The Demerara Slave Revolt
The 1823 slave revolt in Demarara, Guyana, started on a sugar plantation called “Plantation Success”- on the east coast of the colony on August 23. It spread throughout the nearby area to involve slaves from at least fifty-five plantations. In total, around ten thousand of the approximately seventy-five thousand slaves who lived in the colony rose in violent rebellion against their oppressors.
The revolt would have been even larger, however, had the slaves succeeded in their goal of spreading the insurrection to the western part of the colony. As it was, the revolt still alarmed the local planters sufficiently to respond quickly, and with extreme violence. Using both army units and local militia, the planters and colonial officials killed several hundred of the rebelling slaves, and imprisoned hundreds more to stand trial and face execution. Within days, the revolt had been put down.
Two elements made the Demerara Revolt rather unusual. First, it largely consisted of, and was primarily led by Creole slaves. This upset the traditional British notion that although the wilder African-born slaves might revolt, the Creole slaves were more docile and accepting of their fate. This was a harsh challenge to any illusion of slavery as a civilizing system. In a world in which the planters had already seen the abolition of the slave trade, and in which they could see the abolition of slavery itself looming in the foreseeable future, it was particularly unsettling.
Also unsettling was the role played by antislavery groups from England. The nonconformist evangelical movement was particularly involved in trying to end slavery altogether. From at least as early 1808, The London Missionary Society had sent missionaries to Demerara to preach and teach among the slaves of the colony. Planter opinion was ambivalent. Some thought that religion may help keep the slaves in check. Other saw the missionaries as dangerous spirit rousers. One missionary – John Wray – was expelled from the colony once it became known that he had been teaching the slaves to read. Another missionary – John Smith – replaced him. Also supporting the slaves and fighting for their cause, Smith kept holding church for the slaves. He also fought against planters’ attempts at keeping their slaves from having Sundays off and from attending church. In the end, the struggle for the slaves’ rights to have Sundays off became a central issue in the slaves’ grievances that led to the rebellion. Making use of religious meetings to also discuss political thoughts and plan the insurrection, the slaves created a link between the missionaries and the revolt that the missionaries may not have been aware of. Historians tend to suggest that Smith was unknowing. The planters had a different view. In the aftermath of the rebellion, they arrested Smith and had him sentenced to death by hanging for his role in the insurrection. Before his sentence could be carried out, however, Smith died in prison.
The death of thousands of slaves, and of the white minister John Smith led to vociferous reactions in England. People felt that the revolt and its aftermath revealed the brutal and inhumane behavior of the planters. This helped strengthen the anti-slavery movement in England, as arguments of planter savagery were later used to support the 1833 Parliamentary ruling to end slavery in the British Caribbean.
The Demarara Revolt therefore highlights the important roles played by both the slaves and the abolitionist groups in England in bringing about the abolition of slavery in the British West Indies.
In England, some organisations were established to campaign for the abolition of slavery in the British colonies.