Monday, August 16, 2010
National Hero Bussa
In history, he is recorded as Bussa, or Busso or Bussoe. But whatever his original and true name, there is no doubt that he is the most fascinating freedom fighter in the annals of Barbados.
Like thousands of his countrymen, he was born a free man in Africa, but was captured and brought to Barbados in the late 18th Century as a slave.
From that lowly status, he emerged to be celebrated in the folk memory of Barbadians as the man who struck a resounding blow for freedom by leading Barbados' longest slave revolt in April 1816 against racist and oppressive white Barbadian planters. That rebellion has been known to generations of Barbadians as Bussa's Rebellion, a testimony to the perceived transcendent importance of Bussa himself as the major militant leader of the rebel slaves in the actual fighting, and as one of the major planners and organisers of the slave revolt.
Despite the enormous significance of the role he played, mystery surrounds Bussa. There is no reference to him in the records of Barbados' plantations and, until 1816, we did not know he existed. Then suddenly there is the 1816 Rebellion and Bussa becomes real and a threat to white powers in the island.
That Rebellion, which began on Sunday, April 14, 1816, was the first slave uprising in this island for 124 years; the previous taking place in 1692. In the words of historian, Professor Hilary Beckles, it represented an attempt by the slaves to assert some influence on the general abolitionist politics of the time. What distinguished this rebellion from many of the others was that it was not a spontaneous exercise, but rather a calculated blow for freedom, planned, organised and executed by elite slaves on several Barbadian estates.
The facts show that this event was not just a brief historical spasm. Evidence gathered from the captured slaves revealed that the uprising was an attempt at total reconstruction of society in the image of the Blacks. It was an island-wide conspiracy to obtain their freedom by overthrowing the planter class. Another critical factor was that the rebellion, although prematurely started, was sudden and unexpected. Whites generally believed their slaves, not having attempted any insurrections since the late 1600s, would run away rather than undertake armed revolt.
It was the extremely careful planning of Bussa and his confederates, including Washington Franklin, that created this element of surprise. The planning was undertaken at a number of sugar estates, including Bayley's at which Bussa was head ranger. It is now accepted by most historians that Bussa was the principal conspirator and that other revolutionaries included Nanny Grigg, a senior domestic slave on Simmons' estate, and other black officers such as tradesmen, artisans and drivers planned the uprising.
Preparation for the rebellion began soon after the House of Assembly discussed and rejected the Imperial Registry Bill in November 1815. By February 1816, the decision had been taken that the revolt should take place in April, at Easter. That much seems definite and it is further established that Bussa was given the position of leader and commander in the field.
But who, really, was Bussa? The evidence confirms that he was born in Africa. Historians further claim that he was not a young man since the Slave Trade was abolished in 1807, and in general, it took at least ten years for Africans to acquire the language and managerial skills, in addition to their masters' confidence, in order to become a member of the elite slave personnel on estates. Bussa, therefore, apparently enjoyed such confidence and respect.
He led the slaves into battle at Bayley's on Tuesday, April 16. He commanded some 400 freedom fighters against troops of the First West India Regiment and, like José Marti in Cuba, was killed in battle. His troops continued the fight until they were defeated by superior fire power. It is to their credit and because of Bussa's supreme example, even to the point of self-sacrifice, that the Barbadian slaves continued their resistance. It is reported that many went into battle shouting the name of Bussa.
The rebellion failed, but the name of Bussa lived on. In 1985, a full 169 years after that rebellion, when the Emancipation Statue was unveiled, many Barbadians identified it with Bussa in honour of the famous warrior who led the fight in the remarkable 1816 revolt. In the folk memory and consciousness of Barbadians, Bussa still lives.