Tuesday, February 23, 2010

FEBRUARY 23, 2010

Much of the history of Africans in the Diaspora has been of struggle against and triumph over chattel slavery. In every location where Africans were enslaved they resisted in various ways including in some instances, armed struggle. Some of those struggles are well documented, the names of the leaders are known. In other cases the struggles to be free of chattel slavery are not well known and the names of those who waged battles for their freedom have long been lost or even distorted. An African proverb states that until the lion has his own historian the story of the hunt will always be told from the point of view of the hunter. It is important that we tell our stories of our heroes and sheroes. We should not discount the information that was handed down to us by the griots of our childhood. Many of us were fortunate to grow up in communities where our elders were steeped in African culture and history. We heard the stories of those heroes and sheroes who were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for the freedom of their people.

One such hero is Kofi (Cuffy), Guyana’s National Hero, whose name has been Anglicized and the meaning of his name which identifies him as an Akan male born on Friday was for many years not acknowledged because the British colonizers wrote that story. In many communities across what was British Guiana and then later Guyana, we heard the truth from our elders. The story as told in many of the history books identified the Africans as “rebels” instead of freedom fighters and identified their struggle as a “rebellion” instead of a revolution. It is interesting to note the words used by Henry G. Dalton, a British author, who in 1855 published two volumes of The History of British Guiana comprising general description of the colony. Writing of the Berbice Revolution which started on February 23, 1763 and lasted until March 1764, Dalton notes: “1763, a terrible insurrection burst out, which convulsed the whole colony, and threatened its very existence.”

Some writers have tried to position the freedom fighters of the Berbice Revolution as a group of disorganized Africans who were forever squabbling with each other. However, even Dalton in his telling of the story acknowledges that “the negroes had organized themselves into a regular government, had established a complete system of military discipline, and had chosen Cuffy, a young slave of courage and judgment, as their governor.”

The Africans in Berbice eventually failed in their bid to establish a permanent free state because they mistakenly trusted the Dutch who agreed to negotiate a settlement of hostilities. The Europeans had no intention of negotiating to allow the Africans to live as free people. According to Dalton, as early as May 8th 1763 a proclamation was posted at plantation Dageraad with a 500 guilder reward for the capture of Kofi and a reward of 400 guilders for the capture of Akkara. While the Africans were negotiating in good faith the Europeans were biding their time, waiting for the arrival of European military aid from other colonies and even from the Netherlands. Kofi and his lieutenants Akkabre (Accabre), Akkara (Accara) and Atta were not expecting the treachery of the Europeans and were caught by surprise. There were also collaborators among the enslaved Africans who were tempted by the rewards that the Dutch offered and betrayed their own people. Dalton writes that the Dutch “called upon the loyal slaves to join the whites and offered the following premiums: for every living negro rebel, the sum of 50 guilders. For every right hand of one (rebel) slain, the sum of 20 guilders.”

The freedom fighters continued their resistance even after the arrival of the large force of European military. “On January 24, 1764 information was received that Atta and the other ringleaders were in the neighbourhood of Creek Wikkie.” With the arrival of the re-enforcements, the Europeans went on a murderous rampage. On March 16, 1764, 23 Africans were hanged, 16 broken on the wheel and 15 burnt.

Although Dalton does not include information about Kofi’s fate he does write about Atta’s capture. “The rebel chief Atta, was discovered and seized by some of the negroes who had joined the Dutch, and, along with several other ringleaders, was most cruelly tortured, and then tied to a stake and burnt, without one word of complaint. In fact, it was remarkable how callous and indifferent the rebels had become, not a sigh or groan escaping from them under the terrible vengeance of the victorious Dutch.”

Clearly, in spite of the many European written stories to the contrary, the enslaved Africans of Berbice and other places in the Diaspora were not pitiful beings with no history or agency. The names (allowing for the possible Anglicized spelling) of the leaders of the Berbice Revolution identify them as people from west Africa, most likely Akan from Ghana. The enslaved Africans of the Berbice Revolution who are symbols of perseverance, strength and courage are celebrated in the history of Guyana although they may not be well known outside of Guyana. The Cuffy Monument (sometimes mistakenly regarded as a statue), erected in the Square of the Revolution located in Georgetown (Guyana’s capital city) honours not only the leader Kofi but all the freedom fighters of the Berbice Revolution. February 23, Republic Day, when Guyana officially became the Co-operative Republic of Guyana in 1970 and the Mashramani celebration, also honour the memory of Kofi, Akkabre, Akkara, Atta and the many other nameless freedom fighters of the Berbice Revolution.


Monday, February 1, 2010


On September 29th, 1767 a 16 year old African male who had been kidnapped in the village of Juffure, Gambia, West Africa arrived in Annapolis, Maryland, USA. He was one of 98 Africans who had spent 86 days of a brutal trans Atlantic voyage in the filthy hold of a ship, the Lord Ligonier. When the ship left the Gambia on July 5th there were 140 captured Africans in its hold. When it arrived in Annapolis Maryland 86 days later 42 Africans had died from the horror of that journey. Further misery awaited those captive Africans on arrival in America when they were separated and sold. On October 1st 1767 an advertisement in the Maryland Gazette advised white Marylanders that there would be a sale of the captured Africans on the following Wednesday, October 7th.

