August 2023 marks the bicentenary of one of the most important revolts by enslaved people in the history of the British Empire, taking place in what was then Demerara (later part of British Guiana, now Guyana) on the Caribbean coast of mainland South America in 1823.1 The uprising came in the aftermath of the victorious Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804, which represented a massive blow against slavery, colonialism and racism, establishing the first independent black republic outside of Africa. This was followed, in 1816, by some 4,000 enslaved people in one of the oldest British colonies in the West Indies, Barbados, rising up in what became known as Bussa’s Rebellion.2 This was brutally crushed. Yet, just seven years later, revolt erupted again, this time in one of the newest colonial territories in the British Caribbean, and on an even greater scale, involving at least 9,000 rebels. The Demerara Rebellion—one of the greatest historic movements demanding that “Black Lives Matter!”—took place in a colony with much greater revolutionary potentialities than those on the tiny island of Barbados. The form the revolt of the enslaved took was also surprisingly modern in its “strike-like” character, though this should perhaps be expected since many of the plantations at the very centre of the revolt were essentially huge “sugar factories”. Indeed, according to the leading historian of the revolt, Emilia Viotta da Costa, in her 1994 book Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823, the exploitative slavery-based society of Demerara itself “functioned almost like a factory”. In the colony, as da Costa noted, “A tiny minority of whites (soldiers, merchants, clerks, doctors, attorneys, managers and other plantation employees), amounting at the time of the rebellion to only about 4 percent of the total population, as well as an equally small number of free blacks, lived surrounded by an overwhelming slave majority”.3 This essay will outline and examine the heroic and inspirational rebellion itself, but also explore its “proto-proletarian” character. It will ask whether the dynamic of the revolt can be illuminated by viewing it as an instance of “collective bargaining by slave revolt” (to borrow from the phrase “collective bargaining by riot” coined by Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm in his description of the machine breaking carried out by the Luddites of the early British working-class movement).4
Demerara: the development of a slave society
In 1823, Demerara and its neighbouring colony, Essequibo, had a total population of 80,000 people, with a small white colonial elite of some 2,500 or so massively outnumbered by an enslaved population of 75,000. About 46 percent of these enslaved people had been born in Africa and survived the dreaded “Middle Passage” route to the Americas. The 25-mile coast east of the Demerara River (known as the “East Coast”), where the rebellion began had, according to da Costa, “perhaps the highest concentration of slaves in the West Indies”. These were spread across 71 plantations. Half produced sugar, though only 11 did so exclusively, with cotton and coffee also key products.5 Though the three colonies of Demerara, Essequibo and Berbice first came under European control with the arrival of the Dutch West India Company in the mid-17th century, it was a century before the settlement of Demerara by Europeans was enabled given the flooding along its coastal lowlands. The Dutch made plantations possible in flooded Demerara, using their accumulated knowledge of how to deal with land below sea level back home, and now they put the enslaved to work building dams and canals. The transformation of these colonies into slave societies by the Dutch and other European planters engendered a rich tradition of resistance among the enslaved almost immediately. The region’s physical geography and topography made marronage—enslaved people running away from the plantations and forming independent “Maroon” communities—much easier than, for example, on a tiny and relatively flat island such as Barbados. However, alongside flight as a form of resistance, open slave revolts also took place. Such rebellions took place in Bernice in 1733, 1749 and 1752. Perhaps most remarkably, a rebel slave army led by Kofi, an Akan man abducted from West Africa by slavers, controlled the colony and kept European forces at bay for almost a year in 1762-3. In response, the Dutch developed a particularly cruel tradition of barbaric retribution. In 1790, for example, the following sentences were carried out on captured Maroons in another nearby Dutch colony, Suriname:
The Negro Joosje shall be hanged from the gibbet by an iron hook through his ribs until dead; his head shall then be severed and displayed on a stake by the riverbank, remaining to be picked over by birds of prey. As for the Negroes Wierai and Manbote, they shall be bound to a stake and roasted alive over a slow fire while being tortured with glowing tongs. The Negro girls, Lucretia, Ambia, Aga, Gomba, Marie and Victoria, will be tied to a cross to be broken alive, and their heads severed to be exposed by the riverbank on stakes.6
Similar repression met later small local uprisings and conspiracies by the enslaved in Demerara, which broke out in 1794-95, 1809 and 1812. These drew on “the common wind” of knowledge of the possibilities of rebellion in the era of the Haitian Revolution.7
