In August 1823 slaves in the British colony of Demerara, part of present-day Guyana, stopped working, seized the arms of their owners, and demanded their freedom. Led by a slave named Quamina and his son Jack, an estimated twelve thousand slaves from thirty-seven plantations participated in an uprising that would later become the largest slave revolt in British Guianese history.
After gaining possession of the colony from the Dutch two decades before the revolt occurred, the British immediately pushed Demerara toward a monoculture economy based on sugar production. While the majority of the colony’s white population lived in Georgetown, the rest managed an unhealthy, overworked slave population that outnumbered whites by twenty to one. In 1823 Parliament ordered Demerara to improve the condition of its slaves. The slave population misunderstood the decree, firmly believing that Parliament granted them their freedom and that Demerara planters continued to enslave them illegally.
On August 18, 1823, slaves on Success and Le Resouvenir plantations quickly spread throughout the colony. Led largely by Christianized slaves who worshipped at Le Resouvenir’s Bethel Chapel, the rebels attempted to succeed through peaceful methods and opted to imprison Demerara’s whites rather than murder them. Some participants demanded their immediate freedom from slavery, while others wanted two or three days a week away from the fields to attend religious services, work their provision grounds, and go to the market. Others rebelled against the separation of families by sale and the punishment many endured from plantation managers who felt their slaves were too Christian.
Within twenty-four hours, the revolt spread as far east as Mahaica and as far west as Georgetown. To quell the rebellion, the colony declared martial law and deployed regular troops, as well as civilian militiamen. Although the rebels succeeded in their efforts at first, the tide turned on the third day. That day, troops led by Lieutenant-Colonel Leahy met over three thousand slave rebels at Bachelor’s Adventure plantation. Leahy commanded the slaves to surrender and return to their estates. They refused, and Leahy’s troops opened fire. The massacre sparked a turning point in the revolt, leading to a drop in rebel morale, as well as desertion. The majority abandoned the revolt and returned to their estates, while Leahy’s troops traveled the countryside, freeing the white population and killing slaves.
Fearing that fugitive rebels might incite another revolt, the white community organized expeditions into the plantation backlands in search of escaped insurgents. These expeditions, aided by Amerindian slave hunters, continued for several weeks and led to the deaths of many participants. During one of these expeditions, an Amerindian found and shot Quamina in his refuge behind Chateau Margot plantation. His son Jack turned king’s evidence and was deported to Saint Lucia. In all, over two hundred slaves were killed, while dozens more were executed. Those spared death received a thousand lashes and hard labor.
Black August Memorial/Commemoration History Month – Haki Kweli Shakur
Martial law continued long after the rebellion ended, largely as a justification for the expeditions. Furthermore, martial law allowed for the trial of Reverend John Smith, an English clergyman who ministered to the slaves of Success and Le Resouvenir estates. Demerara planters accused Smith of being the main instigator of the revolt. Consequently, Demerara courts sentenced him to death. Smith, later called the Demerara Martyr by the colony’s slaves, died in prison of consumption before he was hanged.
The Demerara revolt of 1823 was by far the largest slave rebellion in British Guianese history and one of the largest revolts in Caribbean history. Only the Haitian Revolution and the Jamaican Rebellion of 1831, or “The Baptist War,” had larger numbers of insurgents. Despite testimony from the whites captured by the rebels stating that their captors treated them humanely, news of a Creole-led rebellion in Demerara spread throughout the Caribbean and England. As a result, the revolt cemented the belief that Creole slaves were more rebellious than African-born slaves, a sentiment born out of the Creole-led revolt in Barbados just seven years earlier. Although the goal of the revolt was to bring emancipation, England did not end slavery in her colonies until 1834. In the short term, the revolt changed little for Demerara’s slaves. The surviving participants were executed, and the colony returned to business as usual. The revolt itself, however, caught the attention of the English, who long thought that Demerara planters were the most benevolent toward their slaves. More importantly, the revolt caught the interest of England’s abolitionists, who incorporated the Demerara revolt into their antislavery campaign.
On 25 August, the Governor Murray constituted a general court-martial, presided over by Lt.-Col. Stephen Arthur Goodman. 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. Quamina was among those executed; their bodies were hung up in chains by the side of a public road in front of their respective plantations and left to rot for months afterwards. Jack Gladstone was sold and deported to St Lucia; Da Costa suggests that a letter Sir John had sent on his behalf resulted in clemency.
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.” The officers on the court martial judging Smith included a young Captain Colin Campbell, later to become Field Marshal Lord Clyd
In August 1833, the British parliament passed the ‘Act for the abolition of slavery throughout the British Colonies, for promoting the industry of manumitted slaves, and for compensating the persons hitherto entitled to the services of such slaves’, with effect from 1 August 1834. Plantation owners of British Guiana received £4,297,117 10s. 6½d. in compensation for the loss of 84,915 slaves.
See also Christiana Revolt of 1851; Haitian Revolution; Malê Rebellion; Nat Turner’s Rebellion; Stono Rebellion
Costa, Emilia Viotti da. Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Craton, Michael. “Proto-Peasant Revolts? The Late Slave Rebellions in the British West Indies, 1816–1832.” Past and Present 85 (1979): 99–125.
Schuler, Monica. “Ethnic Slave Rebellions in the Caribbean and the Guianas.” Journal of Social History 3 (1970): 374–385.
colleen a. vasconcellos (2005)
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