Arnold Bertram | Remembering Sam Sharpe and the Emancipation Rebellion 1831-32
Today marks the 185th anniversary of the Emancipation Rebellion, organised and led by Sam Sharpe, a 31-year-old enslaved African-Jamaican, which broke the back of plantation slavery in Jamaica and opened the door to freedom. Once we concede that freedom is the single most important asset in our struggle for nationhood, then Sam Sharpe deserves pride of place among the greatest Jamaicans of all times. Yet up until 1976, the year the Michael Manley administration declared Sam Sharpe a National Hero, not a single study had been published about him, and his exclusion from the school curriculum for over a century was a damning indictment of our education system.
Who was Sam Sharpe?
Sam Sharpe was born in St James in 1801 and began life as a field slave on Croydon Estate, a small property near Catadupa in the hills of St James before moving to Coopers Hill, an even smaller estate in Montego Bay. Consistent with the custom of the time he took the name of his owner, Samuel Sharpe, a solicitor of Montego Bay. Sam Sharpe was "a man of the middle size; his fine sinewy frame was handsomely moulded... with an eye whose brilliancy was almost dazzling" (Henry Bleby).
The two global events that transformed the moral and political environment in which Sam Sharpe grew up were the religious revival in 18th century Britain and the French Revolution of 1789. The former led the campaign for the Abolition of the Slave Trade by recognising slavery as a sin, and made missionary work a feature of non-conformist churches throughout the British Colonial Empire. The French Revolution of 1789 took the concept of individual human rights to a new level with its declaration of "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity".
Sam Sharpe and the enslaved population of St James first experienced Christian teaching through the preaching of Moses Baker, a coloured pastor from the American South, who on the invitation of the Quaker, Lascelles Winn, began preaching to the enslaved on Winn's Adelphi estate in 1786. Sharpe was converted to Baker's Native Baptist Church, and was quickly promoted to the leadership rank of a "Daddy". It was on Baker's invitation that the first British Baptists missionaries arrived in Jamaica in 1814 to assist him. With the arrival of Rev. Thomas Burchell in 1824, a Baptist mission was established in Montego Bay. When Sam Sharpe moved to Coopers Hill Estate in Montego Bay, he became a member of Burchell's Church and was promoted to the position of deacon.
The Transforming Power of Christianity
While the British missionaries limited their activities to "the moral and religious improvement of the slaves", the Christian doctrine of the 'equality' of all men before God, as well as the 'fraternity' which developed between the missionaries and the enslaved, undermined the social basis of slavery. Over time the enslaved Africans, led by Sam Sharpe, added the demand for 'liberty'.
A comparison between Sam Sharpe and Paul of Tarsus is compelling. Both interpreted Christianity as a religion of freedom, and devoted their life's work to making the concept of freedom the actual experience of thousands of the enslaved to whom they preached. While Paul of Tarsus travelled thousands of miles to bring the gospel to the major urban slave centres of the Roman Empire, Sam Sharpe travelled by horseback to the sugar estates of St. James, Hanover and Westmoreland to bring the "gospel of freedom" to the enslaved. The verse he persistently quoted was: "No man can serve two masters"; and for him the two were God and the slave-master. Hence to revolt against slavery was to do the work of the Lord. When Sharpe spoke on the subject of slavery, his listeners were "wrought up almost to a state of madness". Such was the transforming power of revolutionary Christianity.
As a deacon in Burchell's Church, Sam Sharpe became exposed to the cellular organization of the church which divided the congregation into enquirers, candidates and members who were in turn supervised by a hierarchy of class leaders and deacons. Sam Sharpe's intelligence, oratorical powers and leadership capacity enabled him to optimise his dual roles as deacon and "Daddy" in the building of a revolutionary organization around a network of drivers and headmen on each sugar estate who were also class leaders and deacons in the British Baptist Church, and the "Daddies" and "Rulers" in the Native Baptist Church.
The Emancipation Rebellion
In the organisation of the Emancipation Rebellion, Sharpe revealed his genius as a strategist, a propagandist and a political leader. In choosing December 27, 1831, as the date to begin the rebellion, he took advantage of the holiday period when security on the estates was lax. It was also a period when the anti-slavery push in England had peaked, and Burchell's departure for England earlier in May fed the propaganda that he would be bringing back "free paper" in December. Sharpe's tactic of a general strike was consistent with his desire to minimise damage to property. It also assured greater levels of participation than the option of military confrontation. However, in anticipating that the slave owners would not yield to his demands, Sharpe recruited an armed mobile army.
Simultaneously, he sent a deputation to the Maroon Colonel at Accompong in an effort to neutralise the Maroons, whose treaty with the government automatically made them part of the enemy forces.
On the evening of December 27, the torching of Kensington Estate signalled the start of the rebellion which lasted until the end of January 1832 and involved some 60,000 men and women island wide. Sam Sharpe throughout the rebellion only used force against those who attacked him, and as a result only 14 Whites were killed and 12 wounded. In contrast, the British troops, the supporting militias and the Maroons killed 307 freedom fighters and another 312 were executed through the slave courts and by court martial. Those not executed were given harsh sentences of up to 500 lashes.
The manner in which those condemned faced execution moved the Methodist minister, Henry Bleby, to remark: "Every rebel, leaders and led, walked to the scaffold calm and undismayed...with the dignified bearing of men untroubled as to the justice of their cause... Sharpe was the last victim that was put to death...and he marched to the spot with a firm and even dignified step."
Of him it was said: "He was such a man...as was likely, nay, certain had he been set free, to commence another struggle for freedom..."
The Emancipation Rebellion broke the back of plantation slavery in Jamaica and forced the legislative machinery in Britain to bring forward the Emancipation Act which was passed in 1833.
Since the declaration of Sam Shape as a National Hero the pioneering scholarship of Richard and Verene Shepherd has certainly lifted the veil of ignorance that shrouded the man, his life and the breadth of his contribution. However, much more remains to be done to locate Sam Sharpe and the Emancipation Rebellion at the centre of our national consciousness.
- Arnold Bertram is a historian and former Cabinet minister. His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org