Most rebellions/revolts are marked in-large part by violence. When the downtrodden decide to stand-up and declare “no more” it is usually a very bloody affair for both the enslaved and enslaver. However, this is not the case for the Demerara Rebellion of Guyana. This rebellion is marked by its uniqueness in that it was largely non-violent (on the part of the enslaved). This essay will explore the strategy and ethics that went into the Demerara Rebellion. As well, of interest is the philosophy of non-violence that shaped the uprising into the unique historical moment that it is.
The Demerara-Essequibo territory of Guyana was a colony in the West Indies whose ownership shifted from the British to the Dutch and back again throughout the 1700s and the early part of the 19th century. As such, there was shifting ownership of plantations and their resources, particularly for enslaved Africans and sugar cane. The colony itself held thousands of captive Africans on large, highly profitable plantations. According to generous estimates there were about ten thousand captives spread out between close to three hundred individual plantations. On these plantations, the enslaved population was treated very poorly, which fed into feelings of animosity and resentment.
The major players of this uprising were an African born man named Quamina Gladstone and his son Jack Gladstone. They were wards of Sir John Gladstone, owner of the “Success” plantation. On this plantation, Quamina and Jack worked as drivers and coopers, which provided them with a considerable amount of freedom and influence on the plantation and off. Again, it seems that freedom of movement as well as the ethos of being African-born were a powerful combination for the enslaved leader. In planning the uprising, Quamina made it known that this was to be a non-violence revolt. It is not clear why this was the case, perhaps Quamina knew a violent revolt would end badly for both parties or maybe he just wanted to send a powerful message to the enslavers in order to push for a parley. Nevertheless, those who followed Quamina reluctantly agreed to the strategy and promised to not kill any whites, though moderate violence would be allowed.
An excerpt from the fallout of the rebellion states: “The first object of the slaves was to seize upon all the white inhabitants, and confine them in the stocks, to prevent their going to town for troops, and, after having made themselves masters of their arms and ammunition, to go in a body of town to oppose force to force. It was also determined, by the ring-leaders, to break up the public bridges, in order to impede the march of the military.” So, it seems that in addition to locking enslavers up, there was also a strategy for preventing encroachment of the military, which would also prevent further death by keeping the opposing forces from reaching one another. The British colonial forces, however, would not be as kind in their approach. Their mission was to squash the rebellion as completely as possible, which for them meant killing, maiming - and after the dust settled – executions.
When the uprising started martial law was declared and enforced by local security forces as well an ad-hoc militia was assembled to quell the mounting violence. The rebels were only armed with cutlasses, sticks and a couple firearms that were secured from plantations in their path; they were resolute in their charge to not kill. During the revolt, there were a number of significant battles. Namely, at the Reed Estate where 800 rebels stopped production on the land for a number of days, as well the Beehive plantation was also a sight where forces clashed until the rebels were squashed. However, the most significant battle for the Demerara Rebellion took place at Bachelor’s Adventure, where 1500 rebels battled with the governor’s forces for more than a day. At Bachelor’s Adventure there was a standoff between colonial forces and the rebels where Jack Gladstone himself battled alongside his rebel compatriots. The standoff at Bachelor’s Adventure eventually ended, however, Jack and his wife were not captured and remained on the run for about two weeks. Around September 6th Jack and his wife were finally brought in by Captain McTurk without any further violence.
Another interesting aspect of the Demerara Revolt is the involvement of John Smith, a white anti-slavery activist who was cited as a major reason for the uprising. To elaborate, Smith was English-born but took a position as a chaplain by the London Missionary Society on February 23, 1817. In Guyana, Smith was known for his rhetoric about the evils of slavery and was accused of inciting the enslaved Africans of Demerara to revolt against the enslavers. Moreover, Smith’s rhetoric may have involved disclosing information that led to the belief that colonial emancipation had already been granted in London but was being withheld by the island’s enslavers. To be clear, there is nothing to directly connect him to this point, nevertheless Smith was known for preaching of the nefarious nature of the colonial slavocracy directly to the enslaved and preached this same truth to power until his dying day.
After the uprising, there were a number of trials of both the revolting Africans and John Smith. Quamina was executed along with scores of other revolting Africans; to add insult to injury Quamina’s body was put on display (along with other leaders) as a warning to future insurrectionists. His son, Jack Gladstone, did not suffer the same fate. Instead he was deported to St. Lucia where he remained until his death. Smith was tried on a number of charges, which essentially boiled down to “promoting discontent and dissatisfaction in the minds of the Negro Slaves towards their Lawful Master”. Though Smith did promote the destruction of Guyana’s slavocracy, it must be said that as an abolitionist he only echoed the sentiments of the enslaved Africans. Meaning, due to the circumstances of their birth Africans did not have to be pushed to realize their discontent, it was clear to them already, Smith merely added fuel to the growing fire. Nevertheless, Smith was tried, found guilty and sentenced to death. While in prison awaiting appeal Smith died of consumption before he could be heard.
The strategies of the enslaved during this revolt were admirable. Due to their non-violent approach it seems their motive was change, not the death and destruction of all whites. Being that this was done under the strict order of Quamina it suggests that he was more interested in discussion and negotiation as opposed to all out war. This type of leadership is to be admired and studied as it demonstrates forethought towards a peaceful resolution. The enslaved merely wanted better conditions, a request that the enslavers had no interest in entertaining. Therefore, what this represents in a missed opportunity on the part of the owners to work with their wards humanely rather than as animals.
 Raymond T. Smith. “History: British Rule Up To 1928.” The Negro Family in British Guiana. (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1956).
 It is likely that Quamina was born in Ghana, which was also a British colony.
 Richard B. Sheridan. “The Condition of the Slaves on the Sugar Plantation of Sir John Gladstone in the Colony of Demerara 1812-1849.” (New West Indian Guide: 76: 3), 243-269. John Gladstone entrusted the care of the land and its occupants to a third party named Frederick Cort, who was fired for mismanaging the property.
 Joshua Bryant. Account of an Insurrection of the Negro Slaves in the Colony of Demerara, which broke out on the 18th of August 1823. (Georgetown, Demerara: A Stevenson at the Guiana Chronicle Office, 1824). Emilia Viotti da Costa. Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994).
 Joshua Bryant. Account of an Insurrection of the Negro Slaves in the Colony of Demerara, which broke out on the 18th of August 1823. (Georgetown, Demerara: A Stevenson at the Guiana Chronicle Office, 1824). Moderate violence in this case included beating and/or flogging of masters and overseers, but no killing or maiming. There are reports of enslavers also being put in stocks or tortured in the same fashion that the enslaved Africans were, but no one was allowed to take life.
 Ibid., 6-7.
 Ibid., 52-53.
 Ibid., 52-53.
 Ibid., 83-84.
 Edwin Angel Wallbridge. The Demerara Martyr. (Caribbean Press for the Government of Guyana, 1848).
 Joshua Bryant. Account of an Insurrection of the Negro Slaves in the Colony of Demerara, which broke out on the 18th of August 1823. (Georgetown, Demerara: A Stevenson at the Guiana Chronicle Office, 1824), 91. There were a few other charges tacked on to Smith, however, all of the charges basically centered on the idea that abolitionist riled up enslaved Africans.
 Ibid., 94.