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Sunday, August 18, 2019

Demerara Rebellion Day: Figuring out how to commemorate the British Anti-Slavery Movement

There are lots of obviously apparent reasons why Americans seem to know next to nothing about the British Empire’s war on slavery. (Americans, after all, do not know much about their own history). One apparently trivial factor, however, might be the lack of an obvious beginning or ending date. At some moment between Lord Mansfield’s Somerset decision in 1772 and the anti-slavery treaties following the 1815 Treaty of Vienna, the British government gradually made the elimination of slavery throughout the world a central military and diplomatic goal. There is no discrete moment defining this campaign which, in any case, proceeded in fits and starts, deflected by other more self-interested motives like economizing on naval expenditures.

In the interest of promoting awareness of what I regard as one of the world’s great social movements, I am nominating today, August 18th, as a date worthy of holiday recognition. On that date in 1823, slaves of the sugar island of Demerara launched a rebellion inspired by an order from British Colonial Office imposing various limits on the sugar plantation owners’ mistreatment of slaves. Despite the sugar lords’ efforts to suppress the news, word leaked out. Jack Gladstone, a Guianese cooper and slave owned by Sir John Gladstone (yes, the father of the future Liberal Prime Minister), organized an uprising to enforce what the rebels mistakenly took to be an order abolishing slavery. The resulting rebellion broke out on August 18th at dozens of plantations involving thousands of slaves. The colonial militia and troops brutally suppressed the uprising in a matter of days, but the viciousness of the masters’ retaliation (hundreds of slaves executed after laughably unjust trials) so alienated British public opinion that the flagging anti-slavery movement in England was revived. At its center was a mass boycott of sugar consumption and an Evangelical-led petition movement that culminated in the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire in 1833.

The Demerara Rebellion and its aftermath strikes me as worthy of special remembrance, because it combines the three jointly necessary but individually insufficient aspects of social movements that are so familiar today but arguably were invented jointly by enslaved Africans and the British Evangelicals in the 1820s: “Top-down” bureaucratic nudging; “Bottom-up” networks of apparently powerless people; and ideological mass-mobilization of consumers and voters. These are the hallmarks of our social movements today, and they are all presaged by the British anti-slavery campaign triggered by the Demerara Rebellion.

1. Bureaucratic insiders

The Demerara Rebellion was triggered by an order from the Colonial Office protecting the rights of slaves to religious worship and limiting the power of masters to use corporal punishment in the field. These reforms were ostensibly minor and, absent some enforcement mechanism, were likely to be ignored by the sugar lords. They were, however, part of a strategy pressed by bureaucratic insiders associated with the “Clapham Sect,” a social network of British evangelical reformers with personal and family ties to the elites who ran the Foreign Office. The idea was to create a legal framework allowing missionaries to visit slave plantations, reporting back to the British public about the misery that they witnessed. Such eyewitnesses were essential for mobilizing public opinion against sugar lords who, like Sir John Gladstone, had often never visited their plantations and professed that they maintained humane labor practices.

The strategy of these bureaucratic insiders in the Colonial Office back in the 1820s was similar to the role of, say, DOJ lawyers and HEW bureaucrats in 1967: Use technical rules (regulations implementing ESEA and Title II of the ‘64 Civil Rights Act in ‘67, dispatches implementing various Parliamentary humanitarian mandates) to overcome massive local resistance to racial equality. The obscurity of the rules made them all the more potent: Sugar Lords, potent in Parliament, had little traction in the Colonial Office, and white supremacists with seniority in Congress had less pull on HEW’s Office of Education.

2. Networks of the apparently powerless

Obscure bureaucratic maneuvers by themselves do not create a social movement, but they can help inspire one. The Colonial Office’s dispatch, arriving at the island of Demerara on June 6th, became the catalyst for a slave uprising. Despite apparently constant surveillance by the slaveowners, the slaves managed to create elaborate networks for communicating news from house to field. (Those church services protected by the colonial office’s order was one important source for communication). Jack Gladstone’s coordinating a simultaneous rebellion of thousands of slaves on dozens of plantations was an extraordinary logistical feat of surreptitious organization.

