It is highly unacceptable for the facts of King, Gandhi or Mandela’s exploits to be misrepresented. Guyanese have in 1823 a momentous occasion, a rebellion, which was to influence a change in the course of world history. That change saw the acceleration of the freedom of Afrikans in over one hundred countries. Three men endowed with the capacities in their souls to harness the great tides created by the energies of justice, human dignity and aspirations of millions, and with the ability to focus them as personal ambitions met on Demerara’s soil. Quamina born in Afrika, a Coromantee and head carpenter of Success, kidnapped in Afrika as a boy and brutalized as a man, once the uprising was on swore “no white man would take me alive.” John Smith a European from Great Britain a missionary, learned in grammar, theology and geography on the third of September 1817 wrote, “Oh Slavery, thou offspring of the Devil when will thou cease to exist…I hail the day when slave-masters shall be imbibed with the feelings of Christian men, and the slaves enjoy their birth right, they are treated worse than brutes.” He was arrested for refusing to join the other whites to put down the uprising, among other things. Jack Gladstone, a cooper, Quamina’s son, the man who finally assumed responsibility as head of the war council which authorized the commencement of the rebellion, asked, “Do you think we are to live all the days of our lives in this way, and have people cutting, cutting up our skins in this way and know there is something good for us, and not take it?” Quamina was shot by an Amerindian in the arm and temple and died on September, 16, 1823; his body was hanged in front of Success the following day. Smith died in jail on February 6, 1824, awaiting the sentence recommended on his sentence, whilst Gladstone was banished to St Lucia. Their stories need to be treated with care. Peeping Tom’s ‘The 1823 slave revolt…’ in Kaieteur News, of Sunday, Jan 6, 2013, provides a useful opportunity to correct some misunderstandings about the Demerara Revolt, the enslaved Afrikans, and to elevate Quamina as an icon in the saga of non-violent struggle.
The missionaries were not involved in assisting the Afrikans with the revolution. In a note to Reed a member of his congregation with respect to his (Reeds) participation in the uprising, Smith’s words were, “I learnt yesterday, that some scheme was in agitation, but without asking questions on the subject; I begged them to be quiet and trust they will. Hasty, violent or unconcerted measures, are quite contrary to the religion we profess and I hope you [Reed] will have nothing to do with them…” Like most persons in the colony Smith was unaware of the conspiracy and when Jane his wife invited Quamina to the house to find out about it he upbraided her as being very foolish to do such a thing. He was neither inclined to nor capable of supporting the rebellion. Smith was more dependent on the Afrikans than they on him. It was the Afrikans who made a reality for him of the mission for which he came. He came to Demerara to convert the Afrikan but, was rather converted to the religion he professed to be a missionary of. Once after hearing him Quamina and Romeo two of his Afrikan deacons prayed Smith was moved to ask God to take away his heart of stone and give him a heart of flesh. Wrote he, “oh how slow are my affections, how earthy my mind, how insensible my heart! These people… are dissolved into tears … while I, who read and meditate and preach upon the sorrow and tears of the man of grief, [Jesus] can scarcely feel one tender emotion.” The Afrikans supported the work of the London Missionary Society at times making donations in excess of 100 pounds, maintained the Bethel Chapel where he preached and supported him and his wife with food from their own livestock and farms.
His actual sentence read “The Court having thus found the Prisoner John Smith, Guilty, as above specified, does therefore Sentence him, the Prisoner John Smith, to be Hanged by the Neck until Dead; at such time and place as his Excellency the Lieutenant-Governor and Commander-in-Chief may think fit to direct. But the Court, under all the circumstances of the case, begs humbly to recommend the Prisoner John Smith, to mercy.“ The response was “His Majesty has been graciously pleased to remit the Sentence of Death against John Smith…” This pardon did not arrive in Demerary until March 30, 1824 by which time Smith had already died. Smith thus did not die awaiting execution, he died awaiting a pardon.
