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Revolt of 'Bush Negroes' 1794-95

An uprising of Africans, who had escaped and established camps in the bush, took place in 1794-95. Colonists in the early 1800s were still very much aware of the threat posed by the revolt and the cruelty with which it had been repressed by the Dutch authorities.

The accounts below are by Dr George Pinckard, who was in Guyana in 1796 and published his Notes on the West Indies in 1806, and Henry Bolinbroke, who was a clerk in Demerara from about 1796 and published his A Voyage to the Demerary in 1807.

Pinckard gives a detailed account of how the maroon settlements were camoflaged and defended.

 


Dr George Pinckard, Notes on the West Indies [1806], Vol I, Letter XV.
Demarara, May 16 [1796]

In my last letter I mentioned that in the woods of these colonies there are bodies of men called "Bush Negroes." These are mostly run-away slaves who have revolted from their masters, and having collected together in the forest, have there formed themselves into bodies, under certain captains or leaders; and have established various habitations and encampments in the thickest parts of what is termed " the Bush ;" where they now live in all the worst habits of savage nature; and are become mere hordes of brigands or marauders.

They are negroes of the worst description, cruel, blood-thirsty and revengeful : men, whose crimes in European, and all well ordered states, would have been punished with death. Many have murdered white inhabitants, massacred their masters, or revolted in combination, plotting the destruction of the planters, in order to take the colony into their own possession ; but being frustrated in their designs, have saved themselves from punishment, by flying into the hidden recesses of the forest; from whence they issue only to ravage and plunder;

They had subjected themselves to a fort of regular discipline under their captains and lieutenants, and the lower orders of them (for there are distinctions even among run-away slaves) were compelled to toil in the night, by going out of the woods, in plundering parties, to steal plantains and other provisions from the estates ; but the labour to which they were exposed, by this night-duty, was so much more severe than that required of them, in their common duty, as slaves upon the plantations, that some of them have been known to desert back from the woods, and return to a state of slavery, after having run away from their masters to live in idleness, as they had expected, with their brethren in " the Bush."

I wish I could repeat to you, as eloquently as I heard it related, the very interesting detail of an expedition sent into the woods against these Bush negroes, last year, under the command of major M'Grah, and captain Dougan. Many persons had been robbed, and had their property otherwise injured by their predatory excursions ;—indeed the whole colony was disturbed, and, from the increasing number of these sanguinary hordes, was threatened with eventual destruction. It was therefore resolved that a body of troops should be sent into the woods to search for their places of resort, and to endeavour to subdue or exterminate them. A party of the Dutch soldiers of the garrison was, accordingly, equipped for this duty; and marched in due military order into the forest.

But this was not the species of force calculated for such an expedition: and from not having observed all the minute precautions required, in this new and hazardous kind of warfare, they were surprized and defeated by the negroes; and very few of the soldiers escaped with their lives—most of them being killed, and-their scalps, or bodies, fixed against the trees, to serve as an example of what others had to expect who should venture on a similar expedition.

Upon this.occasion one of the officers was carried out of the wood by a faithful slave, who, afterwards, refused to accept his freedom as a reward ; and only begged to have a silver medal to wear on days of festival.

The government and the colonists having discovered, from this fatal experience, that the Bush negroes were more formidable than had been expected; and finding that regular European troops were not the best fitted for this kind of service, raised a corps of negroes from among the most faithful of the slaves; and also engaged in their interest a party of Indians from the woods, who, happily for the planters, hold the Bush negroes in great abhorrence.

Well provided and equipped, this second expedition, commanded as above-mentioned, separated into two parties, and boldly advanced into the wood to form a combined attack. Upon their march they pasted the dead bodies of the Dutch soldiers tied to the trees at the sides of a narrow path. Not deterred by this horrid example, they proceeded onward, having the sagacious Indians on their flanks; by whose acuteness and penetration they discovered the various situations, where the different companies of the Brigands had taken up their residence, and, by well concerted attacks, defeated and routed them wheresoever they met them. As an encouragement to the able and new raised troops, a premium was offered for every right hand of a Bush negro that should be brought in; and when they returned from the expedition, they appeared with seventy black arms displayed upon the points of their bayonets, causing a very singular and shocking spectacle to the beholders. Three hundred guilders each had been fixed as the price, but it was found necessary to reduce the premium, lest the slaves should kill their prisoners, or even destroy each other to obtain it.

'The exertion and fatigue required in such an expedition cannot well be conceived by those who are accustomed only to regular and systematic warfare: nor is it probable that such a service coutd have been supported in this climate by European soldiers. In addition to all the difficulties of making their way through the unknown and almost impenetrable woods, they knew not where to find the enemy's posts; and were, at every minute, liable to be fallen upon by surprize.

