It is now 37 days away from the date of the 200th anniversary of the phenomenal Bussa Rebellion.
The Government of Barbados has gone to great lengths to heighten public awareness of and count down to the 50th anniversary of Barbados’ attainment of Independence, but it seems to have forgotten a similar effort needs to be made to highlight the impending 200th anniversary of the Bussa Slave Rebellion of 1816.
I would therefore like to step into the breach, and send out a call to all Barbadians to commence a process of national reflection on the Bussa Rebellion, and to start preparing themselves to commemorate the bicentenary of this epoch-making event on April 14.
It was on Sunday, April 14, 1816, that one of the most important events in the entire history of Barbados occurred –– an event that ultimately led, 150 years later,
to the historic happenings of November 30, 1966: the political Independence of our country.
On that fateful Sunday 200 years ago, thousands of enslaved and exploited black Barbadians rose up in open rebellion against the bloody-minded, repressive, slave-holding elite that dominated Barbadian society. This rebellion began in the parish of St Philip, and ultimately engulfed more than half of the island.
It was eventually squashed by a combined military force consisting of the white Barbadian militia and predominantly black British imperial troops garrisoned in Barbados. And at the end of it all, the casualties consisted of approximately 1,000 enslaved Barbadians killed in battle or executed in cruel and bloody reprisals.
In spite of the crushing military defeat suffered by our enslaved ancestors, the armed rebellion was extremely significant in that it sent a clear message to both the local white elite and the British imperial government that the enslaved black masses of Barbados were determined to put an end to slavery!
Of course, this revolutionary sentiment didn’t hold sway in Barbados alone. It was, needless to say, a sentiment that gripped enslaved black or African people throughout the entire Caribbean.
Indeed, the American historian Michael Craton, author of the book Testing The Chains, has identified no fewer than 75 slave plots and rebellions in the British West Indies in the 200-year span between 1638, the beginning phase of British slavery in the West Indies, and 1838, the year in which the slavery system finally collapsed in the British colonies.
The record in our own little colony of Barbados is as follows:
1649: Two separate revolts involving enslaved Africans and white indentured servants.
1675: A Coromantee plot led by enslaved Africans known as Tony and Cuffee, and betrayed by a “house negress” named Anna Fortuna.
1683: A plot involving mainly African-born slaves.
1686: Another major plot involving hundreds of mainly African-born slaves.
1692: An Afro-Creole plot led by Barbadian-born enslaved Africans known as Ben, Sambo, Hammon and Sampson –– all elite artisans –– and once again betrayed by a slave informant.
1701: Another major Afro-Creole plot involving hundreds of conspirators.
1816: The Bussa Rebellion, one of the region’s major slave uprisings that produced such heroes as Nanny Gregg, Jacky, Cain Davis, Joseph Pitt Washington Franklin and Bussa.
These and other regional rebellions produced outstanding and legendary examples of courage and determination to be free. There was, for example, the case of one of the leaders of the 1675 Barbados plot, who, on the verge of being executed by burning at the stake, not only refused to reveal the names of his fellow conspirators, but defiantly shouted at his oppressors:
“If you roast me today, you cannot roast me tomorrow!”
And he urged his executioner to proceed.
But even while acknowledging the widespread and implacable record of Caribbean-wide black resistance to enslavement, it is important to record the special significance of the Bussa Rebellion, and the very telling effect it had on hastening the day of freedom not only for the enslaved Blacks of Barbados, but for the enslaved population throughout the entire British Caribbean.
You see, the Bussa Rebellion of 1816 was the very first of the “great” slave uprisings to explode in the British West Indies in the 19th century. And not only was it the first major 19th century slave rebellion, but it sent such a forceful message of uncompromising hostility to slavery, that in 1819, a full three years after the rebellion, the Barbados’ Governor Lord Combermere was still writing to the English Colonial Office warning them that “the public mind [in ‘white’ Barbados] is ever tremblingly alive to the dangers of insurrection”.
The Bussa Rebellion helped to cement in the white public’s imagination (in both the colonies and in the metropole) an oppressive and formidable fear of a climactic black rebellion.
Indeed, no less an historian than Dr Eric Williams explained in his From Columbus To Castro that “a Negro revolt in the British West Indies in the early 19th century, designed to abolish slavery from below, was widely apprehended, both in the West Indies and in Britain . . . . In the British West Indies, it was no longer a question of slave rebellions if, but slave rebellions unless Emancipation was decreed”.
This assessment of the situation was borne out by Daniel O’Connell, the Irish leader in the British House of Commons who, in 1832, declared in Parliament that “the planter was sitting . . . over a powder magazine, from which he would not go away, and he was hourly afraid that the slave would apply a torch to it”.
It is not surprising therefore that when Earl Stanley, the secretary of state for the colonies, came to introduce the Emancipation Act in the British Parliament, he expressed the view that “they were compelled to act; for they felt that take what course they might, it could not be attended with greater evil than any attempt to uphold the existing state of things”.
Thus, it was really the enslaved Africans themselves who, in the final analysis, were ultimately responsible for the abolition of slavery. The critical factor was their relentless and implacable resistance.
And so it is right and fitting that we should record and honour the tremendous contributions made to the cause of freedom by these heroic revolutionary fighters against slavery, foremost among whom were General Bussa, the remarkable female revolutionary Nanny Gregg and their fellow freedom fighters.
In the words of the Jamaican historian and statesman Richard Hart, these were the “slaves who abolished slavery”, and we, their children and beneficiaries, must never forget their names.
Let us therefore prepare ourselves for an intense and meaningful celebration of the bicentenary of our Bussa Rebellion. And, while doing so, let us bear in mind that we still have an enormous amount of work to do to complete the Emancipation process that General Bussa and his fellow revolutionaries put in train 200 years ago!
(David Comissiong, attorney-at-law, is president of the People’s Empowerment Party.)