History: The Berbice uprising, 1763 (Sixth Instalment)

Governor-in-Chief Boi

If Atta now thought that he was in a position to take over control, he was mistaken. A council of revolutionaries was called, and it chose the elderly Boi as leader. He was given the title of Governor-in-Chief, while Atta and others became lesser Governors. Despite this, he does not seem to have been able to exercise much control over anyone, as the discipline and order which had characterized Coffy’s early rule had now disappeared completely. Angered and dismayed by the excesses committed by some revolutionaries, particularly the hacking to death of Georgina George’s little sister, Boi decided to forget everything and retire to his plantation.

Atta takes control

It was at this point that Atta took over the leadership. The Africans were now fully in control of the Uprising, and remained so until it was finally crushed by the Dutch in 1764. Far from re-establishing the early unity, however, dissension became worse than ever. Although Atta had proved himself a very capable military officer, he simply could not command allegiance from a broad cross-section of Coffy’s former supporters. Atta was a recently arrived African, and so he was totally unacceptable to the Creoles, and possibly to the older creolised Africans as well. For his part, Atta mistrusted them completely, and quickly demoted them to slave status. From this time on, the revolutionary Creoles of the former private plantations almost certainly shared the same views as the Company Creoles who had always been opposed to the Uprising, and had been forced to work as slaves by Coffy. They now regarded the Dutch as the lesser of two evils, and sought every available opportunity to escape from revolutionary control.

Atta had problems with his fellow Africans as well. He seems to have been unduly suspicious of people who were not Delmina, particularly if they belonged to one of the other three nations. These nations were the Congos, Guangos and Angolans. The first of these was led by Cossael, and the second by Accabre. Atta showed an injudicious preparedness to make slaves of the other nations, and soon frictions escalated into out right warfare between them.

In spite of the quarrels with his fellow Blacks, Atta strangely relied heavily for assistance on his white allies. These were the Surinamers who had deserted to Coffy in the Corentyne, after a battle with the Magdalenenburgers. He appointed three of them as his Councillors, and employed all of them in drilling and training his troops. One of them worked for him repairing muskets, and at the end of the Uprising, several of them officered his forces in battle.

Unlike Coffy, the African leaders had no precise ideas about either long-term goals or short-term tactics. There was no coordinated attempt to deal with the Dutch, each group operating as an independent unit.

Eventually, the control of the Delminas was directly challenged by the Congos under Cossael, and war broke out between the two nations. Somewhere between the 15 November and the 5 December, 1763, a major battle took place on Essendam, the precise outcome of which is not known. It is known, however, that many people were killed, including the former Captain Accara of Lelienburg. Accara had been demoted by Atta after Coffy’s death, but he fought alongside him nevertheless in the Battle of Essendam. Subsequently, Accara too was honoured with the burial of a great chief.

Whatever happened exactly on Essendam, Atta’s forces do not seem to have suffered too serious a blow, for they now turned their attentions to the Angolans. There does not appear to have been any large-scale battle with them as such, but the Delminas systematically killed any small groups of Angolans they encountered in the bush.

With the beginning of the major Dutch offensive up the river, there seems to have been a temporary truce amongst the warring factions while they faced the common enemy. For a time Atta’s authority was recognized by most African groups. By February 1764, this temporary unity had once again disintegrated, and a total fragmentation of the revolutionaries occurred.

Starvation

Coffy had at least attempted to set up a system based on the existing plantations, which would keep everyone occupied, and which was designed to guarantee some kind of food supply. In order to work effectively this system needed a strong administration, and had to be consistently monitored and supervised to ensure that everybody actually did the work they had been assigned to do. Atta, however, was no administrator. In addition, since his authority was not recognized by everyone, he would have found it very difficult to keep the plantations running in the way Coffy had done. The lack of organization under Atta, and the fragmentation of the revolutionaries meant that there was no longer a proper system for replenishing, conserving or distributing food supplies. Even towards the end of Coffy’s rule, the revolutionaries had begun to feel the pressure of food shortages. Under Atta, however, the situation deteriorated very quickly, and soon all existing food stocks had been used up.

For a time, the bulk of the revolutionaries turned to finishing off any surviving cattle, pigs, goats, sheep and poultry – but that did not last long. Eventually, they moved onto horses (including Van Hoogenheim’s own horse), and from there to dogs and cats. There came the inevitable point when there was literally nothing else to eat, and many of them were faced with the bleak prospect of starvation. To add to their misery, they became a prey to an epidemic of dysentery. It was in these dismal circumstances that they had to meet the Dutch on the battlefield.

