This article was first published on the 22nd of January, 2021 by Patrick Carpen.
Editor’s Note: The various accounts of the 1763 Berbice Slave Rebellion, also called the 1763 Berbice Slave Revolt and the 1763 Berbice Slave Uprising, are sketchy and sometimes conflicting. This very condensed version is based on intelligence gathered and cross-examined from various reputable sources including the Dutch Archives.
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The 1763 Berbice Slave Rebellion began on the 23rd of February, 1763. Although it was not started by Coffy, he quickly assumed a leadership position in the resistance. At that time, the Dutch Colonists were outnumbered by more than 10 to 1 by the Africans they had enslaved. There were about 5000 slaves and 350 Europeans on the plantations at that time. And at that time, the slightest form of rebellion was severely punished so as to deter any possible uprising, but an uprising was inevitable.
Coffy (also spelled Kofi, Koffi and Cuffy), was taken from his home in West Africa during his childhood and brought to work on the sugar plantations of Guyana. At the time of the uprising, he was a house slave for a barrel maker.
The 1763 Berbice Slave Rebellion started on the 23rd of February, 1763 when the slaves murdered the white plantation overseer at Plantation Magdalenenberg. The slaves then rallied their fellow slaves to join the uprising and Coffy soon joined the team. Coffy organized the rebel slaves into a military unit and continued the resistance against the Dutch masters.
The attack against the Dutch plantation owners took the form of a massacre. Buildings were set on fire and the rebels broke their promise of a peaceful retreat in exchange for freedom. Fleeing Europeans were shot and killed or drowned. Those who lagged behind met an even more horrifying fate: one was beaten to death, another broken to pieces, and another skinned. After about 1 month, Coffy had assumed the position of the political leader of Berbice, and he installed Accara as the military leader.
Within one month, Coffy captured the Dutch colony. The Dutch were on the run. Fort Nassau was set on fire by the Dutch to prevent the rebels from taking control of it. Coffy proclaimed himself the new governor and opened negotiations with his ousted predecessor, Van Hoogenheim.
Coffy tried to keep the plantations operating so as to prevent starvation, but needless to say, this was a daunting task and the slaves were now faced with extreme difficulties. But it was about to get worse. On the 28th of March, 1763, the ship Betsy arrived from neighboring Suriname with 100 Dutch soldiers. The Dutch soldiers pushed back the slaves and set up camp at De Dageraad. On the 2nd of April, 1763, about 400 rebels attacked the camp and pushed back the Dutch.
Perhaps due to difficulties and lack of food, Coffy wrote to the Dutch governor and expressed that he regretted the war. He offered a peace treaty. He offered to split the county of Berbice into two parts. In one letter, he negotiated with the Dutch governor that they could import new slaves but that the slaves of the uprising must remain free. He proposed to occupy the inland areas of the region while the Europeans kept the coastal areas.
Below is a photo of one of the letters that the Dutch governor received from Coffy – taken from the Dutch Archives in Amsterdam.
Part of the Letter reads, “If the governor wants Berbice, he can have it. I only want 4 plantations for myself and my people. You can have new slaves, but we are free.”
However, the Dutch governor delayed his response, saying that the decision must be made in Amsterdam and may take up to 4 months. In the meantime, he was arranging backup troops. In April 1763, 200 European reinforcement soldiers arrived from Barbados. In May, 1763, the word reached Amsterdam and six ships with 600 soldiers set sail to Guyana to support the Dutch colonists. The six ships arrived on the 1st of January, 1764. By then, a power struggle had ensued between Accara and Coffy, and Coffy had reportedly committed suicide.
By March, 1764, reinforcement from Holland had crushed the resistance. The 1763 Berbice Slave Rebellion cost the lives of over 1,800 slaves and about 40 of the colonists. It was the first major slave revolt in the continent of South America. The leaders of the resistance met an even more horrible fate than their white counterparts did at the start of the battle. The Dutch colonists tortured, hanged, broke to pieces, and burned alive, with slow fire as to prolong suffering, those slaves whom they deemed responsible for the uprising, or those who had played leadership roles.
After the resistance was crushed, white men and women spoke of the incredible courage of the African rebels. The insurgents have been described on one hand as barbarian, terrorists, and “black devils,” and on the other as freedom fighters and heroes. It depends on who is telling the story. In present day Guyana, Coffy, and all those who had led the resistance against their imperialist oppressors are hailed as freedom fighters and heroes. Republic Day, a national holiday in Guyana, is observed on the 23rd of February every year – the anniversary of the start of the 1763 uprising.
Read More: People, History, and Culture of Guyana.