In 1815, the British government was working to pass a bill called the Imperial Registry Bill. The purpose of the bill was to improve the registry of colonial slaves, but for some reason, there was a rumour between the slaves of Barbados that it meant their emancipation. In late 1815, the bill was rejected by the British Parliament, which enraged Barbados’ slave population.
Bussa was an enslaved man born in Africa, most likely Nigeria, and was captured and sold to a plantation in Barbados. He lived on Bayley’s plantation in the eastern part of the St. Philip Parish in southern Barbados. He was a ranger, meaning a leader among the local slaves, and was sent to perform business with other plantations by his owner, making him well known around the black community. Bussa was infuriated with the slavery on Barbados and desired to start a rebellion.
Bussa began to gather followers and praise among the local slave population, and recruited people, mostly strong young men, from different plantations to act as warriors when the time for rebellion came. In April of 1816, governor James Leith was on a trip, and Bussa saw it as a perfect time to strike.
On April 14th, 1816, the rebellion on Bayley’s plantation began. Slaves from surrounding plantations joined, and then plantations all over Barbados began rebelling. Soon, upwards of 1000 slaves were wreaking havoc, destroying tools, crops, and property. Many plantation owners fled – one who decided to stick around was killed, and the slaves continued fighting for their freedom.
Colonel Edward Codd swiftly mobilized troops near Bridgetown, the capital of Barbados. He had 200 men of the 15th Foot, 200 men of the 60th Rifles, and 150 men of the West Indies Regiment (also known as the Bourbon Blacks), as well as 250 men of the Bridgetown militia and 3 cannons. Martial law was declared on the 15th, and any slaves found outside their plantations were liable to be shot. The rebels were numerous, their numbers in the thousands, but were ill equipped and disorganized. Further, they were unlike the Jamaican Maroons in that they had no cover on the flat island of Barbados except sugarcane reeds, and were thus easy targets. On top of that, the free black men and black soldiers Bussa had hoped would help him did not come around.
Many of the revolting slaves were spread out far across the island, but Bussa had with him a force of 400 armed slaves around the Bayley’s area. They were armed with farm tools and makeshift swords. Early on the 16th, Codd’s force arrived at Bayley’s plantation. Bussa’s force attacked the West Indies Regiment, the main battle of the rebellion. The rebels charged, but were obliterated, only able to kill one soldier. 50 rebels died in the battle, including Bussa. They then went into retreat in the fields, chased by the West Indies Regiment and the Bridgetown militia. Some of the rebels regrouped, but were found by the 15th Regiment and dispersed. A further 70 rebels who surrendered were immediately killed. Another 300 who were rumoured to be involved were taken to Bridgetown. There, 144 were publicly executed, 132 were relocated to another island, and 24 were acquitted. In total, 1 soldier and 1 civilian were killed on the British side, and about 270 slaves were killed. In the ensuing days, the rest of the localized rebellions were stamped out, and more slaves were executed. 17 years later, slavery was abolished in the British Empire.