The Dutch camp

If the revolutionaries had their problems, Van Hoogenheim was certainly not without a few of his own. Councillors Gillessen and Schirmeister were both unhelpful and indolent, while Councillor Abbensets was temperamental and hasty, stirring up quarrels over petty issues. Lieutenant Pronk of the Berbice military spent his energies feigning sickness in order to shirk duty, and pestering his superiors to repatriate him to the United Provinces. Captain Hattinga went on a drunken spree and was court-martialled and dismissed, while the Statian forces showed themselves as both dishonest and insubordinate. In addition, the sickness struck again with particular virulence, and there was a severe shortage of medical supplies with which to cope with the situation. By the 10th October, Van Hoogenheim had only 47 fit soldiers left at his disposal. In due course, the sickness also affected members of his administration: Councillors Gillessen and Schirmeister both died of it, as did Overseer-General Schook.

The remaining military officers who were still fit recommended that, owing to the military weakness of the Dutch, the Governor should once again retreat downriver to St. Andries. Van Hoogenheim refused to do this. As a precaution, however, he dammed up one of the Dageraad creeks, so it flooded the approaches to the plantation.

If the revolutionaries were aware of all these problems on the Dutch side, they gave no indication of it – devoting their energies entirely to their quarrels amongst themselves. Despite the shortage of powder, an attack on the Dutch at this point would have given them at least a chance of victory. As it was, they were to wait until the Dutch took the initiative before they themselves took action, and by that time they had to go on the defensive, fighting what they knew was a desperate and losing struggle.

Van Hoogenheim, May 2nd, 1763

After receiving a message that no sickness could be diagnosed in Lieutenant Pronk, I sent order to Captain Hattinga that he send Lt. Pronk from there to his post in Canje. Every day I have very unreasonable, unpleasant confrontations with Councillors Gillessen and Abbensets, who, so it seems, would like to have my entire military force with them on board ship for their safety.

The Dutch go on the offensive

On the 28th
October, 1763, the first reinforcements from the United Provinces itself arrived. These forces had been sent by the States-General and were under the command of Captain Haringman. On their arrival the Dutch Governor decided to act immediately. He agreed with Haringman that before the main revolutionaries on the Berbice River proper could be dealt with, Canje would have to be tackled. Among other things, this would close off any avenue of escape to the Corentyne for the revolutionaries. Accordingly, the first Dutch offensive force against the revolutionary army set sail on the 11th November, 1763, and entered the Canje River.

Atta had not bothered very much about the Canje, leaving everything there much as it was under the control of Fortuijn and Accara of the Brandwagt. Fortuijn, who was desperately short of ammunition, immediately sent a message to Atta requesting powder. Atta himself had none to spare, however, and told Fortuijn that he was to bring all his men to Berbice, and that any who did not want to come were to be beheaded. In addition, he gave instructions that Fortuijn was to burn as he retreated. This part of the order Fortuijn followed to the letter. He sent the women and children to Berbice first, and then filled all buildings with flammable materials, setting them alight in stages as the Dutch made their appearance. When the Dutch finally re-possessed the Canje, they found nothing but devastation all around them.

If Fortuijn’s men had expected to be welcomed with open arms by Atta, they were to be bitterly disappointed. They received a very hostile reception from Atta’s men, probably because they represented an additional burden on minuscule food supplies.

The Berbice offensive

In the meantime, Van Hoogenheim received further reinforcements on the 27th November. The Berbice Company sent him 50 soldiers, while the States-General also supplied another substantial contingent. These were joined on the 5th December by a further contingent from the States-General, bringing the total of state troops to 260 fighting men.

Van Hoogenheim also received reports of Indian harassment of the revolutionaries in the upper river. The Indians had first attacked Plantation Bochlust, and killed five revolutionaries. Subsequently, a larger battle had taken place on Plantation Debora. The revolutionaries there had fortified themselves in the plantation house, which was boarded up and supplied with loop-holes for shooting through. They were well armed both with firearms and bows and arrows. After they had wounded five of the attacking Indians, the latter decided to set the house on fire. As a consequence of this, all the defenders were killed. Two Akawaios who were inside with the revolutionaries jumped from the window in a bid to escape. No doubt they hoped that their fellow Indians would not fire on them, but this was not the case. The attackers killed them without hesitation on the assumption that they were enemy spies.

