The 1823 slave revolt in Demarara, Guyana, started on a sugar plantation called “Plantation Success”- on the east coast of the colony on August 23. It spread throughout the nearby area to involve slaves from at least fifty-five plantations. In total, around ten thousand of the approximately seventy-five thousand slaves who lived in the colony rose in violent rebellion against their oppressors. The revolt would have been even larger, however, had the slaves succeeded in their goal of spreading the insurrection to the western part of the colony.
As it was, the revolt still alarmed the local planters sufficiently to respond quickly, and with extreme violence. Using both army units and local militia, the planters and colonial officials killed several hundred of the rebelling slaves, and imprisoned hundreds more to stand trial and face execution. Within days, the revolt had been put down. Two elements made the Demerara Revolt rather unusual. First, it largely consisted of, and was primarily led by Creole slaves.
This upset the traditional British notion that although the wilder African-born slaves might revolt, the Creole slaves were more docile and accepting of their fate.
This was a harsh challenge to any illusion of slavery as a civilizing system. In a world in which the planters had already seen the abolition of the slave trade, and in which they could see the abolition of slavery itself looming in the foreseeable future, it was particularly unsettling. Also unsettling was the role played by antislavery groups from England. The nonconformist evangelical movement was particularly involved in trying to end slavery altogether. From at least as early 1808, The London Missionary Society had sent missionaries to Demerara to preach and teach among the slaves of the colony.
Planter opinion was ambivalent. Some thought that religion may help keep the slaves in check. Other saw the missionaries as dangerous spirit rousers. One missionary – John Wray – was expelled from the colony once it became known that he had been teaching the slaves to read. Another missionary – John Smith – replaced him. Also supporting the slaves and fighting for their cause, Smith kept holding church for the slaves. He also fought against planters’ attempts at keeping their slaves from having Sundays off and from attending church.
In the end, the struggle for the slaves’ rights to have Sundays off became a central issue in the slaves’ grievances that led to the rebellion. Making use of religious meetings to also discuss political thoughts and plan the insurrection, the slaves created a link between the missionaries and the revolt that the missionaries may not have been aware of. Historians tend to suggest that Smith was unknowing. The planters had a different view. In the aftermath of the rebellion, they arrested Smith and had him sentenced to death by hanging for his role in the insurrection. Before his sentence could be carried out, however, Smith died in prison.
The death of thousands of slaves, and of the white minister John Smith led to vociferous reactions in England. People felt that the revolt and its aftermath revealed the brutal and inhumane behavior of the planters. This helped strengthen the anti-slavery movement in England, as arguments of planter savagery were later used to support the 1833 Parliamentary ruling to end slavery in the British Caribbean. The Demarara Revolt therefore highlights the important roles played by both the slaves and the abolitionist groups in England in bringing about the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies.
In England, some organisations were established to campaign for the abolition of slavery in the British colonies. In April 1823 a motion was presented in the House of Commons calling for a gradual abolition of slavery in all British colonies, but it was defeated because the majority felt that abolition of slavery would leave the planters without a labour force. Instead, measures to ameliorate the condition of slaves were adopted.
These ordered that female slaves should not be whipped as punishment and drivers should not carry whips in the field. These new amelioration rules were sent in a letter to all Governors of British colonies. Governor John Murray deliberately delayed its publicity. He received the letter on 23 June 1823 and waited until 2 July to present it to the Court of Policy, urging the members, who were all slave owners, not to act on it immediately. It was not until 7 August the Court of Policy passed the required resolutions to adopt the amelioration rules.
While the amelioration rules were awaiting adoption in the Court of Policy, house slaves overheard their masters discussing them. Not fully understanding the implications of the new rules, they felt that the planters had received instructions to set the slaves free but were refusing to do so. This rumour was passed on to other slaves. One of these slaves, Jack Gladstone, heard the rumour from a slave owned by the Governor, and he wrote a letter to the members of Bethel Chapel informing them of the matter and signed his father’s name on it. His father was Quamina, a senior deacon of Bethel Chapel.
On 25 July, Quamina, on learning of the matter, approached Rev. John Smith and informed him that the King of England had granted freedom to the slaves but it was being withheld. Smith said that he had not heard of any such order and added that he had heard that the British Government wanted to make regulations to improve the situation affecting the slaves, but not to set them free. Quamina was not satisfied with what he heard and apparently reported to the other slaves, some of whom began to make preparations to seize their freedom which they felt was being deliberately kept away from them.
