Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast

Blood on the River: A Chronicle of Mutiny and Freedom on the Wild Coast

by Marjoleine Kars


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Named One of the Best Books of the Year by NPR

A breathtakingly original work of history that uncovers a massive enslaved persons' revolt that almost changed the face of the Americas

On Sunday, February 27, 1763, thousands of slaves in the Dutch colony of Berbice—in present-day Guyana—launched a massive rebellion which came amazingly close to succeeding. Surrounded by jungle and savannah, the revolutionaries (many of them African-born) and Europeans struck and parried for an entire year. In the end, the Dutch prevailed because of one unique advantage—their ability to get soldiers and supplies from neighboring colonies and from Europe. Blood on the River is the explosive story of this little-known revolution, one that almost changed the face of the Americas.

Drawing on nine hundred interrogation transcripts collected by the Dutch when the Berbice rebellion finally collapsed, and which were subsequently buried in Dutch archives, historian Marjoleine Kars reconstructs an extraordinarily rich day-by-day account of this pivotal event. Blood on the River provides a rare in-depth look at the political vision of enslaved people at the dawn of the Age of Revolution and introduces us to a set of real characters, vividly drawn against the exotic tableau of a riverine world of plantations, rainforest, and Carib allies who controlled a vast South American hinterland.

An astonishing original work of history, Blood on the River will change our understanding of revolutions, slavery, and of the story of freedom in the New World.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly


Kars (Breaking Loose Together), a University of Maryland, Baltimore County historian, delivers a vivid and accessible chronicle of the 1763–1764 slave rebellion in the Dutch colony of Berbice (present-day Guyana). The size (nearly all of the colony’s 5,000 enslaved people participated, according to Kars) and duration of the uprising (10 months) made it unique for the era, as did the meticulously documented investigation that unfolded after it was put down by colonial authorities. Hundreds of interrogation transcripts, as well as letters from the rebels to Dutch officials, Kars writes, offer “a first-hand view of slavery... in intimate, granular detail,” and document how the rebels became both the perpetrators and the victims of horrific acts of violence. Kars recreates daily life on coffee, cacao, and sugar plantations in the remote colony, where slaves “hugely outnumbered” whites and those who tried to escape into the surrounding jungle were brutally punished; notes the impact of frequent dysentery outbreaks on both the enslaved and European communities; and explains differences of opinion among rebel leaders on what freedom would look like. With careful research and a globalist perspective, Kars convincingly argues that the Berbice uprising portended aspects of the American, French, and Haitian revolutions. This striking study unearths a meaningful chapter in the history of slavery. (Aug.)

From the Publisher

Praise for Blood on the River:
"A gripping tale about the human need for freedom. . . . The story of the Berbice Rebellion begs to be told, and Kars' telling is impressive."
Martha Anne Toll, NPR Books

"A richly detailed account of a gripping human story."
H. W. Brands, The Washington Post

"[An] epic history. . . . A sweeping, thoughtful narrative, joining a new wave of books that make visible previously dismissed Black voices."
Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times

"[An] epic history. . . . A sweeping, thoughtful narrative, joining a new wave of books that make visible previously dismissed Black voices."
—Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times"A riveting addition to the history of the search for freedom in the Americas."
Kirkus Reviews

"This striking study unearths a meaningful chapter in the history of slavery."
Publishers Weekly

"Meticulously researched and careful to prioritize the perspectives of the marginalized, Blood on the River offers a fascinating glimpse of the complex history of slavery in the Americas."

