By the time you read this letter today, February 23, a major slave rebellion, exactly 248 years ago, is just stirring or is gathering unstoppable momentum. On this morning in 1763, the enslaved Africans on Plantation Magdalenenburg in the Canje river revolt against their Dutch masters, starting what has come to be called the Great 1763 Berbice Slave Rebellion.
For the enslaved Africans 248 years ago this day, however, making history is not on their minds. They are consumed, instead, by a desire for total liberation.
This morning in 1763, the attacks on the Dutch plantations on the Canje River are successful. The enslaved Africans head then towards the plantations on the Berbice river where Cuffy, the leader, awaits. Through a series of highly-coordinated attacks, the Africans drive the Dutch to the very edge of the colony at Fort Andries (now New Amsterdam). Berbice falls under the control of the self-liberated slaves.
This is not a mere revolt or uprising on just one or a few plantations. This is a sweeping revolution, unprecedented in the New World, a total overturning of both the local and global political order. It is a war of liberation across an entire land, encompassing over eighty plantations. An enslaved people have taken control of an entire state. It is one of history’s great victories.
Cuffy begins to organize the new state of Berbice. A government is formed. Deputies, like Atta, Acabre, Acara and Fortuin, are appointed. An army is recruited and trained. Agriculture production is organized. Communication among the estates is set up.
The state of Berbice remains under the rule of free Africans for over a year. It cannot survive or, more to the point, be allowed to survive. The sheer magnitude of the ripple effect of having a colony taken over by slaves (seen as property, not as humans) is intolerable in the global order of the era.
The international powers marshal overwhelming forces to retake Berbice. Being in deep unchartered waters, the liberated Africans find it difficult to agree on a unified tactical and strategic direction to consolidate their victory. By mid-1764, the Dutch colonial power retakes Berbice. The Africa freedom fighters are gradually rounded up or killed in battle. While Cuffy, months before, dies by his own hand, the other leaders are caught, given mock trials, and put to death. Atta is burnt on a stave alive. He utters neither a cry or a sound. It is hard not to read of this last great act of defiance by Atta and not be touched in the soul.
Today, Guyanese have lost almost all sense of this great event. Whatever connection we, in particular Afro-Guyanese, have is mostly academic or intellectual. For most of us, the great struggle for freedom led by Cuffy is just something that happened in our history. The Mashramani celebrations (which supposedly are in honour of the spirit and achievement of the 1763 revolution) are totally devoid of any historic content.
We must reconnect at some level, whether in our heart or soul or mind. And we can do this from today.
As we celebrate Mashramani 2011, let’s pause, however briefly, to remember (and to “wave something” or raise a toast to acknowledge) that at this very moment 248 years ago in this very land, an enslaved people were in the midst of a battle of their lives to free themselves.
It is not that they fought so we could be free. Far from it. They fought so that they could be free. That is the lesson of 1763!
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