Between 1780 and 1803, control of Demerara changed hands six times between Britain, France and the Netherlands, before it was ultimately incorporated into the British Empire in 1803, with most plantations in the hands of British owners. Planters from Barbados and other “old” British colonies, in which the soil was becoming exhausted due to the practice of monoculture in sugar production, came to the new “frontier” colonies of Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo. They were attracted by the fertile soil reclaimed from the sea, the flat land, the useful system of canals and rivers, and the freedom from hurricanes, which were common elsewhere.8 As historian Michael Craton notes, “These new colonies attracted an aggressive new breed of absentee capitalists, such as John Gladstone”, the father of future British prime minister William Gladstone.9 Tensions developed between Dutch and British planters over issues such as the renaming of the capital city from Stabroek to Georgetown in honour of King George III. The British prided themselves on their claims to be more fair and “benign” than the “savage” and “brutal” Dutch planters; for instance, they abolished the breaking of criminals on the wheel, using more “humane” forms of punishment.10 The British were also proud of their more efficient plantations. These produced not only sugar (though this became increasingly important, especially after 1815), but also cotton and coffee. Henry Bolingbroke, an Englishman who lived in Demerara from 1799 to 1805, working as a clerk for a merchant’s house, claimed that the ambition of the Dutch planter was “to make his plantation look like a garden, while that of the Englishman is to get the greatest quantity of cotton under cultivation possible, as it has been found by the experience of a series of years that the quantity and not the quality constitutes the profit of the crop”.11 Da Costa records that, before 1808, “For a short period, the colonies of Demerara, Essequibo, and Berbice were the greatest cotton producers in the world”.12
An intensification of pressure on the enslaved under British colonial control, all in the name of efficiency, took place amid rising competition internationally. Declining sugar prices were especially felt after 1807, when the British Empire ended its official participation in the Atlantic slave trade, and the British planters had to compete with those sugar producers still importing enslaved Africans as labour into Cuba and Brazil. All this led to rising tensions between the enslaved and the planter class. The British steadily encroached on all of the very limited “rights” for the enslaved that had been established under the Dutch, such as the 1772 “Rule on the Treatment of Servants and Slaves”. This prohibited the punishment of slaves by whipping with more than 25 lashes and obliged the establishment of an acre of provision grounds for every five enslaved people. It also allowed the enslaved to sell their own produce at Sunday markets in Mahaica and Georgetown. The owners had to supply the enslaved with cloth and were forbidden to force them to work on Sundays and public holidays, when they preferred to work on their own provision grounds, or “gardens”, unless an emergency such as flooding required “urgent” work on the main plantation.13 Da Costa writes, “Every traveller who visited Demerara in the early period marvelled at the slaves’ gardens, where they grew yams, corn and a variety of squashes. They also raised chickens, ducks, goats, turkeys and (more rarely) pigs”.14 A “fiscal” official was assigned to monitor all this, and the enslaved could appeal for redress—a custom kept by the British, albeit more honoured in the breach than the observance. British planters did their best to ensure the enslaved worked on the plantation on Sundays, even when the work was clearly not “urgent”.15
Under British rule, planters also more generally ramped up the rate of exploitation of the enslaved, while failing to provide adequate food and medical treatment. As da Costa notes, “Medicine was often primitive, most doctors were careless and ill-trained, and the ‘sick houses’ looked more like prisons than hospitals, since it was there that slaves were usually locked up in stocks”.16 Managers forced the enslaved to labour when sick because they suspected them of feigning illness to get time off work. This led to high mortality rates, especially among children, which was a problem for the planters because enslaved women were treated so badly there was a generally low birth rate anyway.17 “Task gangs” of the enslaved were the most heavily exploited, having none of the customary protections arising from residency because they were often moved around from plantation to plantation. Families and friends were torn apart regularly in the name of profit-making for the planter-class.18 In August 1823, a member of the London Missionary Society, Reverend John Smith, who had been in Demerara since 1817, explained, “Ever since I have been in the colony, the slaves have been most grievously oppressed”:
A most immoderate quantity of work has, very generally, been exacted of them, not excepting women far advanced in pregnancy. When sick they have been commonly neglected, ill-treated or half-starved. Their punishments have been frequent and severe. Redress they have so seldom been able to obtain that many of them have long discontinued to seek it, even when they have been notoriously wronged… The whip has been used with an unsparing hand.19
One morning, Smith wrote in his diary:
The first thing as usual that I heard was the whip. From half past six until half past nine, my ears were pained by the whip. Surely, these things will awaken the vengeance of a merciful God.
The law officially authorised 39 strokes of the whip, and a master or manager was to be present, but these rules were regularly flouted when flogging took place. Smith and his wife, Jane, were once horrified to count 140 or 141 strokes being administered.20
There had always—as in any colony—been long-standing tensions between the local government in the colonial periphery and the state in the imperial metropole. For example, the rising popularity in Britain of ideas of “free trade” (that is, free trade into Britain, not freedom for British colonies to sell their goods on the open market) provoked fear among colonists that they would lose protected access to the British market for their sugar.
