A BIRTH OF FREEDOM

The chronicler says that the uprising was raging “like a wild fire, and on most of the private estates in Berbice all the Slaves mutinied at the same time so that the quieter inclined ones in the Society’s plantations were forced to join them.”

The slaves at Magdelenenburgh had struck at the most favourable moment and had raised a banner that attracted the overwhelming majority of slaves. The rising at first appealed to the slaves on private estates, as a revolution against private property, but was later joined by the slaves on the company-state plantations where grievances were apparently less pressing. The facts recorded by its chroniclers show the revolution to be one of the most popular and universally sup­ported in human history. The whites were gripped by a maddening panic.

“They all took to flight in a cowardly way,leaving behind weapons and the ammunitions they possess.”

They converged at first on Pln. Pcreboom or else “made oil overland along Indian paths to neighbour-in Demerary.

Van Hoogenheim tried in vain to organise some kind of resistance, but no one had any faith in resist­ance. The Militia deserted, the Merchant ships’ cap­tains, like Lt. Cock, disobeyed Van Hoogenheim’s orders to harass the slaves and defend Pereboom, which soon came under the hammer of the revolu­tionaries. Some days after refugees brought news to Pln. La Solitude that “everything at Pereboom was at an end.” Under the impact of the rebel blows all the institutions of the rulers lost authority not only in the eyes of the slaves, but also in the eyes of the Europeans. The Governor, the loyal officers, the Court of Policy, all failed to command any respect or inspire any confidence among the desperate whites, who were escaping to Demerara or fleeing in corials and through the forest to Fort Nassau. The situation was complicated by a refugee problem. The housing of white refugees became a problem, in New Amster­dam and at the mouth of the Canje near Fort St. Andries. Nor could Van Hoogenheim induce them to make a stand. Rather, he received petitions from them demanding withdrawal and threatening to stay on board the available ships and encamp at the Ber­bice River mouth, in short to give up the fight.

“In contrast to the faint-heartedness of the whites the presumption of the rebels daily increased,” writes Netscher of the morale of the two sides. And so it was for the rebels to advance upon Fort St. Andries.

Cuffy had permitted a European parson with his family to leave unmolested, “because he was a man who spoke with God and helped the Negroes.” Rev. Mr. Kamring delivered to Van Hoogenheim, Gover­nor Cuffy’s message that “bad and cruel treatment of some of the planters whom they had mentioned by name was solely the cause of the uprising.” Like Araby, Cuffy would not lose an opportunity of splitting the whites. Later on Captain Cuffy, the Black Governor of Berbice, sent his counterpart a letter in which he named Barkley, Dell, deGraaf and Lentzing as the planters whose cruelties had caused the uprisings. Perhaps Cuffy had been thinking of opening a way for negotiations by naming his devils in the hope of inducing Van Hoogenheim to sacrifice those of them who were still alive. Van Hoogenheim was too contemptuous of the Africans to take the opening seriously. Cuffy then ordered Van Hoogen­heim to leave for Holland as early as possible or to contemptuous of the Africans to “fire three shots” as a signal that he would fight. Van Hoogcnheim did neither. He had already sent to Surinam, overland, by two Negroes and two Indians, for help. He had also sent to Gravesande who had also been receiving reports from refugees reaching Demerara. The factor of external solidarity had al­ready begun to work in favour of the whites and against the blacks, although neither side was yet aware of the potential change in the situation. The slaves could realise no external solidarity. Both the Surinam Bush Negroes and the Demerara slaves, had been cut off by precautionary measures including the use by the Dutch of their Indian allies. Gravesande. unable to send troops, had given orders to the Indians to harass the African rebel armies in the rear.

The drama of the war intensified. Another special meeting of the Combined Court which was called was attended by military consultants. The meeting was unanimously of the view, which it reduced to a signed statement that it was “impossible to defend the fort.” The call went out “All for Pln. Dageraad!” It was then that Fort Nassau was deserted, spiked, set ablaze by the Dutch who took to the river on the northward journey to the loyal plantation Dageraad. On the way the ships were troubled by gunfire from the plantations on the river bank.

“The whole colony was again at this time, second half of March 1763, with the exception of Fort St. Andries and a couple of estates at the entrance of the River Canje in the power of the rebelling slaves. …”

Whatever they had been before, the slaves had through their successes at rebellion met on a ground of common solidarity and common revolutionary interest. They had evolved a single leadership. While historians have made much of the differences of opinion that arose among the Africans, had there been any anarchy in the liberated territory we should certainly have heard of it. The possibility is that indiscipline at that level was at a minimum. We can say that the rebellion raised mainly class questions, the master-slave relationship, the question of cruelty and questions of labour regulations. And its success imposed on its leaders the duty of converting it into a revolution so as to secure state power and to secure themselves against a reaction after the war should subside. The rebellion forced them to realise that by the very nature of things, they could not secure their rights while they and their oppressors remained in their respective ‘isles’ on the same territory.

Some such considerations moved in the heads of the rebels and turned the slave uprising into a national revolution, in defiance of latter day orthodoxy because they could not realise their proletarian aspirations outside of the national context. To accuse them of apartheid or of racial separatism is to forget that they knew white men only as masters, capitalist extractors and imperialist overlords. The third aspect of the his­torical significance of Berbice is that a proletarian rising sought a national tent in order to be free to work out its own salvation. It was the apparent father of national revolutions in the Western Hem­isphere.

The question may now be raised whether the revolution, had it been let to live, would have pursued what we can now identify as its proletarian aims. After nil, they were just a stone’s throw away in time trom Robert Owen. It is hardly likely that the egalitarian people would have been established through and through on the plantations. The most likely outcome was that the slaves, torn as they had been from their natural environment where large scale market pro­duction was absent—some had come straight from the slave ship into the revolution—and confronted with the need to manage plantations organised in a certain way, would imitate the economic organisation and perhaps the state organisation of the Dutch and of the plantations. It is known that there were grumblings among the slaves that they were being “forced by their chiefs, formerly their mates, to carry out labour.”

Canes were being cut, provisions were being gathered and transportation of produce was being undertaken. Scholars should dig deeper into this aspect of the revolution. The hierarchy would probably have become much narrower and more vul­nerable because of its democratic origin, and power more decentralized, and in fact democratised because of the geographical distribution of the plantations. Statesmanship on both sides, the revolutionary leaders and say Gravesande, in the best event, would have pro­duced a formula for the external commercial relations of the territory and for a supply of experts—but this would be asking too much of a defeated interest.