Marjoleine Kars, Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast. The New Press. 2020.
Price: USD $27.99 | 362 pages
Tom Zoellner, Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire. Harvard University Press. 2020.
Price: $29.95 | 363 pages
Former Trinidadian Prime Minister and historian Eric Williams once stated, “Slavery was not born of racism; rather, racism was the consequence of slavery.” Profound words which reflect the powerful impact slavery has had on society—long after the institution was abolished in the English, Dutch, and French-speaking Caribbean. Considering how plantation agriculture was such a powerful force in Caribbean development and brought such massive amounts of wealth to a handful of owners (mainly in Europe), it is no surprise that some of the most barbarous conditions were found in European Caribbean colonies. The most notable of these was Saint-Domingue, modern-day Haiti, which for a brief time late in the 18th century was the world’s leading sugar and coffee producer. The highly repressive nature of that plantation system eventually exploded in 1792 into the Haitian Revolution, the only successful slave rebellion to create a new country.
Caribbean history, however, is filled with failed slave rebellions. Each is worthy of a place in memory through graceful and compassionate retellings. Two of the books that function in this capacity are Marjoleine Kars’ Blood on the River and Tom Zoellner’s Island of Fire. Both books are masterful tales, the first breathing life into what had been a largely forgotten rebellion against the Dutch in Berbice in 1763 and the second taking place in Jamaica from 1831 to 1832.
Kars, an associate professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, discovered a forgotten cache of records in the Dutch National Archives in The Hague that covered the Berbice rebellion (a Dutch holding which is now part of Guyana). Noteworthy items included the daily journal of the colonial governor, European correspondence, 500 handwritten pages of slave interrogations, and letters written by the ex-slaves to the Dutch authorities. For Kars, these records were a major find, “We have few sources for the eighteenth century in which enslaved people actually speak, and here were their voices captured in old Dutch.”
What are the takeaways from Kars’ book? The plantation system established in Berbice in the 17th century was exceedingly brutal and included sexual violence, starvation, and disease. Dutch control extended from a handful of white families, to their overseers (often slaves with privileges), and finally over a large, enslaved population. The system was reinforced by alliances with the colony’s Amerindians, who were often used to hunt escaped slaves. Under such grim conditions, it’s no wonder that when an opportunity to overthrow the system arose, the enslaved population was quick to embrace it.
The driving force behind the rebellion was a man named Coffij (also spelled Coffy). At first the rebellion was a major success, with thousands of participants who largely drove the Europeans out of the colony. Colonial authority, headed by Governor Wolfert Simon van Hoogenheim, hung by a thread. Although the rebellion persisted for a year, it eventually fell apart under the pressures of internal politics, Coffij’s suicide, Amerindian hostility, and starvation. The Dutch settlers of Berbice, aided by the power of their colonial empire, were able to obtain the needed food, weapons, and soldiers needed to reclaim their slice of the Caribbean.
One of the strengths of Blood on the River is Kars’ appreciation of where the Berbice rebellion fits historically. The author situates the rebellion in the context of the Age of Revolutions, “a period of political upheaval stretching from the end of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 through the American, French, and Haitian Revolutions to the anti-colonial movements in South America in the 1820s. During this era, not only elites but also peasants, Indians, ordinary whites, and slaves fought for greater autonomy and better lives, though how they defined these values differed greatly.” Kars makes this point to illustrate how the enslaved people in Berbice were united in their desire to end European control but divided as to what kind of society should replace it.
The question of what kind of society should be formed post-emancipation is at the heart of Zoellner’s Island on Fire. Zoellner’s fast-paced story recounts a five-week long rebellion led by enslaved preacher Samuel Sharpe in Jamaica. What began as a peaceful labor dispute in 1831 soon transformed into one of the more memorable uprisings in the Caribbean. Paradoxically, the brutal force the British used to crush the rebellion only helped to draw the institution of enslavement to a faster end. Indeed, the image of freedom fighters refusing to return to enslavement helped fuel a growing antislavery movement on both sides of the Atlantic.
