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By former President David Granger- I declared the observance of ‘Demerara Martyrs’ Day’ on 20th August each year in homage to the victims of the Demerara Revolt.
The Revolt on the East Coast of Demerara, involving about 11,000-12,000 enslaved Africans from about 55 plantations— from Liliendaal to Mahaica, was planned on Sunday 17th August at Plantation Success and erupted on Monday 18th August 1823 – 199 years ago. British troops confronted the rebels on 20th August at Bachelor’s Adventure where 200 persons were massacred, some were executed along East coast and others in Georgetown.
The Demerara Revolt was the turning point in slave society and is commemorated today as one of the most important events in Guyanese and Caribbean history. The Revolt’s historical role in the passage of the Emancipation Act by the British Parliament in 1833, a decade later, is undisputed.
The Demerara Revolt broke out on Monday 18th August 1823. Brigadier General John Murray, the Governor, proclaimed martial law the next day and mobilised a formidable military force.
The massacre took place at Plantation Bachelor’s Adventure where over 2,000 rebels confronted the main body of troops under Lieutenant Colonel John Thomas Leahy. The Martial Law proclamation was read after some talk and the troops were ordered to attack. One account stated:
“The soldiers poured in volley after volley. The slaves returned fire but soon began to run, leaping the trenches into which many tumbled lifeless. Many were shot down on the road and in the cotton fields. By noon, the roadside was littered with dead bodies. About two hundred slaves had been killed.”
Triumphant, the troops moved from plantation to plantation pursuing fugitives and releasing the planters who, for the most part, were unharmed. They had been placed in stocks to prevent them from obstructing the freedom which the Africans believed that King George had granted them.
Retribution was swift and severe. Colonel Leahy and his officers held summary ‘drum-head’ trials, each lasting only a few minutes. The courts reached hasty verdicts based on hearsay evidence. The accused, invariably, were found guilty, 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.
The formal Court Martial was convened in Georgetown on 25th August under Lieutenant Colonel Stephen Arthur Goodman. The Militia Parade Ground (now Independence Park) in Cummingsburg was the scene of the public executions. The rebels’ corpses were hung in chains along the public roads or were decapitated and the heads stuck on poles, after the hangings.
Expeditions scoured the backlands in search of fugitive rebels, particularly, the assumed ringleader, Quamina. A mercenary found him and shot him dead on 16th September. His body was carried back and hung in chains outside Plantation Success on the East Coast.
The planters and populace were exultant. The very excesses for which the planters congratulated themselves in Georgetown were condemned in London.
The Demerara Revolt caused an uproar in the British House of Commons and, although a vote to censure the Government failed, public opinion shifted further in favour of the complete abolition of slavery.
Brigadier General John Murray was recalled and replaced as Governor by Major-General Sir Benjamin D’Urban in April 1824. The Emancipation Act was passed a decade later.
The Demerara Revolt is remembered in the village of Bachelors’ Adventure where the massacre occurred.
Future generations must not forget that freedom was bought at the high price of the martyrdom of hundreds of Africans on 20th August 1823. Next year, 2023 will mark the bicentenary of the Demerara Revolt, this observance must be a national one.