Yet that rebellion, without outsiders acting as witnesses and consumers and voters ready to be aroused by injustice, would have achieved little. There had been numerous slave rebellions in the Caribbean from the Jamaican Marroons, the Guianian Berbice Rebellion, and the Haitian Revolution. Several were more militarily successful than the Demerara Rebellion, but none sparked an anti-slavery movement that transcended the particular grievances of the rebels. (Toussaint Louverture, the leader of the successful Haitian revolution, was, in fact, a slave-owner himself prior to the rebellion and only belatedly converted to the anti-slavery cause of the Black Jacobins. He never attempted to create a social movement against slavery as such, and his support for the Jacobins’ cause was rewarded with Thermidorian reaction — death in Napoleon’s prison).

3. Ideological boycotts and petition drives by consumers and voters

The Demerara Rebellion, by contrast, sparked a massive social movement from an audience of consumers and voters outraged by reports from the London Missionary Society and its allies in the Colonial Office. The chief witness, Reverend John Smith, had been arrested by the slave lords and died of tuberculosis in prison on Demerara. Wilbur Wilberforce and his allies had just established the Anti-Slavery Society to abolish slavery throughout the British empire; the Society publicized Reverend Smith’s martyrdom and the mock trials and brutal execution of the rebels, all of which sparked a massive anti-slavery campaign in England. Middle-class activists kept alive their sense of participation in a mass movement not only by boycotting slave-produced sugar and any shop that sold slave-produced goods but also by buying tea sets with anti-slavery slogans and circulating thousands of petitions calling for the abolition of slavery in the colonies.

Again, the 1820s evangelicals were pioneers, using mass consumption to enlist people geographically distant from a struggle to feel like they were part of a movement bigger than themselves. That technique is commonplace today, and we typically associate it with secular liberals, but our buyers of Fair Trade Coffee and boycotters of sweatshop-made shoes are imitating, consciously or unconsciously their evangelical predecessors.

The anti-sugar mass movement paid off in Parliamentary elections. The 1820s and 1830s saw near-constant legislative inquiries into the conditions on slave plantations. Networks of missionaries spread out in the sugar islands to monitor compliance with bureaucratic rules and report back on oppression of slaves. In 1831, Samuel Sharpe, an enslaved Baptist minister, organized a strike of plantation slaves in Jamaica. The subsequent suppression of the strike by plantation owners was witnessed by Sharpe’s missionary allies whose reports sparked two Parliamentary inquiries leading directly to the Abolition Act of 1833, banning slavery throughout the British Empire.

I do not know whether or not the Demerara Rebellion ought to have pride of place in the long sequence of events that led to the Parliament’s abolishing slavery in the British Empire. That abolition, after all, encompassed a lot of important dates: It stretched across a century, from Thomas Clarkson’s 1785 Essay on Slavery to the anti-slavery cruises of the British Navy’s African Squadron up through the 1890s. But I cannot think of any date better than August 18th to commemorate one of the greatest social movements in the last two centuries of revolutions.

So here’s hoping that someday people will commemorate Demerara Rebellion Day with at least as much enthusiasm as Bastille Day. The latter is more famous, of course, but is its legacy more of an egalitarian boon? Bastille led to a drearily familiar model of Revolution as Purge: Not just the purge of people (e.g., the Terror) but also the the self-conscious remodeling of all social customs in Year One only to have a man on a horse — Napoleon, Stalin, innumerable caudillos and generalissimos — ride in to purge the purgers and impose a brutally rationalistic order at the hands of a secret police without much equality beyond the shared silence of the equally cowed. By contrast, the patient bureaucratic sapping of oppression from the center, the carefully coordinated uprising by the enslaved at the periphery, and the response of boycotts and petitions from rank-and-file consumers and voters — these seem to me truer hallmarks of successful egalitarian movements. Such techniques were invented by church-going slaves and their allies among British Quakers, Baptists, Methodists, and Evangelical Anglicans who are now mostly forgotten even though their techniques live on. Spare them a thought, then, today on Demerara Day.

Posted by Rick Hills on August 18, 2019 at 09:00 AM | Permalink


Posted by: El roam | Sep 6, 2019 8:36:10 AM

Posted by: El roam | Sep 6, 2019 8:27:03 AM

Patrick writes:

“The advent of black liberation in the Caribbean during the years 1788-94 confirms that la philosophie modern was not only the primary shaping impulse of the French Revolution but the primary spur to black emancipation in the late eighteenth-century Caribbean world.”

I am doubtful. Compared to the Evangelical movement led by people like Clarkson and Wilberforce, I suspect that the French Enlightenment was trivial in its impact on slavery. Keep in mind that the Jacobins “abolish” slavery only in the most trivial sense of making empty declarations, all of which were overruled by Napoleon. Keep in mind also that slavery persists in the French, Portuguese, and Dutch Empires long after the British make all-out war on it with their Navy.

But the question is an interesting one for serious investigation: Which system of thought, secular French Enlightenment or Evangelical Christianity, had greater practical impact in ending human enslavement? As a betting man, I’ll put my money on the latter — but, as a person respectful of scholarship (albeit not a scholar in this field), I’ll first take a look at Patrick’s bibliography (some but not all of which I’ve read).

Posted by: Rick Hills | Aug 20, 2019 9:54:13 AM

Whatever the possible significance of the Demerara Rebellion vis-à-vis Rick’s conception of social movements, what is fundamentally worthy of remembrance (and a more apposite point of comparison than celebration of Bastille Day) is succinctly expressed in the opening paragraphs for the chapter on “Black Emancipation” from Jonathan Israel’s book, Revolutionary Ideas: An Intellectual History of the French Revolution from The Rights of Man to Robespierre (Princeton University Press, 2014):

“‘We are trying to save millions of men from ignominy and death,’ wrote Condorcet in 1788, in a text condemning the slave trade, ‘to enlighten those in power about their true interests and restore to a whole section of the world the sacred rights given to them by nature.’ The advent of black liberation in the Caribbean during the years 1788-94 confirms that la philosophie modern was not only the primary shaping impulse of the French Revolution but the primary spur to black emancipation in the late eighteenth-century Caribbean world. The social revolution that ensued during the years 1792-97 was not merely concerned with abolishing slavery as such, like the Christian abolitionist movements in England and Pennsylvania, but formed a broader, more comprehensive emancipation movement seeking to integrate the entire black population—‘free blacks’ and slaves—into society, legally, economically, educationally, and also politically.

The movement for black emancipation in its broad philosophique sense was thus unique to the French context, having no parallel in Britain or the United States. Offspring of the Radical Enlightenment, it emerged as a political factor for the first time in 1788-90. The organization the republican democrats founded to work toward black emancipation, the Société des Amis des Noirs was inaugurated in Paris on 19 February 1788. By early 1789, it had 141 signed-up members headed by Brissot, Claviére, Mirabeau, Condorcet, Carra, Lafayette, Bergasse, Grégoire, Péetion, Volney, Cerisier, and Raynal, though the latter soon broke with it. Besides this group there were several key advocates of black emancipation, notably the philosophe Antoine Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836), active in the National Assembly, who were not members of the Amis des Noirs.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man was a manifesto entirely incompatible with all ancient régime notions of social, racial, and religious hierarchy, and of itself imparted a vigorous impulse to revolutionary esprit as a reforming force in all social contexts.” [….]

For those interested in historical and social context sensitive to both the particulars and the proverbial big picture, the following works I’ve found helpful (in addition to Israel’s work):

• Blackburn, Robin. The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848. New York: Verso, 1998.
• Blackburn, Robin. The Making of New World Slavery: From the Baroque to the Modern, 1492-1800. London: Verso, 1998.
• Blackburn, Robin. The American Crucible: Slavery, Emancipation and Human Rights. London: Verso, 2011.
• Geggus, David Patrick, ed. The Impact of the Haitian Revolution in the Atlantic World. Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2001.
• Geggus, David Patrick and Norman Fiering, eds. The World of the Haitian Revolution. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2009.
• Jackson, Maurice and Jacqueline Bacon, eds. African Americans and the Haitian Revolution: Selected Essays and Historical Documents. New York: Routledge, 2010.
• James, C.L.R. The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. New York: Random House/Vintage Books, 2nd ed., 1963/1989 (1938).
• Nesbitt, Nick. Universal Emancipation: The Haitian Revolution and the Radical Enlightenment. Charlottesville, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2008.
• Popkin, Jeremy D. You Are All Free: The Haitian Revolution and the Abolition of Slavery. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
• Sinha, Manisha. The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016.

