Demerara rebellion of 1823
Slaves force the retreat of European soldiers led by Lt Brady.
|Date||18 August 1823–20 August 1823|
|Participants||Jack Gladstone, Quamina, 10,000 slaves, plantocracy|
|Outcome||hundreds slaves dead|
The rebellion resulted in the deaths of many slaves; estimates of the toll range from 100 to 250. The rebellion, and especially the death, on death row, of a British parson, had a strong impact on Britain, and on the abolitionists’ movement, to emancipate slaves after enactment of the Slave Trade Act 1807 banned the slave trade. Jack Gladstone, leader of one of the slave revolts, after his deportation helped bring attention to the plight of sugar plantation slaves, accelerating the abolition of slavery. Quamina was declared a national hero, with streets and monuments dedicated to him in the capital of Georgetown, Guyana.
On 20 November 1815, the colony of Demerara-Essequibo was formally ceded to Britain by the Netherlands. The mainstay of its economy was sugar, grown on plantations which were worked by slave labour. The population broke down as follows: 2,500 whites, 2,500 freed blacks, and 77,000 slaves.
The rebellion started from 'Success', where Jack was a cooper, and 'Le Resouvenir', where the slaves' chapel was based. As a slave who did not work under a driver, Jack enjoyed considerable freedom to roam about. Jack was a free spirit, and passionate man who despised limitations on his freedom; he was aware of the debate about slavery in Britain, and was made extremely listless by rumours of emancipation papers arriving from London.
Among the plantation owners, Sir John Gladstone, father of British Prime Minister William, who had built his fortune as a trader, had acquired plantations in Demerara in 1812 through mortgage defaults. This included half share in 'Success', one of the largest and most productive plantations there; he acquired the remaining half four years later. Gladstone switched the crop from coffee to sugar, and expanded his workforce of slaves from 160 to more than 330. The London Missionary Society (LMS) entered Guyana shortly after the end of the slave trade, in response to a request from the owner of 'Le Ressouvenir' Plantation who believed that if slaves were influenced by religious teachings, they would be more docile and obedient. Thus, a chapel was erected on the plantation in 1808. Indeed, following the establishment of the chapel, the owner wrote of improvements:
They were formerly a nuisance to the neighbourhood, on account of their drumming and dancing two or three nights in the week, and were looked on with a jealous eye on account of their dangerous communications; but they have now become the most zealous attendants on public worship, catechising, and private instructions. No drums are heard in this neighbourhood, except where the owners have prohibited the attendance of their slaves [at the church]. Drunkards and fighters have changed into sober and peaceable people,chicken and endeavour to please those who are set over them.—Hermanus H. Post, proprietor of plantation Le Ressouvenir
The first pastor, Reverend John Wray, spent five years there. Soon after he arrived, he had to fight for slaves' rights to attend church services which would take place nightly. When Governor Bentinck declared all meetings after dark illegal, Wray was able to obtain support of some plantation owners and managers. Armed with their testimonials, he sought to confront Bentinck but was refused audience. Wray went to London to appeal directly to the government. In 1813, Wray was sent to nearby Berbice. Some slaves became deacons. John Smith, the parson sent to the colony from England in 1817 by the LMS, was welcomed by the slaves. However, although – as correspondence from the LMS to Smith testified – the clergy was explicitly ordered to say nothing that would cause slaves' disenchantment with their masters or dissatisfaction with their status, many in the colony resented the presence of the preachers, whom they believed were spies to the abolitionist movement in London. They feared that the religious teachings and the liberalised attitudes promoted would eventually cause slaves to rebel. Smith received a hostile reception from the Governor John Murray and from most colonists. They saw his chapel services as a threat to plantation output, and feared greater unrest. Smith reported to the LMS the Governor had told him that "planters will not allow their negroes to be taught to read, on pain of banishment from the colony." However, the clergy believed it essential for them to be able to read the Holy Book for themselves.
