The Beginning of the Berbice Slave Rebellion

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In Guyana, the African slave population grew as plantations expanded. The main concern of the White plantation owners was to extract the greatest amount of labour from the slaves. Little effort was ever made to improve the wretched and degrading living conditions under which they were forced to live. With the harsh treatment and brutal punishments inflicted on them by their owners, some of them rebelled while others, from time to time, escaped into the forests. Those who were recaptured suffered horrible deaths as punishment, meant also as a deterrent to other slaves who might have also planned to escape. Some of those in Berbice who escaped managed to reach Suriname where they joined up with Bush Negro colonies.

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 the 23 February 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.

Very quickly, the rebelling Africans were organised as a fighting force by Coffy, who was a house-slave on another Canje plantation, Lilienburg, where the slaves had also rebelled. Coffy had been brought to this plantation ever since he was a child and was trained as a cooper by the owner, Barkey.

On hearing the news of the outbreak of the uprising, the Governor, Van Hogenheim immediately sent to the planters in the Canje all available military assistance he had at his disposal. This was made up of 12 soldiers and 12 sailors from one of the five ships in the harbour. At that time, the entire colony had only 346 Whites (including women and children) and 3,833 African slaves. Mulattos who also formed a section of the population generally sided with the Whites throughout the period of the rebellion.

The rebellion, which 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 White 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 White 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 Whites.

On the 3 March, 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 White 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 Whites 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 Whites to leave the brick house unharmed and depart for their boats in the river. But as the whites 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 Coffy kept as his wife.

Coffy, 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 gangs among the Africans were also organised to farm the estate lands to produce food supplies to sustain the population.

But from the beginning, Coffy encountered difficulties with his forces since some sections felt that by defeating the Whites meant that they could now act as they pleased. 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. A number of creole slaves - those born in the colony - did not wholeheartedly support the rebellion, and they gave up themselves to plantations which were far removed from the area of rebel activity.