Wallbridge’s ‘The Demerara Martyr’

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THE BOOK, ‘The Demerara Martyr’, tells the story of the 1823 Demerara Slave Revolt, an event that set into motion a series of activities leading to full emancipation. After the abolition of the slave trade (1807), there was a tightening of the screws on available labour force, which meant the condition of slaves worsened. The awful condition of slavery on the Demerara plantations was graphically described by Rev. John Smith in his journal covering the years 1817-1824, the years he lived and leading up to his death in British Guiana.
He described the long hours of labour in the field from sunrise to sunset, ending the day with slaves fetching fodder from the backdam to the stables. Smith also reported how those who attended his church were persecuted, and that inhumane whipping was the order of the day, some slaves receiving hundreds of lashes each day.
So, in August 1823, thousands of slaves from sugar plantations on the East Coast of Demerara banded together to demonstrate for their rights, which was withheld by the locals in control and in charge of running the affairs of the Colony.
The book also tells the story of the man who became known as The Demerara Martyr.
Who was this man that wrought about such significant world change?
According to James Walvin in his introduction to this 2011 edition of the book, “Reverend John Smith was an unlikely man to become a hero, but hero he unquestionably was, and remains to this day. Widely recognised as a martyr to the cause of black freedom (after the 1823 Slave Rebellion), his story illuminates the broader narrative of the history of Demerara in the last years of slavery.”
John Smith was born an orphan in Rothwell, England, in the year 1790. The only form of education he acquired was by way of Sunday-school attendance.  At age 14, he went to work for a biscuit maker in London. There he met and married Jane Godden, and joined the London Missionary Society, enthused by the abolition of the slave trade in 1807 and by the momentum for abolition of slavery.
Posted to British Guiana, Smith and his wife sailed from Liverpool, arriving in Demerara on February 23, 1817. Apart from the rough welcome from the muddy Demerara River, Smith was greeted by Governor Murray with an ultimatum which forbade him from  teaching the slaves; if he did, then the governor threatened to banish him immediately from the Colony.
Despite that warning, Smith revived the mission station (Bethel Chapel) at Plantation Le Ressouvenir vacated by Rev. John Wray who was transferred to Berbice to continue the good work he started among the slaves.
Many of the slaves, by the time of Wray’s transfer, were able to teach their fellow slaves to read and write.  Wray was part of the first successful mission to the slaves in British Guiana. The other parts of that venture included the London Missionary Society formed in 1795 for “the purpose of evangelical work among the heathen,” and Hermanus H. Post, proprietor of Plantation Le Ressouvenir, a naturalized Englishman of Dutch origin who invited the Society to provide a minister to the slaves.
Smith’s evangelism was an instant success. He preached to large congregations often spilling out of the chapel. That response encouraged him to start a class preparing slaves converted to Christianity for catechism and baptism.
Of course, he incurred  the wrath of the Governor and many planters. So, at the time of the insurrection in 1823, it was not difficult for Smith to fall foul of the law of the land. Martial law was imposed, hundreds of slaves were butchered, many hung and displayed in public for months, and John Smith was arrested.
A frail and sick man, he was incarcerated for some seven weeks, then tried in a court martial lasting some twenty-eight days. He was condemned to death. A reprieve by the home government was granted, but before this news reached the Colony, he died in prison from consumption.
The furore caused by the case of John Smith eventually led to emancipation. John Smith was buried in an unmarked grave in St. Phillips churchyard. But the freedom he wrought with his work and death immortalised him as ‘Martyr Smith’.
This recent edition of the book comes with a new introduction by James Walvin, retaining the preface written by W. G. Barrett on August 1, 1848, and introduction written by Edwin Angel Wallbridge on January 27, 1848. The book also comes with a detailed table of contents, chapter-by-chapter, and an appendix.
This new edition of the book, ‘The Demerara Martyr’, comes at a time when world recognition was granted to people of African descent as 2011 was designated ‘The Year for People of African Descent’. 

WHAT’S HAPPENING:
Three new books coming your way: ‘The Heart of the Sun’ is an autobiographical work written by Jag B. Mahadeo. It is a collection of “stories of childhood memories and personal poems based on a young boy’s actual experiences” in No. 66 Village, on the Corentyne, here in Guyana, while Sharda’ is a collection of stories written by Julie K. Jailall. ‘Sharda’ is a coming-of-age work about a girl from the East Bank Essequibo, Guyana, while‘Mother India’s Shadow over El Dorado – Indo Guyanese Politics and Identity 1890s-1930s’ was written by Clem Seecharan. (To respond to this author, either call him on (592) 226-0065 or send him an email: oraltradition2002@yahoo.com)