By MURPHY BROWNE (Abena Agbetu)
Kofi, Governor of the Negroes of Berbice, and Captain Akara send greetings and inform Your Excellency that they seek no war; but if Your Excellency wants war, the Negroes are likewise ready. Barkey and his servant, De Graff, Schook, Dell, Van Lentzing and Frederick Betgen, but more especially Mr. Barkey and his servant and De Graff, are the principal originators of the riot which has occurred in Berbice.
The Governor (Kofi) was present when it commenced, and was very angry at it. The Governor of Berbice asks Your Excellency that Your Excellency will come and speak with him; don’t be afraid but if you won’t come, we will fight as long as one Christian remains in Berbice.
The Governor will give Your Excellency one half of Berbice, and all the Negroes will go high up the river, but don’t think they will remain slaves. Those Negroes that Your Excellency has on the ships – they can remain slaves.
The Governor greets Your Excellency.
First (April 2, 1763) of several letters sent by Kofi (leader of the Berbice Revolution) to Wolfert Simon Van Hoogenheim the Dutch Governor of Berbice in 1763.
On February 23, 1763, Africans enslaved by Dutch colonizers in Berbice seized their freedom under the leadership of Kofi, who has been described as a “house slave” trained as a cooper. Kofi, an Akan man born in what is now Ghana, led the Berbice Revolution and with other African freedom fighters held the colony of Berbice for more than a year.
At the time of the Berbice Revolution (1763-1764) Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo were Dutch colonies that would later become one country, British Guiana, and eventually the Co-operative Republic of Guyana. As the leader of the Berbice Revolution, Kofi’s actions (and Toussaint L’Overture’s in Haiti decades later) explode the myth of the docile “house slave”. Africans had no choice in which positions their enslavers assigned them to work; so being forced to work in “Massa’s” house or “Massa’s” fields was never an indication of an enslaved African’s state of mind.
On February 23, 1763, Kofi led the Berbice group of enslaved Africans in what would become a year-long struggle they almost won except they trusted that the Dutch were engaging in talks that would lead to a negotiated settlement. However, the Dutch were biding their time, waiting for military reinforcements while engaging in a meaningless negotiation process.
The Africans, with superior numbers (346 White people and 3,883 Africans), 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. His body was never recovered so it is possible that he escaped to neighbouring Suriname to live with the community of Africans (Djukas), who escaped Dutch slavery and lived in the forested interior of Suriname.
The Berbice Revolution began on Plantation Magdalenenburg, up the Canje River, and soon spread to other plantations and eventually up the Berbice River. As the victorious Africans conquered plantation after plantation, the European slave holders fled until approximately only half of the White population who had lived in the colony remained. Some of the Dutch soldiers stationed in Berbice fled while others were killed in battle with the Africans. Within one month, the Africans were in control of most of the 19 plantations in Berbice.
Today Kofi is Guyana’s National Hero and has been since 1970, when Guyana became a Republic and he was enshrined. His name has been Anglicized (Cuffy) and the meaning of his name, which identifies him as an Akan male, born on Friday, was for many years not acknowledged because the British colonizers wrote that story. In many communities across what was British Guiana and then later Guyana, we heard the truth from our elders. The story as told in many history books identified the Africans as “rebels” instead of freedom fighters and identified their struggle as a “rebellion” instead of a revolution.
In 1855, Henry G. Dalton, a British author who published two volumes of “The History of British Guiana Comprising a General Description of the Colony” wrote: “1763, a terrible insurrection burst out, which convulsed the whole colony, and threatened its very existence.”
Some writers have even tried to position the freedom fighters of the Berbice Revolution as a group of disorganized Africans who were forever squabbling with each other. However, 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”.
On February 23, 1970, the former British Guiana became the Co-operative Republic of Guyana under the leadership of Prime Minister Linden Forbes Sampson Burnham, who later served as president of Guyana from 1980 to 1985. Guyana had gained its independence from Britain on May 26, 1966 but became a republic on the 207th anniversary (February 23, 1970) of the beginning of the Berbice Revolution.
The legacy of the African freedom fighters led by Kofi has been immortalized in bronze with the 1763 Monument located in the Square of the Revolution in Georgetown, Guyana. The 1763 Monument honours Kofi, his lieutenants, Atta, Akara, Accabre and other Africans who held the county of Berbice as free African people for more than a year.
The monument was unveiled by Burnham on May 23, 1976. The monument, designed by Guyanese sculptor Philip Moore, is 10.1 meters (33 feet) high and is built on a concrete plinth designed by Albert Rodrigues.
The February 23, 1763 Berbice Revolution was the first major struggle of enslaved Africans in Guyana to gain their freedom. Kofi and his followers lit the spark for freedom on February 23, 1763. On February 23, 2015, many Guyanese will acknowledge/commemorate the Berbice Revolution as the beginning of the movement that eventually led to Guyana becoming a republic instead of a British colony and Kofi as the country’s National Hero.