Devon Dick | Sam Sharpe was a young transformational leader
Recently, in the speed section of TVJ's Junior Quiz competition, two schools were asked when National Hero Sam Sharpe was born. One student said 1801 and the quizmaster said that it was correct. However, this is hardly likely to be correct. Edward Braithwaite, Caribbean scholar, stated that Sam Sharpe was born in 1801, but he gave no reference. Braithwaite wrote the argument for Sharpe to be declared a national hero in the book, Nanny, Sam Sharpe and the struggle for People's Liberation. Winston Lawson, historian, said Sharpe was 31 in 1831, and to support this age, Lawson quoted Barry Higman, noted scholar, who stated that 31 was the average of the majority of the aspiring Creoles in rural Jamaica. Apparently, Lawson is claiming that Sharpe was born in 1800. This is hardly an appropriate way to ascertain someone's age by using average age of a group. Braithwaite's giving Sharpe's birth year as 1801 has stood over Lawson's 1800 perhaps because he was the one who first did research on Sharpe to be named a national hero.
However, it does appear that Sharpe was younger than stated by both Braithwaite and Lawson. In my book, The Cross and the Machete, I relied on Henry Blebly, who knew Sharpe and visited Sharpe while he was incarcerated. In 1831, Bleby said that when Sharpe spoke at the meeting at Retrieve to outline his strike for wages, Sharpe was the youngest of the party, apparently no more than 25 or 26. And Oxford scholar, Larry Kreitzer, in Kissing the Book, stated that Sharpe was 27 years old based on the official court documents.
The Junior Quiz is a delightful competition which is done in a cordial spirit. The format allows everybody to have his or her time in the sun in a particular discipline, unlike the high school event in which one person could dominate to the exclusion of others. In addition, it shows the awesome knowledge of these youngsters.
However, it is not clear what the importance of the birth year of Sharpe is. Why not ask when he was killed, since there is universal acceptance that it was in 1831?
The major point of the birth year could be to show that Sharpe was a young man who could inspire other young people to believe that they can make a significant difference. If he, who at 27, had no human, political or civil rights could alter the course of the history in the British West Indies, then they, too, have a chance. Youngsters can be seen as well as heard! So let it be 1804.
1831: THE WATERSHED YEAR
Furthermore, the more important date would be 1831 because Sharpe took on the British Empire and made London bridge come falling down. It is also believed that this Baptist War was the catalyst for the passage of the Act of Emancipation in 1833. The year 1831 was a watershed year. It displayed Sharpe as a labour leader agitating for better working conditions. 1831 signalled that Sharpe was a freedom fighter desiring freedom for the enslaved. Sharpe was a religious thinker - interpreting the Scriptures and understanding God differently from the missionaries. Whereas the missionaries told the enslaved to wait on freedom, Sharpe interpreted the Bible to say an enslaved person cannot serve two masters, making slavery untenable.
Let's get it right. Sharpe was a young transformational leader, mobilising perhaps 60,000 persons across most of Jamaica without a mobile phone. Sharpe understood prayer meeting as a place to hear what the will of God is and then for the people, as instruments of God, to devise a plan of action to do God's will.
- Rev Devon Dick is pastor of the Boulevard Baptist Church in St Andrew. He is author of 'The Cross and the Machete', and 'Rebellion to Riot'. Send feedback to columns@ gleanerjm.com.