First Published: 23rd of February, 2021Last updated: January 23, 2021 at 17:02 pm
This detailed account of the 1763 Berbice Slave Uprising was translated from the Dutch Archives by Patrick Carpen.
Rebellion in Berbice in 1763
On February 23, 1763, the enslaved people in the Dutch colony of Berbice revolted. The population of Berbice numbered about 350 Europeans and about 5,000 enslaved Africans. Almost all Europeans fled their plantations. About 40 of them were killed. In the ten-month retaking of the colony from the enslaved, more than 1,800 enslaved people were killed.
The enslaved Africans who arrived in the colony with the Unity in July 1762 probably witnessed the great revolt from close by. This certainly applies to the European residents who were involved in the arrival of the Unity. A number died in the uprising, while some officials were expelled by the colony administration for bad behavior and drunkenness, as can be read in the following account of the Great Rebellion of Berbice.
Small rebellion in 1762
A minor uprising of enslaved people took place on July 5, 1762 on Laurens Kunckler’s plantation Goedland and Goed Fortuin. Just over thirty enslaved Africans were killed. Kunckler bought most of the people during the auction of the Africans of the Unity. After the suppression of this revolt, the atmosphere in the colony remained threatening. Captain Menkenveld lent 6 guns of the Unity to the commander of the fort on request.
Logbook, July 28, 1762: “We landed our 6 tailpieces because the Governor needed them before landing and would follow them with another ship after using them”
Situation in the colony
On September 16, 1762, Wolfert Simon van Hoogenheim, governor of the Berbice colony, wrote a long letter to his employers, the directors of the Berbice Society, the administration of the colony. He wrote that the situation in Berbice was still very bad. The prevailing disease (probably dysentery) was worse than ever before and had already claimed the lives of two members of the council, Emmanuel Hosch and Charbon, as well as some directors of the association plantations. As a result, the Court of Police and Criminal Justice no longer had enough members to come together for meetings. He further stated that all but ten men at the fort were dead or sick. He therefore urged that more soldiers and European personnel be sent to the colony. In two later letters, dated September 25 and November 25, Van Hoogenheim reported that there was hardly any provisions left in the colony. The reinforcement turned out not to arrive on time.
Start of the uprising
So it was brooding in the colony. The enslaved were hungry and often subjected to harsh punishment. On February 23, 1763, in the Canje Creek on plantation Magdelenenburg of the widow Vernesobre, the carpenter was murdered by rebellious slaves. Their leader was Coffy, from the Lelienburg plantation. This was the start of the great uprising. The rebels moved on to Providence plantation. Director Joly was able to divert to the Stevensburg plantation just in time. Chambon, director of the Stevensburg plantation, also the civilian officer of Canje’s division, asked for reinforcements in vain.
It took only a few days for the enslaved to revolt on most private plantations. They forcibly forced the enslaved people of the society plantations to join them. On February 28, Governor Van Hoogenheim received word that the enslaved workers on the private plantations Elisabeth and Alexandria, Hollandia and Zeelandia, Juliana and Leliënburg had killed the European residents and had looted and burned the buildings. The rebels had chosen the Hollandia and Zeelandia plantations as their headquarters. The residents of the plantations fled without any form of resistance to the association plantation de Peereboom. Governor Van Hoogenheim decided to gather the few militant men at Fort Nassau.
The governor also called on the ship Adriana Petronella, of which Captain Cock had offered his assistance, to take up position at the Peereboom plantation and to offer support to the Europeans. Captain Cock changed his mind, however. He sailed just past Fort Nassau where he loaded furniture and other plantation valuables onto his ship. Even the repeated requests and orders from the governor and members of the Court of Police were to no avail.
Revolt in full swing
Precious time had been lost through all the meetings and requests. Plantation de Peereboom was now completely surrounded by the rebels. Sixty fled Europeans had now gathered on the plantation, including 21 women and children. On March 3, 1763, 600 rebels started an attack on the Peartree. The men on the plantation, led by Johan George and Ambrosius Zubli, were able to hold off the attack for more than 24 hours. However, on March 4, they were overpowered.