Quamina, a true revolutionary was definitely involved in the conspiracy. His loyalty to Smith and Christianity was surpassed only by his loyalty to liberating his people from slavery. He would report to Smith on a weekly basis the affairs of the Afrikans but not so astute was he that he never innocently or otherwise betrayed to Smith the plans of the impending action. Unlike his son Jack who was willing to fight for total freedom from August 18, he was willing to wait to see what the Court of Policy had to say on “the good news” which Murray was withholding. For his position that they wait await an announcement from the Governor his son Jack, dismissed him as “an old fool” telling him “the thing people have you won’t have them have.” Once the decision to rise was taken though, remaining loyal to that decision, he departed to the backlands where he purposed to make his actions non-violent. Before doing so he proceeded to ask Peter Hood an Afrikan carpenter to send word to the estates down the coast not to rebel. Several of the East Coast plantations where the Afrikans sided with the owners – Brothers, Vryheid’s Lust, Industry, Mon Repos, Eendraght, Vigilance, Montrose and Dochfour, Quamina warned the Afrikans there not to rebel.
The Afrikans were a resilient bunch, bent on reconstructing their society. Long before the arrival of Smith, Davies, Elliot, and Wray, and within the limitations imposed upon their freedom by the plantation, the Afrikans fashioned an alternative society which was based on resistance to the repressive values of the plantation and used every tool available to in a sophisticated fight against this repression. This alternative resistance society cocooned itself in the plantation society; it fed, and fed off the plantation but nevertheless, targeted its oppression of the Afrikans’ freedom. It had all the makings of any modern society as it had a money economy, its own legal code, religious, war, educational, political, sex and labour values. Even entertainment was used in the fight for freedom. The effort was total and sometimes events such as the East Coast Rebellion broke out when the circumstances favoured such actions. Their astuteness and sharp acuity is demonstrated by the fact that whereas collective physical violence was an option pre-emancipation, post-emancipation it was not, even in the face of actions directed at provoking such a response.
They consistently monitored the changing national and international political economy, kept themselves abreast of the issues and were aware that “something good” had come for them from London which was being withheld by the Governor. They capitalized on his omission to ferment support for the uprising. In the war council kept on Sunday, August 17, Quamina of Nabaclis cited Bussa’s rebellion in Barbados where the Afrikans rose in the same fashion and many of them were killed.
The proposition that the rebellion was unsuccessful cannot be supported historically. Murray was consequently directly instructed to put the amelioration measures into place. The rebellion gave the abolitionists an upper hand in London and within twelve years slavery as a social mode was abolished not only for themselves but for all Afrikans in the British dominions. The success was beyond their wildest dreams. Murray was subsequently removed as Governor of Demerara and Essequibo.
The assertion that at least four of the ringleaders were hanged at the Parade Ground is misleading as it trivializes the bizarre nature of what really took place there. It was the place of unprovoked murder and insane butchery in the name of justice. Between the 25th and the 29th, , twenty-two Afrikans had been hanged, five were in chains waiting to be hanged, ten were beheaded and had their heads stuck on poles and displayed in the fort after their bodies were removed from the gallows: (Billy of Ann’s Grove, Beffany of Success, Ellick from Coldigen, France from Porters Hope, Pickle from LBI, Harry from Triumph, Quintus from BV, Quamina from Noot en Zool, Scipio of Bachelors Adventure and Tom from Chateau Margo). Quabino‘s sentence was 1,000 lashes and to be worked in chains, Mercury of Enmore’s sentence was 700 lashes and Maximillian of Success’s 300. These are the true martyrs and we are their heirs. Such hostility qualifies the Parade Ground and Georgetown as just as good a place as any for a monument in honour of the uprising.
The magnitude of the change brought about by the rebellion which he planned but did not execute, in which he participated non-violently when there was a violent component, his calm acceptance of and refusal to avoid death in furtherance of his vow “no white man will take me alive” and for the liberation of his people, places him among, if not above the greats like Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, and Mahatma Gandhi.
The story of the 1823 uprising needs to be told on the world stage and in addition to building our own monument the 16th of September should be acknowledged as a special day and probably dedicated as Guyana’s Day for the Non-Violent Settlement of Disputes in honour of these great gentlemen warriors who lost their lives in the quest for peace.