The most famous slave uprising was the Berbice uprising, which began in February 1763. On two plantations on the Canje River in Berbice, African slaves rebelled, taking control of the region. As plantation after plantation fell to the slaves, the European population fled; eventually only half of the Caucasians who had lived in the colony remained. Led by Kofi (now the national hero of Guyana), an Akan man from West Africa, the African freedom fighters came to number about 3000 and threatened European control over Guiana. The rebelling Africans were organised as a fighting force by Kofi, who was a house-slave on another Canje plantation, Lilienburg, where the slaves had also rebelled. Kofi had been brought to this plantation ever since he was a child and was trained as a cooper by the owner, Barkey.
Fort Nassau, Berbice River
In 1762, a slave rebellion of 36 male and female slaves occurred on Berbice, then a Dutch colony. But after the slaves repelled a militia force sent by the Governor Van Hoogenheim, the rebellion was finally repressed by a stronger force of the Dutch militia. Some of the slaves escaped, but at least one was executed. But the repressive techniques of the planters were bringing matters to a boiling point, and just a few months later, around February 23, 1763, a more organised revolt took place. This uprising became known as the Berbice Slave Rebellion.
The uprising initially broke out at Magdalenenburg, a plantation on the upper Canje River owned by a widow, Madam Vernesobre. The slaves killed the manager and carpenter, burned down the owner’s house, and moved on to neighbouring plantations, and as far as the Corentyne, to urge support from the slaves there, some of whom attacked their owners and either joined the others, or escaped into the forest.
The rebellion, which originally began on privately owned estates, soon attracted the slaves on plantations owned by the Berbice Association. The rebels burned buildings and cane fields and attacked and killed a number of Caucasian men and women. Soon they reached plantations on the Berbice River, and among the plantations attacked were Juliana, Mon Repos, Essendam, Lilienburg, Bearestyn, Elizabeth and Alexandria, Hollandia, and Zeelandia. Slaves from these and other plantations joined the rebel forces which moved steadily towards the capital of Berbice, Fort Nassau, located 56 miles up the Berbice River on its right bank. When they attacked the plantations, they seized gunpowder and guns belonging to the owners.
Meanwhile, those among the Caucasian population who managed to escape sought refuge on the five ships in the Berbice River, at Fort Nassau, Fort St Andries at the mouth of the Berbice River, and in a brick house at Plantation Peerboom, about 70 miles upriver on the left bank. Some others, in panic, fled through the forest to Demerara. The feeling of hopelessness was compounded by an epidemic of dysentery which affected the Caucasians.
On March 3, a rebel group, numbering over 500, and led by Cosala, then launched an attack on the brick house at Peerboom, which was heavily fortified by the Caucasian defenders.
The rebels threw balls of burning cotton on the roof which began to burn, but the defenders were able to put out the fire. During a period of inaction, the manager of Plantation Bearestyn demanded to know why the Africans were attacking “Christians”.
Cosala shouted back that they would no longer tolerate the presence of Caucasians or Christians in Berbice since they (the African rebels) were now in control of all the plantations. After a period of negotiations, the rebels agreed to allow the Caucasians to leave the brick house unharmed and depart for their boats in the river. But as the Caucasians were leaving, the rebels opened fire, killing many of them and taking many prisoners. Among the prisoners was the wife of the manager of Plantation Bearestyn whom Kofi kept as his wife.
Kofi, accepted by all the rebels as the leader of the rebellion, then declared himself governor of Berbice, and set up his administration at Hollandia and Zeelandia. He selected Akara as his deputy, and set about drilling his troops and establishing discipline. Two other leaders who emerged were Atta and Accabre, the latter being very disciplined and military-conscious. Other military leaders included Cossala and Goussari. Work groups among the Africans were also organised to farm the estate lands to produce food supplies to sustain the population.
But from the beginning, Kofi encountered difficulties with his forces since some sections felt that by defeating the Caucasians meant that they could now act as they pleased.
Drinking and plundering
Small groups roamed across the countryside plundering abandoned estates, while some others spent most of their time drinking rum and dressing up in European clothing plundered from the plantations. The Dutch governor, Van Hoogenheim and other Caucasians at Fort Nassau, were undecided on what they should do. Van Hoogenheim had wanted to defend the colony, but the Court of Policy voted against defending the colony.
On March 8, 1763, Fort Nassau was abandoned after the buildings were burned and the cannons spiked. The Caucasians travelled by boats to Fort St Andries, which was soon found to be of no use, for neither housing, nor defence. Although this was quite evident, it was voted that the Caucasians should stay there. English ships with 100 soldiers arrived from Suriname. Van Hoogenheim immediately withdrew his decision to abandon the colony and began to re-organise its defence. He dispatched 25 soldiers to Plantation Fredricksburg up the Canje and left a small group with two ships to guard the mouth of the Berbice River. With the remaining larger group, he along with volunteers among the Caucasians sailed up with three armed ships to Dageraad.
