BY SEAN BRASWELL | OZY
- Over the Christmas holiday in 1831, a resistance movement in Jamaica led by a Baptist preacher named Samuel Sharpe turned violent.
- The ensuing destruction and bloodshed helped hasten the end of slavery in the British Empire.
As millions of British citizens sat down to enjoy their cakes, tarts, puddings and sweetened tea in the days after Christmas in 1831, one of the primary sources of those sugary delights was burning to the ground. For nearly two weeks, dozens of fires blazed across the sugar plantations in northwestern Jamaica, the richest West Indian colony of the British Empire. “The whole surrounding country was completely illuminated, and presented a terrible appearance, even at noon-day,” observed one local militiaman.
The fires were the product of an uprising among the island’s enslaved people. What began as a peaceful labor strike had transformed into a struggle for survival. By the time British troops quashed the revolt, more than a thousand Black Jamaicans had been killed. Their sacrifice, however, would lay the groundwork for an even more transformative struggle for freedom, bringing an end to slavery across an empire.
JAMAICA WAS A VAST AGRICULTURAL PRISON CAMP.TOM ZOELLNER, ISLAND ON FIRE: THE REVOLT THAT ENDED SLAVERY IN THE BRITISH EMPIRE
Life in Jamaica during the early 19th century was brutal, especially for the approximately 800,000 West Indian slaves who worked 14-hour days in sugar-boiling houses or in the sweltering cane fields. “Jamaica,” as Tom Zoellner writes in Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire, “was a vast agricultural prison camp.” There were nearly 20 enslaved Black people for every free white person. Lashings, rapes, disease and starvation were rampant. And all of it in the name of sugar, a substance that, as Zoellner, an English professor at Chapman University, puts it, “caused incalculable misery for millions of people for what amounted to an addiction in Northern Europe.”
From the powerlessness of Jamaica’s enslaved population, however, emerged a remarkable resistance campaign, and the engine of its strategy was a local Baptist minister named Samuel Sharpe. Sharpe had read about the growing opposition to slavery in Great Britain and knew it was time to act, and on a large scale. Using his access to the plantations and their enslaved laborers as a teacher of Bible studies, Sharpe organized resistance cells across the island and a massive intelligence-gathering operation. Like Martin Luther King Jr. more than a century later, Sharpe not only gave his followers a sense of higher purpose with Scripture but also instilled in them a resistance strategy geared toward improving their condition: nonviolent protest.
Sharpe planned a sit-down strike for December: The slaves would refuse to work until their masters agreed to pay them half the daily wages that a free white person would receive for doing the same work. His hope was that the strike would attract widespread attention and help sway public opinion to the cause. It was a simple, brilliant tactic, one that predated the nonviolent resistance philosophy of Mohandas Gandhi by 70 years. Thanks to Sharpe’s leadership, says Zoellner, “some of the most marginalized and abused people on the planet discovered methods of resistance that proved to be timeless.”
By the time Christmas arrived, more than 60,000 slaves awaited Sharpe’s signal for “the business” to begin. And then it all went horribly wrong.
On the night of Dec. 27, 1831, the first signal fires were lit in the hills above Montego Bay. The island’s slaveholders refused to negotiate; they cracked down hard, calling in British reinforcements. In the face of the military onslaught, Sharpe soon lost control of his followers, and what followed were weeks of guerrilla fighting, crop burning and executions of resisters. The rebels defended themselves from within an improvised fortress but ultimately were no match for their captors’ army. Sharpe was executed after a kangaroo court found him guilty, and his corpse buried in the sand near Montego Bay Harbor.
To discourage future insurrections, authorities attempted to also bury the news of Sharpe’s rebellion. But the damage had already been done and a tipping point reached. When news of the Christmas revolt hit England, the public was outraged. “The slaves must be sooner or later set at freedom,” editorialized the Morning Advertiser in London, “whether it be or whether it be not for their benefit, and the sooner that proper steps are taken for this purpose, so much the better.”
Sharpe may not have achieved the nonviolent victory he hoped for, but within 18 months of that first signal fire in Jamaica, Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, effectively abolishing slavery throughout the British Empire. Three decades later, slavery would also be abolished in the United States, but at a far bloodier price. Like Gandhi after him, Sharpe had taken on the most powerful empire in the world, and achieved an astonishing capitulation.
Vilified by authorities for decades, the “Right Honorable” Samuel Sharpe is now a member of Jamaica’s Order of National Hero and his visage appears on the 50-dollar bill. “His face is on Jamaican currency,” as Zoellner puts it, “but he is a hero for the world.”