The Demerara Uprising

Thomas Harding

The Demerara Uprising in Guyana was one of the most serious in the British Empire. Largely non-violent, it was put down within a few days.
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At 6.30 pm on 18th August 1823, Jack Gladstone walked up to the large bell that hung at the centre of the sugar plantation, and rang it. This was the signal for the start of the Demerara uprising, that would become the largest revolt against British slavery up to that point.

Jack Gladstone was twenty-eight years old and was enslaved on the Success plantation, an estate located on the Atlantic coast of the British colony of Demerara, now Guyana. He worked as a cooper making hogsheads, the enormous barrels that transported the sugar back to Liverpool. His job included delivering these barrels to the port in Georgetown, the capital, twenty miles down the coast. This meant that Jack was able to travel outside of the plantation which was unusual. Most enslaved men and women would be severely punished if they left their estate without permission. It was in Georgetown that Jack likely first heard of the remarkable news, that the King of England had sent a letter to the governor of Demerara, John Murray, calling for the amelioration of slavery.

The Demerara Uprising of 1823

In 1823, slavery was very much still legal in the British Empire. There were more than 650,000 people enslaved in the British Caribbean. The slave trade had been abolished sixteen years earlier, in 1807, but this did not prohibit the forced work of enslaved people on plantations nor the selling of enslaved people between British colonies. It was also still possible to purchase enslaved women, men and children at the Vendue, or slave auction, that took place regularly in Georgetown.

Of the more than 70,000 enslaved people living in Demerara at this time, more than half were born in Africa. They therefore remembered their homelands and what it was like to be free. There were approximately 2,500 Europeans living in the colony, along with about the same number of mixed-race people and an unknown number of indigenous people. The enslaved, therefore, outnumbered the Europeans more than thirty to one. To control the population, the White managers and overseers believed they had to use the very harshest measures, including stocks, the whip and jail. According to some sources, average life expectancy was as short as five years for those who worked on the sugar estates.

For much of the 18th Century, Demerara had been a Dutch colony. For decades, control shifted between Amsterdam and London. The matter was finally settled in 1804 and the colony became part of the British Empire. Though the sovereign was now King George IV, the colony continued to be governed under Dutch law and the currency was the Dutch guilder. The law was administered by a court of policy, headed by the governor, and order was enforced by the British militia.

When Jack Gladstone had first heard about the King’s letter, he had approached his father, Quamina. They agreed that they should wait and see if the instructions from London would be implemented. If not, they would take action. After two weeks, there was still no word from the governor or the court of policy. Quamina had spoken to John Smith, the missionary who ran the church that Jack and his father attended on the next-door estate, Le Resouvenir. Smith said that he had also heard about the letter from the King but cautioned patience, suggesting that the governor would in time announce changes. But none came.

This was why Jack was now ringing the bell. Within minutes, more than forty men and women gathered around him. For days, they had been preparing for this. It was time to act, Jack said, time to seize the estates, time to win their freedom. They first removed the guns, cutlasses and ammunition from the estate’s storehouse. They had previously agreed that they would pursue non-violent tactics, by seizing their oppressor’s weapons they would protect themselves against future attack. Next, Jack sent a small group to find the estate’s overseer and manager and place them in the stocks. With this accomplished, they had control of the first plantation. Jack led the group of enslaved abolitionists – for that is what they were, enslaved men and women who wished to abolish slavery – along the public road that ran along the coast, taking control of one plantation and then the next.

Early on the morning of Wednesday 20th August, more than 4,000 enslaved abolitionists gathered in the cotton field near the shoreline by Bachelor’s Adventure estate. A small few had rifles, the vast majority were armed with only sticks and other hand-made weapons. By this point more than thirty estates had been seized across the colony with between 12,000 and 15,000 people taking part. By any measure, the uprising had exceeded expectations.

Yet, all that had been achieved was about to be tested. In front of the abolitionists, on the other side of the dusty public road, was lined up two hundred soldiers from the British Militia. Lieutenant Colonel John Thomas Leahy now trotted out to meet with Jack, it was a parley. When Leahy asked what the enslaved people wanted, Jack said their freedom. His comment was met by loud cheers of support. Leahy said this was impossible and that Jack and his comrades must immediately surrender, or he would be forced to take extreme measures. Jack repeated his demands. Leahy then retreated to his men.

