The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823 was a seminal event in the history of slave resistance in British Guiana 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 Rebellion’s principal organizer and leading militant. While he has not been forgotten by history, his monumental, though costly, contribution to the abolition of slavery in 1838 and the advancement of freedom is little known. Professor da Costa’s book, Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood – The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823, restores Jack Gladstone’s place in the narrative of resistance; but popular recognition and full knowledge of his role have still eluded his contribution to the freedom struggle.

The two most prominent figures who emerged from the Rebellion are Quamina and the Rev. John Smith. Quamina was a skilled carpenter at Plantation Success. He had become a Christian in 1808 and later appointed a deacon. He was trusted and relied upon by both Rev. Smith and his predecessor Rev Wray in church affairs. He was a slave from birth, 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.

Rev. John Smith, a man of ‘modest origins,’ had himself been an artisan apprentice and had experienced ‘poverty and privation.’ He and his wife Jane arrived at Le Ressouvenir in British Guiana in February, 1816, to replace Rev. John Wray. By which time the campaign for abolition had attracted much support and was influencing missionaries. He became 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 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 abolitionist writings which were being published. Missionaries felt that it was necessary for the slaves to learn to read so that they could read the Bible. Animosity grew against Rev. John Smith to such an extent that immediately after the Rebellion, he was indicted with assisting the rebellious when in fact he had no foreknowledge of it and did his best to stop it when rumours became widespread. He was pardoned but died in prison before information about it reached the colony.

Jack Gladstone, probably named after 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.’ He was a skilled cooper and had several lady friends in several estates. He was deeply intolerant of his condition as a slave. After word began to spread that new laws ameliorating the conditions of slaves had been made but that the authorities were suppressing them, 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. Expectations by slaves of better conditions were high.

Quamina was the recognized leader of the Rebellion while Jack Gladstone was its principal organiser. 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 but came on board later. His prestige added support for the Rebellion. He wavered toward the end because of uncertainty as to its success, but 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 Rebellion collapsed after the militia was deployed. There were some brief firefights but most slaves surrendered. The revenge was swift, deadly and murderous. In the butchery some 225 slaves were summarily executed, innocent as well as 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 and elsewhere.

Jack Gladstone was tried and convicted. He revealed details of the plans and implicated Rev. John Smith with foreknowledge and the church with sowing dissatisfaction, although the evidence suggests that at least some of the statements regarding the latter were not made by him. The colonial authorities 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. On these considerations and pleas for mercy from Sir John Gladstone, he was sentenced to deportation and taken to St. Lucia where he was sold as a slave. (A longer version of this article was first published in July 2009).

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  1. Interesting reminder of the history of BG in colonial times post abolition of slavery. Forced labor !
    Today “slavery” is ever present with “money”
    as the incentive to motivate production. In China
    money and intimidation even threats are used as
    a means of increased production. Villagers fight
    the military with sticks and stones to avoid change of their traditional lifestyles.
    Fortunately there are labour laws enacted in law to
    reduce the risk of returning to “dark ages” slave labour. Today a minimum wage tomorrow a liveable wage.
    As an ex tradeuionist fought may battles in the struggle to win the “minimum wage” …today the struggle for the “liveable wage” continues.
    EG a waitor in London receives £6.30 an hour.
    a wait or in Crawley receives similar.

    Cost of living in London is almost double that in Crawley. City V Town V Village the. Issue.
    The struggle is ongoing but am confident the political classes will have to address the issue.

    The struggle for freedom from slavery continues today……many gave their lives for this freedom
    don’t let us ever forget them/it.

    Sir kamtan lord of Cherin by appointmrpent HRH QE2 UKPLC

    1. Ramkarran Best Emancipated Like Hinds Similar To Dubois and Rai

      Dear Editor,

      Kindly consider my letter for publication.


