THE ANTI-SLAVERY MOVEMENT IN BRITISH GUIANA
In England, during the last quarter of the eighteenth century, the anti-slavery movement, initiated by Granville Sharpe, had taken root. After Lord Mansfield, the Chief Justice, upheld Sharpe's petition that slavery was illegal in England thus setting free 14,000 African slaves there, the movement attracted more support. Some of the supporters of the anti-slavery movement established the London Missionary Society in 1796 with the aim of sending missionaries to teach Christianity, initially to Africans in Sierra Leone (in West Africa) and in the British colonies in the Caribbean from 1807.
A religious group known as the Quakers, with Sharpe as a leading participant, set up a committee to fight the slave trade. Soon, influential personalities such as James Ramsey, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce joined the cause and they organised a pressure-group known as the "Society for the Suppression of the Slave Trade". Wilberforce was a leading Member of Parliament and his speeches against the slave trade and slavery won more support for the cause among other Parliamentarians. Their combined pressure along with the efforts of the growing abolition movement eventually assisted in the passage of the Abolition Bill (to end the slave trade) in 1807.
However, it was not an easy task for the British Government to abolish the slave trade which at that time provided thousands of jobs for British subjects.
Meanwhile, sugar planters in Guyana and the Caribbean and their political and financial backers in Britain were not yet ready for the final abolition of slavery. They decided that it would be better to support legislation to improve the physical, moral and religious conditions of the slaves. Legislation which was enacted to meet these objectives was referred to as "Amelioration".
The London Missionary Society began its activities in Guyana shortly after the end of the slave trade. This was in response to a request from Hermanus Post, the owner of Plantation Le Ressouvenir who believed that if slaves were influenced by religious teachings, they would be more docile and obedient. A chapel was erected on the plantation and in 1808 the Society sent John Wray to run the mission there until 1813 when he was transferred to the Society's Mission in Hanover, Berbice. Four years later, Rev. John Smith was sent to fill the vacancy at Le Ressouvenir in Demerara.
The Missionary Society faced stiff opposition from the governing authorities, and Governor Murray told Smith that if he ever taught any slave to read he would be deported from the colony. Murray insisted that the Society's task was not to educate slaves but only to make them contented. This was also the view of most plantation owners. They also argued that slaves should not be taught religion on the grounds that Christianity and slavery were not compatible. As early as 1808, the Royal Gazette, a publication which carried the views of the colonial administration in Guyana, had written: "It is dangerous to make slaves Christians, without giving them their liberty."
But since the British Parliament had requested that slaves should be given religious instruction, the plantation owners, despite their opposition, were obliged to allow it. But they tried to make the missionaries' tasks very difficult by trying to stop their slaves from attending religious services and the planters even attended these functions to create loud disturbance.
Eventually, the Secretary of State (in the British Government) sent a Circular Letter to Governor Murray of Essequibo-Demerara advising that slaves should be given passes to attend religious services. Murray, in turn, sent his own interpretation of the circular to Smith which was completely different from what was instructed by the Secretary of State. The Governor's interpretation instructed plantation owners not to allow their slaves to attend religious services on Sundays without passes and not even to allow them to attend in the evenings. Many of the owners also bluntly refused to issue the required passes. As a result, attendance at religious services dropped sharply.