The 1763 and 1823 Slave Rebellions: A Comparative Perspective
History This Week
By Winston Mc Gowan
August 17th 2006
This week marks another anniversary of one of the most important events in nineteenth-century Guyanese history. This event is a slave rebellion which broke out on the East Coast of Demerara in the evening of Monday, August 18, 1823, 183 years ago led by a slave named Jack Gladstone of Plantation Success.
This article has been prompted by a brief conversation which I had about a month ago with Nigel and Cathy Hughes outside a church after a wedding ceremony. The conversation, which was related to a letter which had recently appeared in Stabroek News about the 1823 slave uprising, centred around the significance of the revolt and the fact that it is much less known to Guyanese than the rebellion which took place in Berbice sixty years before in 1763 initially under the leadership of Kofi (Cuffy).
These were two of only three major slave rebellions in Guyanese history, the third occurring in West Demerara in 1795. Major slave uprisings, in fact, were a comparatively rare event in the history of most slave societies in the Americas.
This rarity was due largely to the fact that slaves were often deterred from rebelling by three serious considerations. They were aware not only that it was difficult to plan and organize rebellions without detection, but also that uprisings were likely to fail and the participants would incur severe punishment. Fear of failure, prompted partly by the memory of an unsuccessful slave revolt in Barbados in 1816, caused some slaves on the East Coast of Demerara in 1823 to refuse to participate in the rebellion.
The 1763 and 1823 uprisings were two of the most massive slave rebellions in the entire history of slavery in the Americas. Furthermore, Guyana is one of only a few countries there that experienced as many as two massive slave revolts.
In fact, many countries in the hemisphere did not experience a single major rebellion involving thousands of slaves.
It is estimated that about 3000 slaves were involved in the rebellion in Berbice in 1763, while about 11,000 - 12,000 of them participated in the 1823 Demerara revolt. Though the number of slave rebels in 1823 was much greater than those who participated in 1763, the proportion of slaves who revolted in 1763 was much larger. The rebels in 1823 constituted about 1/6 or 1/7 of the entire slave population of about 75,000 of what was then called the united Colony of Demerara-Essequibo, while those in Berbice in 1763 were at least 75-80 per cent of that colony's estimated slave population of about 3,800. In short, in 1763 Berbice experienced what may be described as a colonial or almost total rebellion.
In striking contrast, in 1823 the revolt was restricted to only one area of the colony of Demerara-Essequibo, namely, the East Coast of Demerara between Liliendaal and Mahaica. Slaves in other parts of the colony did not participate, although the leaders of the rebellion hoped to obtain support from slaves at least in West Demerara.
There were some similarities in the origins of the two rebellions, but the differences were more striking. The most fundamental cause of both revolts was probably the natural human desire of the rebels for freedom. This was no doubt particularly the case of the African-born slaves, who had been born free, but had lost that cherished liberty when they became victims of the transatlantic slave trade and understandably longed to regain it.
The slaves were also prompted to rebel in 1763 and 1823 by their wish to be free from the intolerably severe system of bondage to which they were subjected. In Berbice in 1763 the most disturbing feature of this severity seems to have been inadequate rations and physical brutality especially by certain masters or managers of plantations in the Head Division of the Berbice River.
In Demerara in 1823 the aspect of severity which was the subject of greatest complaint was excessive overwork, which was probably the most single specific grievance shared by the majority of slaves on the East Coast. As Rev. John Smith observed a few days after the rebellion broke out, "a most immoderate quantity of work has, very generally, been expected of them, not excepting women far advanced in pregnancy."
There were at least two major causes of the 1823 rebellion which were not factors in the earlier uprising in Berbice. One of them was the influence of Christianity and the grievances of Christianised slaves.
The rebellion was distinguished partly by the prominent role played by Christianised slaves. Among its leaders and other participants were deacons, class teachers, and other members of Bethel Chapel, a church established on Plantation Le Ressouvenir in 1808 by John Wray, a white clergyman sent by the London Missionary Society in England to inaugurate the Christianisation of slaves in Demerara.
One of the main grievances of these slaves in 1823 was the imposition of restrictions on the practice of their religion by their masters. For example, some masters refused to give them permission to attend church at Bethel Chapel or to hold religious meetings on their plantations at night.
Some slaves were also prompted to rebel in 1823 by the effect of certain Christian teaching, especially the doctrines of the equality of man in the sight of God and Christian brotherhood.
These doctrines gave the slaves an enhanced value of their self worth, which seemed to them incompatible with the subordination, inequality, injustice and cruelty of slavery. This view was reflected in the remarks made by a group of slaves to John Murray, the governor of the colony, at the beginning of the revolt that they wanted "their right... God had made all men of the same flesh and blood. They were tired of being slaves."