Weary, with a lack of food and water and knowing that no more help would come, they tried to negotiate surrender with the rebels. The Europeans were allowed to leave the plantation, but they had not yet boarded the boats when the rebels broke the agreement.
Many were killed in combat. Only a dozen or so managed to reach the other side of the river and flee to Fort Nassau. Fate awaited the men, women and children who were taken prisoner. Because some plantation owners had treated the enslaved on their plantation very badly, the rebels showed no mercy. Some men were whipped to death, others had to watch their wives and children be slaughtered before they were killed themselves. Surgeon Major Jan Jacob Bass, who had also done the Unity visitation, was accused of poisoning the sick in the hospital. He was skinned alive and then beaten to death. After Johan George, his wife and son were killed, rebel leader Coffy took his eldest daughter as his wife.
Situation on the fort
The victory at the Peereboom plantation gave the rebels extra courage to advance to Fort Nassau. There they had already heard from the mulatto Jan Broer about the massacre that had taken place. Reverend J.V.P. Ramring, spared because of his relationship with God, had arrived at the fort with the terrifying news. The fort was filled with refugee planters and other white inhabitants. The poorly maintained fort had neither the housing nor the food and drinking water for so many people. In addition, there were only 16 healthy soldiers and few weapons and ammunition.
Abraham Wijs, orphan master of the colony and contact person of the MCC, had sought refuge on one of the three ships, as had secretary and tax master Harkenroth. Under the pretense of being ill, both men kept the ship in question occupied, so that it could not be used in defense against the insurgents. Other colony officials had taken refuge in the fort and refused to cooperate. Governor Van Hoogenheim could only count on the brave Lieutenant Thielen. On March 6, the governor received a written request from the fleeing Europeans to leave the fort and descend with the ships to the mouth of the river. The same day, the governor sent a letter to governor Crommelin of Suriname with an urgent request for help. The cry for help arrived more than three weeks later and it would save the colony’s European residents from total destruction.
Contact with the rebels
On March 8, governor Van Hoogenheim received a letter from rebel leaders Coffy and Accara. In poor Dutch they advised him to leave the colony with his ships as soon as possible. If Van Hoogenheim refused, he had to fire three shots. This would be the signal for the rebels to attack. Coffy and Accara also wrote that the mistreatment of some planters had caused the enslaved people to revolt. The planters they named included Barkey, Dell, de Graaff and Lentzing. After urgent consultation with the Police Court it was decided to leave the fort.
Abandoned the fort
Everyone boarded the ships and the fort was set on fire. Three days later, on March 11, the ships arrived at society plantation De Dageraad. The situation on the plantation was still calm. The Governor and the members of the Court decided to stay here, hoping to hold out until help arrived. The captains of the ships disagreed with this and it was decided to descend even further down the river to post St. Andries opposite Krabbeneiland at the mouth of the river Berbice.
Post St. Andries
The situation they found at St. Andries station was no better than at Fort Nassau. The planters had flocked from all over the colony. There was hardly any food and water and hardly any place for shelter. Many of those in attendance had a fever or the gait.
Governor Van Hoogenheim immediately took action. He had gutters made to collect the rainwater, he sent groups of ships to plantations to fetch water and food, and he ordered a parapet to be made around the camp. The situation was so bad that the Governor, in consultation with the three members of the Court, decided to let the captains leave with the ships. Furthermore, he asked anyone who was unwilling to fight to leave the colony. Twelve men stayed behind to assist the 35 soldiers in the defense of the post.
Van Hoogenheim decided to look higher and sent letters directly to the States General. These letters went on April 8 with the ships of, among others, Captain Cock and did not arrive in the Netherlands until July 10 and 11. However, immediate help turned out to come from a different source. On March 28, 1763, a sail was seen on the horizon. At around 4 pm the British ship Betsy, commanded by Captain George Buckmaster, anchored at St. Andries station. The ship came from Suriname and brought about 100 soldiers.
On March 30, the governor started sailing up the Berbice River with 3 ships. The enslaved were increasingly driven back. On March 31, the detachment anchored at plantation De Dageraad. On April 2, about 300 to 400 insurgents attacked, an attack that Van Hoogenheim was able to repel. This attack turned out to cause disagreement among the rebels. The attack was led by rebel leader Accara, against the will of rebel leader Coffy.