Van Hoogenheim now felt fully in control of the situation, and began to lay plans to close the net. First, however, he placed a ship above the revolutionary post of Vigilantie. The crew were instructed that under no circumstances were they to start hostilities against the revolutionaries. They were there, in fact, to provide a refuge for anyone on the revolutionary side who wanted to defect. While the Africans fought amongst themselves, many Creoles did indeed seize this opportunity to come over to the Dutch.

On the 7th December, Van Hoogenheim sent a party to Demerara with instructions to join up with a certain English Captain Smith, who commanded a small detachment of Barbadians. (These had been brought to Demerara by the English planter Gedney Clarke, in order to defend the plantations there.) The Demerara and Berbice parties were then to take the bush paths through Demerara to Savonette, where they were to attack the revolutionaries from above. This was estimated to coincide with the main Dutch advance up the Berbice River, in order that the revolutionaries would then find themselves fighting on two fronts simultaneously. They would not be able to flee upriver past Savonette, as that would be blocked off by Captain Smith’s force and the Amerindians; they would not be able to flee to the Corentyne either, because Van Hoogenheim was now in control of Canje; and they could not easily flee to Demerara because of the Amerindians who patrolled the bush in the upper river.

On the 19th December, 1763, the main Dutch attack force set sail up the Berbice River. It consisted of two warships, followed by a long-boat, which carried Van Hoogenheim himself, two Statian long-boats, plus various other smaller vessels bringing up the rear. This flotilla drove the revolutionaries before it. For a time, they forgot their squabbles in the face of this catastrophe. There was little point in them trying to resist the Dutch advance, so they usually burnt the plantation before fleeing further upriver. The Company slaves, however, waited on their plantations until the Dutch had reached them, and then welcomed their former masters with enthusiasm.

In the upper river, the main force of revolutionaries was in two groups, one of which sought refuge in the Wikkie Creek, and the other at Savonette. By the time the second group had reached Savonette, Captain Smith was already in place waiting for them. On the 22nd December, the second battle of Savonette took place, and the revolutionaries were forced to retreat. Many of the remnants of Atta’s scattered army now made for the Wikkie Creek, where he himself had taken refuge. The area behind Company Plantation Hardenbroek (adjoining this creek) was a very swampy one, and constituted excellent terrain for fighting a guerrilla-style war.

Feeling flushed by their successes, the Dutch decided to follow the revolutionaries into their lair in the Wikkie. On this occasion, they had reckoned without Atta’s tenacity. Atta’s moment of greatness occurred when all appeared to be irretrievably lost. He fought bitterly on, even though he had not the slightest hope of ultimate victory.

On the 26th December, the battle of Hardenbroek took place. The Dutch had planned to land a substantial detachment to engage the enemy, but they were so over-confident that instead of reconnoitering the enemy position first, their officers sailed breezily up the Wikkie in one single tent-boat in front of their men. The tent-boat was promptly ambushed by the revolutionaries under the command of two of their Suriname allies, and the Dutch force suddenly found itself without senior officers to lead it. The attack still went ahead under the command of a sergeant, and after some difficulty, the Dutch did regain control of Hardenbroek Plantation itself. It was a Pyrrhic victory, however, if it was a victory at all. The Dutch had sustained heavy losses, particularly where their officers were concerned, and their evasive foe had simply melted away into the bush behind the plantation to prepare for yet another encounter.

The Dutch now fully appreciated the difficulties of trying to get Atta to come out into the open in the Wikkie area, and decided instead to proceed upriver. On the 31st December, Van Hoogenheim reached the last outpost of Dutch settlement above Savonette, whereupon he turned around to float back downriver. He was now in control of the plantations themselves, but he was still confronted with the problem of how to capture the large groups of revolutionaries still at large behind some of the plantations. Since the revolutionaries were so short of provisions, Van Hoogenheim favoured a strategy of waiting until they came close to the river seeking food. He thought that there was every likelihood that they would do this, as the rainy season would be making their lives doubly difficult.

