Archive for August 26th, 2011

1823: Natty and Louie, Demerara rebels

Add comment August 26th, 2011 Headsman

This date in 1823 was that of the trial, conviction, and immediate execution of the first two men to suffer under color of law for the 1823 slave revolt in Demerara.

A sugar-producing colony recently ceded from the Netherlands to Britain (today, Demerara is part of Guyana), Demerara’s population was nearly 95% slaves. They would author one of the New World’s largest slave rebellions.

Ten thousand-plus are thought to have taken part in the rising — short-lived despite the numbers — starting on Aug. 18.

At the insistence of a well-regarded older slave named Quamina — nowadays honored as a Guyanese national hero — the rebels paradoxically committed themselves to nonviolence. Very few whites died; most plantation owners taken were simply tied up and held prisoner, to be rescued when government troops quelled the disturbance over the next few days.

This consideration was not reciprocated, including to Quamina himself: he was summarily executed upon capture, one of scores of rebels so treated.

But even while scattered mutineers still maintained themselves in the bush, “proper” judicial proceedings commenced on this date. (They’d been authorized just the day before. No time to stand on ceremony.)

Well … maybe a little ceremony.

Since these were the first public executions, they were carried out with great solemnity. A procession was formed to conduct the prisoners to the gallows that had been erected on the Parade Ground at Cumingsburg. First came an advance guard, followed by blacks beaing empty coffins. Then came the prisoners between guards, the garrison chaplain, and the band of the First Battalion, Demerara militia …

The procession moved slowly through the streets, the band playing a funeral march. As the procession passed up the main street of Cumingsburg, the whole of the Marine Battalion turned out and presented arms, until the procession had passed. When the prisoners were executed, a gun shot announced their deaths.

This author reports that, in contrast with the raucous scaffold support given popular “traitors” in the British homeland like Arthur Thistlewood, “in Demerara, silence and gloom surrounded the prisoners’ deaths. Those who dared to speak said they were dying for the sake of religion.”

Many would go to that silent gloom: two more the next day; four on the day after that; 47 judicially executed by the end of September. Different sources give different counts, so we’ll just say, look, it was more than a handful.

But in addition to whatever religious weight the condemned might have reckoned their sacrifice, they also died in the cause of slavery abolition. Alarmed by the scale of the uprising and not a little put off by the brutishness of its suppression, Parliament pressured on its overseas possessions to relieve the lot of the slave. Fewer beatings, a morsel of education, as a hedge against the danger of revolution. How about a bit of enlightened self-interest?

A decade after these hangings — a decade nearly to the day — London had had enough half-measures and, spurred on by yet another New World slave revolt, abolished slavery altogether.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guyana,Hanged,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Slaves,Treason

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