Quamina: The African Demerara Martyr
August 27, 2006
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Professor Emilia Viotti da Costa provided a detailed account of the uprising in her book “Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood”. In this article, much reliance has been placed on her analysis.
Quamina and Gladstone
Quamina, sometimes known as Quamina Gladstone, was a slave who was born in Africa and was the head carpenter at Success plantation, which was located next to Le Resouvenir. Success was owned by John Gladstone M.P., who was a wealthy absentee plantation owner. He was born in Scotland in 1764, and conducted his commercial activities from Liverpool. His surname was originally Gladstones, but the final letter was dropped by royal letters patent in 1835. Gladstone had developed a business of insuring ships before going into the business of real property transactions. In 1800, after his first wife died, he remarried a Highland Scottish woman. He diversified his business undertakings, which included trading in cotton, sugar and coffee. In 1803, he and another business associate advanced a mortgage on an estate in Demerara. He also supplied timber, salt herring and other commodities, and became an agent for other plantations. Gladstone supported the abolition of the slave trade, but was very much opposed to the abolition of slavery. He sent ships to South America and India and in 1809 he was elected chairman of the Liverpool West Indian Association. He acquired a half-interest in Success plantation, and in 1818, he was elected to the House of Commons (da Costa, p. 311) John Gladstone was an MP for nine years. He was created a baronet in 1846. His son, William Ewart Gladstone, a Liberal, became UK Prime Minister, and devoted his first substantial speech in the House of Commons to defending slavery on the family’s plantations in British Guiana (Fryer, pp. 43-44). As well as being chairman of the West India Association, he was a founder member of the British Guyana Association, formed in London in 1823 (Colonial Office records, CO 111/43).
When his son, William, was campaigning in 1832, a public journal reminded electors that John Gladstone had amassed a fortune through West India dealings, meaning that a great part of his wealth had sprung from the blood of black slaves. The compensation paid to him in 1837, following emancipation, under the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, was £85,600 for 2,183 slaves (Williams, pp. 89-90).
Quamina was one of five deacons chosen by the congregation during the month after Rev. John Smith had arrived at Le Resouvenir in 1817. The deacons played an important role in the mission and enjoyed a privileged position in the chapel. Quamina was the most loyal, well-behaved, trustworthy and pious of the deacons. He prayed with much emotion and became Rev. John Smith’s favourite deacon (da Costa, pp. 145-46). He reported to Rev. Smith in 1821, that Susanna, a slave woman, who was a member of the congregation and partner of Quamina’s son Jack Gladstone, had been “seduced” by Hamilton, the manager of Le Resouvenir. Rev. Smith and many of the members of the chapel disapproved of this relationship, and a meeting of the congregation decided to exclude her from the chapel (da Costa, p. 149). Quamina became the head deacon at Bethel Chapel and was well respected. He had had several wives, but he had lived with his wife Peggy, said to be a free woman in the 1820’s, for twenty years, until she died in 1822. On the day of her death, he had been sent to work a considerable distance away, and when he returned, he found her dead. This was part of the traumatic experience of slavery. He had been humiliated and severely punished, once so severely that he was ill for six weeks. It also upset him very much when he had to miss Sunday services because he had been required by the manager to work (da Costa, p.181).
Rumours of ‘new laws’ from the UK
In March 1823, Thomas Fowell Buxton presented a motion in the House of Commons in the UK that slavery was repugnant to the principles of the British Constitution and of the Christian religion, and that it ought to have been abolished gradually. George Canning, the Foreign Secretary, presented proposals for reform, placing emphasis on amelioration of the conditions of slaves, in preparation for gradual abolition. A dispatch dated 28th May 1823, was sent from Earl Bathurst, the British Colonial Secretary, to Governor John Murray, of the combined colony of Demerara-Essequibo, urging that legislation should be enacted in the colony to comply with the recommendations of the British government for the amelioration of the conditions of slaves. The dispatch was laid before the Court of Policy of Demerara-Essequibo on 21st July 1823. It included measures for prohibiting the flogging of females and the abolition of the use of the whip in the field. The Court of Policy met to discuss the recommendations, but were indecisive for several weeks, until the first week in August, when they finally decided in favour of the proposed reforms. No public announcement was made, as several planters had opposed the reforms. In the meantime, the slaves heard planters discussing the reforms and rumours started to spread across the plantations that the king of England had declared their freedom, but that the Governor and their masters were withholding their emancipation (da Costa, pp. 177-79).