On September 29th 1967, two hundred years later a 46 year old African American male stood at the site where the Lord Ligonier had docked in 1767 and wept. He was the great-great-great-great-grandson of the 16 year old who had been captured in Juffure, Gambia and landed in Annapolis on September 19th 1767. Alex Haley described that moment in September 29th 1967 as the most emotional moment of his life. He had been on a quest for several years to discover his family’s African “roots.” As one of the more fortunate African families in the Diaspora, Haley’s extended family contained griots who relayed the knowledge, the stories of the family’s history to seven successive generations over a few hundred years. From Kunta Kinte (the 16 year kidnapped in Juffure, Gambia) to Alex Haley, some seven generations in America remembered words and phrases that helped in the search that eventually led to the publication of the ground breaking “Roots: The Saga of an American Family” that was published in 1976.

With the publication of “Roots: The Saga of an American Family,” Alex Haley brought the world’s attention to the fact that Africans in the Diaspora specifically African Americans have a direct connection with the African continent. The name Kunta Kinte became known in every household that possessed television during the eight day period 23-30 of January 1977 when Haley’s book was converted to the television miniseries “Roots.” Americans of all stripes watched the painful “conversion” of the African Kunta Kinte to “Toby” and his family’s morphing into Americans. A veritable who’s who of African American actors brought the fascinating story of one African man’s sojourn in America to life. Life in Africa, the lives the Africans led during their enslavement in America was brought into the homes of all Americans via television for eight days in January 1977. Many Africans in the Diaspora felt the urge to trace their ancestry back to Africa. Not many were as fortunate as Haley, my aunt’s husband born in Guyana, tried tracing his African ancestry but since the only information he had was his last name (McLeod) which is not an African name his search ended in Barbados, he was happy to find some relatives.

Most Americans had never heard of the Gambia before Alex Haley’s book was published and made into a successful television miniseries. Since the success of Haley’s book and the subsequent miniseries Juffure became a tourist attraction for African Americans and other Africans in the Diaspora. Haley’s book was translated into 37 languages and 6 million copies were sold in the hard cover version with millions more sold in paperback. Africans and non-Africans worldwide have read Haley’s book which has led to the popularity of the Roots Homecoming Festival in the Gambia. In 1996, the International Roots Homecoming Festival was instituted and Africans from the Diaspora travel to the Gambia for this summer celebration.

Today, in the 21st century, the Republic of the Gambia which gained its independence from Britain on February 18th, 1965 is a developing country recovering from years of colonization. The Gambia is one of the smallest countries in Africa, roughly 4,000 square miles with a population of approximately one and a half (1.5) million making it the fourth most densely populated country on the African continent. Most of the labour force of the Gambia (75%) work in the agricultural field as farmers. Manufacturing, which accounts for approximately 5.5% of the labour force is primarily agriculturally based. Tourism may be booming (employing 5% of the labour force) but does not do much for the farmers who are the mainstay of the country’s economy. The farmers live in villages in rural areas where many of them struggle to make a living with outdated and inadequate farming equipment. Many of the farmers are women who have to walk distances to fetch water because of lack of wells to provide clean drinking water in their villages.

A group of University of Toronto students in collaboration with farmers in the Gambia have founded an organization to assist the farmers in the Gambia. Two of the students were born in the Gambia, but unlike Alex Haley’s celebrated ancestor Kunta Kinte they did not arrive in North America in the hold of a ship, they came by airplane. Lamin Jarju who holds a B. A and Bakary Gibba who has a B. A an M. A. and is a Senior PhD candidate at the University of Toronto are passionate about the work they are doing to assist the farmers of The Gambia. This dedicated group of volunteers which includes Trinidadian born Paula Budhall Jarju also a University of Toronto graduate (B. A, M. A) are seeking the assistance of Canadians in their quest to help the farmers in villages similar to the village in which Alex Haley’s ancestor was born. The Penyem Jamorai Relief Organization is dedicated to bettering the lot of the people who live in the Gambia, one village at a time. I interviewed the members on CKLN 88.1 FM and was impressed with their enthusiasm and dedication to this project. On their web site www.pjro.net the group describes their organization.

“The Penyem Jamorai Relief Organization is a non-profit relief organization with headquarters in Toronto Canada, that aims to help the rural farmers of Africa with food, medicine, and clothing to individuals, children and families who lack these essentials due to famine, and poverty. PJRO is dedicated to providing food to the agrarian people and creating sustainable development. A key goal is to help needy families move past needing help and into becoming self-sufficient members of their community, through long-term, self-help development programs. PRJO is a Canadian non-governmental organization (NGO) with the desire to helping the poor rural agrarian communities in the Gambia West Africa to attain sustainable livelihoods. Working, in partnership with the rural villagers to attain self-reliance in food production and clean drinking water.”

The members of the organization in Toronto can be contacted at lamin.jarju@pjro.net, 416.406.1045 or Penyem Jamorai Relief Organization, 10 Boultbee Avenue, Unit 1010, Toronto, Ontario, M4J 1A6


Written in September 2007