      Sultan Mohamed

      Mr Ralph Ramkarran’s Conversation Tree is most generous to Emancipation festivities by its entire column of African historical tribute. Damus, petimusque, vicissim which means “we give and take in return” was British Guiana’s motto before it became independent in 1966. What is tangibly expected in return for reciprocal generosity now that we aspire to “one people, one nation, one destiny”? Should Guyanese be grateful, indeed rejoice when they are put in a “sawnay” (mixup) political mix? Chinese fried rice is most delicious as is, so is chicken chowmein – as is – eaten as the norm. But only the irrational would mix hot aromatic spicy dhall with either. Its just not done. Not even eating dhall mixed with sweet rice. Good taste,relevance, context and appropriateness cannot be sacrificed at will for political expediency, ego satisfaction or fashion. Regardless, whatever deep contemplation nurtures such aberrations, whatever could indeed be motivating today’s corralling cowboys’ lassos? Please sir, can anyone spare us any change?

      Even good intentions can go awry and give rise to more fed up among the faithful. One criticism leveled against both Jagans were they slavishly applied Soviet Union style socialism to Guyana without regard to American dominant geopolitics, religion and race. If their intentions were noble, their misapplications did them no favours. The aftermath of slavery, emancipation and race continues to anchor us without let up. Repeatedly it becomes another occasion for revelry and race disunity. Will the faithful continue to follow where they are led? Most people would prefer to decide what is good or better for themselves in a democracy. There is no end in sight but it must conclude.

      What matters is not who also leads but where are we going. So who amongst the rat pack will champion Indian rights like Dr David Hinds never fails to champion African rights? On the observance of the 177th anniversary of the formal abolition of slavery Dr Hinds prominent letter in the Indian owned KN of 1-8-15 asserts that “The African Guyanese community is in a worse state than it was in 1838”, again charging that the African Guyanese community is completely without. Dr Hinds claims Africans have been “Stripped of their organizations, knowledge of, and pride in their history and of their economic base, (and most significantly, their) ” community is in a worse state than it was in 1838″! Dr Hinds actually believes that after 177 years of Emancipation , Africans in Guyana have made no progress whatsoever and now are worse off since 1838 when slavery was abolished. Conceivably the 1964 -1992 African dominated PNC government achieve nothing for Black people. Whom Dr Hinds again demands priority of “equality” for the African condition is to be achieved by another African dominated PNC led coalition all over again like no other Guyanese matters?

      Without missing a stride, Dr Hinds bravely tells Africans: “We urge that as we celebrate we should not ignore the uncomfortable truth about the state of the African Guyanese community.” Dr Hinds can be commended for his fearless courage to publicly proclaim that ” African Guyanese must also participate in the restoration of their equal standing in Guyana.We again urge African Guyanese (to) begin to plan as a collective to lift itself,” as he said. Words follow actions and on August 9 the collective is, as he wrote in the KN , intent “to raise anew the quest for ethnic equality (sic) in Guyana”! The question arises as to whom is “equality” to be obtained from, or become duly validated when fulfilled like we do not know. Who amongst us will champion the Indian right to survival in Guyana as boldly as Dr Hinds feels more empowered to hitch his “equality” wagon onto?

      Is Mr Ramkarran being very kind, up in conversation tree? If he is being more accommodating for a potential tradeoff he should be encouraged. After publicly championing the US policy of equal rights for gays in Guyana maybe he will soon be demanding that Guyana’s armed forces and civil service becomes racially and ethnically balanced since they are all funded by Guyanese taxpayers. Mr Ramkarran’s earnest active endorsement, like so many others, is long overdue by decades. Hopefully he is not like Caesar who believes “what touches us most will be last served.” (Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar)

      There is no ambiguity to whom and when Dr Hinds makes demands on behalf of Africans. To insist that “Cuffy 250 calls for a determined commitment, in word and deed, by (the PNC led coalition) government to make good on those promises; a commitment that must go beyond festivities” puts pressure on the African dominated PNC led coalition government to fix their problems as a priority. Sugar and rice will not to be treated as nice as porknockers seeking gold. Has Dr Hinds made his agenda any clearer? Given that relationships of today are not as redeeming as long ago what matters is how the entire body politic is impacted to ensure it does not collapse while the competing groups maneuver.