Rev. Smith had noted that on 25th July 1823, Quamina had gone to see him and asked whether it was true that King George had sent orders to the Governor to free the slaves. He noted that his response was that he had not heard this and that if such a report had been in circulation it was not to be believed because it was false (Northcott, p. 53).
On Sunday 17th August, Quamina and a few others, went to Rev. Smith’s house after service. Rev. Smith overheard talk about ‘new laws’ and when he asked them about their conversation, Quamina stated that they were only saying that it would be good to send their managers to the town “to fetch up the new law”. Smith advised against any such action and Quamina promised that they would do nothing they could be sorry for (da Costa, p. 197). Following this, there was a large meeting of the slaves at Success Middle Walk, when decisions on strategy were made. Jack Gladstone took the lead. Some slaves wanted to rise against the planters, some wanted to hold a strike or other form of protest, and others wanted to wait. In the end, they decided to begin the uprising on Monday evening, to confine managers and overseers in the stocks and to seize their weapons and ammunition. Quamina tried to stop Jack and the others, but it was too late (da Costa, pp. 196-97).
The uprising commenced at Success on the evening of Monday 18th August 1823, and extended to several plantations along the coast from Plantation Thomas, adjoining Georgetown, to Plantation Grove, at Mahaica. It involved nearly 13,000, many of them Christian, slaves, from the following plantations, as over 9,000 had been proved to have participated, by the evidence given in several court trials, according to a despatch sent by Governor Murray to Earl Bathurst:-
Turkeyen (180), Plaisance (184), Better Hope (196), Vryheid’s Lust (249), Montrose (302), Le Resouvenir (387), Success (332), Chateau Margo (224), La Bonne Intention (301), Beterverwagting (137), Triumph (176), Mon Repos and Endraght (496), Good Hope (445), Lusignan (443), Friendship (138), Vigilance (216), Coldingen (183), Non Pareil (228), Bachelor’s Adventure and Enterprise (661), Elizabeth Hall (199), Paradise (270), Foulis (148), Porter’s Hope (322), Enmore (268), Haslington (206), Golden Grove (259), Nabaclis (287), Cove & John (272), Northbrook (now Victoria, 279), Bellefield (61), Nooten Zuyl (133), Bailey’s Hope (290), Clonbrook (362), and New Orange Nassau (181) (British Parliamentary Papers, Sch. A).
When Governor Murray confronted a group of slaves at the beginning of the uprising on the Monday, they told him that they wanted their ‘rights’ and ‘unconditional emancipation’. Governor Murray declared martial law on 18th August 1823.
Some properties were burnt. A few proprietors, several managers, overseers and others, were confined in the stocks and humiliated by the women slaves who slapped them in their faces, and their weapons and ammunition were seized. Two planters and one soldier lost their lives, as Quamina, his son Jack and some of the leaders, urged restraint (da Costa, pp. 192-203).
Governor Murray convened a meeting of the Court of Policy and called in the militia. The 21st North British Fusileers, the First West India Regiment and the Demerara Militia were deployed in brutally suppressing the uprising. Lieutenant-Colonel Leahy of the 21st Fusileers, Captain Muddle Rix of the marine battalion and Lieutenant-Colonel Goodman of the Georgetown Brigade, led the armed forces (British Parliamentary Papers, p. 147). Over 200 slaves were massacred by troops at Bachelor’s Adventure. Following this, the troops went to various plantations along the East Coast on a hunting exercise of terror over several days. Colonel Leahy conducted mock trials on the spot, summary courts-martial of ringleaders, whom he ordered to be shot and to have their bodies hung on gibbets in front of their houses. Some were tied to trees and shot. Heads were cut off and placed on poles along the East Coast, as a gruesome deterrent and to drive terror into the hearts of the Africans (da Costa, pp. 216-27; Northcott, pp. 68-76). Governor Murray later admitted that 58 slaves had been shot out of hand, executed summarily (Northcott, p. 75).
The East Coast, Demerara, Slave Uprising of 1823 shook British colonial society to its foundations. What was remarkable was that 46 per cent of the slaves were African born, mainly from West and Central Africa, and like Quamina, many were Coromantees, from Ghana and other areas of West Africa. Coromantees had a reputation for strong resistance to slavery throughout the colonies, e.g. Cuffy (Kofi) in Berbice, 1763 (da Costa, p. 193). It was also remarkable that many were Christians who had attended Rev. John Smith’s services at Bethel Chapel, Le Resouvenir. Further, there was little loss of life and violence caused by the slaves, bearing in mind the large numbers involved in the uprising.
