The Revolt That Almost Overthrew Slavery

The 1763 Monument in the Square of the Revolution commemorates the Berbice Slave Rebellion of 1763 (Dan Lundberg, Flickr)

In 1763, in a remote corner of the Atlantic world, enslaved people came closer than ever before to overthrowing slavery and establishing their own state. The remarkable story of the rebellion in Berbice is told vividly by Marjoleine Kars in Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast. Berbice, currently a part of the Republic of Guyana, was a Dutch colony since the early seventeenth century. Dutch traders had originally come to barter with the Amerindian population, but later established plantations for the production of sugar and coffee. The colony was relatively small in size (in 1763 there were only 350-400 Europeans and 4,000-5,000 enslaved people who lived on 135 plantations) but played an important part in the history of Dutch colonialism because of the revolt in 1763. 

Kars shows how the revolt had been brewing for a while. The extreme labor conditions, tropical diseases, food shortages and planter brutality resulted in a failed attempt at rebellion in 1762. The planters did not heed the warning though, and in February 1763 enslaved people rose up on several plantations along both the Berbice and Canje rivers (together comprising the colony of Berbice). As the revolt spread, the colonial order came tumbling down and anarchy ensued. The governor, Simon Wolphert van Hoogenheim, pressured planters and ship captains to make a stand, but they were more concerned with saving their lives and getting away. Fort Nassau, one of the two fortifications existing in Berbice, located midway between the coast and the plantations furthest inland, was burned to the ground to prevent the insurgents from capturing it as a group of 70 Europeans regrouped at plantation Peereboom, further upriver. There, they negotiated with one of the insurgents’ leaders, Gousarie van Oosterleek, to secure a safe retreat. However, they were attacked as soon as they boarded their boats. We can already see the signs of internal strife here, which would do more harm to the revolution later. For now, however, the Dutch could only hold on to one plantation (Dageraad) and the ramshackle fort St. Andries, near the coast, while the rebels controlled most of the colony.  

Coffij, the leader of the revolt, declared himself Governor and appointed a man named Accara as Captain to take charge of military affairs. These two men had different visions of how to proceed: Accara preferred to pursue a military victory, relying on their numerical superiority even though guns and ammunition were scarce. Coffij preferred negotiation, which resulted in a fascinating correspondence with Governor Van Hoogenheim.

Coffij proposed to divide the colony in half, with the self-emancipated claiming the southern part of the colony and the Dutch keeping the northern part. Coffij’s vision was that both parties could continue slavery-based plantation production, the Dutch with new enslaved laborers, and the self-emancipated with their own form of forced labor. Van Hoogenheim never intended to negotiate faithfully, but kept up appearances, stalling until reinforcements could arrive. As a result, Governor Coffij and Governor Van Hoogenheim corresponded intermittently for months, while the revolt continued. In the end the negotiating strategy proved futile, and the rebels saw their military advantage decrease as soldiers arrived from Suriname and St. Eustatius. Furthermore, the colonists profited from their alliance with various Amerindian groups. In the seventeenth century the Dutch had signed treaties not to enslave the Amerindians living nearby (Carib, Arawak, Warao and Akawaio communities), and offered alcohol and other gifts when they caught runaway slaves or helped in putting down slave uprisings. Now, these Amerindians closed off escape routes to the neighboring colonies, trapping the revolutionaries. Furthermore, a palace revolution occurred in the rebel camp. In a dramatic turn of events, Coffij—likely disappointed with the lack of faith in his strategy—committed suicide. He received a ceremonial burial and Atta now became the new leader, enslaving former Captain Accara.

The issue of slavery among the self-emancipated is a recurring theme in the book, as freedom had different meanings for different people. Many in Berbice had little desire to join the rebellion, and tried to “dodge” it, as Kars has previously shown in a wonderful article. The rebels could be violent in persuading people to join, particularly when it came to the bombas (enslaved drivers), several of whom were killed after they refused to align themselves with the revolt. As the rebel leaders practiced slavery themselves to solidify their newfound status, many Berbicians tried to avoid exchanging a white master for a Black master. Instead, they tried to hide behind the plantations and cultivate their own gardens, seeking autonomy in a fractured world. As Kars aptly phrased it: “Avoiding the rebels was a political statement about preferring life without masters, a declaration of independence if you will” (p. 90). 