For their part, the problem for the revolutionaries was far more pressing. Most of them were hungry, if not starving; some of them were sick with dysentery; and all of them were acutely aware of the fact that it was merely a matter of time before the Dut
ch closed in on them. The temptation to surrender at this point must have been overwhelming. To fight on spelt almost certain death, if not in battle, then at the hands of the Colony executioner. To surrender held out the promise of immediate relief from hunger and possible escape from the executioner. Despite this temptation, a surprising number of Atta’s forces stayed to fight with him. Certainly he would not entertain any dangerous talk of surrender to the Dutch in his army and promptly executed those suspected of wanting to defect. For a time he commanded considerable loyalty, and his troops confronted the Dutch in battle shouting “Atta! Atta! Atta!”.

De Salve’s troops arrive

The forces that the States-General had sent to Berbice which had arrived on the 27th November and 5th December were merely an advance contingent. On the 1st January, 1764, Van Hoogenheim received news of the arrival of the largest expeditionary force ever to set sail for a Dutch colony. It was made up of 660 volunteers from various Dutch regiments under the command of Colonel De Salve. As a consequence of the action in Berbice, these volunteers came to form the nucleus of a new Dutch regiment of marines. In 1772, they were sent to Suriname to fight the Bonni maroons.

Van Hoogenheim returned to Dageraad, and de Salve established his headquarters at the Lutheran Church in Nieuw Amsterdam. Various other military posts were also established on the river. There was still the problem of Atta’s main force, plus the other revolutionaries behind the plantations which had to be dealt with. On the 19th January, 1764, a small Dutch force was sent into the Wikkie again. The officer in charge was unfamiliar with guerrilla tactics in bush terrain, and having launched an impetuous attack, Atta soon forced him to withdraw. During the course of the retreat the officer himself was killed. Various other parties sent in January fared little better, save in one case, where a force of revolutionaries at Kimbia came voluntarily to surrender. In spite of this, the Dutch were still no nearer to capturing Atta than before. Atta could still hold off a much better armed Dutch force owing to the terrain in which he operated. When the Dutch attacked, he could retreat at will, and was not easy to find in the bush.

Battle of the Wikkie

Despite Dutch failures in the Wikkie area, De Salve decided to send in an even larger Dutch force, after two revolutionary defectors told him that they knew where Atta, Quakoe and Baube had their camps. This expedition started out on the 26th January, but had little success with Quakoe and Baube as one of the Dutch soldiers let off a musket accidentally, giving the revolutionaries advance warning and enabling them to escape into the bush. The expedition against Atta himself, however, marked the end of his military career. Although one of his advance contingents did fight bravely, if briefly, against the Dutch on the 29th January, when Atta himself got warning of the impending attack on his main camp, his army of 1500 men scattered. The Dutch then razed the settlement to the ground. Van Hoogenheim was annoyed that De Salve should even have contemplated attempting to capture Atta in this way, as he considered that it would now be more difficult to round up Atta’s scattered forces. In point of fact, he need not have worried; the entire episode dealt an irreparable blow to Atta’s military reputation, and he was never able to re-form his army again, or threaten the Dutch militarily. In addition, he now had no safe haven to which he could retreat, and was forced to wander about the Colony like a hunted animal.

Bitter internal strife amongst the revolutionaries once again became the order of the day, each nation chief or military officer who could command any following at all setting himself up as a separate unit. Atta lost nearly all of his officers as a consequence, one of his most serious defections being that of Fortuijn, with whom he had a major quarrel. The remainder of the Canje forces coalesced around Fortuijn, to whom they felt a great personal loyalty. In the end, the only officer who chose to stay by Atta’s side when all was lost was his ship-brother Quabi, the man with whom he had first travelled up to Berbice all those months before.

Traitors

Atta’s death-blow came in a strange and insidious form. At some point in January, De Salve was surprised at his headquarters by the sudden appearance of two of the Uprising’s military leaders – Accara of the Brandwagt and Goussari. They proposed to the amazed Colonel that in exchange for a complete pardon, they would contact groups of revolutionaries in the bush and persuade them to come in, as well as bring in the leaders like Atta. De Salve calculated that he had very little to lose, and accepted the deal. He was not mistaken. Accara and Goussari performed an invaluable service for the Dutch, bringing in innumerable revolutionaries, and finally tracking down Atta himself. In the end, the Dutch also upheld their end of the bargain.

The two were pardoned, and for their own safety were taken out of the Colony. They became drummers in De Salve’s own regiment. Subsequently, they came back to the continent with the marines, as members of the force that was sent to Suriname in 1772 to wipe out the Bonni maroons. During his stay in Suriname, Accara was reunited temporarily with his brother, whom he encountered working as a slave on one of the plantations there.

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