A documentary on slave revolutionary leader Cuffy is Roots and Culture Media's next project
Kaya @TheAbeng: So Clairmont, what new projects you got going on?
Clairmont Mali Chung: The new work is, I'm working on a documentary on Cuffy. As I said before, you cannot understand that history, or it's of less value, if you are not able to put in into the present; not just the information, the story, but the feeling, the ethos of revolution should be taken from the past and be placed into present context. This is my belief. And this is what I tried to do with W.A.R.. Stories, the documentary of Walter Rodney, and this is what I'm trying to do with Cuffy. Because you cannot understand Walter without understanding the history from which Walter came - the personality, the ideas.
The idea of self emancipation didn't begin with Walter Rodney, it started a long, long, long time ago. He contextualized it and made it present; but Cuffy, when he stood up and said, "I'll never be your slave again!" to the governor, the Dutch governor at the time of Berbice, that's what he was talking about- self emancipation.
And so, doing a documentary on Cuffy is an attempt to bring that ethos into the present, but also to introduce Cuffy, not just as a figure in Guyana, as Guyana's national hero, governor of Berbice as he declared himself, but to introduce him as a world figure, someone who understand the way the world was working and he needed to revolt and to lead a revolt. Because often times these figures are just seen in the context of their time, and never, we never extrapolate their feelings and place it amongst the present.
And so it's important for me to show the world that Cuffy was not just an enslaved African fighting for freedom, it was much more than that. Secondly, when Europeans write about enslaved men that revolt, they often contextualize it as though it were some kind of revolt or complaint about the series and the kinds of punishment that were being meted out to them. For example, in the trials that followed the Berbice revolt, many of the enslaved who testified, testified to the violence of the punishment that they received and European writers wrote about this violence as though it was something the Africans were revolting against; when in fact, it wasn't the violence, but the system that they were against. And so when, it makes sense that when Cuffy says, "I will not be your slave!" he was not talking about treatment he was receiving, it wasn't as though he was saying, "OK. I'll be your slave, just don't beat me as much." It was a much larger view, a world view.
And when you see the documentary, I hope that is the sense I am able to convey, that this was a world figure, operating in a context thirty years before Toussaint L'Ouverture, before the French Revolution and before the American Revolution - those are important points.
Kaya +The Abeng World-wide: 1763. I would always refer the whole thing as more than a revolt...more classify it as a revolution...that it wasn't something so much reactionary, it was something revolutionary.
CMC: Well, without a doubt, in my mind and in my view, after reading his letters that he dictated and reading the journals of the sailors who visited both with captive cargo and as part of the hierarchy, it is clear to me that Cuffy and his lieutenants were much larger figures and much more informed.
"...it was a revolution because the government, the local government, the Dutch representatives, were forced to flee their seat of government. Whenever that happens anywhere in the world that's called a revolution. Why wouldn't it be a revolution simply because it was Africans who had been captive?" ~ Clairmont Mali Chung
It was a revolution because...it was a revolution because the government, the local government, the Dutch representatives, were forced to flee their seat of government. Whenever that happens anywhere in the world that's called a revolution. Why wouldn't it be a revolution simply because it was Africans who had been captive? See if the government, if you're forced to flee the seat of government, you're no longer in control.You see. If you were to remain in control and were able to quell the revolt then you can call it a rebellion. But this was not just a rebellion, this was for control of the government of Berbice because Berbice was a separate colony. It was not attached then to Demerara or Essequibo which now makes up the Guyana border. Berbice was a separate Dutch colony, separate administration. So when they fled the seat of government, politically and otherwise, this was a revolution. The fact that they were able to come back and recapture it years later, a year later, does not change what happened. I often compare it to a heavyweight boxing match: you can beat me next week but if I beat you today, and you're the champion and I beat you, I am the champion. You may come back two days later or a week later and regain your crown. But for the time that I was, remained unbeaten, I was the champion and so I am the government, I am the King, I am the Governor of Berbice.
And this is what Cuffy said, that he is the Governor. And so yeah, you couldn't be the governor of Berbice unless you were successful in a revolt, in a revolution.
Kaya Omodele interviews Clairmont Chung from rootsculturemedia on Vimeo.
Kaya Omodele interviews Clairmont Chung from rootsculturemedia on Vimeo.
Kaya @TheAbeng: You know what's very interesting to me? It's that the leaders of this revoltion, of this rebellion, of this revolt, they all had Akan names. And when we look into Caribbean history, especially in the British West Indies, a lot of the slave rebellion leaders had these Akan names, these Bobo Shanty names, Ashanti names. I think that's a common denominator in a lot of the big slave rebellions in Jamaica, whether it be with Cudjo or Accompong and them, in the Virgin Islands with General Buddoe, and a lot of them had these Akan names, a lot of them came from this type of tradition of , I don't know if it the tradition of nation, of Ashanti, or ... that contributed anything to their being some of the most rebellious slaves in those islands.
What do you think?
Clairmont Mali Chung: I would hesitate to ascribe any particular position, political, or assign any rebelliousness to any particular group. I don't because I don't see that, I don't have the evidence. But what I would say is that, yes, there may have been a predominance of people from the, what was then the Gold Coast but the reality is that the Dutch controlled the entire coast of West Africa at that point and they brought people from all over. The fact that they left from El Mina, or left from one or the other castle, does not mean that they were from there because they would gather them from all over, including as far as Central Africa and even parts of East Africa, and walk them across the continent to West Africa where they were boarded and then transported to the Americas.
