 23, 1763. Republic Day is celebrated in Guyana on February 23, the day chosen by the former President of Guyana, Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham. On February 23, 1970, the 207th anniversary of the beginning of the Berbice Revolution the former British Guiana became the Cooperative Republic of Guyana. Burnham also honoured the memory of Kofi and the freedom fighting Africans of the Berbice Revolution with a monument. The 1763 monument is located at Square of the Revolution in Guyana’s capital city Georgetown, standing 15 feet tall and weighing two and a half tons. Kofi (Cuffy) the leader of the Berbice Revolution was also enshrined as Guyana’s National Hero by then President Burnham.