Including the Amerindians in colonial history
Stabroek News
September 2, 2001

Yesterday marked the beginning of Amerindian Heritage Month, the thirty days in the year when we remember the contribution of the indigenous peoples to Guyanese culture, and their role in our historical evolution as a nation. Amerindian history begins thousands of years before the advent of the Europeans in this part of the world, but it is not always recognised that the autochthonous peoples were not simply bystanders during the colonial period either. Their role was multifaceted, depending on which nation was involved, and on the particular times and historical circumstances in which they happened to find themselves.

Given the tiny numbers of Dutch and Africans who came here initially (only sixty, or perhaps eighty Dutch men and boys plus six Africans arrived in Berbice in 1627), Amerindian assistance was essential for the survival of the infant colonies. Some of the indigenous nations were to continue to supply foodstuffs to the plantations - especially salt fish rations for the slave population - for more than a hundred years after the arrival of the first European settlers, and the authorities and the planters were also to remain dependent on them for a range of other commodities. These included hammocks and corials, the second of which were used by everyone, including the Africans.

What is not realized, however, is that the Arawaks, Akawaios and Caribs in particular, were export commodity producers, particularly in the seventeenth century. In addition to balsam copaiva and (in Essequibo only) letterwood, there was anatto. This red-orange dye was employed in the colouring of Dutch cheeses, and for many decades it was second only to sugar in terms of export value. The dye was processed into little balls by the Amerindian women, and set in crab oil to preserve it during transportation to the Netherlands.

What is also rarely acknowledged is that members of some Amerindian nations shared the same fate as the Africans, being slaves on the plantations. The colony of Essequibo was the centre of an Amerindian slave trade prosecuted by the Carib nation, and mostly managed by Surinamers from the beginning of the eighteenth century onwards. The slaves traded or captured came from the periphery of the colony, or outside it altogether, and they endured the same brutal conditions as their African counterparts. Many of them were women put to work in the bread gardens or cassava fields, which produced the cassava bread which everyone ate in an era when wheat flour was unobtainable. Amerindian slavery ended before African slavery in 1793.

While the popular view of the Amerindians during the slavery period is that they acted as plantation policemen, this only became a function of the coastal nations alone after about 1770, and in the case of the Caribs rather earlier than this. It has to be remembered that Amerindian slaves ran away from the plantations with as great a frequency as African ones, were returned by the Caribs in the same way as African ones, and were punished by the Europeans in the same fashion as African ones. In addition some Amerindians - including members of free nations - took part in risings, most notably the 1687 revolt in Berbice.

And what about the Caribs, who largely ran the slave trade and who in Essequibo were a pillar of support for the Dutch? They have to be seen as the geopoliticians of the region in the Dutch period. Under enormous pressure from the Spaniards on both sides of the Orinoco where they were being rounded up by force and confined in missions, they turned to the Dutch for the European weaponry they knew was essential if they were to resist the Spanish successfully. It was the slave trade in particular, which gave them access to guns and to knowledge about European battle tactics, although the Dutch authorities sometimes armed them too in times of slave revolt.

The Caribs considered that their own survival was bound up with the maintenance of the Dutch plantation system in the Guianas, and down until the 1790s, they therefore remained in alliance with the Essequibo authorities, monitoring the frontiers of the colony for them and watching the plantations. With the Dutch alliance secure, the Caribs could then attack the Jesuit and Capuchin missions on the Orinoco which they rightly perceived as the instrument of Spanish penetration in the region.

The history of the plantation and the slavery period in general, therefore, is not just the history of the Europeans and the Africans. It is also the history of the Amerindians, something which needs to be acknowledged in our classrooms.