Furthermore, religious instruction for slaves was endorsed by British Parliament, thus the plantation owners were obliged to permit slaves to attend despite their opposition. Missionaries' work was made difficult as slaves were stopped from attending services at every turn: Colonists who attended were perceived by Smith to be disruptive or a distraction. Some overseers attended only to prevent their own slaves from attending. One of owners' complaints was that slaves had too far to walk to attend services. When Smith had requested land to erect a chapel from John Reed, owner of Dochfour, the idea was vetoed by Governor Murray, apparently because of complaints he had received about Smith. They even perverted the intention of a British circular which mandated giving slaves passes to attend services – on 16 August 1823, the Governor issued a circular which required slaves to obtain owners' special dispensation to attend church meetings or services.
At about the same time, Smith wrote a letter back to George Burder, the Secretary of the society, lamenting the conditions of the slaves:
Ever since I have been in the colony, the slaves have been most grievously oppressed. A most immoderate quantity of work has, very generally, been exacted of them, not excepting women far advanced in pregnancy. When sick, they have been commonly neglected, ill treated, or half starved. Their punishments have been frequent and severe. Redress they have so seldom been able to obtain, that many of them have long discontinued to seek it, even when they have been notoriously wronged.—Rev. John Smith, letter dated 21 August 1823, quoted in Jakobsson (1972:323)
Da Costa noted that the slaves who rebelled all had motives which were underpinned by their status as chattels: the families of many were caught in the turbulent changes in ownership of plantations and feared being sold and/or split up (Telemachus); Christians frequently complained of being harassed and chastised for their belief or their worshipping (Telemachus, Jacky Reed, Immanuel, Prince, Sandy); female slaves reported being abused or raped by owners or managers (Betsy, Susanna). Slaves were also often punished for frivolous reasons. Many managers/owners (McTurk, Spencer) would insist that slaves work on Sundays, denying passes to attend church; Pollard, manager of 'Non Pareil' and 'Bachelor's Adventure', was notoriously violent.
John Smith, writing in his journal on 30 August 1817, said that the slaves of Success complained about the work load and very severe treatment. Sir John Gladstone, believing that the slaves on his estates were properly treated, wrote a letter to the Missionary Society on 24 December 1824 to clear his name. He wrote that his intentions have ever been to treat my people with kindness in the attention to their wants of every description, and to grant them every reasonable and practicable indulgence." He stated that the work gangs were doubled from 160 after production shifted to sugar from coffee. Gladstone later maintained that
Even on Sugar Estates, the grinding [of the canes] ceases at sunset; and the boilers, the only parties that remain longer, finish cleaning up before nine o'clock... Their general food, in addition to salt fish and occasionally salted provisions, consisted of plantains which they preferred to other food. Plantains were cultivated in the ordinary daily work of each estate, or purchased when deficient, and they were supplied with more than they could consume. The slaves were provided with clothing that was suitable for the climate and their situation... They have the Sabbath and their other holydays to dispose of, for the purpose of religion, if so inclined.
Gladstone, who had never set foot on his plantation, relied on his attorney in Demerara, Frederick Cort, for information. Shortly before the insurrection, Cort asserted that it was seldom necessary to punish the slaves, who were generally happy and contented, adding that they could make considerable money by selling the surplus produce of their provision grounds. Subsequent to the revolt, the secretary of the London Missionary Society warned Gladstone that Cort had been lying, but Gladstone continued to identify himself with Cort and his other agents (Checkland 1971). It was only after Robertson, his second son, had inspected the estates that Cort was fired. During his stay from 22 November 1828 to 3 March 1829, he observed that Cort was "an idler and a deceiver," who had mismanaged one estate after another. In Britain, Lord Howick and others criticised the concept of absentee landlords. Sir Benjamin d'Urban, who took up his office of Lieutenant Governor of Essequibo and Demerara in 1824, wrote to Earl Bathurst, Secretary of State for the Colonies, on 30 September 1824, criticising "..the injudicious managers under whom too many of the slaves are placed; half educated men of little discretion, or command over their own caprices; good planters perhaps - but quite unfit to have the charge of bodies of men, although they might take very proper care of cattle".