Another fascinating element in the book are the parallels between the Europeans and the self-emancipated. Kars explains how the rebel leaders “began in some small measure to resemble the very masters they had just booted out” as they imposed discipline on those under their command, forced people to continue to work on plantations, and had slaves of their own to signify their status (p. 93). Furthermore, Coffij’s vision of the future was similar to the Dutch one: he likely aspired to a capitalist polity that produced for the Atlantic economy, using forced labor where required. Sugar and coffee might then be traded for tools, weapons, tobacco and other desirable products. 

In the end, Coffij’s ideal was not attainable because he lacked the international allies that Toussaint Louverture later had in establishing Haiti, the first free Black republic in the Atlantic. Whereas the Dutch could count on reinforcements from Suriname, Demerara, St. Eustatius and Barbados, as well as on the help of Amerindian forces, the rebels had to do it all on their own, which proved impossible. Kars, perhaps, places too much hope in the possibility of realizing Coffij’s vision there, as the new Black capitalist state would still be dependent on the Dutch for access to the Atlantic, putting them in a vulnerable position. Furthermore, the Dutch would likely never have allowed such a state to exist right at their doorstep. Regardless, Coffij’s vision was remarkable and clashed with that of other leaders who envisioned a secluded, maroon lifestyle where everyone would be free and could tend their own crops. It is not often that we get such insight into the intellectual discussions among the self-liberated and these contrasting visions help to explain why the rebel movement split into different factions, schisms that were exacerbated by differences between ‘ethnic’ groups. 

While the uprising lasted for more than a year, in the end it was defeated. New troops increasingly pushed back the self-emancipated, destroying their supplies and food gardens in the process. Expeditions by small patrol groups, as well as Amerindian squads, caught or killed a significant number of people, but hunger ultimately proved the biggest enemy. Starving and out of options, Black Berbicians started to return to the Dutch in increasing numbers. The revolt thus fizzled out, until all rebel leaders were killed or captured and the process of planter ‘justice’ could begin. 

The colonial government had a twin goal: to punish the ringleaders while sparing as many others as possible in order to preserve their valuable ‘property’. These interrogations (almost 900 of them) would become one of the pillars of the book, as they allowed Kars to try and reconstruct the story of the rebellion through the voices of those who participated in it. Telling their story is no easy feat: the Dutch interrogators asked leading questions, purely aimed at extracting a confession, and the voices of the re-enslaved were filtered through the clerk writing down their answers. In addition, the interrogated could lie, distort and lay blame on others. Nevertheless, by combining these with other sources and by reading them against the grain, Kars is able to tell a unique story. 

What adds to the story are the many ironic and symbolic reversals of standing colonial practice. This starts with Coffij declaring himself governor, to negotiate as equals with Van Hoogenheim. We also see it in the soldiers sent from Suriname, who mutinied, partially because they were asked to do ‘slave work’ like clearing bushes. All the more ironic is that these self-liberated soldiers, on the way to Orinoco, got lost, after which forty-one of them decided to contact the rebels. Twenty-seven of them were killed on the spot, while others became trusted advisors or slaves of those they had been ordered to capture. Finally, two of the original rebel leaders, Accara van de Brandwacht (unrelated to Captain Accara) and Gousarie van Oosterleek, turned into the most trusted slave catchers for the colonial government. They were so effective in returning both rebels leaders and refugees that they could demand armed enslaved men to conduct their patrols. They brought in the astounding number of six hundred people, which was many more than the various Amerindian groups. They escaped trial and were brought to the Netherlands as free men. In 1773 they became part of the expeditionary force that was sent to fight Maroons in Suriname, in charge of enslaved porters. As such they had changed from fierce challengers of the colonial order to being part and parcel of it. These rich details and complexities make Blood on the River such a powerful book that will appeal to experts and–thanks to the lively and accessible writing style—the general public alike.

Share with a friend:
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Bram Hoonhout

Bram Hoonhout is an assistant professor in economic history at Leiden University. He is the education programme director of the N.W. Posthumus Institute, the interuniversity research school in social and economic history in the Netherlands and Flanders. He is the author of 'Borderless Empire: Dutch Guiana in the Atlantic World, 1750–1800' (University of Georgia Press, 2020).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *