17 November 1821
In 1817, the London Missionary Society sent John Smith to Demerara (now part of Guyana), with instructions to preach the word of God at a small chapel at Le Resouvenir. The posting was situated in an area where hundreds of slaves were employed on the surrounding coffee, cotton and sugar plantations. In one of several diary entries revealing the harsh conditions they faced, he noted on 17 November 1821: ‘Yesterday evening we had not more than 50 at chapel; indeed I cannot expect many more until the coffee and cotton are gathered in. The people have hardly any time to eat their food; they have none to cook it – eating for the most part raw yellow plantains. This would be bearable for a time, but to work at that rate and to be perpetually flogged, astonishes me that they submit to it.’1
Three years later, in August 1823, the slaves staged a largely non-violent rebellion, during which they locked up the plantation owners in their houses. A brutal crackdown swiftly followed with hundreds of slaves shot dead and many executed. Smith was arrested and the same diary entry was one of several presented at a court martial hearing as evidence that he was dangerously sympathetic towards the suffering of the slaves, and must have incited them to insurrection. Otherwise, how could simple uneducated slaves have organised an uprising against their masters ? Accordingly, he was sentenced to hang on 19 November; a royal pardon arriving too late to prevent his death in prison from tuberculosis or pneumonia on 6 February.
- John Smith’s diary entry, 17 November 1821 cited in ‘Mr Smith the missionary,’ The Inverness Courier, 22 April 1824, p. 4.
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