Demerara Rebellion of 1823

Slave insurrewction in Demerara colony, August 18, 1823, Bachelor's Adventure, Plate 4, (Joshua Bryant, 1823)
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The Demerara Rebellion of 1823 was an uprising involving more than ten thousand enslaved people in the Crown colony of Demerara-Essequibo (now part of Guyana) on the coast of South America. The rebellion took place on August 18, 1823, and lasted two days. No particular incident sparked the rebellion; the enslaved simply grew tired of their servitude and sought to resist in the most direct way they could.

Planning for the rebellion began on August 17, 1823, at Plantation Success, one of the largest estates in the area. Two leaders emerged during the planning period: Jack Gladstone, who was a cooper on Plantation Success, and his father, Quamina, who was a senior deacon at a church led by John Smith who was an English Protestant missionary. Gladstone and others planned the uprising, but Quamina objected to any bloodshed and suggested instead that the enslaved should go on strike. Quamina and other leaders visited John Smith, informing him of his son’s plans.  Smith urged the enslaved to remain peaceful, exercise patience, and wait for new laws that would reduce their suffering. Quamina carried Smith’s message back to the plantations.

Quamina’s call to remain peaceful fell on deaf ears when the enslaved on Plantation Success rebelled the next evening, August 18, 1823. They attempted to seize all firearms on the plantation, lock up the whites during the night, and then present them to Sir John Murray, the governor of the colony, the next day with the demand for the colonial government to issue new laws regarding the treatment of the enslaved. They did not see their rebellion as a challenge to slavery itself. They did not call for the abolition of the institution in Demerara-Essequibo.

Most of the enslaved remained loyal to their masters. An enslaved house servant, Joseph Packwood, told his owner, John Simpson, about the planned revolt before it began. Simpson, in turn, informed Governor Murray who, leading militia, met a large group of enslaved people on the road. The enslaved demanded their rights. Governor Murray ordered them to return to their plantations. They refused and he declared martial law. Some returned to the plantations while others participated in the rebellion.

Only a handful of whites were killed during the Demerara rebellion. The rebels however did lock up owners, managers, and overseers on thirty-seven plantations, who did not flee to Georgetown, the colonial capital, when the rebellion began. Large numbers of Christian slaves refused to rebel and helped suppress those who rose up.

Other enslaved people confronted their owners and the military forces sent against them. On Bachelor’s Adventure Plantation, approximately two thousand enslaved people confronted Lieutenant Colonel John Leahy and his militia. When the enslaved refused Leahy’s order to disperse, he commanded his troops to fire into the crowd. Approximately two hundred people were shot dead.

Although the rebellion ended on Tuesday, August 19, the punishment that came afterward was severe. Hundreds of rebels were hunted down and killed, including two hundred who were beheaded as a warning to other enslaved people. Fourteen rebels were hastily tried and sentenced to be hanged. Governor Murray commuted their sentences and had them deported to other Caribbean islands. Jack Gladstone was deported to St. Lucia. His father, Quamina, who had argued against the revolt, was tracked down by dogs and Indians and killed in September 1823.