Wednesday, February 23, 2011


On February 23, 1970 the former British Guiana became the Co-operative Republic of Guyana. Guyana had gained its independence from Britain on May 26, 1966 but became a republic on the 207 th anniversary of the beginning of the Berbice Revolution. On February 23, 1763, 207 years before Guyana became a republic, a group of enslaved Africans led by Kofi, an Akan man from Ghana who had worked as a “house slave,” (so much for the myth of the docile “house slave”) and his lieutenants struck their first blow for freedom. Africans had no say in which positions they were put to work; so being forced to work in “Massa’s” house or “Massa’s” fields was never an indication of the enslaved African’s state of mind.

The Berbice 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 took control over almost all of the 19 plantations in Berbice. Some of the Dutch soldiers fled while others were killed in battle with the Africans.

Kofi and his lieutenants Akkabre, Akkara and Atta are the acknowledged leaders of the Berbice Revolution and led enough freedom fighters to eliminate the Dutch. However in spite of having enough numbers and the strategic advantage to retain ownership of Berbice the Africans instead chose to negotiate with their former enslavers to share the colony.

While the Africans were negotiating in good faith, the Europeans were marking time until troops from neighbouring French, Dutch and British colonies arrived. Once reinforcement arrived in the colony and the Europeans regained control of Berbice many of the Africans were brutally killed as a warning. Forty were hanged, 24 broken on the wheel and 24 were burned to death. Some fled to neighbouring Suriname while others were re-enslaved, but Kofi was never captured. Many of the Africans preferred to die fighting, rather than surrender and become re-enslaved.

There are many instances of enslaved Africans fighting for their freedom that are generally not known outside of the countries where they waged these struggles. Most of the armed struggles of enslaved Africans in the USA are documented and readily available but those of enslaved Africans in the Caribbean, South and Central America are not as well known. There are a few fairly well known names outside of their respective countries like Bussa of Barbados, Nanny of the Jamaican Maroons, Toussaint L’Overture of Haiti and Zumbi of Brazil. The enslaved Africans of Haiti were the only group to successfully overthrow their enslavers and retain their freedom.

The struggle for freedom and eventual triumph of the enslaved Africans in Haiti has become better known since 2004 when the citizens of that country observed the 200 year anniversary of their freedom from slavery. Haiti is the sole country where enslaved Africans, led by a former “house slave” Toussaint L’Overture successfully overthrew their enslavers. L’Overture, like his counterpart Kofi in Guyana, trusted his former enslavers and lost his freedom and his life when he accepted an invitation to meet with the treacherous French who kidnapped and transported him to a prison in France where he remained for the rest of his life. The kidnapping of their leader did not faze the Haitian freedom fighters and on January 1, 1804 they declared their freedom as an independent nation; the only group of Africans to successfully defeat their enslavers.

The European world has never forgiven this challenge to their supposed superiority and the people of Haiti have been the target of successive attacks on their sovereignty. The Americans and the French have been at the forefront of these attacks and the 1992 documentary Haiti: Killing the Dream ( narrated by the late African American actor Ossie Davis looks at the nearly twenty-year occupation of Haiti by US Marines beginning in 1915. The French began the process of killing the dream when they subjected the fledgling nation to a forced reparation payment of what would amount to billions of dollars in today’s Canadian currency, for the loss of French property (which included the Africans who had seized their freedom.)

The success of the Africans on Haiti terrified the white slave holders in the Caribbean, Europe, Central, North and South America and began a process of gradual end to the 400 year enslavement of Africans. Britain abolished its slave trade March 25, 1807 and slavery 27 years later on August 1, 1834. Chile abolished slavery in 1823, while Brazil (1888) and Cuba (1886) were the last to end chattel slavery.

In Guyana, the freedom fighting Africans held the colony of Berbice for more than a year until March, 1764. The enslavement of Africans in what was then British Guiana ended on August 1, 1834 (completed in 1838 after “apprenticeship” period) as it did in all British “possessions” including Canada.

Although Kofi’s struggle to free himself and other enslaved Africans from the Dutch in the 1763-1764 Berbice Revolution was not successful, he has been recognized as a heroic revolutionary figure and is Guyana’s National Hero. He lit the torch that was passed on to subsequent generations of Guyanese until Guyana gained its independence from the second colonialists, the British, on May 26, 1966. The day that Kofi struck a blow for freedom is immortalized in the Guyanese constitution with a public holiday (Republic Day) on February 23rd of each year since 1970. The highlight of Republic Day celebrations is the Mashramani festival and parade, reminiscent of Toronto’s Caribana Parade.

No comments: