The biblical identity politics of the Demerara Slave Rebellion
The British missionary enterprise disseminated the Bible across the empire with often unintended consequences. The reception of the Protestant Scriptures among colonial subjects was anything but passive. Readers and hearers appropriated scriptural texts in their own distinctive, even subversive ways. Surviving sources, however, are often less revealing about this process than we might like, and it can be hard to get beyond the voice of the missionary to that of the native convert. This chapter explores a unique set of sources: the trial records of the London Missionary Society (LMS) missionary John Smith, who was prosecuted (and died in prison) for allegedly ‘exciting the negroes to rebellion’ in the sugar colony of Demerara in 1823. Smith and his black congregants were cross-questioned at length about the use and abuse of the Bible. The records offer a unique window on the use of the Bible in missionary chapels, its reception among enslaved hearers, and the sensitivities of colonial authorities. It was also emblematic of a larger shift – the growing identification of black Protestants with Old Testament Israel, and the problematising of Britain’s identity as a new Israel.