The other major factor which was responsible for the 1823 rebellion but was not applicable to the 1763 revolt was its immediate cause, namely, the slaves' erroneous belief that the British government in London had granted them freedom, but that this liberty was being illegally withheld by the local authorities in Demerara and their masters.
This misconception stemmed from the slaves' misinterpretation of a recent decision of the British Parliament to introduce a new policy to improve the conditions of slavery in the Caribbean. Many slaves on the East Coast of Demerara mistook amelioration for emancipation and rebelled to force the local government and their masters to grant them their liberty.
The second installment of this article will focus on the course, the consequences and significance of the two rebellions.
The first instalment of this article focused on the scale and causes of the two principal slave rebellions in Guyanese history, the first occurring in Berbice in 1763-64 and the second in Demerara in 1823. This second and final instalment will deal with a few aspects of the course, consequences and significance of the two revolts.
The two uprisings were similar in that they both ended in failure. They differed considerably, however, in their duration and in the extent of the threat which they posed to the slave-holding class and the institution of slavery.
The Berbice rebellion lasted about fourteen months and is one of the longest revolts in the history of slavery in the Americas. It also came nearer to overthrowing the system of slavery than any other abortive slave uprising in the hemisphere.
The slave rebels in 1763 experienced considerable success in the early months of the uprising, virtually driving the Whites out of the colony. This success, which enabled the slaves to assume control of the colony, was due largely to their unity and the military advantage which they enjoyed over the white troops, decimated by an epidemic. Their eventual defeat by April 1764 stemmed mainly from disunity which developed among them, a growing shortage of arms and ammunition, and the effectiveness of the reinforcements which were summoned by the Berbice government from other Dutch colonies and the Netherlands.
In striking contrast, the 1823 Demerara rebellion was suppressed within a week and did not pose a formidable threat to slavery there. Its early demise was due partly to the fact that it was confined to one area of the colony, namely, the East Coast of Demerara. This limitation enabled the colonial authorities to concentrate all their attention and military resources there rather than on several fronts as had been the case in Berbice in 1763, when fighting took place on both the Berbice and Canje rivers.
The slaves in 1823 also suffered from a great disadvantage in armament, being armed mostly with cutlasses and pikes against troops with guns. The effect of this disparity was clearly seen in the crushing defeat which they experienced in the decisive military engagement at Bachelor's Adventure on the third day of the rebellion. About 200 of them were killed there by the 300 well-armed white soldiers who suffered only two casualties, a bugler killed and a rifleman wounded.
The marked difference in the number of casualties suffered by the two sides in the 1823 uprising was also due to one of its most striking features, namely, the remarkable degree of restraint and humaneness demonstrated by the slave rebels. Although they had ample opportunity, especially during the initial two days of the uprising, to kill most of the Whites on the East Coast of Demerara the slaves for the most part merely seized them and placed them in stocks without harming them.
The rebels hardly offered personal violence to any White, especially where they met no resistance. On a few plantations, however, where they were opposed with firearms, they returned fire. These rare clashes resulted in the death of two and the injury of four white estate personnel.
The virtual absence of the shedding of the blood of Whites in 1823 during the rebellion was attributed by the slaves to the moderating influence exerted on them by religious instruction which they had received at Bethel Chapel from Rev. John Wray and John Smith. They explained: "We will take no life for our pastors have taught us not to take that which we cannot give."
This restraining attitude of the slaves was one of the causes of the failure of the rebellion. It was in marked contrast to the extreme ruthlessness of the white troops, especially those led by Colonel Leahy, who suppressed the rebellion with a savagery which horrified the civilian volunteers who served under his command.
As in 1763 in Berbice, the suppression of the 1823 Demerara uprising was followed by severe punishment of the leaders and other prominent participants. This severity was designed both as a punitive measure and as a means of engendering fear among slaves which, the Whites hoped, would serve as a deterrent against future rebellions.
The long duration of the Berbice revolt did great damage to the colony, ruining many plantations and causing a significant decline in the slave population. The physical, material and economic damage there was far greater than that which Demerara suffered in 1823.
Both rebellions shattered the confidence of slaveholders and caused them to adopt new security measures. In Berbice, for example, the pass laws, which restricted the movement of slaves outside their plantations especially at night, were enforced strictly after the rebellion.
The 1823 revolt had a special significance not matched by the earlier Berbice uprising. It attracted attention in England inside and outside Parliament to the terrible evil slavery and the need to abolish it.
This played a part, along with other humanitarian, political and economic factors, in causing the British parliament ten years later in 1833 to take the momentous decision to abolish slavery in British Guiana and elsewhere in the British Empire with effect from 1st August 1834. After serving four years of a modified form of slavery euphemistically called apprenticeship, the slaves were finally freed on 1st August 1838.