Icons of the Decades: Sam 'Daddy' Sharpe (1830s)
Louis Marriott, Contributor
"THE MOST remarkable and intelligent slave that I have ever met" was the assessment of Sam Sharpe by a Methodist missionary who knew Sharpe very well. Born in St James about 1780, Sharpe was given the name of his remarkable owner, an English lawyer with his practice in Montego Bay. Our first decade icon was highly favoured by lawyer Sharpe. He was afforded a number of privileges, including self-education and fellowship with several prominent Christian missionaries.
He was clearly very intelligent and soon became a Baptist lay deacon. He was described as having a "handsomely moulded" and sinewy medium-sized body, commanding face, impressive eloquence emanating from a "silver tongue", and great charisma. Out of due deference, he was given the moniker 'Daddy Sharpe'.
In his early 20s, on the Baptist premises under the leadership of Thomas Burchell, Sharpe organised underground native Baptists and merged English non-conformist rituals with traditional African religious forms.
A truculent opponent of slavery, Sam Sharpe-led Jamaica's first organised strike against a law passed by the Jamaican legislature in 1831 reducing by one day the slaves' customary annual three-day holiday at Christmas. The situation was further complicated by a Caribbean-wide rumour that the imperial authorities in London had abolished slavery, but that the matter was being kept secret by the local authorities.
Sam Sharpe's plan of passive resistance was, however, distorted when unruly gangs attacked properties, including the torching of the famous Kensington Great House, on December 27, 1931, the day appointed by the new law for the resumption of work.
Sam Sharpe, then a wanted man, went into hiding, was captured months later, given a swift trial , convicted, sentenced to death. and hanged on May 23, 1932, in the public square that now bears his name He is remembered for his defiant statement: "I would rather die on yonder gallows than live in slavery."
More importantly, he is remembered for the fact that his martyrdom was a major factor in the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire two years after his execution.