Alfred Dawes | Crossing the Rubicon
The Christmas Rebellion, Baptist war or Sam Sharpe’s Rebellion is one of the least appreciated contributions by Jamaica to world. The history taught to us was that the abolitionists fought and won the war against slavery through flowery speeches...
The Christmas Rebellion, Baptist war or Sam Sharpe’s Rebellion is one of the least appreciated contributions by Jamaica to world. The history taught to us was that the abolitionists fought and won the war against slavery through flowery speeches and political activism. The slaves themselves were portrayed as supplicants begging for the mercy of the British people to aid them. The image of a kneeling African slave, shackled hands outstretched, with the title ‘Am I not a man and a brother’, is the work of abolitionists who hoped such an image would stir the humanity inside of their audience. That view of the mighty abolitionists saving the slaves has been handed down to us, allowing the British to play up their role in ending and policing the slave trade and later abolishing slavery long before other slaving nations. This could be no further from the truth. Our ancestors fought and died for their freedom. And nowhere in the world was this fight more decisive than in western Jamaica in 1831-1832.
Sam Sharpe is today our national hero because he and his lieutenants organised a massive strike for wages that turned into all-out war. The names of his top collaborators, Thomas Dove and Robert Gardiner, never made it into our lexicon of Jamaican heroes, even though they were crucial to the success of the strike. As the mastermind of the inciting event, even though he was professed to be non-violent, it is Sharpe, in the absence of a Toussaint or Dessalines to escalate the struggle, who history immortalised.
As slaves began torching great houses and plantation buildings throughout western Jamaica, the strike evolved into an all-out armed struggle where slave armies took on the white militia in pitch battles. The whites fled their estates and huddled in Montego Bay awaiting the arrival of reinforcements from Kingston by ships. Some paddled out into the harbour to escape the expected strategic attack on the town. An attack on Montego Bay would undoubtedly have changed the course of the war and its outcome, but it never came.
One slave leader had embarked on an attack on Montego Bay with his rag tag army of slaves. Charles McLenan, a maverick who was unconnected to Sharpe, decided to “burn the Bay”, raiding the town and equipping his army with food and ammunition. The self-styled General was stopped at a roadblock manned by a Sam Sharpe loyalist, John Tharpe. Tharpe was opposed to the raid on MoBay and even if this was to be done, he Tharpe himself should do it. An argument broke out among the slave leaders and nearly escalated into a brawl. Eventually, McLenan gave up and told his group to return to the hills.
“Everybody was sitting down and would not fight for (freedom),” a clearly disillusioned McLenan bemoaned. His fighting spirit drenched by the apathy and lack of resolve by those who were supposed to be the leaders in this fight for freedom, McLenan decided to “go home and sit down”. I always wondered whatever became of this bold upstart who had the audacity to lead an attack on the vulnerable refuge of the cowering masters, but decided at the eleventh hour to be swayed by the apathy of his fellow revolutionaries. He never crossed the roadblock to claim his destiny as the slave general who sacked MoBay, and the natural leader of the revolution. He went home, sat down, and faded from memory.
ENDED ALL HOPES
Soon thereafter, reinforcements arrived from Kingston and with them ended all hopes of a successful revolution as seen in Haiti. Rebel armies were defeated and defections encouraged by pardons for non-leaders decimated their ranks. With no clear leader to organise the forces, the rebellion collapsed. The massacre and cruel punishment of slaves that followed outraged the British public. The frightening images of slaves burning the entire western Jamaica drove home the point to the ruling elite that these were no supplicant slaves begging for their mercy. They were Creole warriors following in the footsteps of their Coromantee ancestors. They would fight to the death for their freedom. The outraged public and shaken plantocracy knew then, that a slave society was untenable.
In 1833, the abolitionist act, previously defeated when tabled over two decades before, was passed thirty years before the Americans fought their own war over slavery, and fifty-five years before the last slave in the Americas was set free in Brazil. Were it not for the Christmas Rebellion, who knows when the abolitionist movement would have gained the traction needed to convince simultaneously the ruling elite and the British public that slavery was wrong. It was Jamaica’s gift to the world, with a terrible price paid in blood and suffering.
In 49 BC, Julius Caesar led his armies across the Rubicon river, an act that was seen as treason and a declaration of war, given that it was illegal to march armies into Italy. The events that ensued created the birth of one of the greatest empires ever that still influences our modern world. Had Caesar returned cap in hand to Rome as instructed, civilisation would have taken a different course. What if like Caesar, Charles McLenan had taken the bold step to cross that roadblock to Montego Bay? How differently would our history have evolved.
When faced with such a decision, will you “go home and sit down”, or declare “ alea iacta est” and cross the Rubicon?
- Dr Alfred Dawes is a fellow of the American College of Surgeons, and CEO of Windsor Wellness Centre. Follow him on Twitter @dr_aldawes. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com