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Bookk review of Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast by Marjoleine Kars

This kind of weighing is one of the threads Marjoleine Kars weaves into her remarkable account of a 1763 uprising of enslaved people in the Dutch colony of Berbice, in what would become Guyana. Slave rebellions are underrepresented in the historical literature, because most failed and left little evidence for historians to work with. The suppressors of the rebellions — enslavers and their allies — took pains to keep news of the revolts from getting out, lest one example spark others.

It’s no spoiler to say that the Berbice rebellion failed; otherwise South America might look different today. Yet this is a rare case where the documentation is voluminous. Kars, who teaches at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, discovered a cache of records in the Dutch National Archives consisting of transcripts of post-revolt testimony by enslaved people and correspondence between leaders of the rebellion and Dutch authorities during the conflict. Kars has deployed the evidence not only to produce a richly detailed account of a gripping human story but also to illuminate the general question of why some enslaved people took up arms for their freedom and others didn’t.

Berbice was a small, marginally profitable outpost of the Dutch empire, populated in the 1760s by a few hundred Europeans and perhaps 5,000 enslaved people, the latter mostly Africans and their offspring but including some members of the Indigenous populations. A failure of the food crops that sustained the inhabitants, combined with an epidemic of disease, triggered an initial rebellion in 1762, which consisted chiefly of the flight of a group of enslaved people into the interior.

But this rebellion didn’t catch on. Kars explains why. “Except for newcomers, escape meant abandoning one’s family and friends, often for good,” she writes. “Many were reluctant to leave behind ancestral spirits, their intimate knowledge of the local geography, their gardens and poultry, and any hard-won concessions that might have made their lives under slavery a little bit easier.” In other words, as bad as slavery was, for many the alternative appeared worse.

A second revolt, the following year, fared better. The leaders of this effort learned from their predecessors. Their uprising was better organized, with enslaved people from several plantations striking almost simultaneously against their enslavers and overseers. Many were killed, and the survivors fled for their lives.

The Dutch authorities required time to regroup, affording the rebels opportunity to consolidate their own position. Consolidation wasn’t easy, and the methods employed were brutal. As the rebels took over abandoned plantations, they beat or killed enslaved people who tried to defend their enslavers’ property. Others they enslaved themselves, forcing them to continue working the fields as before.

The ultimate objective of the rebels was unclear. Two of the leaders, named Coffij and Accara, wrote to the Dutch governor summarizing their complaint as not receiving “what was their due.” Allowing for the uncertainties of translation, and considering the rebels’ enslavement of the workers on the plantations they seized, the statement suggests they weren’t objecting to slavery per se but rather to the terms of their enslavement.

Kars handles this point delicately. “Such expectations about conditions do not mean that people accepted their enslavement,” she writes. “Nor do they mean that the enslaved people did not resist their exploitation in daily life. Rather, ruled by terror, and wary of armed rebellion, most begrudgingly accommodated themselves to their enslavement as long as certain minimum standards were observed, in order to survive.”

A stalemate ensued. The Dutch couldn’t dislodge the rebels, but neither could the rebels drive the Dutch off the continent. The rebels pondered disappearing into the hinterland and becoming “Maroons,” as fugitives from plantations in neighboring Suriname had done (and as fugitive enslaved people in Britain’s North American colonies sometimes did). But the native peoples weren’t welcoming, deeming the Africans interlopers as much as the Europeans.

And in fact it was native mercenaries who helped break the back of the rebellion. The Dutch recruited Caribs and Arawaks to hunt down the rebels, kill them and bring back their severed right hands as proof for payment. The Dutch also enlisted European soldiers of fortune to attack the rebels frontally. Dissension weakened the rebel leadership, while hunger and disease took a toll on the rank and file.

The rebellion slowly dissolved. The rebels who weren’t killed were taken prisoner and interrogated, yielding the testimony Kars puts to such effective use. Those judged most responsible — more than 100 — were executed, some after being tortured. The rest were reenslaved.

And the episode was successfully buried. Kars, a student of slavery, admits she had never heard of the Berbice rebellion before finding the records in the Dutch archives. It’s likely that Frederick Douglass never heard of it either. But Douglass didn’t need to know its grim lesson to refuse Brown’s invitation to join a worthy but fatally miscalculated cause.

Blood on the River

A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast

New Press.
362 pp. $27.99

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