The enslaved Africans of Berbice, Guyana, led by Kofi and his lieutenants, Atta, Accabre and Akara, seized their freedom on February 23, 1763. Kofi, a former “house slave” was the leader of this revolution of enslaved Africans.
Guyana, formerly British Guiana, is a country of 83,000 square miles that is situated on the Northeast Coast of South America. The country was colonized by the Dutch at that time (1763), who had unsuccessfully tried to enslave the indigenous population.
Beginning in 1616, the Dutch established a trading post over 25 kilometres upstream from the mouth of the Essequibo River, ostensibly to trade with the indigenous people. As other Europeans were claiming native territory in the area around South, Central and North America the Dutch laid claim to the land on the Essequibo. Eleven years after establishing the trading post, in 1627 the Dutch West India Company established the Berbice colony on the Berbice River southeast of Essequibo.
Demerara, situated between Essequibo and Berbice, was settled in 1741. Although under the general jurisdiction of the Dutch West India Company, the three colonies of Berbice, Demerara and Essequibo were governed separately. The three were united as one country, British Guiana after the former Dutch colonies were ceded to Britain in 1815.
The Dutch colonizers were eager to put their new possession to use in producing goods that were needed in Europe, such as sugar, cotton and coffee. The large plantations that were established needed tremendous numbers of workers and the Dutch attempted to coerce the indigenous population into forming a cheap labour force.
The indigenous populations, familiar with their home territory, fled the plantations where the Dutch attempted to hold them in captivity. Many of the indigenous people died from exposure to foreign European diseases and still others were worked to death by the Dutch plantation owners. With the near extermination of the indigenous population, the Dutch resorted to using imported enslaved African labour to run their plantations.
The Berbice revolution began on Plantation Magdalenenburg up the Canje River and soon spread to other plantations upstream and eventually up the Berbice River. As the victorious Africans conquered plantation after plantation, the European slave holders fled until approximately half of the white population who had lived in the colony remained.
Within one month, the Africans took control over almost all of the 19 plantations in Berbice. Some of the Dutch soldiers fled while others were killed in battle.
Having enough numbers and strategic advantage, the Africans could have retained ownership of Berbice, but instead they chose to negotiate with their former enslavers to share the colony. While the Africans were negotiating in good faith, the Europeans were marking time until troops from neighbouring French, Dutch and British colonies arrived.
The Africans held the colony of Berbice for one year until March, 1764. Once the Europeans regained control of Berbice many of the Africans were brutally killed as a warning. Forty were hanged, 24 broken on the wheel and 24 were burned to death. Some fled to neighbouring Suriname while others were re-enslaved, but Kofi was never captured. Many of the Africans preferred to die fighting, rather than surrender and become re-enslaved.
Jamaican poet Claude McKay wrote in 1919:
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! We must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
Although Kofi’s struggle to free himself and other Africans from the Dutch was not successful, he has been recognized as a heroic revolutionary figure and is Guyana’s National Hero. He lit the torch that was passed on to subsequent generations of Guyanese until Guyana gained its independence from the second colonialists, the British, on May 26, 1966.
The day that Kofi struck a blow for freedom (February 23, 1763) is immortalized in the Guyana Constitution with a public holiday (Republic Day) on February 23rd of each year since 1970. The highlight of Republic Day celebrations is The Mashramani festival and parade.
While this celebration is reminiscent of Toronto’s Caribana Parade, the Republic Day observance by the Guyanese community in Toronto is a bit more staid with a dinner and dance to raise funds for educational projects in Guyana.