THE "ANGEL GABRIEL" RIOTS OF 1856
With the Portuguese moving into the retail business after they stopped working on the sugar estates, they found themselves at an advantage since they were favoured with credit facilities by the established White merchants. These merchants were also importers and wholesalers. Africans and "Coloureds" who previously served as their distributing agents were no longer preferred to carry out these functions. Naturally, the Africans felt that they were discriminated against, and it increased the ill-feeling between Africans and Portuguese. Such animosity already existed when the Portuguese from Madeira were introduced as labourers on the sugar estates since their employment forced down existing wages Africans were earning.
It was around this time that James Sayers Orr, a staunch critic of Roman Catholicism, began to hold religious meetings in Georgetown during which he, at first, upbraided Africans for being lazy. But when he learned that African retailers of goods were losing out to the Portuguese, he began to blame the latter as the cause for the hardship experienced by the Africans.
Orr himself was "Coloured". His mother was a "Coloured" woman and his father was a Scotsman who was a co-owner of Plantation La Penitance. Though not much was known about him, it was generally believed that he was wealthy and might have been financially supported by his father.
Orr spent some time in Britain and the United States and returned to Guyana in December 1855. While in Britain he began holding open-air meetings and summoned his audience by blowing a horn. Such antics earned him the nickname "Angel Gabriel", a name which he began to proudly use. From Britain he travelled to New York where he continued his anti-Catholic preaching activities. One report in an American journal described him as a "fanatical demagogue" because he made wild and inflammatory accusations against certain individuals and groups. He was also blamed for a riot which occurred in New York after he had delivered one of his sermons.
In Georgetown, his attacks on the Portuguese also included verbal outbursts against the Roman Catholic Church since most Portuguese were members of that body. These attacks raised anger among the Portuguese and in February 1856, one of them, John Taggart, applied to the Georgetown magistrate asking Orr to halt his accusations. But the magistrate told Taggart he had to file a private charge against Orr. Instead of doing, so he organised a group of his friends to physically assault Orr who, however, received information about the plan and kept away from the area where the mob was waiting for him. On the day after, Orr addressed a large crowd near to an open-air market, and this alarmed the Governor so much that he placed a ban on all public meetings in Georgetown. Orr attempted on a number of occasions to defy this ban and he was eventually arrested and charged for instigating a disturbance of the peace. He appeared before a magistrate who referred the case to the Supreme Court. He was held in prison while awaiting the trial.
When news circulated that Orr was detained for trial, Africans who were part of his street-corner audiences began to violently attack Portuguese in Georgetown. These included looting of Portuguese shops, and people were even assaulted inside their homes. Violent attacks on Portuguese spread to Mahaicony and to Dalgin up the Demerara River and there were clashes in parts of Essequibo and Berbice. Eventually the police managed to control the situation but not before much damage was done to property owned by the Portuguese. Many persons also sustained severe injuries. Later in the year, the Government paid a compensation of $250,000 to the Portuguese who suffered damage to their properties.
After the riots were put down, Orr was tried and found guilty as charged. He was sentenced to a term of imprisonment with hard labour at the penal settlement in Mazaruni where he died in November 1856 after suffering from dysentery.