At the recent Sam Sharpe International Conference held at Regent's Park College, University of Oxford, I polled some people on the age of Sam Sharpe at the time of the 1831 resistance, based on the popular image of Sharpe found on our money bills and the one displayed at this historic conference.
At the conference, I made the claim that Sharpe was 26 years old.In my book The Cross and the Machete, I disagreed with three scholars who estimated Sharpe's age as 31.One scholar gave no source for the estimate and the only person who gave a reason said that was the average age of Creole enslaved persons.That is hardly an appropriate way to estimate a person's age.Henry Bleby, English missionary, who visited Sharpe and had extensive discussions with him while in jail, estimated his age as 25 or 26.Since Bleby was close to Sharpe, I will accept his estimate.
My declaration that Sharpe was 26 obviously made an impression on one of the speakers at the conference, namely Rosemarie, who is of Jamaican parentage. Before preparing for the conference, she said she had never heard about Sharpe whether at school or church.She exclaimed that she was surprised that he was so young!
The persons polled estimated Sharpe's age as in the 40s based on the picture.One person speculated that Sharpe probably looked that age because he had a hard life. However, he was not in the fields and from all accounts, he was treated well by his master based on the standards of that era.
Sharpe was a remarkable young man who was a gifted speaker, an intellectual, an insightful thinker and marvellous organiser.Sharpe was an outstanding leader at the age of 26.He mobilised 50,000-60,000 enslaved people across western Jamaica to participate in a strike for wages and freedom without the aid of cellular phones.He convinced them that his idea was workable and a better option than engaging in the use of force.This was a pioneering idea long before the non-violent and pacifist protest of Mahatma Gandhi, Indian hero, and the Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr, American civil-rights leader.
Sharpe was a great expositor of the Bible.He differed from the interpretation given by the English missionaries over the issue of freedom.He believed that he had a right to agitate for freedom while the missionaries before 1832 all believed that the enslaved should wait on freedom as a gift from the colonisers.He also claimed equality of all human based on his interpretation of the Bible.According to Catherine Hall, British scholar, the Anti-Slavery Society did not believe in equality of all races and were "cultural racists".They were against the harsh treatment of the enslaved.However, Sharpe believed that the Europeans had no right to enslave the Africans and that the Africans have no right to enslave the Europeans based on his hermeneutical approach.
Can you imagine the effect it would have on the consciousness of the young to realise that at 26 they can make a significant contribution to their fellow human beings? It could inspire the youths on the corner.It means that the young do not only have pop stars, movie stars and athletes, etc as role models but also a young national hero, the Rt Excellent Sam Sharpe.
Jamaicans need to change the physical image of Sam Sharpe but in the mean time, we need to change the conceptual image of Sharpe and be inspired by this young man who was a visionary, mobiliser, thinker and biblical preacher.
Devon Dick is pastor of Boulevard Baptist Church and author of 'The Cross and the Machete: Native Baptists of Jamaica - Identity, Ministry and Legacy'. Feedback may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.