In the spring of 1816, the massive task of cutting sugar cane was getting underway. Each morning at dawn at plantations across the island, slave gangs could be seen marching barefoot and bare-backed into the fields. For these field slaves the harvest was the toughest season, a season of toil from sunrise to twilight, bare ankles and calves stung by cowitch, knotted muscles slashed by cane leaves that cut like straight razors, backs split open by the whip. In the mill yards, under the turning shadows of the millwalls’ sails, boilers, coopers, carpenters and distillers were converting cut cane into sugar, molasses and rum.
On the River Plantation in the parish of St. Philip, a young assistant cooper named Daniel was hard at work lapping slats for molasses barrels. Among the slaves Daniel was lucky. Although he’d been an assistant cooper for several years, this year his skills were valuable enough to keep him out of the field gangs. As a fully-fledged tradesman he ate better and wasn’t subjected to the extreme physical hardships of fieldwork.
Like nearly all slaves in Barbados at the time, Daniel was Creole, born on the island. He had never known a life outside of slavery, but that is not to say that he saw himself through the eyes of the white planters. His life had value far beyond the sum marked down in the manager’s ledger, and Daniel knew it. He loved and was loved by his family; his extensive network of friends stretched all across the southeast of Barbados; and most importantly, his wife Miah was expecting their first child. Now that he was a tradesman he hoped to secure a better life on the plantation for her too.
For most of Daniel’s life there had been rumors circulating that slavery would soon end. The powerful English abolitionist, Mr. Wilberforce, had already ended the slave trade. Daniel subscribed to the view, commonly held among slaves, that given time Mr. Wilberforce would deliver their freedom. Until then Daniel would have to be patient.
One hot evening in March, in the so-called Negro yard after the day’s labour was done, the slaves were resting outside their wattle-and-daub houses, some smoking tobacco, some dozing, some cooking on outdoor hearths or eating out of calabash dishes. Into the yard came a free colored man named Cain Davis. In a voice that hissed like cannon fuse, he told everyone what he’d read in the paper: that Parliament in England had voted to free the slaves but the white planters refused to comply. Freedom was rightfully theirs, Davis whispered furiously, but the only way to get it was to fight for it, like the slaves in St. Domingo. Outrage spread through the yard like wild fire. Some stood and shook their fists or voiced their fresh anger in low tones, careful not to attract the attention of the overseer.
Miah, her hands on her swollen belly, looked expectantly at Daniel. Davis’ words both excited and terrified him. The prospect of freedom sent a joyous thrill through his body. But to rebel would put in jeopardy his wife and kin and the few advantages his position afforded him. His dilemma allowed him no sleep that night. Just before dawn, the drivers’ voices rang out in the yard calling gangs to the field-including Miah, who was forced to work despite her pregnancy. The shattered silence galvanized his decision. If called upon, Daniel would fight.
On April 12th there was a Good Friday dance at the River Plantation. From all over St. Philip slaves came to join in the revelry. As the sun went down, friends gathered to catch up on news; rum eased aching limbs, dancing erased awareness of tomorrow’s labour. Amidst the revelry Daniel saw several of the slave ‘officers’ from other plantations standing apart from the crowd, huddled together conspiratorially. There was Jackey, the driver from Simmons, Johnny Cooper from Bayleys, and Charles, the driver from Sandifords. Along with them was the African-born ranger from Bayleys, a man of noble bearing who had known freedom in his lifetime. It was Bussa. Each time Daniel looked in their direction he felt a powerful rush of excitement and trepidation. Instinctively he knew that the rebellion was at hand.
Miah went into labour on Easter Sunday. Sulky Margaret, the midwife, was called to attend to her while Daniel paced nervously in the yard. The baby still had not arrived when, that evening about half past eight, Daniel saw an orange glow in the sky above Bayleys Plantation. So anxious was he over the imminent birth of their child that it was some moments before it struck him that this was the signal fire; Bussa and the others had lit the piles of cane trash. The rebellion had begun.
A cry went up in the mill yard and the slaves leapt into action. Some lit the thrash piles. Others chopped through the boiler house door with hatchets in order to get at the bills, pitchforks and axes inside. Daniel dashed through the turmoil to the house where Miah lay. But in the throes of difficult labour she did not see him. As Sulky Margaret ran him out of the house, he proclaimed his affection through the open door and went back to help the others.
By this time they had broken into the corn house and the year’s bumper harvest was in flames. Daniel snatched up a torch and, ecstatic with freedom, rushed towards the fields of fully-grown sugarcane.
From a passing ship that night, an observer might have believed the placid coral island had transformed itself into a volcano, so mighty were the fires that blazed. And listening carefully, across the water he might have heard the chorus of defiant cries and wondered at the cause of such euphoric celebration.
At dawn on Monday, Daniel and four hundred others gathered at Bayleys. Greasy smoke rose from the smoldering outbuildings. The picked-over remains of the greathouse furnishings spilled across the veranda and into the mill yard. The men stood in ragged bunches, their exhausted, soot-covered limbs hanging loosely at their sides. But in their tired faces, eyes were bright and full of hope. Bussa, his tremendous energy undiminished, strode around the yard offering encouragement in his curious West African accent. Rest now, he suggested. For he knew that soon the militia would arrive.
They came at first light on Tuesday morning. Daniel’s heart raced at the sound of approaching drums as the rebels formed loose lines in the yard. Some had muskets but most carried swords or sharp tools and they fingered their weapons nervously. Adrenaline thrummed in Daniel’s veins as he shifted from foot to foot and peered anxiously into the dissipating gloom. He could not keep Miah from intruding on his thoughts and he wondered if their child was a boy or girl. Thoughts of Miah and their baby did not demoralize him; they strengthened his resolve.
Suddenly there they were: maybe one hundred and fifty militiamen in red uniforms. Among the rebels there was a palpable moment of hesitation, and then their hearts leapt; they were Black! A jubilant shout erupted from the men as they saw the free Black soldiers of the First West India Regiment. But the well-disciplined soldiers did not hesitate. At their officer’s command, they formed up and made ready to fire. Jubilation evaporated into a haze of confusion and anger and those rebels with muskets opened fire, bringing down three militiamen. Unflustered, the militia returned fire and decimated the rebel front line. In the chaotic volley that followed Daniel’s vision was obscured by smoke, his nostrils filled with the acrid bite of gunpowder and the mellower, saltier smell of blood.
Though driven by a fervent desire for freedom, the rebels were untrained and poorly armed. Under devastating fire, they broke and ran. Behind them in the yard, forty men lay dead, including Bussa. Seventy others were captured.
Daniel ran not north with the others, but south towards Miah. His lungs burned like the cane fields but still he ran, for he had come near to death and wanted to see his child, even once, before confronting death again. On the road a hundred yards from his goal, he was captured.
In a Bridgetown jail awaiting court martial, the news confirmed his fears: across the island, the rebellion had been quashed. What’s more, he learned that Parliament had never voted to free the slaves as Cain Davis had said. They had only debated on whether to register their names in order to stop illegal importation of Africans. The words that had stirred them to action had been untrue. A slovenly guard harangued Daniel with this fact through the cell bars, but Daniel did not respond. In his heart he did not regret joining the rebellion. When he reflected on the past and his complacency in his life of slavery, he saw a man sleeping. Now that man had awakened.
Do the Freedom Footprint Tour
Explore the history of Barbados and visit the islands historical places on this 5.5-hour tour from Bridgetown. Walk to freedom of the country’s ancestors with footprints that Barbadians continue to follow today.
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Originally on Barbados.org