At first entering the Bush, the march was continued to a great distance, nearly knee-deep in water; and when further advanced, the troops had to scramble through the thickets; or follow each other by a confined path in Indian file ; and, after the harassing march of the day, to lie down at night, on the bare ground, under the trees—the officers suspending their hammocks from bough to bough in the open air. They had, moreover to carry the whole of their provisions, arms, ammunition, and every other necessary required for the success of the expedition, upon their backs.

But for the assistance given by the Indians, the brigands had probably never been subdued ; perhaps not found ! The expertness of these men, in such a pursuit, is peculiar, and beyond all that could be imagined, by those who live in crowded society. They not only hear sounds in the woods, which are imperceptible to others, but judge, with surprising accuracy, of the distance and direction from whence they proceed. The position of a fallen leaf, or the bending of a bramble, too flight to be noticed by an European eye, conveys to them certain intelligence respecting the route taken by those whom they pursue. From constant practice and observation, their organs of sense become highly improved, and they hear with an acuteness, and fee with a precision truly surprising to those who are unacquainted with their habits, and their vigilance. With such guides, the expedition moved in confidence, and was conducted in safety. Seven encampments of the brigands were discovered and completely routed ; some of which had existed during fifteen years, concealed in the profoundest gloom of the forest.

The following was the mode usually observed in establishing these places of residence and resort. Having fixed upon the spot most convenient for their purpose, a circular piece of ground was cleared of its wood, and, in the centre of this, they built huts, and formed the , encampment, planting round about the buildings, oranges, bananas, plantains, yams, eddoes, and other kinds of provisions ; thus, in addition to the trees of the forest, procuring themselves further concealment by the plantations which gave them food. The eddoes were found in great plenty, and had seemed to constitute ' their principal diet. Round the exterior of the circular spot was cut a deep and wide ditch, which, being filled with water, and stuck, at the sides and bottom, with sharp pointed stakes, served as a formidable barrier of defence. The path across this ditch was placed two or three feet below the surface, and wholly concealed from the eye by the water being always thick and muddy. Leaves were strewed, and steppings, similar in their kind, made to the edges of the ditch, at various parts, as a precaution, to deceive any who might approach, respecting the real situation of the path. But the proper place of crossing was found out by the acuteness of the Indians, who soon discovered . that to attempt to pass at any other part, was to be empaled alive.

It was found that the Brigands had eight of these encampments, or points of rendezvous in the woods, one of which is supposed still to remain undiscovered. After much fatigue in endeavoring to find it, the search was relinquished, in the idea that some of the prisoners, tither by indulgence or torture, would be induced to make it known : but this expectation has only led to disappointment. All the means used have failed, and the prisoners, faithful to their cause, have suffered torture and death without betraying their forest-associates.

The cruel severities inflicted upon these miserable blacks have been such as you will scarcely believe could have been suggested or practised by any well-ordered government ; for, however strongly punishment was merited, the refinement of torture with which it was executed ought never to have been tolerated in any state professing to be civilized. Humanity shudders at the bare recital of it.

Most of the ring-leaders were taken, and brought to Stabroek, where they were afterwards tried and executed, the majority of them suffering with a degree of fortitude and heroism worthy a better cause. One in particular, named Amsterdam, supported the extreme of punishment with a firmness truly astonishing. He was subjected to the most shocking torture, in order to compel him to give information regarding the remaining encampment—but in vain ! He despised the severest suffering, and nothing could induce him to betray his late companions, or to make known their yet undiscovered retreat.

He was sentenced to be burnt alive, first having the flesh torn from his limbs with redhot pincers ; and in order to render his punishment still more terrible, he was compelled to sit by, and see thirteen others broken and hung ; and then, in being conducted to execution, was made to walk over the thirteen dead bodies of his comrades. Being fastened to an iron-stake, surrounded with the consuming pile, which was about to be illumined, he regarded the by-standers with all the complacency of heroic fortitude, and exhibiting the most unyielding courage, resolved that all the torture ingenuity or cruelty might invent should not extort from him a single groan; nor a syllable that could in any way impeach his friends.

With the first pair of pincers, the executioner tore the flesh from one of his arms. The sudden infliction of pain caused him to recede, in a slight degree, from the irons; and he drew in his breath, as if to form it into a sigh, but he instantly recovered himself—his countenance upbraided him, and he manifestly took shame for having betrayed even the slightest sense of suffering—then, resuming more, if possible, than his former composure, he patiently waited the approach of the next irons, and, on these being brought towards him, he stedfastly cast his eye upon them, inclined a little forward, and with an unshaken firmness of countenance, deliberately met their burning grasp! From that moment he shewed himself capable of despising the severest pain. Not a feature was afterwards disturbed, and he preserved a degree of composure implying absolute contempt of torture and of death.