After the attack on April 2, Coffy contacted Van Hoogenheim. He wrote to him that he regretted Accara’s attack and that he was not out for war. Coffy proposed to divide the colony. One half for the Europeans and one half for the enslaved who had fought for freedom. The letter contact lasted for the rest of the month.
Storm van ‘s Gravesande
Governor Storm van ‘s Gravesande of the Essequibo and Demerary colony had heard of the uprising from planters who had fled. He enlisted the help of members of Guyana’s indigenous peoples to prevent the rebels from retreating inland. The governor also sent a message to, among others, the colony of St. Eustatius. The governor of St. Eustatius sent two ships with a total of 154 soldiers on board to Berbice on 3 May.
Governor van Hoogenheim offered rewards in an attempt to motivate the military. For example, NLG 500 was offered for catching the rebel leader Coffy and NLG 400 for Accara. 50 guilders were paid for every living enslaved and 20 guilders for every dead. Also, half of the value of the seized goods would be distributed among the troops. The latter was withdrawn after protests from the directors and shareholders in the Netherlands who argued that it was not spoils of war, but the property of shareholders or of the free planters.
Attack on the Dawn
On May 13, the insurgents decided to attack the Dageraad plantation. Although they were many more people than the Europeans, the defense of the plantation was maintained thanks to the soldiers on the ships of St. Eustatius. After repeated attacks, the enslaved were eventually pushed back by the ships’ guns. Lieutenant Thielen went after the rebellious enslaved with a group of about 80 soldiers. The number of slaves among the enslaved was estimated at about 100 men, while only 8 among Europeans were killed.
After this attack, the rebels had somewhat lost courage and no longer attacked. However, the men on the Dageraad plantation had to contend with another enemy. The disease that had ravaged the colony for nearly 15 years began to take its toll once again. Most of the newly arrived auxiliary troops were ill or had since died. There weren’t even enough people to man the ships. The disease claimed the lives of several captains and also members of the Court, Gillissen and Schermmeester. In the journal that Van Hoogenheim kept during this period, you can read that during the months of July and September almost every day someone died from the disease.
In June a ship with about 70 soldiers from Suriname arrived at the Corantijn River, the river that forms the border between Berbice and Suriname. They had to prevent the rebels from the Magdalenenburg plantation from moving further eastward towards Suriname. The soldiers consisted mainly of runaway French and Germans. With the help of some 40 indigenous people, the group of soldiers attacked and conquered a rebel camp. However, disagreement had arisen in the division of the spoils. The French and German soldiers mutinied and overpowered their officers. After this they moved towards the Magdalenenburg plantation with the plan to join the rebels. However, the enslaved could not believe that a whole group of European soldiers wanted to join them and decided to take the soldiers prisoner. 28 of them were immediately killed, and the rest were distributed among the plantations to work as enslaved people for the rebels.
In the Netherlands
At the end of May 1763, the first news of the revolt had reached the interested merchants in Amsterdam. This message came from Captain Richard Robberts of the ship the Sisters that had arrived in St. Eustatius. These merchants in turn informed the directors of the Berbice society and asked them for help. Together they submitted an application to the States General to send 2 war frigates with 600 men to the colony. The States General decided to first send the frigate St. Maartensdijk led by Captain Maarten Haringman of the Zeeuwse Admiralty with 150 men to Berbice. The ship departed on July 23. On 15 August, Captain Evert Bisdom followed with 150 men on the frigate Dolphijn and Captain Ludolf Hendrik van Oyen with 110 men on the snarling ship Zephyr.
Duke of Brunswick
The States General enlisted the help of the Duke of Brunswick Wolfenbuttel. The duke was field marshal and commander of the militia of the United Netherlands and he was the guardian of the then still young hereditary prince and stadtholder Willem V. The duke investigated, among other things, the cause of the uprising and questioned the directors of Berbice about this. He also came up with a plan of action. He proposed to send a corps of more than 650 volunteer soldiers to Berbice. He estimated the costs at NLG 706,000.
