A rebellion is taken to be a more or less organised armed resistance against authority with the primary intention of forcing a change of policy, or even of removing individual rulers. But when the same rebellion takes it into its head to bring about not a change of Government, but a change of regime, to smash once and for all the whole basis of relations between ruler and ruled; to replace the people identified as rulers by a group hitherto identified as ruled, the movement is a revolution. On this point, Berbice differs from Jamaica and Surinam, where, in each case, the pioneers of emancipation dealt blows of self-defence and correction, and seemed content with being allowed to live. In Berbice, the revolutionaries had a programme that rallied the whole potential nation of blacks except a handful at Dageraad. They attacked the whiles, dislodging them from most of their positions. That is why it is here claimed that the Berbice Rebellion was a revolution and also the first revolution in the history of capitalism, at least in the Western Hemisphere. This is the second aspect of the historical significance of the Bcrbice Rising.
Is it necessary to argue this point? In 1763 capitalist production in agriculture was in full bloom in the Guiana settlements, as in all the West Indies. The joint stock owners, or private owners invested in land, in tools including slaves, and in equipment and made a profit out of the employment of these factors of production. They could not carry on this production without a dispossessed labour force. It was not merely surplus production, but in the context of a money economy, it was production for profit. It was not factory capitalism, but it was capitalism nevertheless. It was capitalism in the age of mercantilism, and that is what accounts for the fact that this glaring contradiction of slave labour in the context of capitalism was possible. In the era of Free Trade, capitalism dropped slave labour and began to recruit a labour force that was formally and physically free. The Berbice slaves revolted against private property when their more advanced European counterparts, precisely because they were physicallv free, and perhaps more because they were involved in the nation to the extent that the Berbice slaves never were, could not conceive of a revolution, but could only vex the system with bitter and spasmodic rebellion.
When the rising began, it was, perhaps, no more than rebellion against the immediate masters of the insurrectionists. But because they had taken the first step, and because they represented a sentiment that was so widespread among their brethren, the uprising became a revolutionary movement against the owners of property, for the slaves had come to realise that there could be no turning back after their challenge, and that they must move on to the stage of national revolution.
The Berbice Rising of ’63 was preceded by the rising of 1762, when on a solitary plantation, 36 male and female slaves had seized the plantation and repulsed an expedition under Lt. Thielen, sent by the Governor Van Hoogenheim. The insurrectionists were afterwards decoyed. A few escaped and one was publicly executed:
In the dark earth,
In the cold dark earth.
Time plants the seeds of anger.
Netscher calls the rebellion of 1762 the “prelude to that great drama that was to be enacted in Bcrbice”. Even then what was uppermost in the minds of the white population was the fear that the rising might spread. Van Hoogcnhcim’s letters from that time betrayed a sense of insecurity among the whites caused largely by their dependence on imports from the mother country. At one time the Governor wrote desperately, “There are no provisions or cargo in stock. We arc in want of everything.” The ordeal seems to have been long drawn out. Another factor that affected the morale of the whites was the ravaging sickness which laid many low and put many trained militia men out of action. All this only shows that the slaves on the private estates had chosen carefully the moment of insurrection. They understood as well, as the more sophisticated revolutionaries who have elaborated theory in writing. that the moment to raise the banner was the moment of crisis, when the old rulers were losing confidence in themselves and were beset with more immediate enemies.
The Berbice slaves also managed well the element of surprise which as the military text books still repeat “has a devastating effect on the enemy.” The point is dramatically brought out in the Governor’s letter to Holland of February 25th, 1763. It began as one of his most optimistic letters in a long period. He was grateful that provisions and Africans had just arrived by the Zealand ship, ADRIANA Petronella, under Captain Christobelle Cook and advised his principals of the society that he had bought 50 Africans—”fine people”—out of a cargo of 750—for 17,834 guilders. The letter continues:
“I had intended to close this herewith and to let the post, made up by the slave-captain Cock, leave, when by letter from Manager Chanbon of Canje the sad and painful news was brought me that Plantation Magdalenenburg, belonging to Madam the widow Vernesobre, that same morning being the 23rd, had been looted by its own rebellious slaves, after murdering the Manager, Andre Faurie, and Armitian European carpenter in an inhumanly cruel manner and that they were still occupied in destroying the house and furniture.”
Van Hoogenheim dispatched sailors from the merchant ships to contain the situation but they were ineffective. There was a special meeting of the Court of Policy about 26th February after which Van Hoogenheim wrote to the Directors.
“God only knows what hangs over our heads. In one word, noble sires, it is not possible that we can hold our own any longer in the same way.
He complained of being “in all things exposed to the pleasures of the slaves.”
Van Hoogenheim had described a revolutionary situation. The ruling class knew that it could not hold its own any longer “in the same way.” Sickness was knocking at the white community from within and the insurgent slaves from without. Hostile Indians had attacked a post near the Accoway Indians and an estate near Dcmerara had been looted.