COLUMN – He who should have been King of Barbados
Forty-eight years after Barbados supposedly won its Independence from Britain, we are still celebrating the Queen of England’s birthday and nominating outstanding Barbadians for honours dispensed by this most English of queens on her birthday.
We Barbadians seem to be so devoted to this Caucasian queen –– the leading representative of an institution that participated intimately in the enslavement and oppression of our ancestors –– that we would seemingly do anything to continue clinging to her royal cloak-tails.
But perhaps, the real source of this seeming devotion to Elizabeth II is an ingrained Barbadian regard for the institution of monarchy in general, rather than any particular love for the distant octogenarian who currently sits on the throne of England.
Well, if this is the case, perhaps Barbadians might be interested in exploring the story of the great black man who should have been King of Barbados –– almost exactly 336 years ago.
It was the year of 1675, and the 50-year-old British slave colony of Barbados had settled into a routine of importing large numbers of enslaved Africans from the Upper and Lower Guinea coasts of West Africa –– the present day nations of Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Ivory Coast, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria –– and working them to death on the island’s burgeoning sugar plantations.
At the time, Barbados was firmly in the grip of an elite class of white plantocrats who, having survived the revolutionary year of 1649 –– the year in which both the white indentured servants and the black slaves made unsuccessful attempts at rebellion –– were in a state of over-confident complacency about their dominance over the oppressed labouring class.
You see, what the white Barbadian slave masters had failed to take proper note of was that, increasingly, a much higher proportion of the newly imported enslaved Africans were so-called “Coromantees” from the Gold Coast region of the Lower Guinea Coast –– present day Ghana.
In Dr Richard Allsopp’s Dictionary Of Caribbean English Usage, it is explained that “Coromantee” identified those “slaves from the Gold Coast noted both for their sturdiness and fidelity on the one hand and for their fierce vengefulness when ill-treated”.
Needless to say, it was not long before the tremendously ill-treated “Coromantees” of Barbados decided to take matters into their own hands. Finding the travails and indignities of slavery to be unbearable, they hatched a plot to rid Barbados of the vile slave masters, and to establish a black monarchical system of government with a Gold Coast elder by the slave name of “Cuffy”
to be elevated to the throne as King of Barbados.
The story of “Cuffy” (the man who would be King of Barbados) and of the slave rebellion of 1675 has come down to us via a 1676 pamphlet published in England under the title Great Newes From The Barbadoes, Or A True And Faithful Account Of The Grand Conspiracy Of The Negroes Against The English. The pamphlet records that a rebellion was plotted by many “Coromantee or Gold Coast Negroes” over a period of years, in such secrecy that even the wives of the plotters were unaware of it. And the central role of “King Cuffy” in the enterprise was explained as follows:
An ancient Gold-Coast [sic] Negro called Cuffy was chosen as King, and he was to be crowned on June 12, 1675, in a Chair of State exquisitively wrought and carved after their mode with bows and arrows to be likewise carried in State before His Majesty their intended King: trumpets to be made of elephants’ teeth and gourdes were to be sounded on several hills to give notice of their general rising, with a full intention to fire the sugar-canes, and so run in and cut their masters, the planters’, throats in their respective plantations . . . .
Unfortunately, the meticulously planned rebellion was sold out two weeks before the commencement date by a young 18-year-old slave who had lost his nerve. This led to martial law being declared by Governor Atkins and to the conspirators being arrested en mass.
A summary court of “oyer and terminer” was appointed to examine and try more than 100 suspects, and at the end of it all, some 42 slaves were executed; five committed suicide in jail; and 70 were either deported or sent back to their owners after a savage flogging.
What, you may ask, became of “King Cuffy?” Well, no one can say for certain, but it is likely that he was one of the executed martyrs. The truth is that we don’t know a lot about Cuffy, the man who should have been King of Barbados, other than that he was African-born, and was of advanced age.
In his definition of the word “Coromantee”, the late Dr Allsopp goes on to tell us that the word was derived from the “name of a coastal Fante town . . . about 80 miles west of Accra” in modern-day Ghana. So, in all likelihood, King Cuffy, like so many of his early fellow black Barbadians, belonged to the Fante ethnic group of modern-day Ghana.
The Fante speak the language known as “Twi” and are a constituent ethnicity within the broad Eastern Akan culture system. They are therefore closely related to such ethnic groups as the Asante, Bron, Wassa and Denkyira.
Cuffy would have been brought to Barbados some time around the middle of the 17th century. And if we consult Volume 5 of UNESCO’s General History Of Africa, we learn that around the beginning of the 17th century the Akan were a people who primarily lived in towns ruled by kings and queens, and in villages ruled by chiefs. Akan society was therefore a fairly evolved and sophisticated mechanism that had already become stratified, with a ruling aristocracy consisting of priests and kings, ordinary subjects, and a relatively small number of domestic serfs or slaves.
Thus, Cuffy may very well have sprung from the ruling or aristocratic strata of his Fante town or village!
It is also interesting to speculate on what type of occupation Cuffy might have pursued in the Gold Coast. The Akan engaged in a wide variety of economic activities, including farming (plantain, bananas, yam and rice), collecting of kola nuts, livestock raising (poultry, sheep, goats and pigs), fishing, salt-making, textile weaving, gold-mining and last, but no means least, trading.
Indeed, the Akan had long traded with the neighbouring Ewe and Ga people, with fish, salt, pottery, gold, chewing sticks, ivory, iron or metal wear being the main items of trade. They also carried on an external trade with the Western Sudan region, particularly during the heyday of the great Mande empire of Songhay in the 15th and 16th centuries.
And so, we know for certain that Cuffy came from a very sophisticated and industrious society, and he must therefore have found it very difficult to countenance the status that slave society sought to impose upon him in Barbados –– the status of a soulless thing, a chattel, a beast of burden, a hewer of wood and drawer of water in perpetuity!
This Akan King refused to accept any such slave status, and was willing to risk making the ultimate sacrifice in an heroic bid to destroy slavery and to establish some semblance of the Akan civilization right here in Barbados.
All conscious Barbadians should therefore lift up and revere the name of Cuffy, the “king-man” whom our ancestors selected to be the true monarch of Barbados!
(David A. Comissiong, attorney-at-law, is president of the Clement Payne Movement.)