Cully had already styled himself the black Governor of Berbice, in contrast to the Bush Negroes of Surinam who fell back on the Ashanti chieftanship system. But we have seen that the Bush Negroes had escaped from the plantations whereas the Berbice slaves had dislodged the whites, taken control of them and would have to decide how to organise production on these plantations. Unless they could very soon make a commercial nation, they might be forced to abandon sugar cultivation and turn to subsistence farming.
It is true that 80 years after, the liberated Africans after the Act of Emancipation, were able to create a new civilisation, the village system, showing a genius for co-operative enterprise. What they would have done if they had had the old plantations to manage, considering the examples open to them, is a matter for speculation.
The Berbice slaves were extremely resourceful and creative during the ten months that shook Berbice. The hard core, or party, learning from the failure of ‘62 took the offensive from the very start, adumbrating guerilla tactics in their use of forest and savannah. They begun as a rebellion, passed through a bush negro phase, conducted a recruitment campaign and then returned not to harass, but to conquer. Soon they had the enemy on the run. The principle that “the defensive is the death of any up-rising” was clearly understood by them much more than it was by the Paris Communards who wanted in as vague a way as the Berbice slaves, to change society but “did not want to start a civil war.”
The Berbice rebels took the offensive and overcame plantation alter plantation. The Berbice whites were in total disarray. Their wisdom and their forts seemed to avail them nothing. Even after the arrival of the hired English brigantine “Betsy” from Surinam, the revolutionaries remained on the offensive. When the Africans caught up with the Dutch again they, the Dutch, were concentrated at Pln. Dageraad which soon became the focal point of the war. It seemed to be one of the few plantations on which the Dutch could find something of an African base. It was in a way, a fateful exception.
In May, the rebels launched an attack on the Dutch, throwing all they had into the battle. Repulsed, the revolutionaries withdrew to their base and reconsidered their strategy. It was now time to throw diplomacy into the war, diplomacy in its best sense. The slave leadership wrote to the Dutch Governor a letter outstanding for its statesmanship and humanity. Cuffy proposed ‘Peace with Honour’ and at the same time, he began to prepare for an all out attack on Dageraad.
In this letter, Cuffy proposed to give half of the colony to the whites if they would leave them the other half, but added that “in no case will we be slaves again”. He also invited Van Hoogenheim for a parley. The phrase, “we will never be slaves again” shatters all philistine narrowness about the aims of the revolution. Cuffy not only fought for present day Guyanese but spoke for them.
It has happened so many times that an external factor has decided the fate of a movement and has proved to be the life and death of a cause. When the revolutionary High Command split, it was on questions of strategy and tactics. Matters had gone so far that after Accra’s correct attack on April 2, Cuffy wrote a letter to Van Hoogenheim in which he said that Accra had attacked on his own authority. The fate of the revolution, so far as it aimed at controlling the plantations, the property of the capitalists, was already decided by the arrival of Dutch soldiers from Surinam in the English Brigantime, Betsy (28th March) arriving here on March 31 with 7 officers, 83 men and 3 drums.
It is almost certain that the split in the High Command, due in part to the new military situation, put the whole revolutionary movement on the defensive and made it easier for the imperialist troops to crush the rising.
The Berbice rising had kindred features with the later Haitian revolution, because they both took up the national question. Berbice had kindred features with the American revolution, because Berbice was in effect a challenge to mercantilism and because, in its later development, it raised the banner of self- determination. It is unlike the American revolution because the revolt of the thirteen colonies was a revolt of property owners. It raised strikingly many of the questions which confronted the Russian proletariat in 1917 and guerilla fighters the world over from then to now.
A lot remains to be said about the Berbice Revolution. What C. L. R. James has done for Haiti and the Caribbean in “Black Jacobins” needs to be done for Berbice and the West Indies.
The reason why the last stages of the struggle for independence in Guyana have been relatively peaceful ought now to be clear to the merest scribbler. At any rate, the idea that we are being handed our freedom on a platter is wrong. Those who hold such a view do not understand history half as well as the imperialists do.