Lieutenant Colonel Jan Marinus de Salve was appointed commander of the volunteer corps on July 23, 1763. It took another 3 months for the regiment to gather at Naarden. On 19 and 20 October the men marched to Muiden, from where they were transferred to Texel. On Texel they were divided into 4 three-masters and 2 smaller ships. This fleet left the Texel roadstead on 6 November. On December 19, the fleet arrived in Suriname, where information was gathered about the situation in Berbice. On December 26 the fleet sailed to the colony of Berbice.
Incident in Berbice
An incident had meanwhile occurred in Berbice. Captain Hattinga, already known as a drunkard, had again taken to drinking at St. Andries station, where he was in charge. Drunk he left the post on September 19, 1763 with 15 men and sailed up the river Canje. He instructed the men to shoot at whatever craft and enslaved they encountered without ascertaining whose side they were on. Captain Van Rijssel was immediately sent to St. Andries to take over the lead. Lieutenant Pronk was sent behind Hattinga with a small group of soldiers. Once Hattinga was captured, he was court-martialled. Hattinga was removed from all office and banished from the colony.
Disagreement among the rebels
On October 19, 1763, Governor Van Hoogenheim was told by a mulatto who had fled the rebels that there was disagreement among the rebels. Rebel leader Coffy had been deposed by a certain Atta who had subsequently appointed himself governor of the rebels. Coffy had taken his own life after this defeat.
Help finally arrived on 26 October when Captain Haringman arrived with his ship St. Maartensdijk at the mouth of the Berbice river. Haringman stayed at St. Andries, because he feared that the disease on plantation De Dageraad would infect his crew. On 11 November, five officers with 171 men, including Governor Van Hoogenheim and Captain Haringman, sailed up the Canje River on Captain Salvolani’s ship. They drove the rebels to Stevensburg plantation. A large group of soldiers was left behind here. Communication with Fort Nassau was restored.
When Van Hoogenheim returned to plantation De Dageraad on November 19, he received a message from the director-general of Essequibo and Demerary that the indigenous inhabitants of that colony had killed many enslaved people during fighting with the insurgents. On November 27, the two merchant ships sent from the Republic by the directors of the Berbice colony arrived. That same evening, Captain Bisdom arrived with the frigate Dolphijn and on December 5, Captain van Oyen arrived with the snarling ship Zephyr.
Plan of attack
Together with Captain Maarten Haringman, Governor Van Hoogenheim devised an attack plan. The station at the Stevensburg plantation would continue to be manned by an officer and 56 men. Lieutenant Crombie was to attack the rebels from behind with 30 sailors and 30 soldiers via the Demerary River on December 7. The remaining main force would attack the enslaved via the Berbice River. This main force consisted of the soldiers and crew on five ships: the Dolphijn, the Zephyr, the barque of the Dolphijn, two barges of St. Eustatius and the barque de Hoop of the colony itself. In total there were 380 soldiers and sailors.
On December 19, the main force began sailing up the Berbice River. The face of all this violence of war frightened the insurgents. Many of them surrendered right away. The rebels from the plantations Cornelia-Jacoba, Hollandia and Zeelandia, Juliana, Leliënburg, de Peereboom and Zubli’s Lust, among others, fled towards the Markey plantation and towards the Hardenbroek plantation on the Wikkiekreek. Governor Van Hoogenheim attacked this last plantation with his troops.
However, the men had become overconfident by now. Instead of sending a boat of scouts ahead, all the officers run together in front of the troops. The rebels had gone into hiding and opened fire. Captain Lieutenant Smits, Lieutenant Thielen and Petty Officer Rees were immediately killed. Two naval officers and six NCOs were seriously injured. The soldiers, now driven by vengeance, continued the attack. After a long battle that claimed the lives of many soldiers and rebels, the Dutch troops succeeded in expelling the insurgents from the plantation.
Plantation de Savonette
On December 28, 1763, Van Hoogenheim arrived at the Savonette plantation. There he was greeted by Lieutenant Crombie who had taken the plantation via the Demerary River, a long journey through the woods and a bloody fight. On December 31, the governor sailed back down the river towards plantation Hardenbroek.
On January 1, 1764, Governor Van Hoogenheim was informed that the six ships with the approximately 600 men sent by the States General had arrived at the mouth of the Berbice River. On January 6, the governor arrived at the destroyed Fort Nassau. The next day he met Colonel De Salve of the state troops and they discussed how best to end the campaign.