The growing presence of missionaries from Britain such as Smith also started to exacerbate these animosities as well as intensifying tensions between masters and slaves. The planter class across the British West Indies reluctantly agreed to the presence of missionaries in order to help keep the enslaved quiescent and encourage “Christian” values of obedience and loyalty to authority. A London Missionary Society training report instructed its missionaries:
Some of the gentlemen who own the estates, the masters of slaves, are unfriendly towards their instruction. Not a word must escape you in public or private that might render the slaves displeased with their masters or dissatisfied with their station. You are not sent to relieve them from their servile condition, but to afford them the consolation of religion and to enforce upon them the necessity of being “subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake” (Romans, 13:5; 1 Peter 2:19). The holy gospel you preach will render the slaves who receive it the most diligent, faithful, patient and useful servants. It will render severe discipline unnecessary and make them the most valuable slaves on the estates. Thus, you will recommend yourself and your ministry even to those gentlemen who may have been averse to the religious instruction of the Negroes.21
Despite such recommendations, other attitudes were also at play. Many missionaries were Methodists, a denomination that, like all forms of religion, had the potential to be subversive. In Britain, an Ipswich country parson once complained about the field labourers who had converted to Methodism and now spread the idea that “corn and all the other fruits of the earth are grown and intended by providence as much for the poor as the rich”. These rural labourers were less content with their wages and with working conditions. Moreover, they were less ready “to work extraordinary hours as the exigencies of their masters might require”, but instead wasted evenings and weekends going to hear preachers and singing hymns “in some of the poorest cottages as late an hour as nine”.22 The missionaries themselves tended to come from the labouring classes rather than from among the landowners. When the London Missionary Society was founded in 1795, it defined its goal as “to promote the happiness of man and the honour of God”, and it claimed to address all social classes without distinction.23
Amid the French and Haitian Revolutions, the Radical Enlightenment’s ideas about universal human rights were in the air. Thomas Hardy of the London Corresponding Society, a shoemaker and radical, worked alongside black abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano, arguing that the rights of man “extended to the whole human race, black and white, high and low, rich and poor”.24 In the context of rising anti-slavery sentiment and a growing abolitionist movement in Britain in the run up to the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, many Christians now saw slavery as a sin. When missionaries such as Smith arrived in societies such as Demerara, seeing the horrific reality of enslavement all around them, this only confirmed whatever latent anti-slavery feelings they may have harboured before their arrival. Furthermore, the missionaries had to express their sympathy and even a degree of solidarity with the enslaved if they were to be successful in their own terms by building up their “flock”. They also had to insist that Sunday, the sabbath, be respected and not treated as a work day. The missionaries organised night-time meetings and attracted large numbers of enslaved people from across different plantations to the chapels.25 Many of the enslaved converted to Christianity as a result. In 1814, a letter allegedly written by Jesus Christ circulated in Demerara, forbidding people to work on the sabbath, and several black people bought copies for five shillings a piece.26 By 1817, Reverend Smith’s Bethel Chapel was attended by 800 enslaved people every Sunday, with some 2,000 in receipt of his religious instruction.27
It is no wonder the local planters—who saw the whip as a better form of “instruction” than teaching the enslaved to read religious catechisms—were worried by these developments and quickly found cause for complaint about missionary activity. In 1808, The Essequebo and Demerary Royal Gazette condemned the London Missionary Society for sending “precarious preachers of a pretended enlightening doctrine”, who “announced equal rights and universal liberty” and “spoke as philosophers”.28 Da Costa noted, “The colonists were not wrong in recognising that the missionaries were preaching a new way of seeing the world: a way more suitable to a society of free labourers, a way that could undermine the moral foundations of colonial society”.29 When Smith arrived in Demerara, he was told by the governor, Major-General John Murray, himself the owner of a plantation, “If you ever teach a Negro to read, and I hear of it, I will banish you from the colony immediately”.30
On the surface, Demerara appeared a place of calm where nothing of much significance happened. In 1819, the editor of the Royal Gazette noted “in such small communities as colonies generally are, domestic occurrences worth mentioning scarcely take place”.31 Yet, Demerara was a mass of contradictions ready to explode. Indeed, in the very same year, it was clear to more far-sighted observers and those who took the time to grasp the reality of life for the enslaved that things were very far from calm. In March 1819, Reverend Smith’s diary recorded, “I observed in the slaves a spirit of mummering and dissatisfaction. Nor should I wonder if it were to break into open rebellion”.32 Conspiracies and arson attacks become increasingly frequent, as was the practice of enslaved people running away into the local “bush” for extended periods before returning.