The com memoration of the Demerara Uprising in Georgetown, Guyana.

A tense silence hung between the two lines. The militia kept their rifles trained on their targets across the public road. The abolitionists held their ground. Thirty minutes came and went. Nothing happened. And then Leahy called the order: ‘Right face, march!’ The line of soldiers headed towards the abolitionists, stopping less than fifty yards away. ‘You Negroes,’ the colonel shouted, ‘I ask you once more, in the governor’s name, will you lay down your arms and go to your work?’ Those around Jack yelled out, ‘No!’ and ‘We fight for freedom.’ The colonel shouted, ‘Fire!’ The sound of gunpowder exploding in a hundred rifles filled the air. Scores of men and women collapsed in the cotton field, screaming in pain, clutching at their wounds. Meanwhile, the militia front row reloaded while the men behind stepped forward and fired. Another hundred bullets were let loose. In less than fifteen minutes it was over. More than two hundred abolitionists were dead. It had been a bloodbath. Those able to escape had fled. Meanwhile, the militia kept loading and shooting, loading and shooting, loading and shooting.

Jack had managed to flee the carnage. Evading his pursuers, he skirted the shoreline and made his way back to Success. A few hours later, he headed for the bush behind the plantation, along with his father and eighteen others. There they hid for the next few weeks, regrouping and plotting their next step. Meanwhile, the British Militia went from estate to estate clearing out the rebels. More than 200 abolitionists were captured and then, following the briefest of questioning, lined up in the fields and shot. Fifty of the ringleaders were taken to Georgetown where they were later tried and hanged. Their heads then cut off and affixed to poles as a warning to other would-be rebels. Amongst those found guilty and sentenced to death was John Smith, the English missionary who abhorred slavery and had supported his congregants.

In early September, Jack’s father Quamina was hunted down and shot. He had offered no resistance. His body was strung up on a gibbet next to the entrance of Success, again a sign from the British colonists that they would not tolerate any form of resistance. A few days later, Jack found himself in the main hall of Colony House in Georgetown facing a court martial. Every member of the court martial (equivalent to a jury) had served in the British militia, the same force that had recently suppressed the uprising. The president of the court martial was Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Arthur Goodman who for the past two years had been the colony’s vendue master. As such, the man presiding over Jack’s trial was also the man in charge of the valuation, sale and transfer of enslaved people in Demerara. The proceedings were unlikely to be objective.

Without the assistance of any lawyer, Jack had to defend himself. He was responsible for preparing his legal strategy, examining witnesses, and providing evidence. From the surviving records, it is clear that he did well. Despite the overwhelming odds, he persuaded the court that his efforts had been rational, that there had been a letter sent from London which had called for the amelioration of the slave conditions and that these instructions had not been implemented by the governor. The anger towards him and his fellow abolitionists, however, was too much. The court martial found him guilty and sentenced him to hang. In the end, partly because of his numerous efforts to prevent violence against the colonists, the governor gave Jack clemency. What exactly happened to Jack is not known, but he was likely deported to the Island of St Lucia, to spend the rest of his life working in hard labour.

The Demerara uprising had significant consequences. Ever since the successful abolition of the slave trade in 1807, the anti-slavery movement had experienced a collapse in public support. To many, the argument had long been won, even though more than 650,000 people remained enslaved in the Caribbean. This all changed when news arrived back in England of the uprising and the public learned of the appalling conditions endured by the enslaved men and women in Demerara. Soon, a massive petition campaign was in full swing. Members of Parliament were bombarded by letters demanding a full end to slavery in the Empire. A two-day debate took place in the House of Commons, calling for a review of the court martials that had taken place in Georgetown, particularly the fate of John Smith.

Ten years after the uprising, the Slavery Abolition Act was finally passed. In August 1834, slavery was outlawed across the British Empire. And while colonial exploitation continued, including a period of apprenticeship and later a system of indentureship, the abolition of slavery marked a significant step towards freedom, not only for those enslaved, but for all of us. As such, Jack Gladstone and the other enslaved abolitionists should be remembered for their heroic efforts.

Thomas Harding is a bestselling writer and author of White Debt: The Demerara Uprising and Britain’s Legacy of Slavery.

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