Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

The 1823 Guyana Slave Rebellion: A Collective Action Reconsideration

Academic journal article The Journal of Caribbean History

The 1823 Guyana Slave Rebellion: A Collective Action Reconsideration

Article excerpt

Introduction

Over the years, the 1823 slave rebellion in Guyana has attracted a fair amount of scholarly attention,1 especially because of its relative closeness in time to the eventual abolition of slavery in the British West Indies in 1834. Some historians have explained the occurrence of slave rebellions as a consequence of extreme repression and unassimilable elements, as well as in terms of millenarian activity and the role of religion in providing an apocalyptic view of the position of enslaved persons in life and a better post-life existence;2 others have stressed extreme cruelty, a favourable geographical environment and a high density of enslaved population;3 and still others have pointed to the numerical superiority of the enslaved population and inadequate enforcement of slave laws.4 For his part, sociologist Orlando Patterson,5 in privileging a sequential model, maintains that early rebellions in the West Indies were led by Maroons, whereas later rebellions were led by Creole, or locally born, enslaved persons. Michael Craton questions this assertion and opines that the Maroon influence continued even after the "ending of African slave imports in 1808 [while] Creole and elite slaves were prominent in slave unrest far earlier than was previously thought",6 and that both African-born and Creole-born persons were among the leaders of the 1823 rebellion.7

In Guyana, earlier analyses have attributed these acts of resistance to the so-called primitive and barbarous disposition of the enslaved persons and, as if to justify its existence, James Rodway reported that slavery was expected to have a civilizing influence on the enslaved people.8 However, in obvious recognition of their humanity, subsequent explanations have emphasized the underrated intelligence of the enslaved people, as well as their ability to think and act rationally, deliberately to impair a system that was oppressing them.9 This approach is particularly exemplified by Robert Moore who, in comparing the 1823 Demerara insurrection with the 1763 Berbice slave rebellion in Guyana, argues that violent efforts at change from below are a function of four basic factors. These are: the erosion of acceptance regarding the legitimacy of the system, especially the "premise of inequality"; a "failure of nerve" on the part of the planters and overseers; the existence of crucially effective leadership from those with skills and some measure of systemic privilege among the enslaved people; and a sense of nontotal dependency on their masters occasioned by the enslaved people having some provision grounds.10

Also, in an effort to look more closely at the side of the enslaved population, Craton draws our attention, inter alia, to the importance of the extent to which the leaders of the 1823 revolt were able to mobilize other enslaved persons to resist the system collectively, for example, by the use of their established authority (as "elite" and literate persons), and the existence of a "proto-peasantry" among the enslaved population.11 All of these factors, he maintains, must be seen against the backdrop of the harsh treatment meted out to the enslaved population by the planters. There is obvious merit in all of the above explanations, as well as those that emphasize religion, and also a favourable enslaved-toplanter ratio. This article takes the position that a better understanding of the rebellion can be gained by applying a perspective that combines collective action theory, elements of oppression theory and space theory to an analysis of the actions of the enslaved people who planned and participated in the rebellion.

Collective action theory draws our attention, first, to the political opportunity matrix of plantation life that concerns those factors that simultaneously constrain while facilitating collective resistance.12 Second, not unlike historians, collective action theorists have sought to link collective action, especially of a violent nature, to the emergence of a degree of consciousness involving withdrawal of legitimacy, removal of a sense of fatalism, and a feeling that social change is possible;13 perceptions of weakness of the position of the positively privileged by the negatively privileged;14 and the leadership activities of those closest in social status to the oppressors. …

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