In the 1820s the spirit of the West Indian slave class was stirred. Slaves rightly believed the local plantation owners were keeping from them rights that the King of England intended them to have. Unrest was put down by the usual methods – hangings and brutal floggings. Even though flogging was legally restricted to 39 lashes at any one time, this was generally ignored, and the Jamaican Assembly had refused to even consider London’s proposal to prohibit the flogging of women.
In 1831, a year of drought and shortages, the slaves in the western parishes rose. What happened next was an explosion of wrath. The biggest slave revolt in British history, involving some 60,000 slaves, engulfed an area of 750 square miles, caused immense material damage and cost many lives. One man in particular stands out as the main organiser of the uprising.
Samuel Sharpe , slave to a solicitor, lived in Montego Bay. A deacon of the baptist church, he had earned a reputation for intelligence and piety. From a nephew who worked in a newspaper office Samuel obtained discarded copies of English newspapers as well as of The Watchman, whose editor was the mulatto Edward Jordon. In these he read of the anti-slavery movement, and he plotted to hasten the coming of freedom. (i)
Secret contact was made with as many slaves as possible over a wide area, and oaths were administered to all who were willing to unite for freedom. The idea was to demand payment for work and to strike if this was refused. Unlike some of his fellow conspirators Sharp was against bloodshed. Arms were acquired however even though many who carried them did not know how to use them.
The underground network that bound the conspiracy together was provided by the Baptist church. The official Baptist church was controlled by white missionaries, and although they were abolitionist in sympathy, they preached a message of patient obedience and resignation. Alongside and within their church however was the Native Baptist church, with its own black leadership, men like Sharpe, that preached a very different message.(ii)
According to the white missionary, Henry Bleby, Sharpe was “the man whose active brain devised the project and he had sufficient authority with those around him to carry it into effect, having acquired an extraordinary degree of influence among his fellow slaves.” He was “certainly the most intelligent and remarkable slave I ever met; possessed of intellectual and oratorical powers above the common order.” using the Bible as his authority, he denied that the white man had any more right to hold the blacks in bondage than the black had to enslave the whites. Christianity had become a revolutionary ideology, a positive justification for action that steeled them for the struggle ahead. Among the biblical texts that spoke to their aspirations was John 8:36 “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall indeed be free.”
At Salt Spring estate a Negro whose wife was being excessively flogged struck the whipman. When ordered to arrest the angered man, the other slaves refused. A 60,000 strong slave rebellion had begun! Signal fires were lit and soon all the western parishes rose up. On the night of 27 December the burning of cane-fields, estates, works and overseers’ houses began.
The story is told of one woman who in sight of the militia ran with a lighted brand to set fire to a hut shouting “I know I shall die for it, but my children shall be free.” She was killed.
Total losses were estimated at well over one million pounds.
Several missionaries, including the celebrated William Knibb, spoke out against violence but the Negros would not listen. Martial Law was proclaimed and the planters arrested several of the missionaries, accusing them of fomenting the rebellion. Samuel Sharpe gave himself up to the authorities in order to remove blame from Knibb and another missionary whom he knew were innocent of the charges that had been laid against them. Shortly before his execution he told Bleby “I would rather die on yonder gallows than live in slavery.”
- Samuel Sharpe was hanged
- The militia brought the rebellion under control
- The planters executed 500 slaves
- Several baptist and methodist chapels were destroyed
- The British Government lent the planters £200,000 to restore their properties
- Jordon’s The Watchman published an article attacking slavery which earned him a spell in gaol
- Knibb went to London to work in the anti-slavery movement
Postscript: my Jamaican friend here in North London the late great Charlie Garwood once told me how the term “Buckra” is used to this day in Jamaica. It means “Back Raw” as in “My back is raw from flogging, massa!”
(i) Murray, R.N. “Nelson’s West Indian History” Nelson (1971) p.87ff
(ii) Newsinger, John “The blood never dried. A people’s history of the British Empire” Bookmarks (2006) p. 25-28