Van Hoogenheim moved to plantation De Dageraad and Colonel De Salve settled in New Amsterdam near Fort Nassau. The state troops were divided over different locations. Four troops stayed at Fort Nassau, 3 troops went to plantation Stevensburg in the Canje river, 3 troops went to plantation Hardenbroek in the Wikkie Creek, one troop to the Cornelia-Jacoba plantation in the Wironjekreek and one to the Savonette plantation in the upper Berbice. The rebels had meanwhile settled on plantation Goedland and Goed-Fortuin and surroundings, near plantation Hardenbroek. Several unsuccessful expeditions were undertaken. The plantation Goedland and Goed Fortuin was eventually recaptured from the rebels. On January 26, 1764, Captain Van Oyen led a force of more than 170 men in an expedition in the Wikkie Creek where insurgent leader Atta had hidden himself with his men. After conquering a few minor posts, Van Oyen encountered the main rebel force. However, they immediately fled and abandoned their leader Atta. Atta managed to stay out of the hands of the military.
End of the uprising
Rebel head Goussari and former rebel leader Accara surrendered to Colonel De Salve. He took advantage of this situation by sending them into the woods with orders to persuade as many refugee rebels as possible to return. They managed to bring back a significant number of rebels, but Atta remained on the run. In February Captain Salvolani were sent away with his ship, two other ships from St. Eustatius and the Surinamese auxiliary troops. The state troops sent the ship St. Maartensdijk back to the Netherlands, the ship Zephyr to Demerary and the ship Dolphijn remained in Berbice.
First execution and court-martial
On February 25, Governor Van Hoogenheim, after consultation with the sole remaining member of the Court of Police, L. Abbensets, appointed Stubbeman and Sollicofre as new members of the Court. On March 2, about a hundred of the more than 800 rebels taken into custody were sent to plantation De Dageraad to face trial. From 2 to 14 March, the members of the Court questioned the insurgents. Of the 101 enslaved persons on trial, 53 were sentenced to death, 1 to flogging and 47 acquitted. Of the 53 people sentenced to death, 15 were burned alive, 16 broken up and 22 hanged.
Rebel leader Accabré, who had forcibly separated himself from rebel leader Atta, had encamped at the Markey plantation. Together with between 200 and 300 Africans, he had fortified his camp with earthen walls. Colonel De Salve equipped an expedition. On March 23, a party of 52 men attacked from the right, two troops of 16 men each from the left and a troop of nearly 60 men from the front. After a few hours the rebels surrendered. Accabré and his lieutenant Mars were captured along with 81 men, while the remaining enslaved men managed to flee. This marked the end of the armed resistance of the enslaved.
While many of the rebels eventually surrendered voluntarily, a few were still caught for the promised bounties. According to Van Hoogenheim’s journal, the indigenous inhabitants were paid 1074 guilders for living rebels and 1080 guilders for 180 cut hands of enslaved people who could not be captured alive.
Rebel leader Atta still roamed around the Wikkie Creek area. Eventually, a native managed to find his hideout and Accara and Goussari were sent to him. After a struggle they overpowered Atta. On April 15, Atta was taken to the governor in handcuffs.
Meanwhile, members of the Police Court had continued to question the rising number of detained insurgents. On April 27, 34 enslaved persons were sentenced to death and 275 acquitted. Of the 34 rebels sentenced to death, 17 were hanged, 8 broken down and 9 burned, 7 of them with a small fire. Governor Van Hoogenheim, who disagreed with these gruesome punishments, was repeatedly drowned out by the other three members of the Court of Police and could do nothing but agree and watch.
The management of the Berbice Society had by now heard of the second execution. She was shocked by the large number of rebels who had been killed. In several letters to the governor and the councils of the colony, the directors asked them to be less strict with the other rebels. They feared mass murder and, moreover, the loss of so many precious labor would damage the colony. However, these letters arrived too late. On June 16, a third execution took place in which 32 rebels were killed.
Source: Netscher, P.M., “History of the Essequibo, Demerary and Berbice colonies, from the settlement of the Dutch there to our time” (The Hague, 1888)