On 23 May 1823, Governor Murray reissued a circular from 1811 that tightened restrictions, allowing enslaved people to attend only one specific Sunday religious service and only under an overseer’s supervision. The decision was a response to rising numbers of “runaways”, but it became a key trigger for the revolt.33 Another important factor was the growing abolitionist movement in Britain and the pressure this increasingly exerted in parliament, which was then regularly helping to create disorder in slave societies. In 1807, when the abolition of the slave trade in the British Empire was passed into law, a petition written by West Indian planters and merchants cautioned about the consequences for Jamaica due to its proximity to newly independent Haiti. They warned, “The petitioners must view with alarm a renewed discussion of this question in a period when the existence of a black power in the neighbourhood of the most important British island in the West Indies affords a memorable and dreadful lesson”.34 News of the 1815 Registry Bill, which demanded that the planters register the numbers of people they held in bondage, threw the colony of Barbados into revolt when the enslaved interpreted it as signalling the end of slavery. As Murray put it, the slaves in Barbados had been “misled” into thinking the British king had ordered them to be freed; this was, he explained, “not in the nature of things”, because “slavery has existed since the world was made… The holy Bible commands slaves to be obedient to their masters, and they must be so”.35
Now once again rising abolitionist pressure and activity in Britain triggered revolt in the empire’s “Gulag Archipelago” of forced labour camps strung across the Caribbean. In January 1823, the Society for the Mitigation and Gradual Abolition of Slavery Throughout the British Dominions was founded to push for a gradual end to slavery across the British Empire, and abolitionist parliamentarian William Wilberforce introduced a Quaker petition for the abolition of slavery to the House of Commons in March. In May, Wilberforce published “An Appeal to the Religion, Justice and Humanity of the Inhabitants of the British Empire, on behalf of the Negro Slaves in the West Indies”, which called on fellow Britons “to commence, without delay, the preparatory measures for putting an end to a national crime of the deepest moral malignity”.36 The same month, Thomas Fowell Buxton presented a motion to the House of Commons declaring that “the state of slavery is repugnant to the principles of the British constitution and the Christian religion” and “that it ought to be abolished gradually throughout the British colonies, with as much expedition as may be found consistent with a due regard to the well-being of the parties concerned”.37 After pressure from the so-called West India Interest of slave-owning lobbyists in parliament, a compromise was reached whereby steps would be taken to “ameliorate” conditions for the enslaved. The stated aim was “a progressive improvement in the character of the slave population, such as may prepare them for participation in the civil rights and privileges that are enjoyed in other classes of His Majesty’s subjects”.38 Concretely, the colonial secretary acted on this by recommending to local colonial governors such as Murray that planters no longer use whips in the fields and that the flogging of enslaved women be prohibited. These measures were designed to help raise the birth rate so the enslaved population might be better able to reproduce itself.39 There was talk of other reforms and recommendations to come, such as freeing children born into slavery after a certain date, but details were hazy.
In July 1823, news of these “new laws” reached the enslaved in Demerara, who overheard discussions among their masters about what they might mean.40 They were already keenly aware of the existence of a strong abolitionist movement in Britain, as well as struggles against slavery in places such as Barbados. One enslaved man was told by an overseer while being whipped that the punishment was meted out because he would not “do any work” since he already knew he would soon be free and refused to patiently “wait till your freedom is given to you, but wish to take it yourself”.41 A network of leading figures among the enslaved in Demerara now began meeting together to organise. As da Costa noted, “The leaders had been recruited mostly among skilled slaves: artisans and drivers, but also boatmen and engineers.” These men—such as Jack Gladstone, a 30 year old cooper—had the relative degrees of privilege that enabled them to move around the colony.42
On Sunday 17 August, a final “council” meeting of the rebel leadership was held on the Success plantation, where two leading figures were based: Jack Gladstone and his African-born father, Quamina. The plantation was owned by John Gladstone, with Jack surnamed after the master in line with convention. Quamina was the first deacon at the Bethel Chapel run by Reverend Smith, though Jack Gladstone was described by Jane Smith as “a dissolute and gay young man, very irregular in his attendance at the chapel”. The rebels’ council meeting saw conflicting strategies put forward, which was not helped by the limited information at its disposal about what exactly the British government’s “new laws” meant. The participants had more questions than answers. What would be the real effect of the “new laws”? Was a new governor now on the way?
