Remembering the 1823 Demerara Slave Revolt
History This Week
By Winston McGowan
August 12, 2005
Every year, at this time, some Guyanese recall an important event in our country's history. This historic event was a slave revolt, which occurred on the East Coast of Demerara in August 1823, 181 years ago. The abortive rebellion broke out shortly after 5:00 pm on Monday, August 18, 1823 on Plantation Success and quickly spread to other estates on the East Coast.
Slave rebellions were the responses of slaves most feared by their masters and other white residents of the Caribbean for they posed the most formidable threat to their lives and property. Such uprisings, especially massive ones, were comparatively rare in the history of the Caribbean for they were difficult to organise without being discovered beforehand by the slave masters.
Furthermore, slaves from experience knew that revolts would most likely fail partly because of the superior military resources possessed by the slaveholding class and that the rebels, especially the leaders, would incur severe punishment. For these and other reasons slaves who wished to gain their freedom usually preferred to run away rather than to take the greater risk of rebellion.
The 1823 Demerara uprising occupies a special place in Caribbean, particularly Guyanese, history for several reasons. Firstly, it was the second of only two major slave revolts in Guyanese history, occurring sixty years after the better known rebellion in the Dutch colony of Berbice in 1763, led initially by Kofi (Cuffy) and later by Atta. The 1823 revolt took place in what was then the united colony of Demerara-Essequibo, a British possession, which eight years later in 1831 was united with Berbice to form a new entity, British Guiana, the name of the territory until it achieved political independence from Britain in May 1966.
The 1823 revolt was numerically by far the largest slave rebellion in the history of Guyana and one of the most massive uprisings in the history of slavery in the Americas, that began in the 1490s and ended in 1888 when Brazil became the last country in the hemisphere to abolish slavery. It involved an estimated 1,100-1,200 slaves from about 55 plantations on the East Coast of Demerara between Liliendaal and Mahaica. This was about one sixth or one seventh of the slaves in Demerara-Essequibo which at that time had a slave population of about 75,000.
The revolt would have been even more massive if the rebels had been successful in their plan to extend the uprising to other areas of the colony, especially Georgetown and West Demerara, by persuading slaves there to join the rebellion.
Nevertheless, the only revolts in the Americas which are known to have involved a greater number of slaves than the 1823 Demerara insurrection are the successful uprising in Saint Domingue in the 1700s and early 1800s and the rebellion in Jamaica in 1831.
The 1823 Demerara revolt was in fact one of three major slave rebellions which occurred in the British Caribbean in the last years of slavery there. It followed a rebellion in Barbados in 1816 and preceded the more massive uprising at Christmas in Jamaica in 1831.
The 1823 uprising was also significant because it was the second of only two serious slave revolts that occurred in the colony of Demerara-Essequibo. The first occurred in 1795 in West Demerara and involved both slaves resident on plantations and Maroons, as permanently run-away slaves were called. The East Coast of Demerara in particular until 1823 had been free from serious slave unrest. Admittedly, a few minor slave conspiracies had been discovered there between 1800 and 1815, but these prospective rebellions had been either forestalled or suppressed shortly after their outbreak.
Part of the significance of the 1823 Demerara slave revolt lies in the fact that many leaders and other participants were Creoles, i.e. locally born, not African-born, slaves. Most of the earlier revolts in Guyana and other areas in the Caribbean had been led mainly by slaves who were born as free men in Africa and rebelled in an effort to recover the cherished freedom which they had lost as a result of the transatlantic slave trade. Few revolts had been due mainly to the initiative of Creoles who were slaves from birth and had gained a reputation among slave masters of being less hostile and more accommodating to slavery than African-born captives. This belief, which many whites shared about the relative passivity of Creole slaves, was shattered by the 1823 revolt which reinforced the arguments of antislavery advocates that all slaves - Africans as well as Creoles-resented slavery and longed to be free.
Other important aspects of the significance of the 1823 East Coast Demerara slave revolt will be discussed in the second instalment of this article.