On Monday, 18 August 1823, Jack Gladstone – slaves adopted surnames of their masters by convention – and his father, Quamina, both slaves on 'Success' plantation, led their peers to revolt against the harsh conditions and maltreatment. Those on 'Le Resouvenir', where Smith's chapel was situated, also rebelled. Quamina Gladstone was a member of Smith's church, and had been one of five chosen to become deacons by the congregation soon after Smith's arrival. Following the arrival of news from Britain that measures aimed at improving the treatment of slaves in the colonies had been passed, Jack had heard a rumour that their masters had received instructions to set them free but were refusing to do so. In the weeks prior to the revolt, he sought confirmation of the veracity of the rumours from other slaves, particularly those who worked for those in a position to know: he thus obtained information from Susanna, housekeeper/mistress of John Hamilton of 'Le Resouvenir'; from Daniel, the Governor's servant; Joe Simpson from 'Le Reduit' and others. Specifically, Joe Simpson had written a letter which said that their freedom was imminent but which warned them to be patient. Jack wrote a letter (signing his father's name) to the members of the chapel informing them of the "new law".
Quamina, who was well respected by slaves and freedmen alike, initially tried to stop the slave revolt, and urged instead for peaceful strike; he made the fellow slaves promise not to use violence. As an artisan cooper who did not work under a driver, Jack enjoyed considerable freedom to roam about. He was able to organise the rebellion through his formal and informal networks. Close conspirators who were church 'teachers' included Seaton (Success), William (Chateau Margo), David (Bonne Intention), Jack (Dochfour), Luke (Friendship), Joseph (Bachelor's Adventure), Sandy (Non Pareil). Together, they finalised planning in the afternoon of Sunday 17 August, and led tens of thousands of slaves to raise up against their masters the next morning.
According to Bryant (1824), Joseph [Simpson], a slave on 'Le Reduit' plantation had informed his master, at approximately 6 a.m. that morning, of a coordinated uprising which had been planned the night before at Bethel chapel which would take place that same day. Captain Simpson, the owner, immediately rode to see the Governor, but stopped to alert several estates on the way into town. The governor assembled the cavalry, which Simpson was a part of. The unrest spread to fifty estates located between Georgetown and Mahaica. Slaves entered estates, ransacked the houses for weapons and ammunition, tied up the whites, or put some into stocks. The very low number of white deaths is proof that the uprising was largely free from violence from the slaves. Accounts from witnesses indicate that the rebels exercised restraint, with only a very small number of white men were killed. Some slaves took revenge on their masters or overseers by putting them in stocks, like they themselves had been before. Slaves went in large groups, from plantation to plantation, seizing weapons and ammunition and locking up the whites, promising to release them in three days. However, according to Bryant, not all slaves were compliant with the rebels; some were loyal to their masters and held off against the rebels.
The Governor immediately declared martial law. The 21st Fusileers and the 1st West Indian Regiment, aided by a volunteer battalion, were dispatched to combat the rebels, who were armed mainly with cutlasses and bayonets on poles, and a small number of stands of rifles captured from plantations. By the late afternoon on 20 August, the situation had been brought under control. Most of the slaves were rounded up, and Bryant asserts that some of the rebels were shot whilst attempting to flee. On 22 August 1823, Lieutenant Governor Murray issued an account of the battles. He reported major confrontations on Tuesday morning at the Reed estate (Dochfour), where ten to fifteen of the 800 rebels were killed; a skirmish at 'Good Hope' felled "five or six" rebels. On Wednesday morning, six were killed at 'Beehive' plantation, forty rebels died at Elizabeth Hall. At a battle which took place at 'Bachelor's Adventure', "a number considerably above 1500" were involved.
The Lieutenant-Colonel having in vain attempted to convince these deluded people of their error, and every attempt to induce them to lay down their arms having failed, he made his dispositions, charged the two bodies simultaneously, and dispersed them with the loss of 100 to 150. On our side, we only had one rifleman slightly wounded.—Extract of communiqué from His Excellency the Commander-in-Chief, 22 August 1823
After the slaves' defeat at Bachelor's Adventure, Jack fled into the woods. A "handsome reward" of one thousand guilder was offered for his capture. The Governor also proclaimed a "FULL and FREE PARDON to all slaves who surrendered within 48 hours, provided that they shall not have been ringleaders (or guilty of Aggravated Excesses)". Jack remained at large until he and his wife were captured by Capt. McTurk at 'Chateau Margo', after a three-hour standoff on 6 September.