Nonetheless, the rebels had some sense of the trajectories and outcomes of previous revolts both in Demerara and elsewhere in the Caribbean, and these were a source of lessons. Sandy, an enslaved rebel from the Non Pareil sugar estate, made reference to an attempt at direct armed insurrection that was bloodily repressed: “We must contrive it better than the Barbados business.” He proposed that they simply lay down their tools and ask for another free day aside from Sunday—essentially a mass strike. This was, however, rejected by the majority of those gathered, who wanted more than just one more day; they wanted freedom. Moreover, as Paris, another rebel, put it, if they just laid down their tools, they would be shot “like fools”.43
The rebel leadership agreed instead to what can perhaps be described as a form of “collective bargaining by slave revolt”. They were to rise the following evening, on Monday 18 August, with a plan to spread the revolt from plantation to plantation, confining managers and overseers in the stocks “for fear they should escape to town and send the troops up before daylight”. The plan also involved securing control of arms and ammunition. After three days of a mass strike, they would go to the governor and demand their freedom and “rights”. These demands would be insisted upon by the strength of numbers at their disposal and backed up by force if necessary. If they did not get freedom immediately, they hoped this type of negotiation might at least secure three days off work every week, which would enable them to both attend religious services and tend to their gardens.44
The exact role force should play was contested, though they agreed that, if no white person was harmed, “no complaint might be made against us”. Speaking at a trial after these events, one rebel, Bristol, mentioned that Jack Gladstone and some others had said everybody should fight the whites and that “if they could do no better, they would go to the bush”.45 Many rebels certainly hoped the Maroon communities around the colony (known at the time as “Bush Negroes”) would join with them after they had risen up, demonstrating that the Maroons long symbolised freedom among the enslaved. Moreover, any revolt clearly had the potential to spread to the neighbouring colonies of Berbice and Essequibo.46 Nonetheless, Quamina urged caution, calling on the rebels to wait until they had clearer guidance on what exactly the “new laws” meant before launching the revolt. According to a rebel present during this discussion, Quamina advised, “Tomorrow morning, you must put down your shovel, hoe and cutlass, and sit in the house.” Jack Gladstone dismissed his father curtly: “You are an old fool; the thing people have got, you won’t let them have.” The revolt began on the evening of Monday 18 August, despite Quamina’s efforts to try and get the whole thing called off at the last minute.47
Remarkably, as Trinidadian historian Eric Williams pointed out, “The revolt was so carefully and secretly planned that it took the planters unawares”.48 To describe the form the uprising took when it erupted on that Monday night, one can do little better than quote da Costa at length:
The rebellion started at Success and quickly spread to neighbouring plantations. Beginning around six o’clock in the evening, to the sound of seashell horns and drums, and continuing through the night, between 9,000 and 12,000 slaves from about 60 East Coast plantations surrounded the main houses, put overseers and managers in the stocks, and seized their arms and ammunition. When they met resistance, they used force. Years of frustration and repression were suddenly released. For a short time, slaves turned the world upside down. Slaves became masters, and masters became slaves. Just as masters had uprooted them from their traditional environment and culture, appropriated their labour, given them new names, forced them to learn a language, and imposed on them new roles, slaves appropriated their masters’ language and their symbols of power and property. Slaves spoke of laws coming out of England. They spoke of “rights”. They spoke of the king, Wilberforce and “the powerful men in England”. They used their masters’ whips and put their masters in the stocks. They broke doors and windows, destroyed furniture and set buildings afire. They whipped managers and masters, stole their clothes and money, drank their wine. When whites fired at them, they shot back. By the middle of the night, the old African shells and drums were silent. Only the sound of European guns was heard.49
The revolt was truly a festival of the oppressed and exploited. The tables were turned; enslaved people who were destined to be put in the stocks before the revolt now enjoyed taunting their managers and overseers: “You had me in the stocks yesterday. I have you now”.50 One particularly cruel manager was informed that he was as “a very wicked fellow…a second Pharaoh” and told that the overseers deserved to have their heads taken off.51
Women came to the fore, verbally abusing cruel masters and overseers, whipping them with bamboos and slapping their faces, and cheering on the men when they passed by armed with weapons.52 Lachlan Cuming, the owner of the Chateau Margo plantation, had been put in stocks with the manager and overseers “to the infinite diversion of the Negro women, whom the manager had treated with great severity. They now “took it out on him by each saluting him…with a slap on the face”.53 The women invariably proved more militant than the sometimes cautious official leaders of the revolt, who were keen to keep it non-violent. In some senses, the rebel leadership acted as proto-trade union leaders, trying to get the revolt into a position from which they could make a deal with the governor. Nonetheless, at every point, the uprising threatened to get out of their control. Amba, a woman who belonged to the Enterprise plantation, carried a musket and urged the rebels to use force as and when necessary: “You allow buckra man to knock down so many of you? Take for me gun and shoot him”.54
On Monday night, the governor himself was unexpectedly confronted by some 40 rebels armed with cutlasses while he was travelling to Georgetown. He asked what they wanted and was simply told, “Our rights.” He informed them of his instructions from Britain regarding the abolition of flogging for women and the prohibition on whips in the fields, but this was met with a cool response. As he later recalled:
I expostulated the beneficent views of His Majesty for bettering their condition and explained the abolition of the flogging of female slaves and the carrying of whips in the field as but the first steps to the intended measures. These things, they said, were no comfort to them—God had made them of the same flesh and blood as the whites, they were tired of being slaves, their good king had sent orders that they should be free, and they would not work anymore.55
As the number of armed rebels around Murray swelled to 200, he quickly made his exit and hurried onto Georgetown rather than try and negotiate further. He summoned the colonial volunteer militia and declared martial law. Two military units, the 21st (Royal North British) Fusiliers Regiment of Foot and the 1st West Indian Regiment, were also sent to the East Coast to restore “order”.56 By the following evening, the militia had joined up with the regular troops in a force of about 400 to 500 men under the command of Lieutenant Colonel John Leahy, a veteran of the Napoleonic wars. They marched to the Bachelor’s Adventure plantation, only to find themselves surrounded by a force perhaps ten times their number, some 3-4000 rebels, all armed with cutlasses or muskets. John Cheveley, a merchant clerk from Liverpool, who was there as a member of the colonial militia, described the scene: “It was an awful moment of suspense… Everyone felt that the crisis had arrived when it was to be decided who should be master”.57
Leading officers now approached the rebels and asked what they wanted. The response made reference to the supposed liberation order from the British king: “Massa treat arl too bad, make we work Sundays, no let we go chapel, no give time for work in we garden, lick arl we took much. We hear for true great buckra give we free, and massa no let we hab nothing”.58 Jack Gladstone handed over a piece of paper, signed by several captive managers, saying they had been well treated by rebels. In return, he was given the governor’s order declaring martial law. The rebels were told to lay down their weapons and return to work but, to their great credit, they refused to move. Instead, an uneasy standoff continued for about an hour, with soldiers and rebels stood watching each other. The deadlock was broken by some of the rank and file rebels, who cried out, “Catch the big buckra! Tie um! Tie um!” In response, Leahy ordered his troops to open fire. Though some rebels were armed with muskets and returned fire, too few of them had guns, and they were inexperienced with the use of their firearms. They were soon outgunned by the professional soldiers, who discharged volley after volley into the rebel ranks. As the rebels ran for cover, some 200 were shot down, with only one colonial soldier—the bugler—killed in return; indeed, even he was felled by “friendly fire” from his own side. Just a few other soldiers were left injured.59
The scattered rebels that remained now retreated into the bush and adopted guerrilla war tactics, with some remarkably holding out for weeks. However, the revolt was essentially over, brutally crushed under the iron heel of Leahy, whose military detachments now made their way to Mahaica. They freed managers and overseers from the stocks, restoring order on the plantations in the classically brutal counter-revolutionary manner that followed all such slave insurgencies.60 Even managers and overseers were unable to save the lives of their own “property” if Leahy deemed—on the flimsiest of evidence—a particular enslaved person to be one of the ringleaders. According to the governor’s official records, some 225 enslaved people were killed or wounded in the three days of the rebellion, in which an estimated 9,000 slaves took part; yet, perhaps only two or three white people were killed.61 In the aftermath, Governor Murray helped split the rebels’ ranks by playing a clever game of divide and rule between “good” and “bad” slaves. He promised mercy to those who had not rebelled and returned to their plantations within 24 hours, and he also validated the amelioration recommendations ordered from Britain. Meanwhile, rebels would be punished with no mercy. Leahy was well rewarded for his brutality in putting down the rebellion, awarded more than 1,000 guineas for his “brave” and “loyal” services.62
On 25 August, the trials of 72 enslaved people suspected of being leaders of the revolt began. Alleged rebels were charged with “having, on or about the night of the Monday 18 August last, been in open revolt and rebellion and actively engaged therein, against the peace of our sovereign lord, the king, and the laws in force within this colony, and also aiding and assisting others in such rebellion”. Some 51 were condemned to death; ten of these were decapitated, and their heads were stuck on poles as a warning to others.63 Another 16 were sentenced to 1,000 lashes—essentially a death sentence—and others received lengthy prison sentences.64 Quamina pledged that no white man would take him alive, and he went on the run before being hunted down and shot. His body was then hung up in a gibbet and chains outside the Success plantation.65 The corpse was displayed as a grisly warning: “A colony of wasps actually built a nest in the cavity of the stomach, and they were flying in and out of the jaws, which hung frightfully open”.66 Jack Gladstone, who was finally tracked down and captured in September, was promised banishment to the British colony of St Lucia rather than death if he testified against Reverend Smith, who the colonists were determined to blame as the “outside agitator” directly responsible for the revolt. In October, Smith stood trial, charged with inciting slaves to rebellion, and was condemned to hanging for complicity in the uprising. On 6 February 1824, he died from maltreatment and tuberculosis after six months in prison while awaiting a king’s pardon that came a week too late. He was aged only 34 years old.67
