The Demerara rebellion of 1823
On 26 July 1832 there was an unusual appearance at the Marlborough Street Police court. A man named only as ‘Burgess’ (no first name, no title), was brought in for begging in Charing Cross.
Placed in the dock the magistrate (Mr Gregorie) asked him where he lived. Begging was an offence that fell under catch-all legislation, the Vagrancy Act (1824). This act, passed in the reign of George IV, is still on the books. It makes it an offence to sleep rough or to beg in the streets. It took no account of why someone would be on the streets and begging for money or food.
The original legislation was passed in the wake of the economic distress that followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. The period after Waterloo was a turbulent one for the British state with many people forced off the land and into urban centres where poverty was common. In addition thousands of discharged and disabled soldiers returned, many of them unable to find work.
Not for the first or last time the reaction of the ruling class to the economic distress of the majority was to pass laws that protected the wealth and privilege of the minority and, after 1829 in London, they had Peel’s ‘New Police’ force to enforce them.
But let us return to Burgess; what did have to say for himself when Mr Gregorie asked him where he lived?
Burgess replied that he had lived abroad, in Demerara, on the north coast of South America in what is now Guyana. In the 1800s Demerara was under the control of the British (although it had been a Dutch colony). In 1823 there had been a large scale slave revolt (echoing a previous one in 1795). The revolt had the effect of bringing the plight of slaves in Demerara to the attention of the British public and the British parliament.
Although the slave revolt was not violent the reaction of the governor, John Murray, certainly was. As many as 250 slaves were killed in putting down the rebellion and more deaths followed as ringleaders were hanged. Their bodies were left in public view as a warning to others and the leader of the revolt – Jack Gladsone – was sent to St. Lucia. It is likely that it was Gladstone’s father, Quamina who was the real leader of the slave uprising and he was later to be acknowledged as such by an independent Guyanan nation.
So who was Burgess and what had he to do with all of this?
Burgess told Mr Gregorie that he was a runaway slave, who had escaped his master and come to England. In 1823 many of the slaves that revolted reportedly believed that Britain had abolished slavery in the colony (when in reality all Britain had abolished was the trade in slaves in 1807). Britain did not abolish slavery in its colonies until 1833 (effective from 1 August 1834).
Burgess – mostly referred to throughout the report as ‘the negro’ – said his master was named ‘Porter’ and he believed he was now in London. Not surprisingly then what Burgess wanted was to be allowed to return home, to Demerara. Perhaps he believed that he would be safer there, perhaps he was simply homesick. The move towards abolition was underway and he might have believed that he would return to freedom.
Freedom was a little way off however. Since he had no money and so no means of paying his passage to south America the magistrate said he would send a message to the Colonial Office to see what the British state could do for him. In the meantime Burgess was locked in a cell at Marlborough Street while the representatives of the wealthy decided what to do with him, a poor enslaved beggar.
The answer came back later that day and Burgess was once again set in the dock. The Colonial Office replied that they ‘could not interfere’. Could not or would not, it mattered little. No one was about to pay Burgess’ fare home. We don’t know his age but it is likely that Demerara was his home, his place of birth. But of course his ancestors, perhaps his parents and almost certainly his grandparents, had been taken from Africa against their will and brutally shipped across the seas to work on European plantations. It mattered little whether it was a Dutch or British plantation; the experience for Burgess and thousands of others was the same.
At least now the British state had the chance to make some amends. Sadly it chose not to. The Colonial Office would not help and neither would the magistrate at Marlborough Street. Burgess had infringed the Vagrancy Act and so he was sent to prison for a month. If, Mr Gregorie told him, ‘at the expiration of that time’, he ‘wanted to get back to Demerara, he must get there as well as he could’.
The slaves in Guyana were not freed until 1 August 1838, 6 years after Burgess appeared at Marlborough Street ‘begging’ to be allowed to return home. Whether he ever made it back to enjoy his freedom is unknown.
London was home to plenty of former slaves in the 1800s most of whom never came near a police court or in any other way troubled the record keepers. They often adopted the names of their masters or had names their master had given them – European names not African names – so they don’t stand out in the records. But they were here, as they had long been here. Anyone who believes Black Britons arrived on the Windrush and found an entirely ‘white’ country (or a country that had always been White) are mistaken or misinformed and I suggest they watch David Olusoga’s Black and British BBC TV series (and read the accompanying book).
This particular Black life might not have mattered to the early Victorian authorities, but Black Lives and Black history should matter to all of us.
[from Morning Post, Tuesday 27 March 1832]