1816 CE, Barbados
In 1816, Bussa, an African born, slave who was between thirty and forty years old worked as a chief ranger at the Bayleys sugar plantation in St. Philip in Barbados. He was probably a member of the Bussa nation which had spread over West Africa as traders and conquerors in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. All that glorious past did not matter much for he was now a slave, brought from Africa in one of those ships, surviving a deadly trans-Atlantic voyage. His ownership had recently changed hands to a man known as a disciplinarian and life was not looking good.
What distinguished Bussa from the thousands of slaves in Barbados was this: Bussa was planning an uprising for almost a year along with few others. His partners too were elite slaves — slaves who had specialized skills — and one of them was a woman. Due to their status, they could travel freely without attracting attention. With the aim of overthrowing the white planter class,first they started a propaganda claiming that slavery had been abolished in England and the planters were refusing to implement it. The next step in their plan was to set fire to the canes during Easter celebrations, when the planters would be busy. Once the rebellion was successful, a free man of color would be appointed as the governor.
On April 14, 1816, around 8:30 pm, the plantations went up in flames as planned. The canes burned and cane ash fell all around; the smell of burned sugar spread all around. This was a critical time for the slaves. Some of them did not know if they should join the rebellion because most rebellions, except the one on Haiti, had been unsuccessful. If the rebellion failed and they were caught, the repercussion would be deadly for them and their family.
Within few hours of the fires, the militia and the British forces swung into action. Plantation owners, worried about the safety of their families, met and planned the next steps. They did not have to wait long; by midnight the first encounter happened. Slaves carrying machetes, cudgels and axes came face to face against a well armed militia. The fight was uneven; some slaves ran away, while the others were shot dead. There were people like Samuel Jackson’s character in Django Unchained, who showed great courage in jumping in harms way to save their white masters.
Following this, everything went downhill for the slaves. The militia was joined by the black troops of the West India regiment and what happened next was surprise for those who thought that black troops would not fight black slaves. The army had given special privileges to the troops and they did not identify themselves with the slaves and in the battle that followed many slaves were captured and killed. Within four days the rebellion was quelled; Bussa and the other leaders were killed in various battles.
The white plantation owners had many questions: how was the conspiracy hatched? how did Bussa and his friends manage to keep it secret in an island as small as Barbados? Can such incidents happen again? There was one decision though: such incidents should not happen once again and for that draconian disciplinary measures were enforced by the British military. Captive and unlucky slaves were summarily executed. Some were shot, some hanged and inspired by the Spanish Inquisition, some slow roasted over fire. The hanged men were left as is to decompose in the heat. Torture and executions were done publicly to intimidate the survivors and force them into compliance.
1857 CE, India
In places like Barbados and India, numerically few English were able to hold a larger population to slavery or servitude and brutal violence was one of the many tools they used. For a country which claimed to be philosophically strong, ethically superior and had a library worth the whole native literature of India, they were no different from the ancient Romans or the medieval Borgias when it came to violence. All these people realized that fear was a great weapon if used effectively and that behavior was institutionalized. Such British behavior was not surprising because their empire was built on this well-deliberated and cold-blooded policy.
This disciplined tyranny by the British was seen four decades later in India following the war of 1857. Following the success of Operation Red Lotus, the English found that the initial success by Indians was due to the support of the villagers who became the supply chain for the army. It was then decided that such villages had to be ‘cleared’ which meant that the entire village along with their population had to be burned. Since they were law abiding people, the English first passed laws which called for the hanging of people, even non-combatants, whose guilt was doubtful. Once such enormous powers were granted to military officers and NGOs, hanging parties went out to villages and hanged everyone including some young boys who had flaunted rebel colors.
Generals Havelock and Neil marched along the Grand Trunk Road burning and destroying whatever they could find. An Indian traveller from that period wrote that Neil let loose his men in Allahabad killing old men, women and children. For the others, a mock trial was conducted and hanged by twos and threes from branches and signposts all over the town. Following that he marched to Varanasi where the same was repeated. One gentleman in a burst of creativity arranged the hanged corpses in the figure of eight. The Governor-general reported back home that, “the aged, women and children were sacrificed.”
Due to this systematic massacre, the English were able to create a dead zone from Kanpur, all the way to Calcutta, thus breaking the supply chain. These were now areas under the English control and thus it became quite hard for Indian troops to march through this area. With this Havelock and Neil broke the back of Indian army and they are glorified for their actions. Even now there are two islands in the Andamans named after Neil and Havelock which speaks volumes about our historical literacy.
- Stuart, Andrea. Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire . Knopf, 2013.
- Tope, Parag. Tatya Tope’s Operation Red Lotus. Rupa & Co., 2010.