The Demerara slave rebellion of 1823 staged to demand better conditions of service and not freedom

Stephen Nartey October 04, 2022
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It was a rebellion not staged to gain their freedom but one to press for good working conditions for the enslaved on the Demerara-Essequibo plantation in present-day Guyana.

The protagonists of this rebellion were a cooper on Plantation Success, Jack Gladstone, and his father, Quamina, who was a senior deacon at a church led by English protestant missionary, John Smith. 

They locked up plantation owners and slave owners during the night and compelled them to commit to improving their conditions on the plantations, according to BlackPast. 

Though this rebellion was quelled after the second consecutive day of its success, it inspired other enslaved people elsewhere to confront their owners to demand their labor rights. 

The Demerara Rebellion which occurred in 1823 caught national attention following the huge participation in it by thousands of enslaved Africans. The rebellion which attracted more than ten thousand enslaved people from the coast of South America lasted for two days. 

Historical records say the rebellion was not triggered by any cause, the slaves were simply fed up with the crude working conditions and decided to vent their displeasure. The protagonists of the revolt, Jack Gladstone and Quamina, kicked its preparations on August 17, 1823, at one of the largest estates at Plantation Success. 

Jack was for an uprising while Quamina pushed for a peaceful protest where the enslaved lay down their tools to press home their demands for better working conditions.

At a point, suggestions for the use of force forced Quamina and some leaders at the plantation to divulge plans of the rebellion to one of the slave owners by the name John Smith. 

Smith urged the leaders to calm down their followers assuring them of new laws to improve their working conditions. This message was carried out to the enslaved Africans but they vehemently opposed it and resolved to carry out their plot. 

They finally embarked on their rebellion on August 18, 1823, and made moves to seize the weaponry of the slave owners. The objective of the revolt was to lock their owners while they were asleep and get them to pledge to better their living conditions at the plantation. 

They did not perceive their rebellion as challenging the status quo but a simple protest aimed at demanding their labor rights as humans. The protesting slaves were however betrayed by some of their members who gave their owners prior notice of the group’s revolt. 

One of them was Joseph Packwood who alerted his owner, John Simpson, of the rebellion. The Governor at the time, John Murray, was informed of the rebellion, who in turn led armed officers to confront the agitating slaves. The Governor directed them to return to their plantations despite the slaves’ insistence on their demands. 

When the enslaved defied the Governor’s orders, he declared a state of emergency and launched a series of assaults on them. Scores of whites lost their lives in the Demerara rebellion, with 37 plantation owners and managers locked during the period of revolt. 

Historical documents say some slaves who deemed themselves Christians held back from participating in the rebellion and sought to dissuade others from joining. Other slaves on several plantations took inspiration from the revolt and confronted their owners for better working conditions. 

On the Bachelor’s Adventure Plantation, for instance, the enslaved marched to the offices of their owner, Lieutenant Colonel John Leahy, to demand an improvement in living conditions. He however asked his armed officers to open fire on the protestors killing at least 200 people. 

Large numbers of Christian slaves refused to rebel and helped suppress those who rose up. The Governor later launched a major crackdown on the agitators, with 200 killed for various roles played in the revolt. Others were hurriedly tried in kangaroo courts and summarily executed to dissuade future mutiny. 

The Governor deported Jack Gladstone to St. Lucia but his father, Quamina, was hunted down by sniffer dogs and Indians and later murdered in 1823.

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