I also have bibliographies available at my Academia page for (i) the Haitian Revolution, (ii) Slavery, and (iii) Pan-Africanism, Black Internationalism, and Black Cosmopolitanism, should anyone be interested in further research.

Posted by: Patrick S. O'Donnell | Aug 20, 2019 9:08:45 AM

And just illustration from the US itself ( recently, and from the bottom of the pyramid):

The " Storm area 51 ".And, although has started rather as a joke, but, generating huge online participation, and the basic problem or mystery itself, well known of course, during dozens of years.




P.S.: one may look also for the " occupy wall street" movement, also interesting one ( bit different).

Posted by: El roam | Aug 18, 2019 5:44:43 PM

Very interesting post! Just a very minor point. Demerara isn't an island, but a region on the Atlantic Coast of South America, in what is now Guyana.

Posted by: MGould | Aug 18, 2019 4:22:50 PM

And the second illustration mentioned, the Palestinian uprising ( known also as the " first Intifada " ) I quote from Wikipedia:

" The uprising began on 9 December 1987,[8] in the Jabalia refugee camp after an Israeli Defense Forces' (IDF) truck collided with a civilian car, killing four Palestinians.[9][10][11] In the wake of the incident, a protest movement arose, involving a two-fold strategy of resistance and civil disobedience,[12] consisting of general strikes, boycotts of Israeli Civil Administration institutions in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, an economic boycott consisting of refusal to work in Israeli settlements on Israeli products, refusal to pay taxes, refusal to drive Palestinian cars with Israeli licenses, graffiti, barricading,[13][14] and widespread throwing of stones and Molotov cocktails at the IDF and its infrastructure within the West Bank and Gaza Strip."

So, an accident, generated huge spontaneous protests and uprising, but actually, starting from the bottom of the pyramid by mass.




Posted by: El roam | Aug 18, 2019 3:47:43 PM

Just link and citation, to illustrate, protests or social movement, initiated from the bottom of the pyramid, I quote from Wikipedia about the mentioned:

" 2011 Israeli social justice protests "

As follows:

" The housing protests which sparked the first demonstrations began as a result of a Facebook protest group that initially led hundreds of people to establish tents in the Rothschild Boulevard in the center of Tel Aviv, an act which soon gained momentum, media attention and began a public discourse in Israel regarding the high cost of housing and living expenses."

So, just a Facebook group, two brave women ( with no position at all) sparked huge protest at the time.




Posted by: El roam | Aug 18, 2019 3:32:15 PM

Excellent post. Just worth to note, that we tend to look at history, with very large resolution, ignoring, how much time does it take ( or took ) for processing changes. Somerset v. Stewart for example, delivered in 1772, while the " Slavery abolition Act " legislated in 1833 ( so we have 61 years gap, while it didn't include India for example, and the Somerset case didn't abolish any slavery of course). So, it took hell amount of time. But, when compared to this days, things run fast, very fast relatively ( speedy means of communication of course).

In the eyes of the respectable author of the post, the 1820s evangelicals were the model or pioneers of mass social movements etc... it is reasonable to assume it. But not to forget, that it was driven from high ranks or leading organizers, and from there, to lower layers of the pyramid. Today, it does start many times, from the lowest layers of the pyramid and upstream.One can bring as illustration:

The vast social movement in Israel for social and economic reform and houses for all ( 2011). Or, the model of all:

The 1987 uprising of Palestinians in the West bank and Gaza. and indeed, it took, several years, for gaining autonomy ( Oslo accord ).

But, great reading.


Posted by: El roam | Aug 18, 2019 11:49:35 AM

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