      As much as Mr Ramkarran should be commended for being kind to his fellow Guyanese he hopefully has not forgotten his political and cultural origins.
      Dr Walter Rodney was Guyana’s best paragon of virtue who celebrated his personal Africaness, Pan Africanist links and was a diehard class subsuming of race socialist which impacted his worldwide appeal. Emancipation was also enhanced by similar grand examples like the Afro American civil rights leader, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868-1963) who was a well known champion of the rights of subjugated peoples around the world. His intense interests in the anti colonial struggles of oppressed Indians was fraternal and historic in its novelty. Mr Dubois did not sacrifice Afro American security interests despite his multi racial relationships. His close friendship with an Indian leader of significant international struggles, was Mr Lala Lajpat Rai. He was a reformist Hindu and devout Arya Samaj militant leader who was a personal friend of Mr DuBois. Isn’t Mr Ramkarran also from Arya Samaj origins or has he abandoned it? The Arya Samajist leader had himself shown keen concern about the Afro American peoples plight during his US exile just like Mr Ramkarran’s entire extended family exemplifies. In November 1928 Rai was beaten to death by British colonial police while leading a boycott demonstration against colonial rule in Lahore. (India was a united country until independence in 1947) Despite an Indian legislative committee inquiry in February 1929, it was ineffective.

      In a letter to the editor of the radical newspaper “The People” published in Lahore (now in Pakistan) Mr Dubois wrote: My dear sir, It was my good fortune to know Lala Lajpat Rai while he was in exile in the United States during the great war. He was at my home and in my office and we were members of the same club. I especially admired his restraint and sweet temper. When a man of his sort can be called a revolutionist and beaten to death by a great civilized (British) government, then revolution becomes a duty to all right thinking men. As a matter of fact, the people of India,like the American Negroes, are demanding today, things, not in the least revolutionary, but things which every civilized white man had so long taken for granted, that he wishes to refuse to believe that there are people who are denied these rights. I hope that the memory of Lala Lajpat Rai will be kept green in India and out of the blood of his martyrdom, very soon, a free coloured nation will soon arise. Very sincerely yours, WEB Du Bois.

      Now in uneasy coexistence in Guyana and elsewhere, Indians and African share the same geographical space. Are Mr Dubois and Mr Rai’s hopes for their respective peoples more difficult to find accommodation? While some may be proud of their interpersonal mixing what should matter more is what’s best for the well being, security and survival of the huge mass of uneducated – not stupid now- who cannot eloquently voice themselves. Dr Hinds will persist in pursuing whatever on the basis of race to which he is most welcome in a democracy. But he cannot be unmindful that he is not entitled to automatically lock out anyone from the same democratic and equals rights to pursue their own path to survival.

      Sultan Mohamed

  2. Thanks! For chronicling some aspects of slavery in Guyana. I still remember reading a book titled “Children Story of Guyana” by Guy E.L. De Weever 1949. Is this book still being read in the schools today? Incidentally, I have observed that it can be sourced from http://www.amazon.com/The-childrens-story-Guyana-Weever/dp/B0007JS4DO

    Indeed, slavery is one of the most disgusting and inhumane period in human history. Thankfully, abolition and freedom were won by both slaves and serfs and they were free from the bondage of captivity and forced labour. Slavery still exists in some parts of the world but we must all condemn its brutality and do whatever we can, to assist in not only exposing its location but also to bring an end to its brutality. I have copied and pasted the second verse of the famous hymn – “Amazing Grace” by John Newton. I sometimes join other members of my church congregation in singing this hymn and wonder so often, what took Newton so long to recognize that he was participating in activities that dehumanized human beings.

    ’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
    And grace my fears relieved;
    How precious did that grace appear
    The hour I first believed.

    John Newton

    Thankfully! I have never lived during those dark periods…

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