“More Than a Fearful Refusal To Participate.“ On the Complexities of the 1763 Berbice Slave Rebellion
From This Year's Cundill History Prize Shortlisted Title Blood on the River by Marjoleine Kars
In the first few weeks, enslaved people would have watched the rebellion unfold with mixed emotions. Presumably, many felt exhilaration and satisfaction. Hated masters and mistresses were gone and former slaves were in charge. There was food and drink, drumming and dancing. People appropriated their owners’ clothes and other possessions. A man named Cesar likely spoke for many when he justified emptying his plantation house’s closets by reportedly asserting that “he was old, and had worked for it all, and therefore it was all his due.”
People must have heard about the murder of Europeans and the burning of their masters’ houses and fields with grim satisfaction and even glee. Not surprisingly, no one admitted to such feelings in their interrogations a year later by the Dutch. But we find clues in the actions of enslaved people in neighboring Suriname. In no time, they composed songs celebrating the events in Berbice.
But there must have been other reactions as well. Rebellions are not just electrifying and promising, but scary and unpredictable. The uprising of the Dutch against the Spanish during the Eighty Years’ War (1568–1648) or the American colonists against their colonial masters during the American Revolution (1763–83) were slow events that gave people months if not years to decide their loyalties. And many remained apathetic throughout these conflicts. But slave rebellions happened fast, requiring split-second decisions in chaotic and dangerous circumstances.
No matter how much people hated their enslavement, survival was foremost. For many, keeping themselves and their families alive and together and protecting their meager but hard-earned possessions, gardens, and privileges trumped the dicey overthrow of a brutal regime. People also worried about the right moment to join in: too late might be as costly as too soon. There were those who had no desire to join but were eager to keep their masters’ food, drink, and clothing for themselves, rather than yield them to the rebels. Many later claimed they wanted to stay out of the fray altogether.
Then, too, people may well have been weary of the Amina. They had been behind the uprising on St. John in 1733 as well as the 1760 rebellion in Jamaica. In both cases, their objective was to create a West African state with themselves on top. Rumors of their attempts to enslave the majority of the people may have circulated among black Berbicians. On the Gold Coast, powerful and militaristic Amina elites were known to be deeply involved in slaving and, according to West African informants on St. John, eager to leave work to others. The coercion involved in the first weeks of the uprising likely led many to stay away from the rebels.
And so, not surprisingly, as is common in rebellions and revolutions, people’s responses to the insurgency, and their alignments, ran the gamut from strong support to evasion. Their decisions hinged as much on their own personal circumstances and social tensions on plantations as on larger ideological, political, and strategic considerations. A few chose to side with the Dutch. Many more joined the rebels. Most stripped their own plantation houses, taking back what their labor had wrought.
Yet whatever their sympathies, in terms of committing themselves to rebellion, it appears that many remained non-committed where possible, attempting to stay autonomous, or holding off on choosing their allegiance until it became clearer who would prevail. By their own accounts, they hid in the rain forest and savanna behind their plantations as soon as they heard the rebels approach, and they moved back to their plantations when the rebels, or the Dutch, had passed by. Some no doubt claimed disengagement to avoid prosecution. Others likely spoke the truth.
The very fact that so many thought such claims believable is suggestive. It makes sense that people would have been wary, and preferred watching events from afar. They would have wished to keep their children and elderly safe, their garden produce from confiscation, and their chickens from the rebels’ barbecues. They may have disliked or mistrusted those who supported the insurgency on their plantations, especially bombas who may have unfairly disciplined them in the past. They feared Dutch or rebel retaliation if they bet on the wrong side. And as the rebels became more coercive, forcing people to work for them, many must have felt that the choice the Amina offered, at least in the short run, was tantamount to exchanging one set of masters for another.
Hiding from the rebels, in other words, signaled more than a fearful refusal to participate in rebellion. Avoiding the rebels was a political statement about preferring life without masters, a declaration of independence if you will. Like self-governing people throughout history, they sought to evade war, the appropriation of their labor, and outside rule.
In dodging all combatants, ex-slaves in fact became fugitives in their own backyards, living independently of both the Dutch and the rebels. They camped in their own communities near their gardens and plantation pantries—subsistence agriculture did not require much coercion. This alternative, especially for women, children, and the less able-bodied, would have been preferable to joining a military campaign or being incorporated into the rebellion as workers.
One man probably spoke for many when he told Dutch investigators later, “he did not want to be anyone’s slave, and so he stayed home.” During the American Revolution, many people similarly struggled to remain neutral, less because they were anti-patriot or pro-British than because they wanted a “different kind of revolution” than the one they got.
What happened on plantation Boschlust provides a revealing example. When the uprising started, the inhabitants of Boschlust, high up the Berbice River, charted their own future. Rather than kill their enslavers, as the rebels demanded, they urged them to flee. “They besieged me,” Boschlust’s owner, councilman Pierre Perrotet later reported, “that I had better leave as soon as possible, if we wanted to avoid getting murdered.” But Perrotet’s 18 slaves declined his invitation to accompany him and his family to neighboring Demerara.
“Why would we go with you,” they reportedly told him, “we have always had a good life on this plantation, we have good food, gardens we don’t want to leave, and if the bad people [rebels] come, we’ll kill them.” They promised him they would not abandon the plantation and that they’d harvest his cotton, cacao, and coffee as they had done before. Perrotet wrote out a note that his slaves “had not rebelled against me nor had done the least bad deed.” He hoped the declaration would stand them, and him, in good stead should the Dutch retake the colony.
