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.


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