Finally, when the destructive pile was set in flames, his body spun round the iron stake, with the mouth open, until his head fell back, and life was extinguished. I am told, by a gentleman who had the melancholy talk to attend the execution, that the most horrid- stench continued, for many hours, to issue from the roasting body, and was extremely offensive throughout the town, penetrating so strongly into the houses to leeward, as to make many persons sick, and prevent them from taking food during the remainder of the day.

The conduct of this negro furnishes a striking example of the powers of the human mind in subduing our bodily sufferings, and might seem, even, to corroborate the doctrine which maintains that all pain is ideal.

Another of the chiefs, or captains, who was taken, is still in confinement at the fort, under sentence of death. His execution has been delayed in the hope of learning, from him, the situation of the yet remaining encampment ; but, hitherto, to no purpose ; and from his present conduct, it may be expected that he will die as relentless and inflexible as his comrade Amsterdam.

 


 

From Henry Bolinbroke, A Voyage to the Demerary [1807]

. . . in 1794 . . . very alarming symptoms appeared among the bush negroes, who had been a considerable time in collecting, and were at this period arrived at such a pitch of temerity, that it was necessary they should be checked.

The Dutch troops, with a few negroes, were accordingly detached to the west coast of Demerary, where they entered the bush; but after beating about several days, and having many skirmishes with the insurgents, in which they were defeated, from being worn out with fatigue, they were obliged to return to the sea-coast again, in time to behold the remains of their barracks perishing by the flames, which had been communicated to them by a party of the maroon negroes sent out for provisions. They murdered the manager and a mulatto girl, burnt all the buildings they could approach, one of which had been appropriated for the troops, and stole every thing which was at all valuable, or that could be conveyed away. Such daring outrages as these had the appearance of leading to dangerous consequences, to ward off which the governor and council thought it advisable to call on the inhabitants for their assistance, for which purpose many of them volunteered for the service, and a company of rangers was raised, consisting of negroes, which were contributed by the different estates, and placed under the command of major M. Grath, under whom were captains Dougan, Johnson, &c. with others in subordinate situations. The armed burghers, or inhabitants, joined the rangers with a number of bucks, or Indians. These people are remarkably averse to the negroes, and have generally stood foremost in case of any disturbance, to quell the blacks, and protect the Europeans ; indeed they have always here, as in Berbice, evinced a strong desire to maintain and aid the white inhabitants in the sovereignty of the country.

The combined forces took the field in 1795, formed into two divisions, one of which entered the bush on the west coast, and the other fifteen miles up the river, by Ababbour creek, with an intention of taking a complete circuit, and forming a junction. They were provided with several trusty negro guides, one of whom I very well knew, of the name of Gentleman. He belonged to an estate up the river, and had been purchased among other negroes out of an African cargo, at Grenada, and brought thence, by his masters, to settle on a sugar estate they possessed. This negro, from his uniform good conduct soon gained the esteem and confidence of his owners, and from his sincere attachment to them, was looked upon as a favourite, which, however, was shewn in no other way than by trifling presents at a chance time. His house, his way of living, and indeed his employment, seldom differed from that of others, except when any commission required a confidential servant, then Gentleman was generally fixed on . . . . He was active and sharp-sighted, had a clear head, made himself acquainted with the principal passes and paths to the revolted negroes’ encampments, which he acquired by dint of perseverance and industry, at the risk of his life, by making excursions into the wood at night, by which means he discovered their place of retirement. He used especially to watch them carry plantains, which they had stolen from the neighbouring plantain walks . . .

. . . The bush expedition . . . after considerable fatigue, succeeded in surrounding an encampment, or negro village, in the night, consisting of seven huts. Many of the inhabitants were absent; however, a number of them were taken, and those who resisted were shot and slain in the confusion of the moment. The Indians acted with great inveteracy against the insurgents. A reward of ten pounds being offered by the court for each right hand that was brought in belonging to a bush negro, they made no hesitation in disencumbering those killed, of these members. The gardens and provision grounds in teh back country, which had been vigorously defended, were of considerable use to the pursuing party; for the revolters had rooted up and laid waste every thing, burning every building and desolating every plantation.

The prisoners were sent in under an escort of rangers, who seeing everything consumed and rendered useless, commenced their march again in search of the hostile encampment. They kept the field for several weeks with little or no intermission, until the health of the Europeans employed in the undertaking, obliged them to retreat, without even being able to discover the main hiding place of the adversary. They repelled the gipsey foe into inaccessible districts.