Sir John Gladstone (who, by 1833, would come to own some 2,000 slaves across a number of plantations, for which he was handsomely compensated at the time of emancipation) welcomed the death of Smith because “his release would have been followed by much cavil and discussion” in Britain.68 Nonetheless, his death also provoked much “cavil and discussion”; Smith became a martyr for the abolition movement in Britain, which radicalised in the wake of the rebellion. Da Costa argues that many British workers saw “the slaves’ struggle for freedom in Demerara and Smith’s trial as evidence of the evils of an oppressive system”. This system “was still defended by some members of parliament”, who not only represented the interests of the slave-owning colonialists in the West Indies, “but were also deciding the fate of the British people at home”:
These British working people saw Smith as a martyr for the cause of freedom and justice, and the slaves were viewed as victims of the arbitrariness of masters and royal authorities. By rallying to support emancipation, working men and women gained a new impetus to fight against their own oppression.69
In the British abolition movement, too, women proved more radical than the official leadership. Abolitionist activist Elizabeth Heyrick, inspired by the Demerara Rebellion, penned her influential pamphlet, Immediate, not Gradual Abolition, in 1824. This work called for more than expressions of sympathy with the enslaved, instead championing their rights to freedom and to revolt: “Was it not in the cause of self-defence from the most degrading and intolerable oppression?” Heyrick took gradualists such as Wilberforce to task for their “slow, cautious, accommodating measures”:
The abolitionists have shown a great deal too much politeness and accommodation towards these gentlemen, the West Indian planters… Truth and justice make their best way in the world when they appear in bold and simple majesty.70
Women set up their own “ladies’” abolitionist groups. A chair of one of these groups responded to Wilberforce by writing:
Men may propose only gradually to abolish the worst of crimes and only mitigate the most evil bondage… We must not talk of gradually abolishing murder, licentiousness, cruelty, tyranny, keeping stolen men, parting husbands and wives, and so on. I trust no ladies’ association will ever be found with such words attached to it.71
By 1831, the official Anti-Slavery Society in Britain was split. A more radical offshoot led by younger activists, who were inspired by Heyrick’s arguments, formed the Agency Committee of the Anti-Slavery Society, before breaking away. Immediate emancipation was their goal, and they began to launch mass campaigns.72
Back in Demerara, resistance was not extinguished by the continuation of martial law and the return of “normality”. In 1824, the new governor commented, “The spirit of discontent is anything but extinct; it is alive as if it were under its ashes… The Negro mind…is still agitated, jealous and suspicious”.73 The same year, one local manager described how “no class of people are more alive to their own rights than the slave population of this country… When these happen—at any time or in any way—to be the least infringed upon, they do not hesitate to apply for redress”.74 According to Walter Rodney, revolutionary historian and one of Guyana’s greatest sons, “Endemic slave revolts during the 1820s had taught the lesson that slavery as a form of control over labour was proving uneconomical and unstable”.75
After the governor of Barbados heard of the uprising in Demerara, he warned the British colonial secretary, “Now the ball has begun to roll nobody can say when or where it is to stop”.76 The rising wave of revolts would intensify, reaching its crescendo within a decade with the great Jamaican rebellion of 1831-2. This insurrection, involving some 60,000 enslaved rebels, struck the decisive blow that finally forced the British Empire to end slavery one year later in 1833—just ten years after the great Demerara Rebellion.77 Again, the events in Jamaica took, in many ways, the form of a “mass strike”, although the “proto-proletarian” dynamics at work in these events—as in Demerara in 1823—were embedded within other dynamics. The enslaved’s struggle for the right to tend to their provision grounds in both Demerara and Jamaica revealed the sense in which they also acted as a “proto-peasantry”. Additionally, older ideas of “kingship”, drawing on African traditions and belief systems, were still popular. Nonetheless, it should be remembered that the rebels in both Demerara and Jamaica had the dream of going way beyond “collective bargaining” with their exploiters. Instead, following the inspirational Haitian Revolution, they made a bid for complete emancipation from both slavery and colonial domination. Da Costa noted, according to one Telemachus, a captured rebel leader, “If the rebellion succeeded, Quamina was to be king, and Jack Gladstone would be governor… The ‘white ladies’ were to be allowed to leave the colony, but the white men would be put to work in the fields”.78
For those of us in Britain, the bicentenary of the inspiring Demerara Rebellion should not only be remembered and honoured, but also used to further build and strengthen the developing movement for reparations. The recent publication of Thomas Harding’s White Debt: The Demerara Uprising and Britain’s Legacy of Slavery is enormously helpful, telling the story of the rebellion in an accessible and thought-provoking manner and focusing on the central individuals involved. Yet, Harding—as the title of his work makes clear enough—downplays the class and capitalist dimensions of both the revolt and colonial slavery more generally. Socialists must instead build on historians and theorists such as C L R James and Eric Williams in order to highlight such connections.79 We must also use the bicentenary to advance the struggle for reparative justice, insisting, for instance, that we acclaim rebels such as Jack Gladstone in Britain rather than William Gladstone, the son of Jack’s brutal, criminal slave owner. Indeed, William Gladstone was, in his own right, a champion of the exploition of indentured labourers from Asia after slavery ended in the Caribbean. Until Jack Gladstone is more famous and honoured in Britain than William Gladstone, it may be said that the fight to “decolonise the curriculum” of schools, colleges and universities remains unfinished.