The aftermath of the Uprising
Rev. Smith was arrested on Thursday 21st August 1823. The reason given for his arrest was his refusal to have joined the Demerara Militia. Several prisoners were taken to Georgetown on Saturday 23rd August, for their trials at Colony House. Quamina and Jack Gladstone, who had been detained for a short period on 18th August, before they were set free by a group of associates, both fled to the bush with some of their companions. A reward of 1,000 guilders was offered for the apprehension of Quamina, Jack, eight other men and ten women. An expedition of militiamen and Amerindians located some of them early in September, and arrested Jack and his wife. Quamina was tracked down in an area of heavy bushes behind Chateau Margo plantation on 16th September. He was first ordered to stop, but he neither stopped nor ran. He continued walking without looking back, as if he had not heard the order. He was then shot dead. A clasp knife and a Bible were found in his pockets. He was unarmed, but he had been determined that he was not going to be taken alive (Craton, p. 287; da Costa, pp. 228-29). His body was carried to Success, and was hung in chains on a gibbet erected on 17th September, on the road at the front of the plantation (da Costa, p. 229; Craton, p. 289).
A General Court-Martial had been constituted with indecent haste, for the trials of those alleged to have participated in the uprising. Governor Murray was a planter, as was a previous Governor, Bentinck (Colonial Office records, CO 111/11). Murray was the proprietor of a plantation on the Arabian coast, between Demerara and Essequibo (da Costa, p. 97). He and a number of other Demerara planters had firmly believed that Rev. Smith had been responsible for instigating the uprising, by his sermons and teachings at Bethel Chapel. The composition of the Court-Martial was heavily biased in favour of the prosecution. The Governor appointed Lieutenant-Colonel Stephen Arthur Goodman, Commandant of the Georgetown Brigade of Militia, to be President of the Court. Goodman was also the Vendue-Master who conducted auctions of property, including slaves, notably one of 100 slaves between 20th and 28th August 1823 (Northcott, p. 76). He had been actively engaged in the suppression of the uprising, was the judge and jury in the trials, and also attended some executions. Henry Brougham, M.P. presented a motion respecting the trial and condemnation to death of Rev. Smith, which was debated in the British House of Commons on 1st & 11th June 1824. Brougham stated that there had taken place ‘more of illegality, more of the violation of justice … in substance as well as form, than in the whole history of modern times…’. Brougham added that Goodman was ‘…the last man in the world who ought to have been selected as President...’. He also criticised the appointment of the Chief Justice of the colony, Charles Wray, the only judge, to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, to enable him to sit as an ordinary member of the court. The Chief Justice would normally have heard any appeals from the trials, but that would have been impossible, as he obviously could not hear appeals from his own decisions. There was no right of appeal to the Privy Council in England (Hansard, columns 961-99).
Travesties of justice
The trials commenced just one week after the uprising, on Monday 25th August. There was little time in which the slaves could have prepared their defences. Jack Gladstone was an exception. He was legally represented. 72 slaves were tried between August 1823 and January 1824. 51 were sentenced to the death penalty, and 33 were executed. Executions commenced on 26th August. Condemned prisoners were taken in a public procession, which included Lieutenant-Colonel Goodman, guards, officers and others, accompanied by bearers of empty coffins and a band playing the funeral march, to the Militia Parade Ground in Cummingsburg. They were hanged on the gallows erected there. On Friday 12th September, 60 prisoners awaiting trial were marched to the Parade Ground, to witness the public spectacle of the executions of nine convicted slaves. Some of the executed men were decapitated (da Costa, pp. 242-43). These rituals provided a strong incentive for the un-sentenced slaves to have given perjured evidence implicating Rev. Smith. They had a purpose to serve, in that they were led to believe that by giving evidence on behalf of the Crown, mercy would have been extended to them. They hoped to have avoided the hangman’s noose (da Costa, pp. 238-39). Some of the convicted slaves who had not been hanged, were ordered to have been punished by flogging with the cat-o’-nine-tails, with manifestly excessive sentences of up to 1,000 lashes administered in some cases in public rituals (Northcott, p. 84; da Costa, pp. 229-45).
Rev. Smith’s trial commenced on 13th October 1823 and lasted 28 days (Craton, p. 288). Henry Brougham argued in the House of Commons that Courts-Martial were meant for military personnel, that the charges were brought under the Mutiny Act, in English law, yet the Court sought to introduce Dutch law principles, conveniently, to impose the death penalty for misprision of treason. Capital punishment was not available under English law for that offence (Hansard, columns 1294-1313).
