In “Blood on the River,” UMBC’s Marjoleine Kars examines enslaved people’s accounts of a nearly successful rebellion 250 years ago

Published: Nov 3, 2020

UMBC’s Marjoleine Kars has published a new book examining accounts of a nearly successful rebellion of enslaved people just over 250 years ago. Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast (The New Press, 2020) chronicles a rebellion by enslaved people in the Dutch colony of Berbice, 1763 – 1764. This uprising took place thirty years before Toussaint L’Ouverture led a successful rebellion by enslaved people in Haiti against French colonizers. 

“It is important that people know that there is a long history of African people, people of African descent, and in the African diaspora, fighting against oppression and putting their lives on the line like they are today,” says Kars, associate professor of history. “There is also a long tradition of people having different ideas about how to fight oppression and what life should look like at the other side.”

Unexpected archival find

A woman with short grey hair wearing red rimmed glasses and a plum colored turtle neck smiles at the camera.
Marjoleine Kars. Photo by Tim Ford.

Kars traveled to the National Archives of the Netherlands in the Hague many times to study primary documents about the uprising that had not been researched before. The archives house colonial documents about the rebellion, including the journals of the governor, military reports, and correspondence between officials in Berbice and the government in the Netherlands. She also came across a rare find in colonial research that became the basis for her book: first-hand accounts by enslaved people. 

The archive stores 500 pages of personal accounts from judicial investigations of people who were enslaved when the rebellion was suppressed. While these first-hand accounts are unique and essential to the book, Kars acknowledges their limitations. 

The fifteen-month rebellion

“These accounts are problematic records because they were obtained under duress, translated from Creole to Dutch, summarized by the clerk, and done in third person,” shares Kars. “However, they still provide a unique and important perspective that breaks from the racist accounts of the colonial government.”

Kars uses these documents to weave an untold story about the uprising led by Coffij against the colonial government of Berbice. Like many enslaved people in the European colonies, Coffij was captured in his home of West Africa as a child and enslaved to work in the sugar plantations of the Dutch colony. 

A decade before the rebellion, Berbice suffered from drought, crop failure, and the Seven Years War, which slowed the shipment of food. Enslaved people fought to stave off starvation and to survive raging epidemics, while also experiencing torture at the hands of Dutch slaveholders. As deaths rose, surviving enslaved people were at even greater risk of death through overwork.

Coffij led 4,500 enslaved African and people of African descent and 350 enslaved indigenous people in rebelling against 350 Europeans spread over five plantations. While he was leading a fight for independence from the Dutch, he was not fighting to create a democracy. Rather, Coffij sought to found a similar authoritarian government led by him and dependent on the plantation system. The rebellion lasted fifteen months. 

Ideas of freedom

Book cover. A digital image of a red blotch is centered on a page with an illustration of a map with different names in the background. The words
Cover of Blood on the River.

Kars also examines the motivations and experiences of the many people she describes as remaining neutral in the conflict. “Rebellions are suicidal. And neither side was offering a life free from slavery,” she explains. In this way, enslaved people who wanted to be independent subsistence farmers, and be free on their own terms, faced painful choices in the rebellion. 

Blood on the River is a story about the complex political internal dynamics of a rebellion and this anticolonial fight between former slaves and former masters,” Kars shares. It’s also about “the many ideas of what freedom means.”

Award-winning scholarship

Kars’s first writing on this research topic was an article focusing on the women of the rebellion. It was published in the American Historical Review in 2016. “Dodging Rebellion: Politics and Gender in the Berbice Slave Uprising of 1763” earned four prizes in 2017. She received the Vanderwood Prize, which is awarded for a distinguished article on Latin American history. She also earned the Kimberly S. Hanger Article Prize for the quality and originality of research and writing. 

The Carol Gold Best Article Award seeks to promote women’s history and to support women in the historical profession. Kars received the prize in 2017, which acknowledged her article as the best peer-reviewed journal article of the year. 

The Forum on European Expansion and Global Interaction, affiliated with the American Historical Association, also gave Kars their biennial article prize. This prize recognizes “outstanding and path-breaking scholarship that furthers historical understanding of the circumstances, causes, and consequences of increased global interaction, worldwide exchanges, and cross-cultural connections in the early modern period.”

Funding for research

Research for the book spanned over a decade. During this time Kars received major funding from various organizations. Kars was a Huntington Library Fellow in 2018 – 2019. She was a Fernarnd Braudel Senior Fellow at the European Institute in Florence, Italy between 2016 and 2017. She also received a Franklin Research Grant from the American Philosophical Society, an NEH Fellowship for College Teachers, and a Mellon InterAmericas Fellowship from the John Carter Brown Library over the course of five years. 

UMBC also supported Kars’s research for this book. Kars received a College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences Research Fellowship. She also received a Dresher Center for the Humanities Residential Faculty Fellowship and a Dresher Center for the Humanities Summer Fellowship, and a UMBC summer fellowship. 

To learn more about the book, see the reviews in the Los Angeles Times, NPR, and The Washington Post

Banner image: Marjoleine Kars. Photo by Marlayna Demond ’11.

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