The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823 was a seminal event in the history of slave resistance in Guyana and in the colonial world. Its stark exposure, once again, of the horrors of slavery speeded up its demise even as growing mercantilist trends were ravaging its economic foundations. Jack Gladstone was the rebellions principal organizer and leading militant. While he has not been forgotten by history, his monumental contribution to the abolition of slavery in 1838 and the advancement of freedom is little known. Professor da Costas book, Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood B The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823, restores Jack Gladstones place in the narrative of resistance; but popular recognition and full knowledge of his role have still eluded his contribution to the freedom struggle. I seek to join and contribute to the emancipation commemoration and celebrations by writing these few, though hardly adequate, lines on Jack Gladstone and the 1823 rebellion, the detailed facts of which were learnt mainly, though not exclusively, from Professor da Costa book. The conclusions about Jack Gladstone and otherwise are my own.
The two most prominent figures who emerged from the Rebellion, and who have deservedly achieved the recognition of history, are Quamina and the Rev. John Smith.
Quamina was a skilled carpenter at Plantation Success. He became a Christian in 1808 when Rev. John Wray, the predecessor of Rev. John Smith, arrived at Le Resouvenir. His diligence and devotion resulted in his appointment as a deacon. He assisted in preparing for the services, participated in church activities and kept Rev. Wray and later Rev. Smith apprised of the problems and difficulties of the congregation. He quickly earned the trust of Rev. Smith who frequently consulted him. He was a slave from childhood and was originally sold together with his mother who died in 1817. He had had several wives but had lived with Peggy for twenty years up to the time she died in 1822. He was a proud and dignified man and a dedicated worker. He had suffered, like all other slaves, from severe punishment by way of beatings and confinement for minor or no infractions of slave rules.
Rev. John Smith, a man of modest origins, had himself been an artisan apprentice and had experienced poverty and privation. He arrived in Guyana in February, 1816, by which time the campaign for abolition had attracted much support and abolitionists were no longer reviled. Rev. John Smith and the London Missionary Society which sponsored him had been influenced in their attitudes to slaves and planters by the abolition movement. Rev. Smith and his wife, Jane, arrived at Le Resouvenir to take the place of Rev. John Wray, strengthened in his view about the helplessness and innocence of slaves and the >sinfulness and godlessness of planters after seeing on the journey from the city the hovels of slaves and the manicured lawns and mansions of the planters.
There had been growing tensions between planters and missionaries, intensifying under Rev. Wray since he came to the colony. These arose as a result of a dispute about teaching slaves to read. Planters, including Governor John Murray, felt that if slaves knew how to read, they would become agitated by the various proclamations and abolition writings which were being made and published from time to time. Missionaries felt that it was necessary for the slaves to learn to read so that they could read the Bible. It was not surprising in this atmosphere that animosity grew against Rev. John Smith to such a fever pitch during the Rebellion and immediately after that he was indicted with assisting the rebellious slaves when in fact he had no foreknowledge of the rebellion and did his best to stop it when rumours on the eve of its outbreak became widespread. He was pardoned but died in prison before information about it reached Guyana.
Jack Gladstone, named after an absentee plantation owner, (probably Sir John Gladstone, the father of British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who had estates in Demerara) was the son of Quamina. He was tall and described in wanted posters after the Rebellion as >handsome, no doubt in accordance with European standards. He was a skilled cooper, had several lady friends in several estates and was deeply intolerant of his condition as a slave. After word began to spread that new laws had been made but that the authorities were suppressing them in order to keep slaves in thraldom, general agitation spread and Jack Gladstone became incensed. He was determined that slaves should not be shortchanged and should receive the benefit of the new laws. Several rebellions had already taken place in the region and in particular in Barbados in 1816. Expectation by slaves of amelioration of their conditions were high.
Jack Gladstone was the principal leader of the Rebellion. He traveled secretly and at night to estates agitating and encouraging fellow slaves to rise up. He planned, organised and established teams and systems. His father, Quamina, had been hesitant at first but came on board later. His prestige added support for the Rebellion. Even though he wavered toward the end because of uncertainty as to its success, he still held firm and eventually refused to surrender, walking away with head held high in response to a shout from a soldier to stop. He was shot in the back.
The Rebellion along the coast was widespread, involving 9,000 slaves, but astonishingly free of violence. No one was killed and very few were hurt. Planters and their families were treated with great courtesy, even though they were locked up in their homes or elsewhere in the compound as plantations and property were taken control of.
The revenge was swift, deadly and murderous. The Rebellion collapsed after the militia was deployed. There were some brief firefights but most slaves surrendered. The butchery then began. Some 225 were summarily executed, the innocent as well as the guilty, many without trial and some after a brief, perfunctory, trial designed to intimidate. Many who were executed were decapitated, forcibly and tearfully by their fellow slaves and co-workers, and their heads displayed on poles in the estate.
Jack Gladstone was tried and convicted. The colonial authorities knew of his role in the Rebellion. They assessed the strength of his character, the depth of his courage and the example of his leadership. They knew that if he were executed he would become a martyr. He was sentenced to deportation and taken to St. Lucia where he was sold as a slave. This story needs to be told, again and again.