If freedom is not preceded by violent revolution, the result is a mockery of freedom, and will always fail to give the people real faith in themselves. This idea has gained ground among many men of integrity; and indeed, a very strong case can be made out in its support.
But to insist that the violent revolution must immediately precede the moment of freedom is a mechanistic, or, at least, a mistaken view. Yet the point serves to emphasize in the West Indies our profound ignorance of our own past in this part of the world.
The Caribbean tradition is, taken as a whole, a revolutionary tradition. It is the stage on which acted Cudgoe, and Cuffy, Accabreh and Accra, Toussaint, Quamina, and Damon, Adoe and Araby. Blows delivered against the European system in 1750 or in 1850 served to shake that system, sometimes to its foundations and to cause it to make democratic concessions as a price of recovery. It was never the same again; and although financial exploitation became more intense and complicated, a constitutional superstructure was raised for dealing with human anger and for side-tracking revolution into peaceful awe-inspiring chambers.
The Berbice Revolution of 1763 struck the first blow for Guyanese independence. It was a blow that the theoreticians of human subjugation will never forget. It was part and parcel of the Caribbean Movement, begun by the Caribs against European penetration and domination. Yet this Revolution, for some obscure reason, receives scant treatment in the bulk of West Indian Literature.
It is the purpose of this essay to restore the Berbice Revolution to its proper context, not only in West Indian and Caribbean History, but in World History. It will be found that many of the initiatives for human freedom, credit for which has been claimed by the well publicised and advertised revolutions, which were not without great merit, were in fact foreshadowed in Berbice.
The fighting broke out on Plantation Magdeleneburg, Canje, Berbice on or about February 23rd, 1763. It raged with literal fire and brimstone for some eleven months, dislodged the white ruling class, liberated vast territory, turned the whole colony upside down and finally collapsed after a glorious reign.
Berbice was not an isolated phenomenon, although special features will be claimed for it in this essay. Berbice, like the revolt of the Maroons earlier in the century, like the Bush Negro Movement that began—and never ended—i:n Surinam early in the 1730s or even before, was a reflection of the spirit of the best elements of the African slave population, and evidence that they were uncomfortable under the foreign yoke. The protests they made were important contributions to the cause of human freedom in general, West Indian and African freedom in particular. Some of them were unique in form, because of the peculiar nature of the confrontation.
The Berbice Slave Rebellion, as it is mistakenly called, was an episode, in the 18th century, of worldwide historic significance. To be of world-wide historic significance, an episode needs only to present new historical aspects that are at the same time qualitatively important. West Indian activities cannot afford to pay obeisance to quantity; and so, we are best fitted to re-define historical magnitude. Numbers, then, are not of first importance. It is sufficient that there is new historical precedent. A small number of human agents in a human drama can conceivably do something that has not taken place before, something astonishing to informed observers. This was the case with ’63.
Where there has been a unique clash of old forces, or a unique clash of new forces, and where there are combined economic, social, political and emotional factors that were never so combined before, the historical significance of an event cannot be hidden in the waist-coat pocket of a gaulding. as we say in the villages.
The rising of ’63 took place before the revolt of the American colonies in North America known to history as the original type of colonial revolution and the fore-runner of modern republicanism. It took place before the Haitian revolution which fulfilled some of the aims of Berbice. It happened a hundred years before the Paris Commune, a hundred and fifty years before the October Socialist Revolution in bourgeois Russia, and nearly two hundred and fifty years before the launching of the Cuban perpetual revolution. It contains in embryo, features of all these revolutions and it foreshadowed, as so many other risings have done, some of Lenin’s revolutionary principles. On the other hand, it came after the Jamaican Maroon and the Surinam Bush Negro movements and aimed at carrying these to their logical conclusion.
The closeness in time of the Berbice rising to the Bush Negroes’ Movement in Surinam, and Jamaica, to the revolutions in Haiti and North America, reminds us that it took place in a period of world convulsions, when the established order stood in jeopardy every hour—apparently to remain so eternally. The spirit of man, after the refinement of the Renaissance, and the nationalism and heresy of the Reformation, had been made extremely vigilant by the self-centred individualism of the bourgeoisie. Now it was in quest of liberation. So it was too in the West Indies, a mainspring of the Industrial revolution.