The rebels, led by Akara, immediately launched three successive attacks on the Caucasians, but they were driven back. Kofi, who did not approve these attacks, immediately after, on April 2, 1763, wrote to Van Hoogenheim saying that he did not want a war with the Caucasians. He also proposed the partition of Berbice between the Caucasians and Africans, with the Caucasians occupying the coastal area, and the Africans occupying the interior.
Meanwhile, the governor sent a group of two loyal slaves and two Amerindians to Suriname for assistance. Help was also sought from Essequibo-Demerara. Stalling for time and hoping for reinforcements to arrive from the other Dutch colonies, he wrote back to Kofi saying that he had sent the partition proposal to Holland and was waiting for a response. There upon began an exchange of letters between Kofi and Van Hoogenheim in which the former insisted that he held the latter in great respect and meant him no harm. However, he did list the names of the planters who were excessively cruel to their slaves, saying that their cruelty caused them to rebel. He was probably using this tactic to divide the Caucasians and hoping that the governor would surrender them to the rebels. Kofi also proposed a face-to-face meeting.
Maintaining his delaying tactics, the governor continued to insist in his replies to Kofi that he was still waiting to hear from Holland. By the end of March, the director general of Essequibo-Demerara, Laurens Storm Van Gravesande had received information about the rebellion, and he instructed the commander of Demerara, to request assistance from the Caribs, Arawaks, and Akawaios to mount an attack on the Berbice rebels, from the south.
Gravesande also wrote to the Zeeland Chamber and the directors of the Berbice Association in Holland, and the governor of St Eustatius, seeking military assistance for the Caucasians in Berbice. Eventually, two well-armed ships with 158 soldiers arrived in Berbice.
By this time, Kofi lost his patience with Van Hoggenhiem, and on May 13, 1763, he agreed to an attack on Dageraad. His forces numbered about 2000 while the Caucasians had about 150 armed men. The three ships in the river maintained a steady firing of their heavy guns on the attackers and by mid- afternoon, they were forced to withdraw after suffering a loss of 58 dead.
After this defeat, Kofi wrote to Van Hoogenheim again offering his partition proposal which he hoped would bring peace with honour. In a very firm statement, he insisted that “in no case will we be slaves again”. But the defeat of the Blacks helped to open up divisions in their ranks. Those who had been field-slaves began to express disapproval of Kofi, who was a house-slave. Atta was the leader of this “field-slave” faction. Tribal contentions also emerged and fights broke out between members of different tribes. Creole people also at times attacked those who recently arrived from Africa. These divisions seriously undermined the military strength of the rebels and helped to encourage the Caucasians to re-group their forces.
Interestingly, soon after their arrival, a group of Dutch soldiers, including Jene Renaud and Sergeant de Niesse, who had mutinied and deserted the post on the Corentyne, were captured and employed by the rebels to train the troops and make weapons. Kofi used them for training his forces, and some even led small bands of the rebels in guerrilla attacks on plantations controlled by the Caucasians.
Meanwhile, the differences between Kofi and Atta continued to grow and eventually Atta challenged him for the leadership. The opposing supporters fought each other and after Atta’s faction won, Kofi and his allies were killed. Atta, now the new leader, appointed Accabre as his military commander, and three other leaders, Quacco, Baube and Goussari rose up among the ranks. But by this time, reinforcements were arriving to support the Caucasians.
A combined Amerindian force was already moving through the forest from the south, and from December 19, 1763, soldiers who had arrived from Holland were moving up the Canje and Berbice rivers and taking back control of the plantations. Large numbers of Africans surrendered while others fled into the forest. But some mounted resistance, but they were quickly suppressed by the Dutch soldiers. However, in two battles, including one at Wikki Creek, the African forces were able to score victories.
Atta and Akara were soon after taken prisoner, but Accabre with a disciplined band resisted the Dutch forces by using innovative military strategy. In the end, he himself was betrayed by Akara and Goussari, and was overwhelmed by the superior number of the Dutch soldiers and was captured. When he was brought before Van Hoogenheim, he proudly admitted his role as a leader of the rebellion.
Accabre, Atta, Akara, Quacco, Baube and Goussari, as well as many other rebels were executed. Between March and April 1764, 40 of them were hanged, 24 broken at the wheel and 24 burned to death. Others who were rounded up were re-enslaved and put back to work on the plantations, now back under control of their Caucasian owners.
The Berbice Slave Rebellion, which lasted for 10 months, marked the first large scale attempt by a large group of enslaved people to win their freedom in Guyana.
Significantly, it was also the first organised attempt to win freedom in the entire American continent. Despite the division in the ranks and the eventual failure of the rebellion, from it emerged the first group of Guyanese revolutionary fighters.