President of Guyana demands UK university returns letter from rebel slave linked to Gladstones

President Mohamed Irfaan Ali
President Mohamed Irfaan Ali of Guyana wants to form a national museum with returned artefacts - Timothy A Clary/AFP via Getty Images

The President of Guyana is set to demand that a British university hands over a letter from a rebel slave linked to the Gladstone family.

Mohamed Irfaan Ali, Guyana’s president, is seeking the return of various artefacts from Britain including a letter written by the leader of a 19th century slave rebellion which is held by the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London (SOAS).

The institution, now a firm proponent of “decolonisation”, was founded to educate imperial officials and holds a vast collection of material gathered in British colonies.

The letter sought by Guyana is from a slave known as Quamina, who was owned by Sir John Gladstone, the father of prime minister William Gladstone. Quamina played a key role in the Demerara rebellion of 1823.

Mr Ali told the Telegraph that he wants documents and artefacts connected to Guyana returned by British institutions so that they can form the foundations of a new national museum.

British soldiers marching in Georgetown, British Guiana, in 1953
British soldiers marching in Georgetown, British Guiana, in 1953. The country became independent Guyana in 1966 - Sidey Arthur/Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

The demands are likely to test SOAS’s commitment to its “decolonising” plans, which include pledges to “de-centre the European or Western canon” and to consider “forms of restitution” from its collection “where appropriate”.

Mr Ali told The Telegraph: “SOAS has a tremendous amount of historical data on colonialism which could benefit Guyana and former British colonies.

“Guyana was colonised by the Dutch and British, and most historians believe many artefacts exist in these capitals or private collections. This has been a key element of colonialism.

“Guyana would love to recover these artefacts and to have them on display in state-of-the-art museums.”

He added: “Guyana would follow the growing trend of nations to request the return of artefacts of cultural heritage.”

Letter from Quamina
The letter from Quamina currently kept at Soas - Soas

Mr Ali said that Guyanese government officials had previously visited SOAS to view historically significant material to mark the 200th anniversary of the Demerara rebellion.

The president has already demanded that Britain offer reparations to Guyana for slavery and the system of indentured labour which replaced it.

British Guiana, which became independent Guyana in 1966, was a British colony known for its sugar production, using slave labour and then indentured Indian workers shipped in to replace freed slaves.

In 1823, the slave uprising known as the Demerara revolt broke out under the leadership of Jack Gladstone, who was owned by Sir John Gladstone. The statesman’s descendants offered a formal apology to Guyana in 2023.

The rebellion was encouraged by Jack’s father Quamina, a devout Christian and slave also owned by Gladstone, who was shot after the 12,000-strong uprising was quelled.

A letter that Quamina dictated to a church group before the rebellion was preserved by missionaries with the London Missionary Society, which had a presence in British Guiana, and whose member John Smith was executed for helping slaves to rebel.

The society’s collection of material from Guyana and across the Empire was eventually sold off and SOAS obtained the letter along with huge numbers of documents, which the Guyanese president is now keen to recover.

Mr Ali believes historical objects from Guyana, including items made by its indigenous people, are scattered across Western museums and collections. Some records show artefacts from the former colony in institutions such as the British Museum.

Institution has deep colonial roots

Mr Ali said that Guyana would seek to build “state-of-the-art museums” to house artefacts “kept in European capitals”.

While the British Museum is legally bound not to give items away, SOAS has made a commitment to decolonise its collection, which was largely built on imperial activity.

The website of the university’s Decolonisation Operational Group states:  “SOAS  as an institution has deep colonial roots, the library having been built to serve the British colonial civil servants that first came through its doors.”

It adds that it will “champion digital repatriation or restitution through the SOAS  digital collections, and work towards other forms of restitution, where appropriate”.

The institution was founded in 1916 to provide expert instruction on the laws and customs of people around the world who Britain was governing at the time.

The university has been contacted for comment.