Ideas

Blood on the River: Uncovering a forgotten slave rebellion

The Cundill History Prize is the most prestigious of its kind. Its award of $75,000USD goes this year to Marjoleine Kars for her book Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast. The author speaks with host Nahlah Ayed about how she discovered a forgotten slave rebellion.

Author Marjoleine Kars wins the prestigious 2021 Cundill History Prize

Historian Marjoleine Kars is the winner of the 2021 Cundill History Prize for Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast. The award honours the best history writing in English. (Jasmine Nelson/The New Press)

It was the biggest and most successful slave rebellion in the Caribbean — until Haiti's revolution decades later. And it likely would have been completely forgotten, were it not for a chance discovery by historian Marjoleine Kars. 

Her book about the uprising, Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast, was announced today as this year's winner of the Cundill History Prize, with its award of $75,000 US ($95,494 Cdn).

She recounted her startling discovery to IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed.

"I was in the national archives in The Hague. I'm Dutch… And so I was poking around, and I found all these records about a place I had never heard of — called Berbice," she said.

Berbice was a series of Dutch plantations founded in the mid-eighteenth century in what's now Guyana, named for the river along which the plantations were situated. It was also the site of an astonishing slave rebellion in 1763.

"Most rebellions are quickly suppressed. They don't last very long: hours, maybe days. And this one went on for more than a year."

Professor Kars asks in her book: "How did they pull this off?" The answer is complex, but the reason is simple: life as a slave was absolute misery.

Slave rebellion

After enduring the horrors of being captured and surviving the transatlantic crossing, West African slaves brought to Berbice had to toil in the blazing sun for 10 hours a day, six days a week, with maybe a day off at Christmas. Disease was rampant, while whippings and torture — even of children — were commonplace. 

After a localized insurrection was put down in 1762, resentments boiled over a year later. Rebelling slaves began their attacks on a Sunday morning, while the Dutch were at church. Some of them had just enough time to bury their valuables before fleeing.

A Dutch slave ship disembarks with a group of slaves for sale, Jamestown, Virginia, 1619. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Kars traveled to the sites, many of which remain unexcavated. Yet she could touch the history of Berbice with her own hands, as the ground — especially after it rains — will yield up "all kinds of pottery shards and pieces of clay pipes that would have been used by enslaved men and women."

Those who didn't escape were often dealt with as harshly as the slaves had been. 

"The rebels also set their sights on plantation managers and overseers… because of their predatory behavior toward enslaved women. Plantation managers in general were notorious for raping women under their command," Kars writes.

The rebelling slaves were led by a man named Coffij. He envisioned a kind of dual state arrangement: the Dutch would stay on their side of the Berbice River, the now-free slaves on the other, and the two sides could even establish trade relations. 

Coffij, the leader of the largest slave rebellion in the Caribbean to date... slipped out of history with barely a notice. - Marjoleine Kars

But life as rebel slave was nearly as hard as being a slave. They had to feed and arm themselves, as well as procure and train their own armed forces. At times, they forced other slaves into service — and in doing so, came to resemble the overlords they were fighting against. 

A similar reversal took place on the Dutch side. Help from across the Atlantic was slow to come, and the delays meant that the few soldiers they did have had to do the work of the escaped slaves. So one group of soldiers actually mutineed, and joined the rebels. 

A coup that ended a dream

After over a year of fruitless negotiations with the Dutch, internal divisions and exhausted spirits, a coup was mounted against the leader, Coffij. In keeping with West African tradition, he killed himself.

"Coffij, the leader of the largest slave rebellion in the Caribbean to date, a man who had dared to dream of a new colonial order, who, had he succeeded, might well have governed the first Black republic, slipped out of history with barely a notice."

A 1763 monument of the slave rebel leader Coffij stands in the Square of the Revolution in the Guyanese capital of Georgetown. (Shutterstock / La Rose Photography)

The Dutch later interrogated hundreds of the surviving slaves, leaving behind exceedingly rare records that reflect the voices of slaves from over two and a half centuries ago. They also convey the complexity of their lives:on the one hand, their factionalism, and conflicted self-interest; and on the other, their astounding bravery and resilience.

In all, 124 people were executed. It was grisly, as Kars notes: "Some of the condemned were to have every bone broken on the rack with an iron bar, before dying from either a 'mercy blow' to the heart or a merciless blow to the skull. Others were to be burned at the stake with a regular fire, which took an hour, or with 'small fire,' where the victim smoldered alive for four hours. Some faced the additional torture of having their flesh ripped with hot pincers. The 'lucky' ones were hanged, their heads staked."

The remainder were pressed back into slavery. Up to a third didn't survive the uprising. And it was a "death trap" for European soldiers as well. "It seems unlikely that more than a third survived," Kars speculates.

Historical truth 

Berbice never recovered economically under the Dutch.

But as dark as the history of Berbice is, the study of that history may represent a shaft of light. As a result of Kar's efforts, the historical records in The Hague along with their English transcriptions have been made free for Guyanese scholars to access. Kars also hopes that one day, the Dutch government may fund such scholars as a gesture of reparation so they can come to the Netherlands, learn Dutch and study the records in the original language. 

Marjoleine Kars is resolute in her assessment of the: "I think beyond Guyana itself that this story has meaning."

The reason: history as a discipline of authentic inquiry is endangered, with attempts by the political right in the U.S. to suppress historical initiatives like the 1619 podcast and Critical Race Theory, or China's continued efforts to rewrite its own history to reflect the Communist party's interests and obliterate all other accounts. So for Marjoleine Kars, the study of history couldn't be more important than it is now. 

"As more people claim a seat at the table and want to know more about their own history," she says, "I think that these attempts at simplifying the stories and making them all glorious, and making them all about the accomplishments of white people... just will not fly."
 


 

*This episode was produced by Greg Kelly.

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