The slaves in East Demerara were convinced that the Governor and their masters were withholding their freedom from them and many of them felt they had no other option than to rise up against those who were not carrying out the King’s orders. On the morning of Sunday 17 August 1823 slaves at Mahaica met together at Plantation Success and three of them, Jack Gladstone, a cooper on that plantation, Joseph Packwood and Manuel, assumed some kind of leadership of the group.
All of them began to plan an uprising, but Gladstone’s father, Quamina, who arrived at the meeting later, objected to any bloody revolt and suggested that the slaves should go on strike. When someone asked if they should get guns to protect themselves, Quamina, a senior deacon at Rev. John Smith’s church, said he would have to seek the advice of the missionary on this matter. Quamina departed for Bethel Chapel at Le Ressouvenir, and after the Sunday service, he and two other slaves, Manuel and Seaton, went to Smith’s home.
There they told the priest that the managers of the plantation should go to Georgetown to “fetch up the New Law”. Smith rebuked them and advised them against speaking to any of the managers about this, saying if they did so they would provoke the Governor. He begged them to wait until the Governor and their masters tell them about the new regulations. When Quamina told Smith of the uprising being planned, the priest asked them to tell the other slaves, particularly the Christians, not to rebel. Quamina promised to obey Smith and he sent his two companions to urge other slaves not to rebel.
He also told Smith he would send a message in the evening to the Mahaica slaves not to rise up against their masters. But despite Quamina’s efforts, the slaves were determined to rebel from the following evening. Their plan was to seize all guns on the plantations, lock up the Whites during the night and then send them to the Governor on the following morning to bring the “New Law”. Quamina urged them not to be violent in the process. But on the morning of Monday 18 August, the plan was betrayed by Joseph Packwood, a house slave, who told his master about it.
The plantation owner, Simpson, immediately gave this information to Governor Murray who with a group of soldiers rode up to the area of Le Ressouvenir and La Bonne Intention where he met a large group of armed Africans on the road. He asked them what they wanted and they replied, “Our right. ” He then ordered them to surrender their weapons, and after they refused, he warned that their disobedience would cause them to lose whatever new benefits the new regulations intended to give to them. Murray told them to go home and to meet with him at Plantation Felicity the next morning.
But the slaves refused this invitation and the Governor later that day proclaimed martial law. It was very late that afternoon when Rev. John Smith first heard of the uprising. In a note to his informant, Jackey Reed, a slave who attended his church, he stated that hasty, violent measures were contrary to Christianity and begged Reed not to participate in the revolt. Shortly after, while Smith and his wife were walking on the plantation, they saw a large group of noisy African slaves outside the home of Hamilton, the manager of Le Ressouvenir.
Smith begged them not to harm Hamilton, but they told him to go home. That night the slaves seized and locked up White managers and overseers on many plantations in East Demerara. There was very little violence since the slaves apparently heeded the request made by Quamina. The Whites naturally were very terrified and they feared they would be killed. But the slaves who were mainly Christians did not want to lose their religious character and they proclaimed that their action was a strike and not a rebellion.
The next day an Anglican priest, Wilthsire Austin, suggested to Governor Murray that he and Smith should be allowed to meet with the slaves to urge them to return to work. But the Governor refused this to accept this suggestion. On Wednesday 20 August, the situation took a strange turn when Smith was arrested and charged for encouraging the slaves to rebel. The charges also claimed that he conspired with Quamina and that he failed to inform the Governor of the planned uprising. Out of an estimated 74,000 slaves in the united Colony of Essequibo-Demerara about 13,000 took part in the uprising.
And out of the 350 estates in the Colony, only about 37 were involved. No doubt, many who did not take part sympathised with the rebels and shared their suspicion that the planters would spare no efforts to prevent them from obtaining their freedom. The uprising collapsed very quickly since the slaves, despite being armed, were poorly organised. A group of soldiers commanded by Colonel Leahy clashed with about 2,000 African slaves at Bachelor’s Adventure and savagely crushed them and more than 250 were killed.
Some who escaped were hunted down by Amerindian slave-catchers and shot. Quamina himself was shot dead by Amerindian slave-catchers in the backlands of Chateau Margot and his body was later publicly hanged. Jack Gladstone was later arrested and also hanged. Because Rev. Smith was close to the leaders of the uprising, he was arrested and charged for having knowledge that the slaves would rebel and for not informing the authorities. His arrest which was encouraged by many of the planters was seen as an act of revenge against the priest for preaching to the slaves.
Smith denied the charge but he was imprisoned for seven weeks in Colony House before being tried by a court martial. He was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged. He appealed to the British Government which subsequently ordered a commutation of the death sentence and that he should be set free. However, while awaiting the results of his appeal to arrive from England, he died from pneumonia in his prison. The information that he was acquitted arrived in Georgetown after his funeral.