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Happy Emancipation day to all Afro-Guyanese: A day of celebration and remembrance to honor the memories of those who slaved till they breathe their last breath.
PART II Blood, sweat, tears and the struggle for basic human rights
Slave Revolts prior to 1763
The first recorded slave revolt occurred in Canje in 1733, where about a dozen company slaves* were hired by the Vernesobre family (owners of Magdalenenburg Plantation the scene of the famous 1763 Berbice Slave Rebellion) to build their new plantation - Monbijoux Plantation. The Vernesobre family had acquired an evil reputation throughout the colony for the brutal treatment of their slaves and on the day in question the slaves killed several whites and tried to hide out in the bush, but the Indians killed a few of them and the rest were brought back to face trial. Even the Governor of Essequibo heard about the family cruelty he referred to the family as being worse than barbarians. A few other similar revolts in Berbice followed in 1749, 1752 and then in 1762 where the slaves attempted to set up maroon camps in the bush but were not successful, the Dutch wiped out their settlements and most of those who survived were hanged. Ironically, one of the slaves who were executed for his part in the revolt was also named Kofi. Before his execution he asked for a glass of kilthum, (a sort of "moonshine rum", produced in the colony then) which was given to him (as ordered by the Governor). When the Governor asked him if he wished that he was not involved in the revolt; Kofi said that “now it did not matter, but that where they failed, others would succeed”. Little did he know that another Kofi was going to take his place a year later!
The 1763 Berbice Rebellion
As the ill-treatment of the slaves deteriorated further and the living conditions worsen (the colony was also experiencing a severe shortage of food at that time) slaves were showing more signs of unrest. On February 23, 1763, the first of two, slave revolts was set in motion on plantation Magdalenenburg. This revolt occurred only four days before the rebellion led by Kofi (not Cuffy) from plantation Lilienburg. Due to the close timing of the two events, some historians dated the Kofi led uprising from the day of Magdalenenburg revolt, even though the two were separate occurrences. Eventually, the events of the uprising from the two plantations eventually merged into one, and the Dutch also came to view them as part of the same revolt. On Sunday 27th February 1763 events were set in motion when most of the whites had left to attend church service leaving the slaves alone. Kofi, meaning born on the Jummah, a house slave led the "charge". He was a Muslim from the Akan tribe of Ghana, he was bought by the owner of plantation Lilienburg when he was a child; and was trained as a cooper by his master. Kofi, together with four deputies – Akara (also a Muslim from Ghana was his chief army commander from the same plantation); Atta and his ship brother Quabi – both Atta and Quabi were Muslims from the Akan tribe, they were brought to Berbice just a year before the revolt, and were ship brothers chained together on the Dutch slave-ship, the de Eenigheht. In Atta"s group of rebels there were a large number of fighters the Minas (also Muslims) from the village of el Mina (which is Arabic for the market). The Minas were suspicious of the other slaves in the "regiment" who were from Angola and Congo and fighting broke out amongst these different tribes. Last but not least was Accabre**, a Bantu of the Mbangala warrior tribe from the Congo region (some believed that he engaged in cannibalism). These together with more than 3,000 "rebels" from neighboring plantations took up arms, in their "jihad" against the injustices of slavery. Kofi and the rest of the slaves virtually controlled the colony for 11 months.
News of the uprising spread like wildfire among the other plantations, Kofi and his men threatened the Dutch control in Berbice as they killed more than 40 whites (including women and children) forcing those who escaped into hiding north up the Berbice River at the Van Peere"s plantation. The rebels moved south and set up their headquarters at Fort Nassau where Kofi, declared himself 'Governor of Berbice' (he took the sister of one of the plantation owner as his wife). Kofi, through a scribe, wrote the Dutch Governor Hoogenheim and suggested that the southern half of Berbice should be free and ruled by the Blacks and the northern half ruled by the whites. Kofi, however, failed to work out a treaty with Hoogeheim to gain their freedom and reinforcements were sent from Europe and Suriname in which the “insurgents” were defeated, in addition dissention among his ranks of “chiefs” further aggravated the situation. Kofi committed suicide, but despite this, his "army" honoured him with a burial befitting that of a great chief, they killed two whites on his grave. Many of the slaves who were caught were executed in the most barbaric fashion – some roasting alive over a slow fire, some shot while others beheaded and heads mounted on poles. The handful of slaves who managed to escape found their way to Suriname where they joined up with the Djukas.
Efforts to convert the slaves
The first missionaries, believed to be two Moravians, arrived in Berbice in 1738 (more than 150 years after the arrival of the first slaves in British Guiana). The plantation owners however did not permit the missionaries to convert their slaves nor to teach them to read and write, as they felt that this would encourage them to rebel. They missionaries then tried to convert the Amerindians. In 1795, the London Missionary Society, which was originally non-denominational, eventually became a congregational society which was formed solely for evangelical work among the slaves and "heathens" in the British colonies. Hermanus H. Post, proprietor of plantation Le Ressouvenir, East Coast Demerara was the first to request missionary workers from the Society. In February 1808, Rev. John Wray arrived in Guiana and took up residence on his plantation, and where one of the first churches was built - Bethel Chapel, where many of the whites in the area also attended services. Post believed that the church was the best thing that could have happened to the slaves (especially those on the estate next to his). He said that ".. They were formerly a nuisance to the neighbourhood, on account of their drumming and dancing two or three nights in the week, and were looked on with a jealous eye on account of their dangerous communications; but they have now become the most zealous attendants on public worship, catechising, and private instructions. No drums are heard in this neighbourhood, except where the owners have prohibited the attendance of their slaves [at the church]. Drunkards and fighters have changed into sober and peaceable people, and endeavour to please those who are set over them."
