In the 1820’s, a White missionary named John Smith spread a message of hope and salvation to groups of enslaved Africans in British Guiana.
Smith probably never envisioned that his words would lead to the greatest slave revolution of his time.
But his simple teaching that, “all men were equal in the eyes of God,” led Christianized slaves to a newfound perspective.
Through this teaching, Africans in bondage began to value their self-worth and shun the subordination, injustice and cruelty of slavery.
Such new found self-worth fuelled the largest slave revolution in Guyana.
An estimated 10,000 to 12,000 slaves—from 55 plantations between Liliendaal and Mahaica, on the East Coast of Demerara (ECD)—participated in the rebellion.
It was the first time in the history of the Caribbean that Christian slaves played a leading role in a rebellion.
Among the rebels were deacons and other members of the Bethel Chapel (Church).
The church was established on Plantation, Le Resouvenir in 1808 by White Missionaries.
The establishment of the church was part of efforts to indoctrinate slaves in Demerara.
It is no secret that back then, certain biblical teachings were used to keep Africans subservient.
However, all of that changed when Smith arrived in Demerara under the auspices of the London Missionary Society on 23rd February, 1817.
The Christian missionary lived at the ‘Le Resouvenir’ Plantation, and preached at the Bethel Chapel, primarily to African slaves.
His sermons provoked enslaved Africans to desire freedom—something that they were forbidden to even dream about before.
Smith’s words incited talks of liberation among the slaves as his message spread to plantations across the East Coast of Demerara.
During that time, however, the Africans faced numerous restrictions with respect to their religious practices.
The Africans increasingly wanted “their right,” since God had made all men of the same flesh and blood.
An opportunity came for them to express themselves on August 18, 1823.
Around then, a rumour began to circulate among the Africans that Britain had sent word of emancipation to its colonies, but that the plantation owners were concealing the good tidings from the slaves.
In August 18, 1823, this false news of ‘emancipation’ caused about 12,000 slaves from plantations on the East Coast of the Demerara to demand their freedom.
The revolt was led by freedom fighters such as Quamina, Parris, Hamilton, and Achilles who struck a mighty blow against the system of plantation slavery under the British.
However, holding to the principles of their biblical teachings, the slaves exercised a remarkable degree of restraint, self-control and humaneness as they clashed with British colonists.
According to some records of history, the opportunity to kill, maim or disfigure the White plantation owners came on many occasions during the revolt, but the slaves, for the most part, merely held them captive.
History records leaders of the revolt saying, “We will take no life, for our pastors have taught us not to take that which we cannot give.”
Only on rare occasions did the clashes result in the death and injury of Whites, who strongly opposed the freedom fighters.
As with most slave rebellions in those days, the events eventually led to the slaughter of about 250 slaves at the hands of British Colonists.
And by the end of the revolt, the government sentenced another 45 men to death, 27 of who were brutally executed.
At least four leaders of the rebellion, Paris of Good Hope, Hamilton and Rich of Success and Achilles of Beterverwagting were hanged at Parade Ground.
Reverend Smith was subsequently arrested and charged with promoting discontent and dissatisfaction in the minds of the African slaves; for inciting the slaves to rebel, and failing to notify the authorities that the slaves intended to rebel.
Following one month of trial, Smith was found guilty of the principal charges, and was given the death sentence.
He was transferred from Colony House to prison.
While in prison, the Protestant Minister was pardoned by the then King of England but by the time the news reached Demerara, Smith had died of medical complications on February 6, 1824.
Out of fear that his death would stir up further slave sentiment, the colonists buried Smith at 4:00 am the following morning without even marking his grave.
Smith‘s death however was not in vain.
News of the death of the White Minister of Religion, published in British newspapers, provoked enormous outrage and later garnered 200 petitions towards eliminating the terrible evils of slavery.
The petitions later played a part in influencing the momentous decision made in 1833 to abolish slavery in the British Empire with effect from August 1, 1834.
This was not the only posthumous achievement for Smith, much like, Kofi (Cuffy) who led the Berbice slave revolt, against the control of Dutch Plantation owners, in 1763, today, Smith is regarded as a Demerara Martyr and listed among those who hold a special place in Guyana‘s history and struggle for freedom.
REMEMBERING THE DEMERARA MARTYRS
For Guyana, August 20 has been designated ‘Demerara Martyrs’ Day’ in homage to the victims of the Demerara Revolt.
As such, President David Granger joined the nation last Monday in commemorating the work of the freedom fighters at a simple ceremony held at the site of 1823 Demerara Revolt monument, on Atlantic Avenue.
The ceremony attracted Ministers of the Government, members of the Diplomatic Corps and stakeholders of the African community.
During his brief address to the gathering, President Granger reminded the attendees of the revolt involving more than 11,000 Africans across more than 55 plantations along the East Coast of Demerara.
President Granger noted that in pursuit of freedom, the rebels were pursued along the East Coast Demerara by owners, some brutally gunned and others recaptured.
“They were brought to hasty drumhead trials, most lasting a few minutes, found guilty on the basis of flimsy evidence and sentenced to executions and floggings.
The Demerara Revolt turned into a massacre when the British West Indian regiment and other forces deployed to quell the revolt, opened fire upon on a group of 2,000 Africans at Bachelor’s Adventure, slaughtering more than 200 there.
Those sentenced to death were tied to trees and shot immediately.
Their corpses were laid side by side on the ground, decapitated and their heads placed on poles on the public roads in front of the plantations of the East Coast.” Granger said.
Adding that it is important for all Guyanese, especially future generations, to know the significance of the ‘Demerara Martyrs’ Day’, since their freedom came at a high price —the death of hundreds of enslaved Africans.
“This day and ceremony remind us that freedom was not an imperial gift but was won through the sacrifices and martyrdom of our ancestors.”
“I urge Guyanese to continue to commemorate this event. I urge future generations to remember that freedom was bought at the high price of the martyrdom of hundreds of Africans on August 20, 1823,” he said.
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