So, its hard to say which, or who was responsible for any level of rebelliousness. Part of the reason for doing that, of course, was to, was that through the diversity there would be no unity. But the level of revolts, both on the African coast, on the way to the African coast, on the African coast, in the ships, in the trip across, once they were arrived and were force to work on the plantation, the level of revolts, the number of revolts, does not support that this was one group or the other. It seems that that was the general trend, that we were going to emancipate ourselves.
The second thing is that the many of the writers use the disunity as a means to explain the failure of so many of those revolts and I think that is also an unsupported claim. It doesn't mean that there was no disunity among, whether you were Akan, or Twi, or Ashanti or wherever, whatever nation you were from...
"It is believed that Cuffy was brought to Berbice as a child." [Video Clip, 11:40]...you may not have known or learned all of those customs you would have learned if you were an adult living in Africa; and, maybe precisely because of that, he had the ability to bring the different groups together because he wasn't necessarily seen as one particular group, even though he carried the name, he had been away from Africa a long time - by the time he got to lead the revolt.
And then the second thing is that there was disunity, yes, but there was disunity among the Dutch. The Dutch were trying to escape out of Berbice. They wanted nothing to do with revolting Africans. Even the military people, some of them were feigning illness so they could be shipped back to the Netherlands and not have to face what was imminent, and what they knew was coming. So, to claim disunity as the reason, I'm not saying that you are doing it, I'm just talking generally in my readings about ah, is to me not accurate. And moreover, this was something I had not seen until my recent visit two weeks ago, was that this was a naval battle primarily and that was something that I never understood. This is something you have to be in the place, I think, to really get a sense of what actually happened. The Dutch was the largest and most powerful navy at that time; so Cuffy and his lieutenants and the revolutionaries were able to put this large, naval force on the run, but they of themselves had no boats - they had no ships. So, it was almost inevitable in a way, without outside help, I mean Haiti had not happened yet, we didn't have assistance from people from Demerara, or from Essequibo, or from Suriname, there was some assistance as you will see in the film but you did not have that kind of assistance you would need to defeat a naval power, a global naval power. And once they controlled the rivers, both the Canje River and the Berbice River, then they made Berbice a kind of an island that was surrounded and it would be difficult, with the help of cannons and ships that had come in to reinforce, they dominated the water. And you had to use the water as a military weapon, as a military defense, both for them to get to you and, and so the Africans could not get to the ships without serious casualties, while at the same time, they could fire their cannon from the rivers with impunity. And I think that that was really the deciding factor in final analysis and not disunity.
Kaya: So, do we have a time frame of when you think we can get to look at this film?
CMC: Yeah, I'm shooting for early next year.  But, you know, every time I go to the region, the Berbice River, Fort Nassau, there's something new, there's something new that I see and something new I have to deal with. Like for example, the idea of it being a naval battle, I have to consider that and I have to develop footage and interviews and so on that will give more credence to that understanding. And so that might take another few trips which will take me into next year, and maybe it'll be the middle of next year before I am done, and aaahh, there is drone footage, for example, that we had not had five years ago when I started thinking and developing the project, that we can do now that gives a sense of the layout of the land and why it was so important to have ships in order to deal with the threat of Dutch recapture.
Kaya: To me Cuffy is on of the more, I wrote a poem in my book, and I mention in a poem called Meditation of The Drum, I mentioned Cuffy in the poem. And, to me the spirit of Cuffy is what me as a youth, all the rebellious that I had, because you know as a youth growing up, when we coming into our own you have this sense of rebelliousness that I always read up on history and I always knew something about slave rebellions. I always kind of identified with that kind of rebelliousness with Cuffy. Cuffy is a very important theme in my life just in terms of as having that as a slave rebellion leader. I have always looked up the slave rebellion leaders that I have always, that I heard about because, you know, putting myself in that kind of...I have a great imagination and when I put myself in those type of, think of myself in that kind of light, I would like to think that I would have tried to do something. That doesn't mean that I would have, it just means that as a child growing up I kind of identified with those rebellion leaders that I heard about, that I read about... that we take time and read about. You know what I mean? So, I'm anxiously anticipating the release of this film, please let us know at The Abeng when it's coming out so we can have another, can do a preview of the film, OK?
CMC: Certainly. Certainly.
Kaya: So is there anything in conclusion that you'd like to say?
CMC: Ah, no, just to urge your readers and the people who follow your blog and the other media that you produce, to stay tuned; if I come and ask for any support, to make it available. This is a collective effort. There are people working assiduously here and there and the river. It is not just a film, it is an entire community. Its really to make the river sustainable, not just making the film, but teaching the history because the history is not known, even among the people who live there today. They're unaware of who Cuffy was; but not only are they unaware, they're isolated from the rest of the society, striving for sustainable ways of surviving themselves. So, I'd like to bring people in to the Berbice River as part of this film production to assist in new ways, in finding new ways, for those people, the descendants of Cuffy, the descendants of those people, to regain and reclaim some of their lost history and stories.
Kaya: Well Clairmont, thanks for your time and great interview. Looking forward to the story of the leader of the 1763 Revolution, the Revolution of 1763. I don't know what the name of the film will be, but we will be looking forward, anxiously waiting and looking forward to its release. Thanks for your time.
CMC: Thanks again.