Marjoleine Kars’s “Blood on the River” contains some problematic aspects
As a trained historian and anthropologist, I was inspired to read Marjoleine Kars’s “Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast” last year. This book is written about us, but certainly not for us. Without reviewing it in detail, I would like to highlight some of the problematic aspects of the text.
Repeated references and dubious comparisons to the American Revolution leave the reader constantly questioning who the book might have been written for. Parallels drawn between formerly captive rebels in Berbice and plantation owners rebel against taxes in 13 colonies is not only a stretch but a worrying way to frame a historical institution like slavery. This was not the only troublesome comparison in the book. In another piece in her work, Kars refers to a rebellion by European soldiers stating – ‘captive people were not the only dissatisfied workers in Berbice’, drawing a comparison between late paid and trapped soldiers and slave hunters ’employees’. In Texas, a textbook in 2015 similarly referred to addicted Africans as ‘workers’ and sought to draw comparisons between their state of affairs and the position of interned workers. The struggle to correct the text and recall the geography book rekindled debate about how White America (and Europe) deals with race and slavery – especially the power of language and grammar as tools for the interpretation of history, which is already subjective area to learn. Kars seemed to have lost this argument altogether.
Another troublesome aspect of Kars’ writing is the treatment and place given to various individuals and voices found in the archives. Her focus and treatment on the daughter of a plantation owner who held hostage from the rebels is telling the truth. In a work on slavery and rebellion, in which Kars reduces African women’s motives to punish ‘European women, whose white privilege was based on the degradation of black women, she identifies Georgina as a’ real survivor ‘. While these pieces humanize and reveal a great deal about Georgina and her circumstances, they illuminate almost nothing about the multidimensional addiction of women – except for this brief and superficial reading of their motives and actions.
As well as questionable politics of gender and race, the work in some places lacks historical accuracy. Her assessment of the role of indigenous peoples in supporting colonialism and the vital role they played as key lynchpins in slavery is shallow and at times marginalizes the European notion of the ‘noble gentleman’. Kars’ assertion that indigenous people came to Dutch aid for fear of competing over scarce resources or retaliatory attacks does not stand up to historical scrutiny. In fact, she even contradicts this argument many times in her own work. Kars mentions that the indigenous people who fought the African rebels in Berbice were recruited in Essequibo and beyond – they were essentially songs. Some 350 km traveled from the Upper Mazaruni to fight against self-liberated Africans whom they had not interacted with before. The group of ‘foreign lands’ such as Venezuela and Suriname, would have traveled 700 km to wage war on people whose freedom would not have affected their freedom or diminished their political or resource security. Kars fails to see beyond this romantic logic for the Indigenous – colonial alliance against Africans in Berbice. She admits that indigenous people were instrumental in turning Berbice into a prison for Africa, without ever trying to explore why.
A rather odd part of the work is devoted to cannibalism among the rebels in Africa. Although the historical record shows no evidence other than accusations of ‘slave-holders’ and testimonies of repatriated Africans bending to show how cruel the insurgents were and why they were never involved, Kars investigates the subject with little accuracy. In one piece, Kars recounts that a local Indigenous elder told stories of cannibalism among the rebels, who tasted Indigenous children – an interview, conducted some 243 years after the rebellion. In this, Kars demonstrates a lack of sensitivity or understanding of the broader context and dehumanizing nature of racism / racism in Guyana. Allegations of cannibalism against Africa are a form of structural violence and violence is never idiosyncratic. It has deep meaning for the consumer and the victim even when outsiders do not recognize it. Allegations of cannibalism, such as rape, are often leveled against Africa in Guyana. Most recently, our President accused African protesters in Berbice of raping young women, with no evidence presented, or charges laid or pursued. It seems our past is not immune to such accusations. Although there is no evidence of African cannibalism towards indigenous peoples during the rebellion, there is ample evidence of the opposite that Kars has failed or has chosen not to engage with. In his groundbreaking historical work on the Caribs in the Guianas, Neil Whitehead highlights the ritual cannibalism of war captives as part of Caribbean cultural practice in the region. It also lists several reports of Carib warriors engaging in such practices in putting down the rebellion. Kars does not appear to have cross-referenced her research.
Blood on the River by Marjoleine Kars proves that someone can be an expert on the institution of slavery without being a scholar on addictive peoples; as a result, the work reads more like historical fiction than a historical account of the 1763 uprising.
Addis Ababa, Ethiopia