Tue | Nov 13, 2018

Sam Sharpe did not start the fire

Published:Wednesday | October 10, 2018 | 12:00 AMPaul H. Williams/Gleaner Writer
Paul H. Williams photo The Sam Sharpe Monument in Sam Sharpe Square, Montego Bay, St James.

National Hero Samuel Sharpe's inscription on the list of heroes is perhaps the most significant of all. The 1831 rebellion that he instigated, but did not start, was the last major one in Jamaica before the Emancipation Act was passed in 1833. Sam Sharpe organised Jamaica's first labour strike, which led to the Baptist War.

But, who was Sam Sharpe and why did he instigate, but not start, the uprising that is now known as the Christmas Rebellion, the Sam Sharpe Rebellion, the Emancipation Rebellion and the Baptist War? Christmas, because it happened during the Yuletide season; Sam Sharpe for the obvious reason; Emancipation, because it sped up the Emancipation process.

It is called the Baptist War because it is felt that the rioters who were involved were most native Baptists who were influenced by Baptist missionaries and Samuel 'Daddy' Sharpe, an educated, articulate and influential preacher, who believed slavery was wrong.

Sharpe lived on Croydon Estate in St James as a field slave, but frequented Montego Bay. He got his owner's full name. He was treated well by his owner and his family, yet, in his book, Death Struggles of Slavery, the Methodist, the Reverend Henry Bleby, wrote, inter alia, "But he thought, and he learnt from the Bible, that the whites had no more right to hold the black people slaves; and, for his own part, he would rather die than live in slavery."

Around 1823 or 1824, it was rumoured that the king of England had granted the enslaved their freedom, but the white masters were withholding it. Talks of rebellion were rife. The speculation was so wide that the king had to issue a proclamation to say that no such freedom was granted. The enslaved didn't believe the proclamation; they were convinced that it was a fabrication by the planters.

The trash house

at Kensington Estate was lit

But it was not until 1831 that the rumours reached their peak. In May, the Reverend Thomas Burchell, who had established churches all over western Jamaica, left for England to restore his health. The assumption that Burchell had gone to obtain 'freedom papers' was widely made, and he would have returned with them in December.

"Such rumours as had been going around, namely that something was afoot for the holidays after Christmas, soon reached the ears of missionaries and planters alike," wrote Lloyd A. Cooke in The Story of the Jamaica Mission.

The rumours were also heightened by the masters themselves who suspected the English government secretly intended to free the enslaved. They were agitated. Cooke wrote, "They were determined to fight these plans of the British government, and expressed their resolve to secede, if necessary, from Britain and join the United States, thus removing them from British Sovereignty."

And in secret, Daddy Sharpe met with many of his followers to lay down plans for a general strike after their three-day Christmas holiday was over. They would refuse to work unless they were paid, and Sharpe thought that it would have been very difficult for the masters to force everybody to work against their will.

Also, Sharpe maintained that they were only to use violent means unless they were forced to defend themselves. But some of his followers were not in agreement. The freedom of which Sharpe told was a notion that they could not resist, and were impatient with Sharpe's wait-and-see approach.

They were ready to fight for what they thought was their right, freedom. And on December 27, the trash house at Kensington Estate was lit, not by Deacon Sharpe, the conceptualiser. It signalled the start of the uprising. The flames leaped and spread to many estates all over western Jamaica, out of Sam Sharpe's control, and into the colourful history of Jamaica. Sharpe did not start the actual fire, but he is a great symbol of resistance, a national hero.