Wednesday, January 13, 2010

FEBRUARY 23, 1763

On February 23rd I received an e-mail from my brethren Ras Leon Saul but I was so busy I did not have an opportunity to read it until Sunday, February 24th so I missed the opportunity to view “Berbice Uprising” online at “helloworld.” I had not heard about “helloworld” before I read the e-mail but I have known about the Berbice freedom fighters led by Kofi, since I was a child. Like Toussaint L’Overture who led the Haitian Revolution, Kofi had been a house slave (debunking the myth of house slaves being docile and satisfied with their lot.) It was appropriate for Ras Leon to send the invitation to people inviting them to view the “Berbice Uprising” play on February 23rd because the enslaved Africans of Berbice led by Kofi and his lieutenants, Atta, Akara and Accabre seized their freedom on February 23rd 1763. Berbice had been colonized by the Dutch and from the stories we were told by our elders they were extremely cruel to the enslaved Africans. The revolution began on Plantation Magdalenenburg up the Canje River and soon spread to other plantations on the Canje River and eventually up the Berbice River. As the victorious Africans conquered plantation after plantation, the European slave holders fled until approximately half of the white population who had lived in the colony remained. Within one month the Africans were in control of almost all the plantations in Berbice. Some of the Dutch soldiers fled while others were killed in battle with the Africans. The Africans could have retained ownership of Berbice because they had the numbers and the advantage but they began negotiations with their former enslavers to share the colony. While the Africans were negotiating in good faith the treacherous Europeans were marking time until troops from neighbouring French, Dutch and British colonies and from Europe arrived. The Africans held the colony of Berbice for one year until March, 1764. Once the Europeans regained control of Berbice, many of the Africans were brutally killed as a warning (40 were hanged, 24 broken on the wheel and 24 burned to death) the others were re-enslaved but Kofi was never captured. The Dutch did not have a monopoly on cruelty to enslaved Africans, all the European slaveholders meted out brutal punishment to the Africans they held in captivity.

In 1712, a group of enslaved Africans in British colonized New York City rose up in what has been described as one of the most serious slave resistances in American history. The revolt was led by African-born slaves, who decided death was preferable to life in bondage. The group of freedom fighters set fire to a building in the town and hid among some trees. When their enslavers came out to extinguish the fire, the Africans attacked, killing nine of their enemy. A posse of white men was rounded up and appeals for armed men were made to governors of surrounding colonies. The militia was called in on the hunt for the “rebels” who were surrounded in the woods of northern Manhattan. The leaders of the uprising committed suicide and the others surrendered. A special court was convened by the governor to try the twenty-seven Africans accused of the insurrection. Twenty-one were convicted and were killed by being burned alive (including one over a slow fire that lasted for eight hours), racked and broken on the wheel (strapped to a wheel and their bones broken with a heavy hammer) and gibbeted alive in chains. In his report to England, Governor Hunter praised the judges for inventing 'the most exemplary punishments that could be possibly thought of.'

Enslaved Africans did not have to “revolt” or “rebel” to experience the kind of barbaric cruelty to which the rebels in New York were sentenced in 1712. Described in the “Memoir of Quamino Buccau, A Pious Methodist” is an incident which happened in British colonized New Jersey. “A young slave, about twenty years of age, fired his master's barn and outbuildings, and thus destroyed much grain, together with live-stock. He was detected by the smoke issuing from his pocket, (into which he had thrust some combustibles,) imprisoned, tried, and on his confession, condemned to be burned to death. He was fastened to a stake, and when the pile was fired, the dense crowd excluded the air, so that the flames kindled but slowly, and the dreadful screams of the victim were heard at a distance of three miles.” The “Memoir of Quamino Buccau, A Pious Methodist” is one of the “Slave Narratives” that shed some light on the lives that enslaved Africans led in the USA. Quamino Buccau’s story was published in a 30 page book in 1851 but many of these “narratives” were documented during the 1936-1938 period when the US government paid writers to interview and document the stories of formerly enslaved Africans. Most of the narratives were written by white southern interviewers. Only one-fifth of the WPA slave narratives were recorded by African American interviewers. Studies comparing the interviews conducted by African and white writers conclude that the formerly enslaved Africans were more open about their feelings and experiences as slaves with the African American interviewers. The interviews were conducted during the time of segregation and extreme racial oppression in the South. It is thought the (by then elderly) interviewees were intimidated by white interviewers, which may have caused some of them to be reticent in accurately recounting the brutality of slavery. In 1941 the Library of Congress published a seventeen volume set entitled “Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United States from Interviews with Former Slaves.” A website which contains more than 2,300 first-person accounts of slavery and 500 photographs of formerly enslaved Africans entitled “Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1938” has been available since 2003 at

Following the British lead of March 25th, 1807, the American government banned its citizens’ participation in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade on January 1st, 1808. The homegrown slave trade and trading of African bodies in the Americas and the Caribbean continued. White people continued to buy and sell enslaved Africans from the Caribbean and across North and South America. The New York Times and Harper’s Magazine have both published articles about the American Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. On Tuesday, February 5, 2008, President George Bush signed into law H.R. 3432 titled, “Commission on the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade Act.” The law establishes a commission to plan activities commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. One of those activities is planning efforts for a new commemorative coin. The bill was first introduced in 2007 by Representative Donald Payne (Democrat –New Jersey), passed in the House of Representatives on October 2, 2007 and in the Senate on December 19, 2007. We have seen no evidence of the Canadian Federal government recognizing the bicentenary of the British Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade which is commemorated from March 2007 to March 2008. Although I know the story of Kofi (Guyana’s National Hero) and the Berbice Revolution, I am still hoping that my brethren Ras Leon will send out another e-mail of his “Berbice Uprising” for those of us who could not view it on February 23rd.

Written in February 2008

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