Skip to main content

Insurrection at Demerara

Posted by: Posted on: Categories:

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the Insurrection at Demerara in 1823 when enslaved people in Demerara decided to revolt, demanding full emancipation. This blog will discuss the internal and external changes that led to this event, the rebellion as it developed, and the loss of life once it was quelled. Details of the insurrection were gathered from letters sent by Lieutenant Major General John Murray to the colonial office and the account of John Bryant. The letters were collated in Papers in Explanation of Measures for Melioration of Condition of Slave Population in W. Indies, 1824, and can be found in the Parliamentary Archives Main Papers collection. Please note this blog discusses sensitive topics that may be difficult for some to read.

This blog was written by Danielle Wiles, Archives Assistant (Graduate Trainee).

The beginning of Demerara-Essequibo

The Dutch West India Company took control of the Essequibo colony located around the mouth of Essequibo River in South America in 1621. The colony of Berbice was established in 1627 and Demerara in 1773. The colonies relied upon the work of enslaved indigenous peoples and the importation of enslaved Africans to increase the agricultural production and exportation of tobacco and sugar. In 1831 Berbice, Demerara, and Essequibo were joined to create the colony of British Guiana, which is now known as Guyana.

The London Missionary Society

The London Missionary Society (LMS) was a protestant missionary society established in England in 1795 and aimed to spread awareness about Christ across nations, including in the Caribbean and South America. In 1808 the first missionary from LMS, John Wray arrived in Demerara and nine years later John Smith arrived. The missionaries were grouped under the label of “Methodists” and deeply distrusted by colonists due to the Society’s connection to well-known abolitionists, such as William Wilberforce. This mistrust was amplified by the abolition of the slave trade as colonists feared the profitability of their plantations would be further impacted by new rhetoric spread across the colony or the reporting of colonist’s activities by missionaries back to London.

In the Essequibo and Demerary Royal Gazette, the author noted that missionaries were “precarious preachers of a pretended enlightening doctrine”. The author believed the teaching of Christianity to enslaved people could cause confusion and lead to demands for equality based on religious doctrine and philosophical sermons.

The Movement of enslaved people


Printed text
An Act to carry into Effect certain Licences, permitting the Removal of Negro Slaves from the Bahama Islands to Demerara, 1820, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/PU/7/286

The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act was passed by Parliament on 25th March 1807, making it illegal for British ships to participate in the trading of slaves after 1st January 1808. This Act did not end the movement of slaves between different colonies under British rule and in 1820 an Act was passed permitting the movement of slaves from the Bahama Islands to Demerara. The influx of new enslaved people in Demerara heightened discontent and worsened living conditions.



Printed text
Front cover of Papers in Explanation of Measures for Melioration of Condition of Slave Population in W. Indies and South America, March 1824, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/8/625/234


During a debate in the House of Commons on the topic of Abolishing Slavery, Thomas Fowell stated how impactful it would be if the House made a resolution declaring “that the state of Slavery is repugnant to the principles of the British constitution and of the Christian religion, and that it ought to be abolished”. Read the full debate on the Hansard website.

Following Fowell’s statement in the House of Commons, on 28 May 1823 the Colonial Office sent a letter to the Governor of Demerara and Berbice communicating the resolutions to improve how enslaved people were treated in the colony. This was known as the amelioration of the slave condition.

Multiple resolutions were agreed for the system of meliorating the condition of enslaved people across the Caribbean and these were:

  1. “The absolute prohibition to inflict the punishment of flogging, under any circumstances on female slaves”
  2. The cessation of “the practice of driving slaves to their work by the sound of the whip, and to the arbitrary infliction of it by the driver as a stimulus to labour”*
  3. “The whip should no longer be carried into the field and there displayed by the driver as the emblem of his authority, or employed as the ready instruments of his displeasure”*

*The wording of this resolutions was not unanimously agreed.

Rumours about the new resolutions spread throughout the colony and many enslaved people thought Governor Murray and the plantation owners were withholding their freedom. This was reinforced by Murray’s lack of action, he failed to issue a proclamation outlining the new resolutions despite discussions in the Court of Policy about the required changes on the 6th August 1823.


Neighbouring plantations Success and Le Resouvenir were the epicentre of the rebellion which began on the evening of 18th August 1823. Later accounts and witness testimony from the Trial of Mr. John Smith outline that Quamina Gladstone, one of the five selected deacons in John Smith’s church (Bethel Chapel), and his son Jack Gladstone decided to lead their community towards revolt.