"A must-read for anyone interested in slave revolts and the history of Atlantic slavery."
Library Journal

"[A] masterpiece . . . Marjoleine Kars has unearthed a little-known rebellion in the Dutch colony of Berbice and rendered its story with insight, empathy, and wisdom. You'll find no easy platitudes herein. Instead, you'll find human beings in full relief, acting with courage, kindness, calculation, and mendacity in their quest for self-determination. Blood on the River is a story for the ages."
Elizabeth Fenn, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People

"Takes readers on a moving journey deep into a colonial heart of darkness. Drawing on rich and challenging sources, Marjoleine Kars reveals enslaved people making a rebellion that lingers in memory and landscape."
Alan Taylor, Pulitzer Prize–winning author ofThe Internal Enemy and William Cooper's Town

"This riveting story offers a close look at the inner dynamics of a slave war—its fraught alliances and antagonisms, strategies and tactics, and the grievances and aspirations of its combatants and resistors."
Vincent Brown, author of Tacky's Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War

"One of the great slave revolts in modern history has at last found a gifted historian to tell its epic tale. Using a breathtaking archival discovery to make the Berbice rebels vivid flesh-and-blood actors, Marjoleine Kars deeply enriches the global scholarship on the history of slavery and resistance."
Marcus Rediker, author of The Amistad Rebellion: An Atlantic Odyssey of Slavery and Freedom

"Vivid. . . . The aborted attempt at freedom she chronicles provides a harrowing counterpoint to the American and French revolutions that would soon follow."
Russell Shorto, author of The Island at the Center of the World

"Marjoleine Kars has brought from the archives the voices of the enslaved, both in hope and in defeat. A tale of importance for our time."
Natalie Zemon Davis, author of Trickster Travels and The Return of Martin Guerre

Library Journal


In 1763, enslaved Africans staged a wide-scale rebellion on the Berbice River in what is now Guyana, then known as the Wild Coast. Kars (Breaking Loose Together) has uncovered a detailed account of this little-known revolt by utilizing extensive Dutch records of the subsequent 900 interrogations and trials. The coffee and sugar plantations that lined the river were owned by Dutch planters of the Colony of Berbice, many of them absentee. After a brief revolt in 1762, enslaved people planned an uprising that spread throughout many plantations that lined the upper part of the river. For more than a year, rebels took over plantations and attempted to re-create a functioning slave plantation economy, taking advantage of the weakened Dutch colony and military forces who waited months for reinforcements. When they finally arrived, the rebels were eventually forced out into the hinterlands to live as maroons while starving and trying to elude the Native Americans hired to capture them. Eventually, hundreds of rebel slaves were rounded up and many were executed after their trials. VERDICT A must-read for anyone interested in slave revolts and the history of Atlantic slavery.—Kate Stewart, Arizona Historical Soc., Tuscon

Kirkus Reviews

A microhistory of scholarly significance, this action-packed book enlarges understanding of the New World’s history in the era of international conflict on the eve of transformative Western revolutions.

Every historian hopes to stumble on records that alter understanding of the past. Through industry and luck, Kars, a historian of slavery, has done just that. Her discovery of never-used Dutch archives informs this tale of a previously unknown slave uprising on South America’s northern coast. Written in lively, detailed prose, the narrative offers fresh looks at slavery in the New World and, equally important, slaves’ efforts to free themselves from bondage. The “collective armed rebellion” along the Berbice River in today’s Guyana, then a Dutch colony, started in 1763. Although it eventually failed, the violent insurrection drew in native tribes, Spanish and Dutch forces from Europe, and colonists from neighboring settlements. The incident is historically significant because the slaves who took independence into their own hands controlled an entire colony for over a year—something unprecedented until Haitian slaves began freeing themselves in 1791 in a successful 13-year struggle. The novelty of this book is the author’s presentation of the rebellion’s records: an incredible 900 slave testimonies previously unknown and unused until Kars unearthed them. They contain the words and voices of the mutinous slaves, voices rarely captured with such fidelity and in such numbers in the archives of other insurrections. It’s these voices, and Kars’ skill in bringing them to life, that keeps the text from being a dry academic study. So, too, does the story’s classic tragic arc: dashes for freedom, alliances between slaves and Indigenous tribes, in-fighting and betrayals, heroic leaders, barbarities on all sides, and deflating defeat. Though the rebellion failed, the Berbice colony never recovered from the costs of defeating the uprising. It was a harbinger of things to come.

A riveting addition to the history of the search for freedom in the Americas.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781620974599
Publisher: New Press, The
Publication date: 08/11/2020
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 219,830
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.20(d)

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