Editor’s Note: Unfortunately disruption has made this edition of The Badger a little different. Unavoidable circumstances meant that this edition was delayed. Consequently, some of these articles are a little older and we haven’t been able to get the newest stories to you this time. However, we think that it is fair that those who wrote great articles have them published, and these important stories are read by you.
Words by Maisie Levitt, News Online Editor
Trigger warnings for slavery, death and graphic violence.
The shadow foreign secretary David Lammy has written to the British Government requesting it to pardon the 70 abolitionists convicted for their participation in the 1823 Demerara rebellion.
A “seminal moment” in slave resistance, the revolt included 10,000 enslaved people who staged an uprising against British colonialists in the Caribbean. Although it was unsuccessful, it contributed to the abolition of slavery ten years later in 1833.
Demerara was one of Britain’s most commercially successful colonies, with a high number of sugar plantations that the British economy was heavily reliant on. British colonialists were known for the harsh treatment of the enslaved people there, in order to discourage them from rebelling.
Lammy said that by exercising the royal prerogative of mercy to grant pardons to those convicted, it would be “a significant step in Britain’s acknowledgment of its role in the history of slavery”.
The uprising, which took place in what is now present-day Guyana, was crushed by colonial British militia. Lammy’s letter includes 73 names of those who were tried. 70 were found guilty, resulting in 21 being executed. Out of the 21, 10 had their heads put on poles to deter other potential uprisings. Hundreds more were killed during and in the immediate aftermath of the revolt.
In his letter, Lammy highlights two names in particular. One was Jack Gladstone, a slave who was one of the main leaders of the uprising. He was initially sentenced to death, but this was commuted due to testimonies of his lack of violent behaviour and attempts to prevent others from acts of violence. Instead, Gladstone was transported to St Lucia for hard labour.
The second case that Lammy highlights is that of John Smith, a British Protestant minister. Smith was also initially sentenced to death. However, he had his sentence commuted by King George IV, but had died in prison in 1824 before the communication was received in Demerara. In June 1824, a debate took place in parliament about whether to pardon him posthumously. After two days, the motion was defeated.
Lammy addressed his letter to the justice secretary, Dominic Raab. In it, he wrote: “The full pardoning of both John Smith and Jack Gladstone would be a significant step in Britain’s acknowledgment of its role in the history of slavery. Both John Smith and Jack Gladstone were pioneers of the abolition movement, and they must be remembered and celebrated as such”.
In Raab’s reply, the justice secretary stated that due to Guyana gaining independence in 1966 and the country becoming a republic in 1970, it was up to the president of Guyana to give such pardons.
Lammy used the book White Debt by Thomas Harding as the basis for his research on the Demerara uprising. Thomas Harding described Raab’s reply as “shocking”.
He continued, “Britain was responsible for this gross miscarriage of justice, not Guyana, and the British government should be the one to pardon those found guilty… It was a British court martial which found the 70 people guilty, a court established by a British governor in a British colony (later known as ‘British Guiana’), on behalf of the British king, under British military code.”
“Now is the time for the British government to take full responsibly for its legacy of slavery, to pardon the ‘Demerara 70’ and recognise them for what they were: heroes, for all of us.”