Christian Høgsbjerg teaches history at the University of Brighton and is author of Atlantic History in 15 Slave Revolts: Resistance, Rebellion and Abolition from Below (Bloomsbury, forthcoming).
1 Thanks to Anita Rupprecht and Nigel Westmaas for their comments on this article in draft. For an excellent recent overview of the rebellion that discusses its legacy for Guyana today, see Westmaas, 2023.
2 For a brief overview of the Bussa Rebellion, see Høgsbjerg, 2016.
3 Da Costa, 1994, p46.
4 Hobsbawm, 1964, p7.
5 Da Costa, 1994, pp47 and 217.
6 Craton, 2009, p273. A gibbet is a wooden post or a human-shaped iron cage used in executions and to display the bodies of those executed.
7 Da Costa, 1994, p80. Scott, 2018.
8 Da Costa, 1994, pp19-20.
9 Craton, 2009, p267.
10 Da Costa, 1994, p22, 24.
11 Da Costa, 1994, p41.
12 Da Costa,1994, p28.
13 Da Costa, 1994, pp44-45.
14 Da Costa, 1994, p52.
15 Da Costa, 1994, p45.
16 Da Costa, 1994, p53.
17 Da Costa, 1994, p55.
18 Craton, 2009, p269; da Costa, 1994, p61.
19 Harding, 2022, p122; Craton, 2009, p269.
20 Da Costa, 1994, pp153-154.
21 Da Costa, 1994, p14; Harding, 2022, p25; Craton, 2009, p246.
22 Da Costa, 1994, p10.
23 Da Costa, 1994, p16.
24 Da Costa, 1994, p5.
25 Da Costa, 1994, p113.
26 Da Costa, 1994, p106.
27 Blackburn, 1988, p429.
28 Da Costa, 1994, p10.
29 Da Costa, 1994, p14.
30 Harding, 2022, p30.
31 Da Costa, 1994, p23.
32 Da Costa, 1994, p153.
33 Da Costa, 1994, p174.
34 Da Costa, 1994, p22.
35 Da Costa, 1994, p78.
36 Da Costa, 1994, p34; Hague, 2009, p478.
37 Da Costa, 1994, p177.
38 Hague, 2009, p480.
39 Hague, 2008, p483; da Costa, 1994, p178.
40 Da Costa, 1994, p178.
41 Da Costa, 1994, p179.
42 Da Costa, 1994, p198.
43 Da Costa, 1994, p196, 229; Craton, 2009, pp280-281.
44 Da Costa, 1994, pp196 and 199.
45 Da Costa, 1994, p173; Craton, 2009, p280.
46 Da Costa, 1994, p186; Alston, 2023.
47 Da Costa, 1994, pp196-97.
48 Williams, 2022, p194.
49 Da Costa, 1994, pp197-98.
50 Da Costa, 1994, p199.
51 Da Costa, 1994, p201.
52 Da Costa, 1994, p192.
53 Da Costa, 1994, p220; Harding, 2022, p131.
54 Da Costa, 1994, p192. “Buckra” is a word used in the South of the United States and in the Caribbean to refer to white people. Its etymological origin lies in the Ibibio and Efik languages of West Africa.
55 Dadzie, 2020, p90; da Costa, 1994, p216.
56 Da Costa, 1994, p217.
57 Da Costa, 1994, p220.
58 Da Costa, 1994, p221.
59 Da Costa, 1994, p221.
60 Da Costa, 1994, p221.
61 Da Costa, 1994, pp198 and 222.
62 Da Costa, 1994, p276.
63 Da Costa, 1994, pp234 and 243.
64 Blackburn, 1988, p430.
65 Da Costa, 1994, p229.
66 Craton, 2009, p289.
67 Blackburn, 1988, p430.
68 Newsinger, 2006, p25; da Costa, 1994, p48.
69 Da Costa, 1994, pp285-86.
70 Hochschild, 2005, pp324-325.
71 Blackburn, 1988, p423.
72 Hochschild, 2005, p336.
73 Williams, 2022, p195.
74 Da Costa, 1994, p64.
75 Rodney, 1982, p31.
76 Williams, 2022, p195.
77 For more on Jamaica in 1831, see Zoellner, 2020.
78 Da Costa, 1994, p240.
79 Høgsbjerg, 2023.