In 1817, the Rev. John Smith arrived in Demerara (Rev. John Wray"s replacement). Despite specific instructions from Governor Murray not to teach the slaves to read, Smith, like Wray, continued teaching the slaves literacy skills, so they could read the Bible for themselves, one slave – Quamina - became so versed in the Bible that he served as the Deacon of the church. Before Rev. Smith accepted a slave in the church to be baptized the slave had to produce a note from his master certifying that he was of good character, he was questioned as to how many wives he had. If the answers are satisfactory, they profess their belief in Christ, and they are sorry for their sins, Rev. Smith accepts them into his fold. It is clear from contemporary accounts that baptism and admission to the church was in essence viewed as a great reward. They comprised an elite group among the slaves as they were permitted to participate in the religion and rituals of the dominant and "superior" group.
The period between the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and eventual emancipation in 1838, is noted for earnest evangelical work, a somewhat stable social hierarchy emerged in which things English, white and Christian were highly valued; things African, black and outside of Christianity were lowly valued. The Christian churches became one of the chief instruments through which these values were disseminated and made acceptable to the slaves, but the means by which they achieved this were incompatible with the continuation of slavery as an institution, which was one of the basis for subsequent revolts.
Rumors of Freedom and the Demerara slave revolt
Although the slave trade was outlawed by the passage of the British Slave Trade Act in 1807, and even though a penalty of £100 (per slave) was imposed on British ships and their captains it did not stopped the slave trade. In April 1823 Abolitionist Thomas Fowell Buxton tabled a motion in the House of Commons calling for the gradual abolition of slavery in the British colonies. The motion was not passed since the majority felt that abolition would leave the planters without a workforce (where many would have had to abandon their plantations, which some eventually were forced to do). Instead, measures were suggested to improve the conditions of slaves, among which it was agreed that female slaves should not be whipped and drivers should not carry whips in the field.
The plantation owners were informed of these new conditions and the Governor of Berbice sent the communication to Rev. John Smith at Le Ressouvenir, who read it to the slaves. While neighboring plantation owners were waiting on word of the adoption of this “new law”, their house slaves overheard their masters discussing them and not quite understanding the implication of the new rules the slaves felt that their masters had received instructions to set them free and were refusing to do so. This rumour was passed on other plantations, orally and in writing by some slaves who had acquired reading and writing skills. Jack Gladstone from Plantation Success, son of Deacon Quamina Gladstone, heard the rumour and he wrote a letter (signing his father"s name) to the members of the chapel informing them of the “new law”, which set the stage for the Demerara slave revolt. (Plantation Success was owned by John Gladstone, owner of the Vreed-en-hoop plantations who was instrumental in recruiting East Indians to replace the freed slaves in 1838).
On Sunday 17th August 1823 slaves from the surrounding plantations met at Success, three of them, Jack Gladstone, Joseph Packwood and Manuel began to make plans for an uprising. However, Jack"s father, Quamina, objected to any bloody revolt and suggested that the slaves should stage a "peaceful" strike instead. After Church services, Quamina, and two other slaves – Manuel and Seaton - went to Rev. Smith's home to inform him of the slaves" plan. Smith asked them to plead with the other slaves, particularly the Christians, not to rebel. But his pleadings fell on deaf ears the slaves were determined to rebel from the following evening. Quamina then urged them not to be violent; however, on the morning of Monday 18th August, Joseph Packwood betrayed the other slaves and told his master about the plot, he in turn informed Governor Murray who with a group of soldiers rode up to plantations Le Ressouvenir and La Bonne Intention where he met a large group of armed slaves on the road. He asked them what they wanted and they replied, “Our right” He ordered them to surrender their weapons, but they refused, he warned that their disobedience would cause them to lose whatever new benefits the new law was suppose to give them. Murray urged them to go home and to meet with him at Plantation Felicity the next morning but they refused this invitation and later that day the Governor proclaimed martial law.
That night the slaves (numbering about 13,000) seized and locked up the managers and overseers on more than 37 plantations in Demerara. There was very little violence since the slaves apparently heeded the request made by Quamina. The uprising collapsed very quickly since the slaves, despite being armed, were poorly organised. A group of soldiers commanded by Colonel Leahy clashed with about 2,000 slaves at Bachelor's Adventure and savagely crushed them, more than 250 were killed. Some who escaped were hunted down by Amerindian slave-catchers and shot. Quamina was shot by a slave-catcher in the backlands of Chateau Margot and his body was later put on public display. His son, Jack Gladstone, was later arrested and also hanged.
On Wednesday 20th August, the situation took a turn for the worse when Rev. Smith was arrested and charged with the following - encouraging the slaves to rebel; conspiring with Quamina; and failure to inform the Governor of the planned uprising. Rev. Smith"s arrest which was encouraged by many of the planters was seen as an act of revenge against him for preaching to the slaves, and teaching them to read and write. Smith denied the charges but he was imprisoned for seven weeks before being tried by a court martial where he was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. He appealed to the British Government which against the death sentence and that he should be set free. However, while awaiting the results of his appeal he died from pneumonia in his prison. His acquittal came after his funeral. The slaves regarded Rev. Smith's death as a sacrifice which was made on their behalf. Soon after, they began referring to him as the "Demerara Martyr".
* refers to the Dutch West India Company which had slaves that it used to hire out to plantation owners.
** In 1962 the PPP established the Accabre College of Political and Social Sciences. It was originally housed in a building at La Ressouvenir, East Coast Demerara. Around 1964, the PPP bought a building at Land of Canaan, East Bank Demerara, and this was used for residential classes until the early 1980s when it was sold and classes are now held at Freedom House.