This week marks 181 years since the outbreak of a massive slave revolt on the East Coast of Demerara on Monday, August 18, 1823. An estimated 11,000-12,000 slaves from about 55 plantations between Liliendaal and Mahaica were involved in this uprising, which had immense significance in the history of the Caribbean. This second and final instalment of this article will continue and complete an examination of the significance of the rebellion.
One important aspect of its significance was that the 1823 Demerara revolt was the first major revolt in the Caribbean where Christianised slaves played a prominent role. Many of the rebels were members of Bethel Chapel, a church which the London Missionary Society had established at Plantation Le Ressouvenir in 1808, when it sent its first missionary, John Wray, to Demerara. Wray was sent in response to a request from Hilbertus Hermanus Post, a Dutchman who owned the plantation, for a clergyman to instruct his slaves in the Christian faith.
From the outset most slave owners on the East Coast of Demerara were very disturbed by this development. They feared that the missionary's teaching would make the slaves more discontented and rebellious. They were particularly concerned about the impact on slaves of doctrines such as the equality of all men in the sight of God and Christian brotherhood. These doctrines seemed incompatible with slavery, an institution based on the subordination and inequality of man.
The misgivings of the slave owners were expressed publicly shortly after Wray's arrival by a correspondent in the local Gazette who observed that "it is dangerous to make slaves Christians, without giving them their liberty. He who chooses to make slaves Christians let them give them their liberty. What will be the consequence, when to that class of men is given the title of "beloved brethren", as is actually done? Will not the negro conceive that by baptism being made a Christian, he is as credible as his Christian white brethren?"
Many planters believed that the two most likely sources of slave revolts were the evening meetings conducted by Wray and his efforts to teach slaves to read. They feared that slaves who learned to read would be influenced by anti-slavery literature and by parts of the Bible which seemed opposed to slavery. They were also very disturbed by evening church services which provided slaves with a good reason or excuse for leaving the plantation in large numbers without proper white supervision, a situation which afforded slaves a splendid opportunity to plan rebellions in secret.
The leaders of the rebellion in 1823 in fact did use the church organisation to organise the revolt, religious activity being employed as a cover for political discussion. Several of the meetings where the uprising was planned took place immediately after the conclusion of services at Bethel Chapel. For example, the final such meeting was held on the middle walk of Plantation Success after the midday service at Bethel Chapel on Sunday, August 17, 1823, the eve of the outbreak of the revolt.
The revolt was due partly to the increased discontentment of Christianised slaves over the imposition of new restrictions on the practice of their religion as a result of their masters' erroneous interpretation and application of a circular issued by John Murray, the governor of the colony, on May 16, 1823. The circular required slaves to obtain written permission from their masters to leave their plantations to go to Bethel Chapel and to hold religious meetings on their plantations at night. Slave owners, however, wrongly used the circular to withhold permission from slaves who wished to attend church or conduct night services.
Christianised slaves were also prompted to rebel in 1823 because religious instruction gave them an enhanced value of self-worth which intensified their sense of the injustice of slavery. This was reflected in the remarks made by a group of rebels to Murray at the outbreak of the revolt. They told the governor that they wanted their "right... God had made all men of the same flesh and blood. They were tired of being slaves."
The revolt was also significant because it was a rare occasion in Caribbean history that the supreme leadership of a slave rebellion was attributed to a white man. Rev. John Smith, who assumed responsibility for Bethel Chapel in 1817, was accused by most slaveholders on the
East Coast of Demerara of being the main instigator of the revolt. He was arrested, charged with several offences, including inciting the slaves to revolt, tried, found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging. This sentence was referred to the British government in London for confirmation. In February 1824, however, Smith died in prison in Georgetown from illness, while a response was on the way from London granting him a reprieve, but ordering his deportation to England.
The 1823 Demerara slave revolt was also significant because of its impact on the anti-slavery campaign which was being conducted at that time in Britain. The rebellion, especially the death of a white clergyman, helped to attract attention inside and outside of the British Parliament to the evil of slavery and to the need to abolish it. This factor, along with other humanitarian, political and economic considerations, eventually persuaded parliament in 1833 to take the momentous decision to abolish slavery in the Caribbean and the remainder of the British empire with effect from August 1, 1834.