Flintlocks, gunpowder and 1763
Stabroek News
February 17, 2002

Wednesday, February 27, will mark the 239th anniversary of the start of the 1763 Uprising in Berbice. Less well known than some of the other revolts of the period, it nevertheless qualifies as one of the great risings of this region.

Admittedly, the numbers involved were not very great - something over three thousand - but the revolt encompassed the whole colony, it lasted more than a year, and its first leadership boasted truly revolutionary aims.

It had been preceded by a small rising on the plantation of Magdalenenburg in Canje on February 23, 1763, in the past erroneously identified as the starting point of the great uprising itself. That revolt had spread to the neighbouring estate of La Providence, but no further.

The main 1763 uprising, which broke out four days later on the Berbice River proper, was initially led by Coffy, from the plantation of Lelienburg. Coffy inaugurated a correspondence with the Dutch governor, Van Hoogenheim during which at one point he negotiated a truce. This correspondence is almost unique in the annals of West Indian risings of the period.

Some time in August or September of 1763, Coffy committed suicide, and he was followed as leader by an old man named Boi. The latter soon retired, however, and was in turn succeeded by the African leader, Atta.

Under Coffy, the Creoles seem to have had considerable influence in the government, but after he died, the Africans were in unequivocal control.

Other than in the case of St Domingue, there is no rising in the West Indies where those who had seized their freedom in the first instance, managed to remain independent for so long. The duration of the 1763 Uprising is accounted for in part by geography, in part by luck and circumstance but also in large part by the military skill of the people who took up arms against the Dutch.

Tacky, who led a revolt in Jamaica a few years previously, may have headed an army of many hundreds, but for the most part his forces faced a European military equipped with little better than farm implements.

In contrast, neither the Creolised leaders of the first half of the Berbice rising, nor their African successors laboured under the delusion that machetes and knives were all that were needed in order to do battle with professional European soldiers who carried firearms.

Coffy, the first leader of 1763, went to some lengths to round up European weapons. His initial act after the revolt began, for example, was to break open the chests and cupboards containing the flintlocks on his own plantation of Lelienburg. It was an exercise which was repeated on every other plantation, and the guns collected.

The leadership could also take advantage of the skills of Prins of the Fort. Prior to the uprising Prins had worked as a blacksmith at Fort Nassau, the main Dutch military installation in Berbice, repairing firearms, among other things. Of revolutionary inclination, he wasted no time in going to work for Coffy putting damaged flintlocks and matchlocks back into working order, thereby making more guns available for the army.

Prins also managed to get two cannon which had been spiked by the Dutch into operation again, although as it transpired, they were to prove of little use to the revolutionaries. No doubt owing to their weight, they sat immobile outside the Court of Policy building near Fort Nassau, never to be used in battle.

Coffy understood very well that control of Berbice, whose plantations were laid out singly along the river banks in ribbon-like fashion, meant control of the river. To accomplish that, he needed to capture a large Dutch vessel equipped with ship's cannon. This would give him mobility where artillery was concerned, and neutralize the Dutch military advantage.

When he finally committed his forces to the largest battle of the Uprising on May 13, therefore, the capture of a boat mounted with ship's cannon was his primary aim. While his troops acquitted themselves with skill and valour in that battle - called the Second Battle of Dageraad - they nevertheless failed to secure the objective. It was to be one of the critical turning points in the war.

While there was some shortage of firearms, an even bigger problem for the revolutionaries was a dearth of the gunpowder used in those firearms. Coffy had the plantations scoured for sulphur and saltpetre - the ingredients used in the manufacture of gunpowder - but that search did not yield the quantities required.

Subsequently, Coffy was to send Prins of Helvetia (not Prins of the Fort) with two hundred men overland to Demerara, to see if he could stir up revolution there. Part of the reason was to obtain new sources of gunpowder, but Prins and his detachment returned, unable to find their way through the bush paths.

The revolutionaries did get some uexpected powder supplies and firearms from a detachment of Suriname troops who deserted in the Corentyne in June, 1763. The deserters turned themselves in to the revolutionaries in Canje, who refused to believe that white men would come over to their side, and promptly killed most of them. The remainder were rescued by an officer sent by Coffy to investigate, and they were to fight first with Coffy and later with Atta until the end of the revolt.

As a last resort in his search for powder, Coffy tried to do a deal with Van Hoogenheim, offering Georgina George, a planter's daughter whom he had made his wife, in exchange for gunpowder and other things.

It has been suggested by Ineke Velzing, a Dutch historian, that Coffy's strategy of negotiation with the Dutch can be partly explained by the fact that he was trying to conserve gunpowder, and not waste it on skirmishes which would accomplish very little. If that is so, then the gunpowder problem would have played an indirect role in his death.

At the end of the rising, Accabre, the chief of an African group in Berbice known as the Guangos or Gangos, told his interrogators that before Coffy died, Atta had called his army officers together and had asked them whether they supported Coffy writing letters to (i.e. negotiating with) Van Hoogenheim or not, and they had replied no. Coffy had then called on his supporters to back him, which they had done. Although the documents do not record Accabre's conclusion to the story, it is clear that Coffy could not command enough support in the army, as a consequence of which he committed suicide.

One Dutch writer, J J Hartsinck, whose work was published in 1770, says that before he shot himself, Coffy hid whatever gunpowder he had under his control. If that was indeed the case, we shall probably never know his motivation.

A preparedness to fight with firearms and a knowledge of the

mechanics of these were not in themselves sufficient to guarantee success on the battlefield. No rising could have lasted a year without an acquaintance as well with European battle tactics. This is another area which sets the men of 1763 apart from their counterparts in the Caribbean.

The flintlocks and matchlocks of the period were not repeating weapons; the latter had not been invented yet. Once these guns had fired their first shot, they had to be loaded again. Since they took a fair amount of time to load, their usefulness in open battle situations depended on army formations which allowed rows of soldiers to fire in succession. It was a technique which required high levels of discipline and co-ordination, achieved through special drill practice.

From the evidence given by the wife of a planter (among others) whose life had been spared by Coffy, we know that men were being drilled at Fort Nassau from an early stage in the rising. The question is, just where did the officers of 1763 learn their European drill and battle tactics?

It is possible that one or two of them, like Atta, who was new in Berbice and from his name and port of embarkation was clearly Akan-speaking, might have been familiar with them already. Peoples like the Ashanti, for example, were accustomed to European weaponry and tactics. However, it seems likely that most of the early leaders had learnt them in Berbice itself. Certainly, the men attached to the military installations who joined Coffy would have been very familiar with European military ways. In addition, even some of those based on the plantations may have cleaned weapons and watched drill practice when the militia mustered. Every planter in the colony was required to muster with the militia on a regular basis. There is one other small possibility. In the eighteenth century the Caribs of Essequibo would only fight with firearms, and were very skilled in battle tactics, as the Spanish missionaries of the Orinoco discovered to their cost. Strictly speaking, there were no Caribs in Berbice, but the Arawaks too by the 1760s were refusing to do anything for the Dutch administration unless they had been issued with flintlocks. Like the Caribs, they probably knew all about how to use them and how to deploy them in a battle situation. The possibility cannot altogether be dismissed, therefore, that one or two of Coffy's men had learnt about firearms from the Amerindians.

Like Coffy, Atta too did not waste time arming his forces with machetes and the like. In addition, he employed the surviving Suriname deserters in training his forces, and on occasion in leading them in battle. This paid off towards the end of 1763, when a combination of African guerilla tactics and European battle training allowed Atta to play cat and mouse with the Dutch in the Wikkie Creek.