On 25 August, the Governor Murray constituted a general court-martial, presided over by Lt.-Col. Stephen Arthur Goodman, to try the 'negroes'. Despite the initial revolt passing largely peacefully with slave masters locked in their homes, those who were considered ringleaders were tried at set up at different estates along the coast and executed by shooting; their heads were cut off and nailed to posts. A variety of sentences were handed out, including solitary confinement, lashing, and death. Bryant (1824) records 72 slaves having been sentenced by court-martial at the time of publication. He noted that 19 of the 45 death sentences had been carried out; a further 18 slaves had been reprieved. Others who were executed included Quamina. Jack Gladstone was sold and deported, Sheridan suggests that a letter Sir John had sent on his behalf resulted in clemency. His legacy was to help bring attention to the plight of sugar plantation slaves, accelerating the abolition of slavery. The rebellion took place a few months after the founding of the Anti-Slavery Society, and had a strong impact on Britain.
John Smith was arraigned in court-martial before Lt. Col. Goodman on 13 October, charged with four offences: promoting discontent and dissatisfaction in the minds of the Negro Slaves towards their Lawful Masters, Overseers and Managers, inciting rebellion; advising, consulting and corresponding with Quamina, and further aiding and abetting Quamina in the revolt; failure to make known the planned rebellion to the proper authorities; did not use his best endeavours to suppress, detain and restrain Quamina once the rebellion was under way.
Smith's trial concluded one month later, on 24 November. He was found guilty of the principal charges, and was given the death sentence. An appeal was lodged. He was transferred from Colony House to prison, where he died of consumption in the early hours of 6 February 1824; the Royal reprieve arrived on 30 March. To avoid the risk of stirring up slave sentiment, the colonists interred him at four a.m., without marking his grave. His death was a major step forward in the campaign to abolish slavery. News of his death was published in British newspapers, provoked enormous outrage and garnered 200 petitions to Parliament.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Demerara rebellion of 1823.|
- Slave rebellion
- Abolition of slavery timeline
- Slavery in the British and French Caribbean
- Baptist War
- Haitian Revolution
- Vincent Ogé
- Révauger, Cécile (October 2008). The Abolition of Slavery - The British Debate 1787–1840. Presse Universitaire de France. pp. 105–106. ISBN 978-2-13-057110-0.
- da Costa (1994), pg. xviii
- da Costa (1994), pg. 182
- Sheridan, Richard B. (2002). "The Condition of slaves on the sugar plantations of Sir John Gladstone in the colony of Demerara 1812 to 1849" (pdf). New West Indian Guide 76 (3/4): 243–269.
- "The Anti-Slavery Movement In British Guiana". Guyana News and Information. Retrieved 20 November 2009.
- "PART II Blood, sweat, tears and the struggle for basic human rights". Guyana Caribbean Network. Retrieved 21 November 2009.
- da Costa (1994), pp. 119
- da Costa (1994), pp. 12-13
- da Costa (1994), pg. 137
- da Costa (1994), pg. 141
- da Costa (1994), pg. 268
- da Costa (1994), pp. 203-4
- da Costa (1994), pg. 145
- da Costa (1994), pp. 180, 196
- da Costa (1994), pg. 181
- da Costa (1994), pp.191-2
- Bryant (1824), pg. 1.
- Bryant (1824), pg. 13.
- Bryant (1824), pp. 52-53.
- Bryant (1824), pg. 83.
- da Costa (1994), pg. 180.
- Bryant (1824), pg. 55.
- Bryant (1824), pp. 83-4.
- Bryant (1824), pg. 60.
- Bryant (1824), pg. 109.
- Bryant (1824), pg. 91.
- Bryant (1824), pg. 94.
- Hochschild, Adam (February 2006). Bury the Chains: Prophets and Rebels in the Fight to Free an Empire's Slaves. ISBN 0-618-61907-0.
- Hinks, Peter P.; McKivigan, John R.; Williams, R. Owen (2006). Encyclopedia of antislavery and abolition. Greenwood Press. p. 123. ISBN 0-313-33143-X.
- Bryant (1824), pg. 95.
- Bryant, Joshua (1824). Account of an insurrection of the negro slaves in the colony of Demerara, which broke out on the 18th of August, 1823.. Georgetown, Demerara: A. Stevenson at the Guiana Chronicle Office.
- Viotti da Costa, Emília (18 May 1994). Crowns of glory, tears of blood: the Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823. ISBN 0-19-510656-3.