Jack Gladstone from Success and others met days before the revolt to discuss the likelihood of their freedom and their plan of action. During these discussions, Joe Simpson, the Governor’s servant, alerted the group that freedom was soon coming and warned that they should wait rather than revolt.

On the morning of the 18th, Simpson told his master about the rebellion, however, the insurrection was not supressed. That evening 6,000-13,000 enslaved people from thirty-seven colonies across the United Colony of Demerara and Essequibo rose against the white inhabitants. Those involved in the revolt made attempts to ensure they did not harm their masters by placing them in stocks, or on house arrest.

Printed document
Papers in Explanation of Measures for Melioration of Condition of Slave Population in W. Indies and South America, March 1824, Parliamentary Archives, HL/PO/JO/10/8/625/234

In his first letter to Earl Bathurst, 24th August 1823, Murray wrote that the demands of those involved in the insurrection were based on the resolutions from Parliament and their religious beliefs. Murray reported members of the insurrection said, “God had made them of the same flesh and blood as the whites; they were tired of being slaves; their good King had sent orders that they should be free, and they would not work anymore.” Their demands called for full emancipation as they believed it as being withheld and Murray reached the conclusion that the insurrection was plotted at Bethel chapel and incited by missionary John Smith’s new religious rhetoric. On the 22nd Governor Murray issued a proclamation outlining that those who were not ringleaders or guilty of aggravated excesses would receive a free pardon, despite this, the insurrection continued into the forest until 6th September.

An investigation into Smith’s conduct at Plantation Le Resouvenir and involvement in the insurrection led to his detention in close confinement. Similarly, captured enslaved “ring leaders” of the insurrection were detained and held until trial.

As the insurrection continued, a general court-martial opened on Monday 25th August. A court-martial was a military court that tried cases of mutiny and desertion. Enslaved people guilty of engaging in rebellion received various punishments. According to John Bryant’s account (1824) some received between 300-1,000 lashes and a life sentence in a workhouse or were executed.

John Smith

Missionary John Smith was accused and convicted of encouraging dissatisfaction to cause insurrection amongst enslaved people, speaking with Quamina Jackson during the insurrection as well as aiding those involved in the rebellion. Smith’s personal diary which echoed his negative views on the ill-treatment of slaves in Demerara and testimonies from enslaved people involved in the rebellion, were used against him during the trial. Smith was sentenced to be hung but died in custody due to ill health.

The Reaction of the House of Commons

Printed Hansard debate, Motion Respecting the Trial and Condemnation of Missionary Smith at Demerara, 1824, HAN/2/11, Parliamentary Archives.

The trial and later death of Smith caused outrage among members of the London Missionary Society and a petition on the “Conduct Of Rev J Smith At Demerara” was moved and debated in the House of Commons on 13 April 1824. Read the full debate on the Hansard website.

A few months later, in June 1824, Mr Speaker, William Wilberforce, and others spoke defending Smith in the Commons chamber. He condemned the colonial courts for their improper handling of the case due to trial by a court-martial and the existing prejudices against missionaries in the colony and misrepresentation of their aims and motivations. Read the full debate on the Hansard website.


Demerara Court of Policy did not pass the Ordinance for meliorating the condition of enslaved people in Demerara until 1825, this insurrection at Demerara and the death of missionary John Smith placed further pressure on the abolition of Slavery debate. After the insurrection, conditions did not improve for enslaved people in Demerara or across the Caribbean, revolts continued throughout different colonies until the abolition of slavery in 1833.



Abolition Of Slavery – Hansard Website

Account of an Insurrection of the Negro Slaves in the Colony of Demerara, which Broke Out on the 18th of August 1823 by Joshua Bryant

Amelioration Of The Condition Of The Slave Population In The West Indies – Hansard Website

Conduct Of Rev J Smith At Demerara – Hansard Website

Correspondence with Governors of Colonies in W. Indies respecting Insurrections of Slaves, 1822-24

Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823 by Emilia Viotti da Costa

Motion Respecting the Train and Condemnation of Missionary Smith at Demerara – Hansard Website

Papers in Explanation of Measures for Melioration of Condition of Slave Population in W. Indies and South America, March 1824

Papers relating to Proceedings of Court Martial on Trial of J. Smith, Missionary, in Colony of Demerara, October 1823

Sharing and comments

Share this page