Dear Anansi, I was about to tell you the Battle of Nevis, but now you say that you are sick and tired of all my sea battles and pirates of a long gone past.
Then you told me that your ancestors were of Berbice and Essequibo and you much rather hear about their history.
When I asked around, very few people have ever heard of Berbice and Essequibo, or Pomeroon as the Spanish used to call it. They quickly accused me of pulling their leg. But that is why I am so sad; I was not teasing, not making things up, and not joking.
Berbice and Essequibo were colonies founded by the State of Zeeland in 1627 for the newly established West Indish Company (WIC 1621). They remained plantation colonies of the Republic of the Low Lands, till 1815.
Essequibo and Berbice are the largest rivers in what is called today, Guyana. The capital was Fort Nassau, later called, New Amsterdam. In 1762, the population of the Dutch colony of Berbice included 3,833 enslaved Blacks, 244 enslaved Amerindians or indigenous people, and 346 whites.
Europeans developed a sweet tooth in the 18th century. Sugar had become very popular and quickly became the new, profitable product of trade. Sugarcane plantations, labored with thousands of African slaves, popped up everywhere along big rivers. The Spanish and French were very much into this new investment. Voltaire himself was a plantation shareholder, though he never shied away from telling about the brutal treatment of the slaves.
Voltaire’s Candide (1759) had the following encounter in neighboring Surinam.
As they drew near the town, they saw a negro stretched upon the ground, with only one moiety of his clothes, that is, of his blue linen drawers; the poor man had lost his left leg and his right hand.
“Good God!” said Candide in Dutch, “what art thou doing there, friend, in that shocking condition?”
“I am waiting for my master, Mynheer Vanderdendur, the famous merchant,” answered the negro.
“Was it Mynheer Vanderdendur,” said Candide, “that treated thee thus?”
“Yes, sir,” said the negro, “it is the custom. They give us a pair of linen drawers for our whole garment twice a year. When we work at the sugar canes, and the mill snatches hold of a finger, they cut off the hand; and when we attempt to run away, they cut off the leg; both cases have happened to me. This is the price at which you eat sugar in Europe.
European and Brazilian shareholders employed overseers who, out to make a gain for themselves, ruthlessly and brutally treated the laborers.
Brutal treatment led to many revolts, uprisings, and bloodshed. On 23 February 1763, slaves on Plantation Magdalenenberg on the Canje River in Berbice rebelled and protested. Cuffy, an enslaved man at Lilienburg, is said to have organized rebels into a military unit. Other key figures among the rebels include Atta, Accara, and Accabre with ‘a little over 2,000 maroons, in the territories of Berbice, Demerara, and Essequibo.’
A gruesome incident occurred, following an expedition against rebels. Hands of African slaves, killed in the skirmishes, were severed and taken to Governor van Gravesande, who had them “nailed to posts as a warning.”
The Governor called in the help of the Indian tribes to prevent the rebels from retreating inland. He also sent word to, amongst others, the St. Eustatius colony. On May 3, the governor of St. Eustatius sent two ships with a total of 154.
By Jacob Gelt Dekker
Columnist Curaçao Chronicle