Murphy Browne © August 18, 2017
One hundred and ninety four years ago today on August 18, 1823 my enslaved African ancestors on the East Coast of Demerara in Guyana rose up in a two day war of freedom. The British had abolished the slave trade (taking Africans from the African continent to the colonies) in March 1807 and the Africans were sure that 16 years later there should surely be freedom from slavery and that the plantation owners were denying them their freedom. The action began on Plantation Success, East Coast Demerara and spread to other plantations along the East Coast, Demerara. The uprising involved approximately 10,000 enslaved Africans from over 50 plantations, this intensified the process that led to the abolition of chattel slavery in the British Empire!
On August 18, 1823, a group of enslaved Africans rose up against the chattel slavery system and the white people who enslaved them in Demerara (a county in British Guiana, South America) Guyana. The resistance movement which began on August 18, 1823 lasted two days and was led by Jack Gladstone an enslaved African man who was a skilled worker; a trained carpenter/cooper. As a skilled enslaved worker Gladstone did not work under a “driver” and could move around the plantation without supervision.
By the 1820s, sugar prices were dropping and British plantation owners started to push the enslaved people even harder. In Demerara, the enslaved Africans were forced to work from 6:00 in the morning until 9:00 at night. Earlier in 1823, the “Amelioration Proposals'” were sent from the British Colonial Secretary to the Governor of Demerara urging that the conditions of the enslaved be improved. The Court of Policy in Demerara examined the proposals on July 21, 1823 and postponed making a decision. The planters were not willing to “ameliorate” the conditions of the people they frequently worked to death.
The enslaved Africans were aware that “something” was happening. Their enslavers were on edge because the enslaved Africans in Haiti had defeated European armies and freed themselves. So the “Amelioration Proposals'” were an attempt to avoid something similar happening in one of the British colonies. The enslaved Africans were not privy to the details of the “Amelioration Proposals'” and believed that the slave holders were withholding news of Emancipation. Jack Gladstone, carpenter/cooper at Plantation Success on the East Coast of Demerara was one who believed this. Jack Gladstone was given his name because he was enslaved on a plantation owned by Sir John Gladstone, the father of British Prime Minister, William Gladstone. Surprisingly even though Jack Gladstone carried a European name his father’s name was Quamina. Which could mean that Quamina was brought from West Africa and not born into slavery. Quamina, was a deacon at the local chapel who it is said tried to persuade his son and other enslaved Africans to be patient and wait for the white people to free them at their leisure instead of trying to seize their freedom. When he realized that his son was determined to lead an uprising Quamina and other leaders visited the white church minister John Smith, informing him of Jack Gladstone’s plans. John Smith urged the enslaved Africans to remain peaceful, exercise patience, and wait for new laws that would reduce their suffering. Quamina urged his son to heed the words of John Smith and objected to any physical violence against the white people; he suggested instead that the enslaved Africans should go on strike. His words did not sway his son or anyone else from their objective of fighting for their freedom.
Planning for the rebellion began on August 17, 1823, at Plantation Success, one of the largest estates in the area. Approximately 10,000 enslaved people were involved including Quamina who eventually supported his son’s plans to fight and not go on strike. The enslaved people were armed only with cutlasses, knives and sharpened sticks and heeding Quamina’s advice they did not hurt the British plantation owners or their families. The Africans seized and locked up the white managers and overseers on 37 plantations along the East Coast Demerara. They searched the plantation houses for weapons and ammunition, but there was very little violence since the Africans apparently were influenced by Quamina’s request.
In spite of the lack of violence on the part of the “striking” Africans the Governor declared martial law and sent out the 21st Fusileers and the 1st West Indian Regiment under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Leahy, aided by a volunteer battalion. The Africans by this time were armed mainly with cutlasses and bayonets on poles and a small number of rifles captured from plantations and were no match for the heavily armed white military but they fought bravely. The white suppression of the uprising was brutally violent. On Tuesday, August 19, there were major confrontations at Dochfour Estate and Good Hope Estate where an estimated 21 Africans were slaughtered by the white military. On August 20 some 300 Africans were massacred at Bee Hive plantation, Elizabeth Hall Plantation and Bachelor’s Adventure plantation.
The Africans had tried to negotiate with the military at Bachelor’s Adventure plantation suggesting that they were willing to compromise for a two to three day a week workload and be allowed time to work independently the rest of the week. Jack Gladstone, leader of the uprising even presented a letter signed by many plantation owners saying that they had not been abused by the Africans. A report prepared by the British Governor Murray two days later praised the military slaughter of the Africans and noted that only one soldier was slightly injured.
The Governor proclaimed a full and free pardon to all enslaved Africans who surrendered within 48 hours, provided that they were not considered leaders of the uprising. He also offered a reward of 1,000 guineas for the capture of Quamina. Quamina who was the reason no white person was killed during the uprising. In spite of the governor’s assurance/promise there were impromptu court-martials of captured Africans and those who the white people considered “leaders” were immediately executed by firing-squad or by hanging. Many of the Africans were decapitated and their heads were nailed on posts along the East Coast Demerara public road.
Some of the Africans who escaped were hunted down and shot by appointed Amerindian “slave-catchers.” Quamina was shot dead by the Amerindian slave-catchers in the back lands of Chateau Margot plantation on September 16, 1823 and his body was later publicly displayed 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.
The East Coast Demerara slave uprising of August 18-20. 1823 was a major blow to colonial rule and chattel slavery and definitely helped to hasten the end of the enslavement of Africans by the British.
Murphy Browne © August 18-2017