GUYANA HISTORY: The Demerara Slave Uprising in August 1823 – Hundreds executed

From Guyanastory – By Dr. Odeen Ishmael


Slavery Uprising in British Guiana (Guyana)

In England, some organisations were established to campaign for the abolition of slavery in the British colonies. These included the Baptist Missionary Society, the London Missionary Society, the Church Missionary Society, the British and Foreign Bible Society, the Methodist Society, and the Anti-Slavery Society formed in 1823.

The Anti-Slavery Society was very influential since among its members were the Quakers and important Members of Parliament including William Wilberforce, Thomas Clarkson and Fowell Buxton. In April 1823 Buxton presented a motion 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.     

Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, immediately sent these new amelioration rules in a letter to all Governors of British colonies. In Berbice, Governor Henry Beard, as soon as he received the letter, sent it to Rev. John Wray to read it to the slaves. In Essequibo-Demerara on the other hand, Governor John Murray deliberately delayed its publicity. Even though he received the letter on 23 June 1823 he waited until 2 July to present it to the Court of Policy and 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 orally and in writing by some slaves who had acquired reading and writing skills. 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 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 that such a rumour was false. Smith 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 most likely felt that Smith, being a White, was siding with the planters and the Governor. He 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 said he would have to seek the advice of the Rev. Smith 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 inform them about the new regulations. When Quamina told Smith of the uprising being planned, the priest asked them to request 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.” All Quamina could do was to implore them not to be violent in the process.

But on the morning of Monday 18 August, the plan was leaked by Joseph Packwood, a house slave, who revealed it to his master, John Simpson, of Le Reduit plantation, located about five miles east of Georgetown. 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, but after they refused he warned that their disobedience would cause them to lose whatever new benefits the new regulations aimed to provide. Further, Murray asked them to go home and to meet with him at Plantation Felicity the next morning, but the slaves bluntly refused this invitation.

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 the White managers and overseers on thirty-seven plantations between Georgetown and Mahaica in East Demerara. They searched their houses for weapons and ammunition, but there was very little violence since the slaves apparently heeded Quamina’s request. However, some slaves took revenge on their masters or overseers by putting them in stocks; this action resulted in some violence a few White men were killed. The White population naturally were very terrified and feared they would be killed. But the slaves who were mainly Christians did not want to lose their religious character so they proclaimed that their action was a strike and not a rebellion. At the same time, not all slaves joined the rebels and they remained loyal to their masters.

The next day an Anglican priest, Wiltshire 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 to accept this suggestion and immediately declared martial law.

The 21st Fusileers and the 1st West Indian Regiment under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Leahy, aided by a volunteer battalion, were dispatched to combat the rebels who were armed mainly with cutlasses and bayonets on poles and a small number of stands of rifles captured from plantations. At first, the movement of the troops was hampered since many of the wooden bridges across the various plantation canals were destroyed by the rebels.

The suppression of the rebellion saw much violence. On Tuesday, 19 August, there were major confrontations at Dochfour estate where ten to fifteen of the 800 rebels were killed; and at Good Hope where six rebels were shot dead. On the morning of 20 August, six were killed at Bee Hive plantation and forty at Elizabeth Hall.

There was also a major battle on the same day Bachelor’s Adventure where more roughly 2,000 slaves confronted the military. Lieutenant-Colonel John Thomas Leahy who had about 300 men under his command asked them what they wanted. They responded that they wanted to work for only two or three days a week. Leahy told them if they lay down their arms and returned home he would tell the Governor what they wanted. But perceiving that they were not interested in surrendering their arms he, accompanied by one of his officers, Captain John Croal, went up to them and again enquired what they wanted. They shouted that they wanted their freedom which the King had granted to them. Leahy then read the proclamation of martial law to them. When he completed the reading, Jack Gladstone, one of the slave leaders, showed him a copy of a letter signed by many plantation owners that they were not abused by the rebels.

One of the other leaders then suggested that they should hold Leahy and Croal as hostages, but Gladstone objected strongly and prevented such an occurrence. Many other rebels suggested that all the slaves should march to Georgetown to present their demands to the Governor, but Leahy discouraged this saying that if they did so they would all be hanged, and suggested that they should communicate to the Governor through him. He then gave them half an hour to decide to surrender their arms, failing which he would order his men to shoot. However, the rebels continued to show defiance and Leahy ordered his troops to open fire. Many of the slaves fled in confusion while some others quickly surrendered their weapons to the troops. In this savage crushing military action more than 250 were killed. A report prepared by Governor Murray two days later praised Leahy and his troops and noted that only one soldier was slightly injured while noting that “100 to 150” slaves were shot dead.

The uprising collapsed very quickly since the slaves, despite being armed, were poorly organised. After their defeat at Bachelor’s Adventure, the Governor proclaimed a full and free pardon to all slaves who surrendered within 48 hours, provided that they were not ringleaders of the rebellion. He also offered a reward of 1,000 guineas for the capture of Quamina whom he regarded as the main leader of the rebellion.

In the military sweeping-up exercises that followed, there were impromptu court-martials of captured slaves and those regarded as ringleaders were immediately after executed by firing-squad or by hanging. Many of the corpses were also decapitated and the heads were nailed on posts along the public road. Among those hanged was Telemachus of Bachelor’s Adventure who was regarded as a “ringleader” of the uprising at that location.

