Last week, as Muslims worldwide, celebrated Eid ul Azha, we penned a letter to the media on an historical petition dating back to 1896 which was filed by a number of Muslim merchants to the Combined Court of British Guiana requesting financial assistance to construct a mosque and a school. There is no need to rehash the contents of said letter which is self-explanatory and available online for readers. However, from a cursory glance at some of the comments, a number of individuals automatically deemed our letter as “racist” and that one group is always seeking victimhood because we brought attention to this historical document.
Needless to say, in response to some of the comments, we would like to share a few extracts from papers we did a few years go on African Muslims in British Guiana, many of whom were at the forefront of numerous slave uprisings. It is an established fact that enslaved West Africans first brought Islam to the shores of British Guiana. Among them were peoples from the Ashanti, Mandinga, Hausa, and Fulani nations. The Mandinga and Fulani languages were written using the Arabic script and we learnt from several documented sources that there were many slaves who were able to read and write the Arabic script (as recounted herein). And from the Fulani people, Guyanese Muslims became known as “fullahman,” and which is still being used to describe Muslims in Guyana today, though for the most part not in a very pleasant context.
The institution of slavery coupled with the brutal conditions on the plantations, made it impossible for Muslim slaves to break for the required five times a day prayers or to observe the month long fasting, the Eid-ul Fitr, Eid-ul-Azha and other auspicious celebrations. This brutality led to several rebellions the first in 1763, led by Kofi, an Akan. While Kofi (meaning born on the Jummah) may or may not have been a Muslim he could read and write the Arabic script which was evident from some of the letters he wrote to Governor Van Hogenheim. Most of his ‘lieutenants” going by their names were supposedly Muslims – Accara; Atta and Quabi, the latter two were from the Akan tribe and were brought to Berbice a year prior to the revolt, they were “ship brothers” chained together on the Dutch slave-ship, de Eenigheyt (A.J. McR Cameron – “The Berbice Uprising, 1763”).
Some of the slaves involved in the 1823 Demerara Slave Rebellion were also Muslims. According to Emilia Viotti da Costa in her book “Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood,” a driver from one of the plantation (Brothers), a slave by the name of “Bob”, was a Muslim, and was known as the “Mahometan.” During the trial of the ‘ringleaders’ one of the slaves who testified against them was a Muslim who demanded to take his oath the Islamic way. Also, according to Norman Cameron in his book “150 Years of Education In Guyana (1808 – 1957)” about “two Mohammedans” Romeo and Jason were ordained by the Christian missionary on Plantation Le Resouvenir as deacons; Romeo was ordained in 1808 and Jason in 1814.
Over time, the slaves were literally stripped of all semblances of their native life, their respective languages, traditions and religious observances of the land of their birth. Thus, by the time slavery was abolished in 1834, there was very little presence of Islamic practices left among the Africans. Nonetheless, up until the early 1830s, a number of Africans still bore their Islamic names such as – Bacchus, Mohamed, Mammadoe, Mammadou, Sallat, Mousa, Hannah, Sabah, Feekea, Russanah, etc. This evidence can be found in the Berbice Gazette, in which the names of a number of runaway slaves were listed during the years 1808 to 1810.
Despite the loss of most of their Islamic practices, evidence of Islam was referenced in the early 1800s in several books ascribing to materials written by the slaves in the Arabic script that were found on the plantations. Thomas Staunton St. Clair, a British soldier stationed in Demerara, in his autobiography titled, “A Soldier’s Sojourn in British Guiana, 1806-1808”, made reference to a rebellion planned in 1807. The overseer came to know of the plot from a young slave girl he lived with whose father was one of the ringleaders. Ringleaders were found in possession of a piece of paper written in Arabic with details of the alleged rebellion.
In 1836, Reverend John Wray in several of his diary entries made mention of slaves singing and reciting verses from the Quran which they had committed to memory. He also wrote about one in particular – Toby, a Hausa Muslim who was found to be literate in Arabic and could also read verses from the Quran. Wray was very impressed with Toby’s thirst for learning and following encouragements from Wray, Toby converted to Christianity and was given the Christian name Thomas Lewis. Toby became one of Wray’s most diligent scholars. After Toby was given his freedom, he received a scholarship to study in England, and upon his return to Guyana, he started a school in Union Chapel in New Amsterdam.
In another incident Wray recounted the last funeral rites given to a slave woman on her passing: “… just as the slaves were carrying the remains of an old Negress, with deep lamentations and superstitious rites, to burial…; they departed just after being entertained with a song in Arabic, sung before the house by an aged negro Mohammedan who, in his own country, had been a parson (otherwise known as an Imam) he furnished each visitor with a copy in Arabic of what he said – the first words of their sacred book.”
Such men as Toby, Romeo and Jason became revered Christian preachers in British Guiana after they converted to Christianity. Interestingly enough, while the first Moravians missionaries arrived in Berbice in 1738, the plantation owners refused to let them ‘Christianize or preach’ to the slaves for obvious reasons. Even in 1805 when a Wesleyan missionary arrived in Demerara with the intention of ‘teaching’ the slaves the Governor insisted upon his departure on the next boat. It was not until 70 years later in 1808 when Reverend John Wray arrived in British Guiana upon request by Hilbertus Hermanus Post, a Dutchman and the owner of Le Resouvenier plantation on the East Coast of Demerara that the slaves were slowly being ‘schooled’ in the Christian faith.
We trust that these short snippets of documented evidence will give the readers a glimpse of some of our forgotten heroes who fought and made the ultimate sacrifices to preserve their human dignity, while others it seemed had forgotten their humanity (the slave masters).