Zoellner provides a particularly gritty image of Jamaican society. He paints a picture of a money-driven, coarse, and sex-hungry upper class who lack any sense of community spirit. Disgusted contemporary observer James Ramsey described Jamaica as the “Kingdom of I… where the glorification of the individual took precedence over public spirit, over building anything to last, and over the suffering of others – indeed, over everything.” As Zoellner himself writes, “Nothing seemed permanent; almost everything was built for cheapness, utility, and disposal. Those who were best equipped to build a lasting society – those of the moneyed overclass – were away in England.”
Jamaica’s sugar put the island on the global economic map. It also created a class of exceedingly wealthy planters, many of whom became active in British parliamentary politics, forming a critical swing group in determining the outcome of key votes. Zoellner details the divide between the riches of a few and brutal exploitation of the many, “To be a successful West Indian planter was to be in possession of some of the most rapidly accruing wealth in the entire British Empire, thanks to a widespread passion for creams, whips, cakes, tarts, pancakes, puddings, and the omnipresent hot tea with sugar. Feeding this addiction on a grand scale was made possible by the labor of the approximately 860,000 kidnapped Africans transported to Jamaica as slaves between 1600 and 1807.”
Three major developments changed this situation: the emergence of other sugar-producing parts of the world, a gradual reform of the British political system which put pressure on such practices as rotten boroughs (small and often sparsely inhabited parliamentary constituencies that could be bought and sold), and the growing power of the anti-enslavement movement. The mix of these factors reduced the hold of the “planter party” over British politics, weakened the economic base of the planter class, and spread the word in the Caribbean that the end of enslavement was coming.
While the road to the 1831 rebellion ran through the brutality of the plantation system, the larger picture must not be forgotten. Jamaica was connected to world events, and there were those among the enslaved that could read and understand that things were changing—mainly against enslavement. The external forces included everything from the Haitian Revolution to English parliamentary debates on abolition.
The face of the 1831 rebellion was Samuel Sharpe, an enslaved Baptist preacher who was educated, eloquent, and able to travel from plantation to plantation. He was well-known to both the black enslaved population and the white Baptist clergy on the island, including those with strong ties back to England. What brought the rebellion about was Sharpe’s belief that King William IV had made the enslaved free and that the slaveholders were keeping a secret. It is alleged that Sharpe said, “if the black man did not stand up for themselves, and take their freedom, the whites would put them out at the muzzles of their guns and shoot them like pigeons.” Sharpe organized an island-wide general strike, intended to be peaceful, but clearly signaling that the enslaved wanted their rights respected.
Somewhere along the way the protest sparked an outright rebellion, which lasted ten days and resulted in the deaths of 14 white colonists and more than 200 enslaved people. The colonial authorities crushed the rebellion using a combined force of local militia (described as generally worthless and sadistic), British regulars, and Maroons (ex-slaves who had forged their own independent areas with an agreement with the colonial authorities to help with escapes and rebellions).
One of the big mysteries of the 1831 rebellion was Sharpe. Zoellmer captures some of the lingering ambiguity around the man, “But even as Sharpe became a national symbol, he still contained an irresolvable paradox in his person. Was he a man of war, who wanted to burn down the great houses and seize the island for black self-rule, as had been done in Haiti? Or was he a man of peace, who insisted on Gandhian nonviolence and only wanted enslaved people to be paid for their work?”
No matter the mystery over Sharpe, the 1831 rebellion gave considerable momentum to what Zoellmer calls “the final drive to asphyxiate slavery throughout the British Empire.” The British public was aghast at the violent downfall of the rebellion, which was revealed to them by figures visiting from the island. By 1833, a bill for the abolition of slavery was introduced and passed by Parliament. Although Sharpe was dead (having been executed in 1832), his hand clearly had an influence on the passage of the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act.
Both Kars’ Blood on the River and Zoellner’s Island of Fire are strongly recommended for general readers and university level students, as they provide gripping insights into two important events in Atlantic history, capturing the nuances of enslaved people’s struggle for freedom against brutally exploitative systems.
Scott B. MacDonald is the chief economist at Smith’s Research & Gradings, Research Fellow at Global Americans, and founding director of the Caribbean Policy Consortium. He is currently working on a book on the new Cold War in the Caribbean.