Some of the rebels who escaped were also hunted down and shot by Amerindian slave-catchers. Quamina himself was shot dead by these Amerindian slave-catchers in the back lands of Chateau Margot on 16 September and his body was later publicly hanged by the side of the public road at Success. Jack Gladstone was later arrested and also sentenced to be hanged; however, his sentence was commuted but he was sold and deported to St. Lucia in the British West Indies.

Out of an estimated 74,000 slaves in the united colony of Essequibo-Demerara about 13,000 took part in the uprising. And of the 350 plantations estates in the colony, only thirty-seven 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.

On 25 August, Governor Murray set up a “court-martial” headed by Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Arthur Goodman, for the trials of the arrested rebel slaves who were considered to be “ringleaders.” The trials which continued into early 1824 were conducted at different plantations and the prisoners were executed by shooting or hanging and their heads were cut off and nailed to posts. Over 200 Africans were beheaded and their heads placed on stakes at the Parade Ground in Georgetown and from Plaisance to Mahaica in East Demerara. Of those condemned to death, fourteen had their sentences commuted but, like Jack Gladstone, they were sold to other slave owners in the British West Indies.

In addition, there were other sentences, including solitary confinement and flogging of up to 1,000 lashes each. Some were also condemned to be chained for the rest of their servitude.

Rev. John Smith arrested and charged

Meanwhile, on the day of the Bachelor’s Adventure battle, the situation took a strange turn when Rev. John Smith was arrested and charged for encouraging the slaves to rebel. While awaiting trial, he was imprisoned in Colony House. His arrest, undoubtedly encouraged by many of the planters, was seen as an act of revenge against the priest for preaching to the slaves.

Despite being a civilian and charged for the crime allegedly committed before martial law was proclaimed, he faced a trial by a military court-martial presided by Lieutenant Colonel Goodman from 13 October to 24 November 1823. He was tried for four offences: promoting discontent and dissatisfaction in the minds of the slaves towards their masters, overseers and managers, and inciting rebellion; advising, consulting and corresponding with Quamina, and aiding and abetting him in the revolt; failure to make known the planned rebellion to the proper authorities; and not making efforts to suppress, detain and restrain Quamina once the rebellion was under way.

Smith denied the charges but, nevertheless, he remained imprisoned for seven weeks in Colony House before his trial took place. He was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged and was transferred from Colony House to the local prison. He appealed to the British government which subsequently ordered a commutation of the death sentence and restored his freedom. However, while awaiting information of the results of his appeal to arrive by ship from England, he died from pneumonia in the prison on 6 February 1824. To avoid the risk of stirring sentiment against the slave owners, the colonial authorities buried his body before daybreak but deliberately did not mark his grave.

The information that he was acquitted actually arrived in Georgetown on 30 March, weeks after his funeral. (Significantly, the appeals court in repealing his sentence also banned him from residing in British Guiana (Guyana) and any other British Caribbean territory and ordered him to post a bond of 2,000 pounds.) News of his death was later published in British newspapers; it caused great outrage throughout Great Britain and 200 petitions denouncing the actions of the colonial authorities were sent to the British Parliament.

In British Guiana (Guyana), the slaves regarded Rev. Smith’s death as a sacrifice which was made on their behalf, and soon after, they began referring to him as the “Demerara Martyr.”

The numerous petitions, including some by parliamentarians, and newspaper comments condemning the military trial and the death sentence on Rev. Smith finally resulted in a formal motion being raised in the British House of Commons. It called for the members to “declare that they contemplate with serious alarm and deep sorrow the violation of law and justice” in the trial of Rev. Smith and urged King George to adopt measures to enable the just and humane administration of law in Demerara to “protect the voluntary instructors of the Negroes, as well as the Negroes themselves and the rest of His Majesty’s subjects from oppression.”

The motion was presented by a Member of Parliament from the Opposition and it was debated on 1 June and 11 June 1824.

Speeches opposing the motion and supporting the trial by court martial were made by parliamentarians on the government side as well as ministers of the government, including the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, George Canning. Speaking in support of the motion were leading members of the Opposition, including the famous leader of the anti-slavery movement, William Wilberforce, but despite their strong arguments, the government majority voted against it.

The forceful speeches on both sides examined the trial of Rev. Smith through the perspective of various laws – British common law, Dutch law, British military law, Dutch military law and Demerara colonial law.

The debate also threw light on the political feelings of British lawmakers of the early nineteenth century regarding their opinions on slavery and British amelioration policies in British Guiana (Guyana) and the British Caribbean possessions. In addition, it exposed some of their views on the East Coast Demerara slave uprising of August 1823 which was a major blow to colonial rule and most likely helped to hasten the end of African slavery in the British colonial territories.

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  • Pedro  On 07/31/2020 at 2:34 pm

    Is Buxton,named after Howell Buxton, one of the MPs,in the British Parliament, who tried to pass legislation, for the freedom of slaves in the Britih colonies.

    • guyaneseonline  On 07/31/2020 at 5:37 pm

      Yes…. Buxton, the village on the East Coast of Demerara, about 12 miles from Georgetown is named after Howell Buxton.

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