Four enslaved men agreed to accompany the family on their flight to Demerara, ostensibly to carry the luggage, but perhaps also to ensure the planter’s prompt departure. A free Amerindian family living on the plantation came along as well, likely as guides. As soon as the party reached Demerara, the slaves abandoned the family, taking back the luggage, as they may have intended from the start. The Indians took off as well.
With their enslavers in Demerara, Boschlust’s workers were now effectively free. They continued to live on the plantation, at least for the moment, occasionally hiding in the bush when they detected rebels or Europeans. Despite earlier promises, it seems unlikely that they continued to work the cash crops cotton, cacao, and coffee. They would certainly have maintained, and expanded, their provision grounds to feed themselves and their families.
Their story illustrates how refusing to join the rebellion was not a statement of loyalty to the Dutch, even if plantation owners like Perrotet wanted to interpret their behavior (or their words) that way. Rather, they calculated that armed insurgency likely spelled suicide, whether in battle, on the gallows, or from hunger in the bush. They would have quickly figured out that joining the rebels might mean a new regime of forced labor. Above all, they were keen to work what they considered their land—their plots—as they wished, without any kind of masters. Dodging rebellion, in other words, was a way to live on their own terms as autonomous subsistence farmers.
The risk of being re-enslaved by the rebels was an especial threat for Company slaves. For Coffij and his fellow insurgents it was crucial to keep the Company plantations in production, for they, along with just one private plantation, were the only sugar estates in Berbice. These plantations supplied all Berbicians with their staple drink, a crude intoxicant distilled of molasses (milled from sugarcane), known as kiltum, or dram. These estates also produced the cash crop the rebels would need to participate in the larger Atlantic economy in the future.
Yet Company slaves were least disposed to join the rebellion—or so the Dutch believed—and available evidence supports this. Company plantations were among the oldest in the colony; several had been in continuous existence for a hundred years. Many of the workers on these estates were Creoles with strong ties to one another and to the land. They were leery of rebellion and more attuned to the risks than newcomers from Africa with fewer familial attachments. Creoles had more children, more kin and older family members to worry about. Moreover, the prospect of continuing to produce sugar, albeit under a new set of masters, could not have been attractive.
We can peek in at Company plantation West Souburg, for instance. Just over a hundred enslaved people lived on West Souburg: 25 men, 48 women, and 23 youths and children. At the start of the rebellion, the plantation manager and his wife took off for Peereboom. “Christian servant” Jacob, who took care of the mill horses, fled into the woods. Captured, he was murdered by a rebel acting on orders. A militia captain took all of West Souburg’s guns and ammunition to Fort Nassau, leaving the enslaved defenseless.
When the insurgents approached West Souburg, bomba Mathebi, a middle-aged man with grown children, warned everyone “that something was going on among the blacks.” He no doubt urged women such as Kikomba and her five children, pregnant Jacomijntje and her toddler Roselyn, and seniors Gratie, Maria, and Cecilia to keep out of sight in the sugar fields and forest across the river. He reportedly was determined not to hand over the plantation, declaring he would “stand like a man.”
When the rebels arrived at West Souburg, they captured Mathebi. The insurgents set fire to the plantation house and the sugar mill but spared the cane in the fields. They rounded up the Amina people and marched them, along with Mathebi, his wife, Klaartje, and other captives, to Coffij’s headquarters on Hollandia & Zeelandia. There, two West Souburg people sympathetic to the rebellion told Coffij about Mathebi’s resistance. He was beheaded and his wife Klaartje was allegedly sold to a rebel leader. The two men who denounced Mathebi were promoted to command West Souburg. The majority of West Souburg inhabitants spent the next few months much as they had before the rebellion: forced to work cane.
The story was much the same on other Company plantations. Coffij reportedly told the people on Company plantation Vlissingen that “since they tried to help their manager, they now had to be the slaves of the others and work for them, just like they had done for the Christians.” Rebels then tortured the bomba on the plantation such that, according to the man’s son, he hanged himself.
Company plantation Hardenbroek’s people later testified that rebel leaders whipped them when they refused to cut cane “and do the work.” Little wonder that Indian spies repeatedly told the Dutch that the people on Company plantations, especially those high up the river, at least for the moment, wanted nothing to do with the rebels.
And so black Berbicians quickly learned, if they did not already know it, that freedom and coercion went hand in hand. A successful revolution required control of resources, of territory, and of people. To feed their followers, rebels had to cultivate kitchen gardens in the hinterlands. In order to prevent the Dutch from retaking the colony, and to save themselves from death or re-enslavement, they had to conscript, drill, and supply a sizable army.
To maintain that army, they needed cash. To grow cash crops, they had to have workers in the fields. To do all those things, they needed a government to enforce compliance with their rule and to neutralize opponents. Their own political and cultural traditions, including notions of honor, held that officers and officials be attended by servants and slaves, a sure sign one was no longer a slave. And so, perhaps not surprisingly, rebel leaders began in some small measure to resemble the very masters they had just booted out.
Afro-Berbicians also came to realize that not everyone shared the same vision for post-rebellion Berbice. Some, it appears, sought freedom in an African state that employed coerced labor to participate in the Atlantic economy, while others, wary of a centralizing and hierarchical state, desired autonomy—to be left in peace to farm their own plots for subsistence and local barter.
In the months that followed, allegiances shifted as people continued to gauge how best to reach their goals and stay alive.
Excerpted from Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast , by Marjoleine Kars. Copyright © 2021. Available from New Press.