Ancestral voices from 1816
“At eight o’clock in the evening, on Easter Sunday, the 14th of April 1816, a heap of cane thrash was fired on Bayley’s plantation. This was the signal of revolt. It was promptly repeated by the setting on fire of thrash-heaps and canefields on every estate in the upper part of the parish of St Phillip . . . . The fire spread during the whole night from field to field, from one estate to another. A long night of horror was at last succeeded by day, and the first gleam of light discovered fresh indications of the progress of the revolt: Mill after mill on the revolted estates were turned into the wind to fly unbended, and bell after bell was rung to announce that the slaves of such plantation had joined the revolt.” (The History of Barbados by Robert H. Schomburgk)
With a mere 16 days to go before we commemorate the bi-centenary of the Bussa Rebellion on Thursday, the 14th of April 2016, it is only right that we hear and listen to the voices of our enslaved ancestors of 200 years ago, as they explain how and why they launched that epoch-making slave rebellion.
Fortunately for the Barbadians of our generation, we have access to the text of the Report of the Select Committee that was established by the white slave-master dominated Barbados House of Assembly in August 1816 to inquire into “the origin, causes and progress of the . . . insurrection”.
The report was laid in the Barbados House of Assembly on the 7th of January 1818, and even though it was a thoroughly biased document that sought to exonerate the local white ruling class, it did contain an “Appendix” in which was reproduced the testimony of several enslaved black Barbadians who had been eye witnesses of critical aspects of the rebellion.
Let us therefore listen to these important ancestral voices as follows:-
A. The Examination of Daniel, a slave belonging to the plantation called “The River”.
This examinant saith that he was a carpenter in the River plantation; that about three weeks before the insurrection, he was in his house about six in the evening, when Cain Davis, a free coloured man, called out. Whereupon he went out to him in the broad road, Cain Davis asked him if he had heard the good news? Cain Davis then said, that the negroes were all to be free – that the Queen and Mr Wilberforce had sent out to have them all freed – but that the inhabitants of the island were against it; and that it was a great shame that they were not all freed, and that they must fight for it: that he (Cain Davis) was ready to do so with them, as he had some children who were slaves.
After this he returned into his house, and shortly after, in an adjoining house, he heard Sarjeant, another free coloured man, call to him. Sarjeant came into his house and told him he had seen Cain Davis; that both of them had been reading the newspapers, by which they found that the negroes were all to be free.
After this he heard nothing more on the subject, nor did he see Cain Davis or Sarjeant until Good Friday night at a dance at The River where Busso (belonging to Bayley’s Estate), Davis, and Sarjeant conversed. When he saw the fires on Easter night, he concluded that what Davis had told him was right.
B. The Examination of Cuffee Ned, a slave belonging to “Three Houses” plantation.
This examinant saith that he was told that the negroes had been freed in some of the islands, and that they were to be freed in all the West Indies, and that in one they had fought for it and got it. And, upon being asked if he should recollect the name of the island if he heard it? And having answered in the affirmative, several islands were named; but when Saint Domingo was named, he said “that was the island – he knew it by the name of Mingo.”
C. The confession of Robert, a slave belonging to the plantation called “Simmons’”:
Who saith that some time the last year, he heard the negroes were all to be freed on New Year’s Day. That Nanny Grig (a negro woman at Simmons’, who said she could read) was the first person who told the negroes at Simmons’ so: and she said she had read it in the newspapers, and that her master was very uneasy at it: That she was always talking about it to the negroes, and told them that they were all damned fools to work, for that she would not, as freedom they were sure to get. That, about a fortnight after New Year’s Day, she said the negroes were to be freed on Easter Monday, and the only way to get it was to fight for it, otherwise they would not get it; and the way they were to do, was to set fire, as that was the way they did in Saint Domingo.
Further saith that Jackey, the driver at Simmons’, said he would send to the other drivers and rangers, and to the head, and to Busso (at Bayley’s), to turn out on Easter Monday to give the country a light, and let everybody know what it was for: and that John (at Simmons’) was the person who carried the summons from Jackey. That Jackey was one of the head men of the insurrection and that the reason he came to hear these things, was because Jackey’s children were fond of him, and he was in the habit of going to Jackey’s house and playing with his children.
He further saith, that on Easter Day, Jackey (at Simmons’) told Mingo to go about and pick up all the men, and muster them up at his house, and he would tell them what to do. That in the evening, when the whip snapped, all Simmons’ people came out to know what it snapped for; and after they came as far as the watermill, Jackey told them what it was for. That Jackey, Mingo, and John Baynes went towards Judge Gittens’ and shortly afterwards two fields of canes in that direction were set on fire.
That King William (of Sunberry) came to Simmons’ estate on Monday forenoon with a red coat and gun, with a gang and then gave orders to break up and burn; and gave orders to William Green of Congo Road to set fire to the trash heap.
That Prince William of The Grove came also on Monday forenoon on horseback with the gang with a sword in his hand, holding it upright over the horse’s head, and gave orders to lick down the sick house, and also to burn the field of canes above the sick house; and rode about the yard, and ordered the mill to be put in the wind.
That Toby, of The Chapel, came with a gun in his hand, and gave orders to shoot every one that did not join them, and marched about the yard with a gun on his shoulder. And that Little Sambo, belonging to The Adventure, came with the gang to Simmons’, armed with a sword and began to lick down the old mill door in which they kept provisions.
That Jack, belonging to Mr Doughty, had a sword and a long knife in his hands, and came up to him (Robert) and said, “I will chop you down if you do not join us.” And that Thomas, from Congo Road, came with the gang of rebels on Monday forenoon, and was the first that began to chop at the boiling house door, with a hatchet; and ordered Mingo (belonging to Congo Road) to take charge of a box of carpenters’ tools which was in the boiling house.
That a man called Charles, belonging to Sandford’s, was on horseback with the gang, and rode about the yard giving orders. And that Thomas, belonging to Mr Carter, came armed with a sword, and was the first to lick down the door of the sick house.”
These then are just a few of the testimonies of our ancestors at that critical phase of the history of our nation 200 years ago. May our generation summon up the self-respect and wisdom to listen carefully and respectfully to these ancestral voices!
(David Comissiong is president of the Clement Payne Movement)