Inadmissible hearsay evidence, both documentary and oral, such as Rev. Smith’s entries in his personal diary, and what witnesses were told about what others had seen and heard, was freely admitted. Blatantly leading questions, putting to witnesses details of allegations for comment and opinion, were allowed. Uncorroborated evidence of alleged accomplices was allowed, and evidence was adduced by the prosecution after the close of the defence case. Brougham expressed his outrage that a paragraph incriminating Rev. Smith, was added to Jack Gladstone’s defence statement, by an interpreter, in the absence of his barrister, Charles Herbert of Middle Temple, who had drafted the statement (Hansard, columns 961-99; da Costa, p. 239).
The abuse of process was extreme. Several members of the Courts-Martial who had heard evidence in various trials of the slaves, later sat to hear evidence in Rev. Smith’s trial. Jack Gladstone, Telemachus and Sandy, major participants in the uprising, had all given evidence in their trials, incriminating Rev. Smith. They were not, however, called to give evidence in Smith’s trial. What was admitted, were certified copies of their charges and sentences, but the prejudice suffered by Smith was glaring. Jack, Telemachus and Sandy, all later confessed that they had given perjured evidence (Hansard, columns 961-99, da Costa, pp. 238-242, 258).
William Wilberforce, M.P., the famous abolitionist, stated that several officers who were members of the Court-Martial had been long-serving officers in the West Indies, and that some had been proprietors of slaves (Hansard, columns 1269-77). Several, if not all, of the officers appointed to sit in judgment, had served in action in the suppression of the uprising. A striking example of this was provided during the Court-Martial of Rev. Smith. The court heard evidence on 5th November from Lieutenant-Colonel John Thomas Leahy. He had led the 21st Regiment of North British Fusileers and other armed forces which had been engaged in the massacre at Bachelor’s Adventure, on Wednesday 20th August, and other atrocities. During his evidence, Leahy mentioned other officers who had been present at Bachelor’s Adventure. All five officers mentioned were sitting as members of the Court-Martial hearing his testimony (British Parliamentary Papers, Vol. 66, pp. 53, 101-02).
Jack Gladstone was found guilty of having been in open revolt and rebellion, of having aided and abetted others, and of having acted as a leader. He was sentenced to death. Governor Murray, not wishing Jack to have become a martyr, especially in view of evidence that he had saved lives during the uprising, requested mercy and his banishment to Bermuda. Jack was eventually banished to St. Lucia (da Costa, p. 244). On 24th November 1823, Rev. Smith was convicted of: (1) having promoted discontent and dissatisfaction in the minds of the slaves; (2) having advised, consulted and corresponded with Quamina, an insurgent, on 17th and 20th August; (3) having knowledge of the rebellion, failed to notify the authorities; and (4) having been in the presence of Quamina on 20th August, communicated with him, and failed to notify the authorities. He was sentenced to death, with a recommendation of mercy, but the reprieve was not signed by King George IV until 14th February 1824, after Rev. Smith had died from pulmonary consumption on 6th February 1824 (Craton, pp. 288-89; da Costa, p. 274). He was referred to as the “Demerara Martyr”.
The Courts-Martial were reminiscent of the notorious Star Chamber, and had qualified for the title of the worst display of abuses of process and travesties of justice in British legal history. What was quite appalling, was that the Chief Justice had sat through a host of cases in which miscarriages of justice had occurred.
The British nation had been shocked and horrified by reports of events in Demerara, particularly as an Englishman’s human rights had been grossly violated. The debate in the House of Commons had been widely reported, and it was remarkable that James Baillie, James Blair and John Gladstone, the M.P.s who were founder members of the British Guyana Association in London, had not contributed to the debate. Although Brougham’s motion was defeated by 47 votes, the movement for abolition of slavery had received a new boost (da Costa, p. 290). Britannia had been terribly disgraced.
British Parliamentary Papers, (1969) Proceedings of a Court Martial in Demerara, on Trial of John Smith, A Missionary, and Further Papers Relating to Insurrection of Slaves in Demerara, Slave Trade, Vol. 66, Sessions 1823-24, Irish University Press.
Colonial Office records, UK Government, National Archives, Kew, Richmond, Surrey.
Craton, M., (1982) Testing the chains – Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies, New York: Cornell University Press.
da Costa, E. V. (1994) Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood – The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823, New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Fryer, P. (1984) Staying Power – The History of Black People in Britain, London: Pluto Press.
Hansard, Parliamentary Debates, June 1 & June 11, 1824, columns 961-1076, 1206-1313.
Northcott, C., (1976) Slavery’s Martyr: John Smith of Demerara and the emancipation movement 1817-24, London: Epworth Press.
Williams, E. (1994) Capitalism and Slavery, Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.