‘Heads (of blacks) fixed on poles in various parts’ of Demerara
18 December 1823
Following a mostly non-violent slave insurrection in the British colony of Demerara (now Guyana) in August 1823, in which the plantation owners had been locked into their homes, Governor Major General John Murray imposed a savage crackdown. His troops shot dead at least a hundred rebel slaves in the fields, though some accounts suggest that the slave fatalities may have been far higher.
On 18 December, a Mrs. Powers, arriving at Jamaica from Demerara, reported in a letter, later cited in the Northampton Mercury, that ‘upwards of one thousand negroes had suffered, and a great many were still missing from several plantations. Many slaves, as well as free negroes, had been executed, and their heads fixed on poles in various parts of the country.’1 Other reports on the killings and executions were also uncertain as to the precise number involved, with the Cambridge Chronicle noting in an editorial that ‘we have yet to learn how many hundreds of these wretched beings have perished by the sword and the gallows.’2
John Smith, a missionary, who had travelled to Demerara from England, was accused of inciting the rebellion. The British refused to believe that mere slaves could have planned a large scale rebellion by themselves. At Smith’s court martial, the prosecution produced pages of his diary showing that he had written of his astonishment that the slaves ‘submit’ to work under harsh conditions and ‘to be perpetually flogged.’ After hearing other incriminating expressions of sympathy, the court determined that the missionary must have ‘interfered in such a way with the negroes as to produce discontent on their parts against their masters and the government’ and he was sentenced to death on 19 November 1823.3 But, unlike the miserable slaves, Smith was eventually granted a royal pardon, though it arrived too late to save him, as he died in prison from either TB or pneumonia on 6 February 1824.
King George IV was exuberant at the news of the insurrection’s brutal suppression and informed the governor, via Earl Bathurst, Secretary of State for War and Colonies, of the ‘Royal approval of the measures adopted… and his satisfaction at the zealous and praiseworthy conduct of the officers, both civil and military, by whose exertions the rebellion has happily been put a stop to, and order reestablished in this colony as well as His Majesty’s deep regret at the daring and highly criminal conduct of those slaves who have participated in the late revolt.’4
- ‘Sunday and Tuesday’s Post,’ The Northampton Mercury, 7 February 1824, p. 1.
- ‘On the late insurrection in Demerara,’ The Cambridge Chronicle, 5 March 1824, p. 4.
- ‘Mr Smith the missionary,’ The Inverness Courier, 22 April 1824, p. 4.
- ‘Demerara Proclamation,’ The Morning Post, 7 February 1824, p. 4.
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