By Lloyd Kandasammy
This article is the second of a two part series that examines the lives of enslaved Africans during Dutch rule. Part 1 in the series examined the early period while this week’s article will continue the examination of lawmaking and the consequences of law breaking during the last stages of Dutch rule.
The first strike for freedom by enslaved Africans in Berbice in 1763 was brought about because of the cruel punishment meted out by the Dutch slave owners. Van Hoogenheim, then governor of the colony of Berbice wrote with great disdain his observations. The following are extracts from his journal:
On 14 April 1764 – Rebel Pikenini captured……..I listened in the greatest astonishment as his captors explained why his back had been cut up hanging in pieces. They stated that just to amuse themselves they had cut his back up with a saw;
23 June 1764 – At Herstelling, by chance we found a girl 7 years old, imprisoned in the stocks, punished 3 weeks before, by Gerlach, the director with 250 lashes and had been shut there ever since, being given no food she would have starved had it not been for the kind acts of other enslaved Africans.
Whipping was the most common form of punishment. It was, in the words of one planter, required to make the African ‘alert’. There were never any guidelines to limit a planter from beating an African to the brink of the world beyond.
These whips used to punish enslaved Africans were either made from Meby vines or cart whips used to drive animals. They were usually administered by fellow Africans who were referred to as bombas or drivers. In the words of Adrian van Berkel, the meby vine cut deeply and tore off whole flaps of skin
To break the will of the slave the masters often used the Spanish whip. Hartsink and Nepvue chronicle this horrific form of punishment as follows:
“the hands tied together, the knees drawn up between them and a stick inserted through the openings of the hands and knees and fixed firmly into the ground around which they lie like a hoop and are struck on the buttocks with a tamarind or guava rod, one side having been struck and completely broken, they are turned over to be given similar treatment on the stomach.”
On 24 November 1770 Gravesande lamented about the absence of legislation to guide the planters. He noted that
In the English islands no one may upon his own authority give a slave more than 40 lashes and so to keep on the safe side, no one ever gives more than 39; it is true that this may be done two days running but what is that compared to what goes on here? We have no laws concerning that matter (at least none known to me) and when I remonstrate I am told by everyone is his own master and that as long as does not kill them it is no business of the fiscal.
Visiting Demerara in 1796 George Pinkhard a medical doctor wrote, the corporal punishment of slaves is so common that instead of exciting repugnant sensation it scarcely does produce even the slightest glow of compassion
“We suddenly heard the loud cries of a Negro smarting under the whip. Mrs ——- expressed surprise on observing me shudder at his shrieks and you will believe that I was in utter astonishment to find her treat his sufferings as matter of amusement.
As the slave cried out she exclaimed with a broad smile ‘aha it will do him good, a little wholesome flagellation will refresh him; it will sober him: it will open his skin and make him alert’
The loud clang of the whip continued and the Negro loudly cried ‘Oh, Massa, Massa, God a’mighty- God bless you. Massa I beg your pardon. Oh Massa I beg your pardon, Oh God a’mighty- God bless you’, still the whip sounded aloud and still the lady cried ‘Ay, it is very necessary.’
Atrocities often took a combination of punishments at Plantation Lancaster the owner there was renowned for his cruelty.
In addressing the issue of runaways the manager of Plantation Lancaster avenged their actions with more than savage brutality. The following is an excerpt from the punishment observed in 1796:
‘tying down the first man he made the drivers flog him with many hundred lashes until releasing him from the ground it was discovered that he was nearly exhausted: in this state the monster struck him on the head with the butt of the large whip, and felled him again at the ground, escaping at once from slavery.
Not satisfied, this tyrant next tied down the naked woman, on the spot, by the dead body of her husband and with whips nearly purple with gore, compelled the drivers to inflict several hundred lashes which has nearly also released her from life of toil and torture.’
At the hospital on the estate the flesh of the woman was so torn as to exhibit one extensive sore, from the loins also down to her hams, she was lying stark naked on her belly upon the dirty boards.
Humanity had not administered a drop of oil to soften her wounds the only relief she knew was that of extending her feeble arm in order to beat off the tormenting flies. Lying next to her was a fellow sufferer in similar condition. His buttocks, thighs and part of his back had been flogged into one large sore, which still raw, although he had been punished a fortnight before.
Even more distressing was the fact that the dead man was also thrown into the hospital amidst the crowd of the sick, with cruel unconcern.
Pinkard commented at the lack of laws within the colony and the planter’s right to do as he pleased. His description of the days following this atrocity speaks for itself.
A few days later an attorney of the estate happened to call at Lancaster to visit the officers. He was questioned about the severity of the punishment and when asked whether the manager would be dismissed he replied “Certainly not”, adding that “if the Negro had been treated as he deserved he would have been flogged to death long before.” The flogged woman was left to the care of a Negro doctor, who was in charge of the sick house.
One morning, upon hearing the loud cries of a female, I was looked out my window, when I saw some negroes carrying this poor unfortunate woman out into the yard in the pouring rain then kneeling at her sides they examined her wounds and spent a full half hour picking maggots from her wounds, this was the first time I had seen maggoting a human being.
The manager at Lancaster had been linked to a number of cruel punishments. Examples included the following:
‘when an unfortunate negro was bound to the earth and groaning under the severe pain of two heavy lashes he would strike him a blow upon the head with the but end of the whip between each of the strokes given by the driver. In addition he would order that the teeth of Africans be pulled out with a pair of hot iron pincers, and would himself stand by to see the torture inflicted.
Other common forms of punishment included, cutting off ears, the removal of the Achilles tendon to make walking and hence running away difficult. In extreme cases they were hung with an iron hook inserted in their ribs with weights attached to their feet. Public starvation, given too little to survive and too much to die, whilst being placed in the stocks
In some cases those not put to death were maimed for life a courtesy of the horrid rack
‘a horrid machine, with recesses made or the principal joints to be placed in upon which the criminals are laid out and extended, when they are broken by iron bars
The charges of the atrocities of the Dutchmen have been met by some with skepticism but it is very clear through the accounts used in this presentation that this was indeed so. The very absence of laws made it possible for planters to engage in such acts.
Whilst the English for most of the Dutch period prided themselves as being more ‘humane’ it was also noted that they too enjoyed the liberal lifestyle in the so called ‘lawless society’. In fact Henry Bolingbroke wrote that to terrorize a Negro all one had to do was to menace an African with selling him to a Dutchman. Additionally the punishments meted out to those charged as guilty in the 1823 Revolt left little to be desired. Were there humane planters? If so, then what does one consider humane?
The enslavement of Africans stands as one of the most unbelievable acts within human history. Isn’t it about time that a memorial be erected to recognize the heritage of all Guyanese?