More than ten thousand enslaved people in the Crown colony of Demerara-Essequibo (now part of Guyana) on the coast of South America were involved in The Demerara Rebellion of 1823. August 18, 1823, was the day the rebellion began. The rebellion lasted two days. No particular incident sparked the rebellion; it is believed that the enslaved people simply grew tired of their servitude and sought to resist in the most direct way they could.
On August 17, 1823, at Plantation Success, one of the largest estates in the area, planning for the rebellion began. During the planning period, two leaders emerged: 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 an English Protestant missionary.
Gladstone and others plotted the uprising, however 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 plea for peace fell on deaf ears when the enslaved on Plantation Success rebelled the next evening, August 18, 1823. They tried to seize all firearms on the plantation and lock up the whites during the night. Then they wanted to present the whites to Sir John Murray, the governor of the colony, the next day and demand for the colonial government to issue new laws on the treatment of the enslaved. They did not view their rebellion as a challenge to slavery itself. They did not demand for the abolition of the institution in Demerara-Essequibo.
Majority of the slaves remained loyal to their masters. Joseph Packwood,an enslaved house servant 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 directed them to return to their plantations. They refused and he declared martial law. Some returned to the plantations while others participated in the rebellion.
Just few number 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. Vast numbers of Christian slaves refused to rebel and helped suppress those who rose up.
Slave owners found themselves confronted by their slaves. The military forces were sent against the the slaves. Approximately two thousand enslaved people confronted Lieutenant Colonel John Leahy and his militia on Bachelor’s Adventure Plantation. When the enslaved protesters refused to heed to Leahy’s order to disperse, he commanded his troops to fire into the crowd. Approximately two hundred people were shot dead.
The rebellion ended on Tuesday, August 19, but 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 had them deported to other Caribbean Islands after commuting their sentences. Jack Gladstone got deported to St. Lucia. His father, Quamina was tracked down by dogs and Indians and killed in September 1823 despite the fact that he had argued against the revolt.