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Christmas Rebellion pushed Emancipation

Published:Tuesday | December 22, 2015 | 12:00 AMMartin Henry, Contributor
Sam Sharpe

We are just a day away from the 184th anniversary of the start of the Sam Sharpe slave protest and uprising in western Jamaica on December 28, 1831, which accelerated freedom for slaves in the British Empire. That freedom came just two and a half years later by an act of the British Parliament after some 60 years of sustained effort. That uprising has given us our youngest national hero.

The Sharpe Plan was for slaves to 'set down' after the Christmas break. That is, to withhold their labour and demand wages as a condition of going back to work.

As reported by one of Sharpe's lieutenants, Edward Hylton, the sworn agreement forged in a late-night undercover meeting was that "we must all agree to set down after Christmas. We must not trouble anybody and raise no rebellion. We did not swear to burn anywhere or to fight." But if force was used against them by their masters, force would be met with force.

Baptist missionary William Knibb would later testify before the British Parliament about the events, having been in the thick of things during the uprising, that "there was no design of leaving the property, but they [the slaves] intended what would be called in England a turn-out, till they were promised remuneration for their labour and the price they had fixed was 2/6 a day."

Methodist missionary Henry Bleby, the man who most heavily chronicled the events of the protest and uprising, said he had had the opportunity of ascertaining the fact beyond doubt that the destruction of property formed no part of the plan of the original conspirators, and that life was not to be sacrificed, except in self-defence.

But at nightfall on December 28, the great house and sugar works of Kensington Estate in St James were set afire. Within minutes, other estates were ablaze across much of western Jamaica. Hope Waddell, a Presbyterian missionary in the Montego Bay area, had been, like the other non-conformist missionaries, urging his congregation of slaves to be patient. He was at one with them, he admonished, in desiring their freedom, but it could only come in a peaceful way by the efforts of their friends in Britain.

But on the evening of December 28, members of his congregation, he records, hastily dispersed in fright. The reason he got from fleeing congregants was: "'Palmyra on fire!' It was not an ordinary estate fire. It was the pre-concerted signal that ... the struggle for freedom had begun. It was the response to 'Kensington on Fire'... the one hoisted the flaming flag of liberty and the other saluted it, calling on all between and around to follow their example ... . Scarcely had night closed in when the sky toward the interior was illuminated by unwanted glares as fires rose here and there in rapid succession."

Samuel Sharpe's peaceful set-down, of which he quickly lost control, had become flaming insurrection that ran several months well into 1832.

What drove Sam Sharpe? Sharpe had been appointed a deacon in Thomas Burchell's Baptist congregation in Montego Bay where he was a household slave who could read. He also had a following of his own among the Native Baptists. Sharpe has been described as of medium height, with a fine sinewy frame and a broad, high forehead, a natural leader who impressed all whom he met with his intense sincerity, intellectual power, oratorical skills, and his personal charisma. His eyes were unforgettable, with a brilliant gaze that was almost dazzling.

Although surprisingly young (he was, at most, 31 when he was hanged on May 23, 1832, a fact which his 'official' portrait as seen on the $50 bill does not do justice to), he was 'Daddy Sharpe' to his followers, who believed, without question, all that he told them. He could read and he was an officer in the white man's church, so what he said must be true.

Sharpe "asserted the right of all human beings to freedom, and declared, on the authority of the Bible," Missionary Bleby reported, "that the white man had no more right to hold the blacks in bondage than the blacks to enslave the whites."

Sharpe believed that the king had set the slaves free or was resolved upon doing it, but the masters were blocking freedom, hence the peaceful withdrawal of labour until they agreed to pay wages for work.


Shoulders of Christian giants

Sam Sharpe stood on the shoulders of Christian giants in the fight against slavery. While economic changes that came with the rise of the Industrial Revolution challenged the old slavery-based economy, "of more importance", Clinton V. Black said in his History of Jamaica, "was the new demand for liberty being voiced in Europe and the wave of humanitarian reform sweeping Britain at the time (the result of a religious revival led by the founder of Methodism John Wesley and his brother, Charles). This wave of reform was to awaken a concern for the welfare of prisoners and other unfortunates, and was to break with force against the structure of slavery itself and help to sweep it away."

The Lion Handbook on 'The History of Christianity' picks up the story in its chapter on the 'Awakening'. "What were the overall effects of the 18th-century awakening? The revival encouraged a passion for social justice. The campaign to banish slavery from the British colonies was led by men of evangelical convictions." Chief among them was William Wilberforce, who led the anti-slavery fight in the British Parliament for decades to its successful conclusion in the Emancipation Act passed in 1833 to come into effect on August 1, 1834.

In that age of sailing ships, the governor's despatch detailing the Sam Sharpe uprising reached the British government on February 19, 1832, and was published in full only three days later in the London Extraordinary Gazette.

In April news arrived on the attacks upon the non-conformist missionaries and their chapels by the Colonial Church Union, which had been hastily formed at the height of the uprising to drive out the "sectarian missionaries".

The tide of public opinion turned sharply and quickly against the planters and against slavery.

In May, non-conformist missionaries arrived in England from Jamaica, among them William Knibb, to tell their story and to join the campaign against slavery.

Quaker Thomas Fowell Buxton, a leader in the Abolitionist Society and a member of Parliament, pushed for immediate action and proposed a motion in the House of Commons for a Commons Commission of Enquiry into Slavery. The motion was defeated 136:90, but the size of the minority was heartening. The public and parliamentary campaign against slavery gathered steam. A little over a year later, on August 28, 1833, the Act for the Abolition of Slavery was passed by the British Parliament, deeply influenced by the Sam Sharpe uprising in the Jamaica colony.

Analysis of the voting on the bill has shown that 70 per cent of the supporting votes came from English and Welsh constituencies, which had large non-conformist evangelical congregations.

Methodist Missionary Henry Bleby, whose chapel in Falmouth was burnt down and he himself tarred and feathered in the planter backlash, wrapped his recounting of the events with the assessment: "The revolt failed of accomplishing the immediate purpose of its author, yet by it, a further wound was dealt to slavery which accelerated its destruction for it demonstrated to the imperial legislature that among the Negroes themselves, the spirit of freedom had been widely diffused as to render it most perilous to postpone the settlement of the most important question of emancipation to a later period."

On the eve of that historic 'set-down' of 1831 just after Christmas, we hail Daddy Sharpe, Emancipator, National Hero.

• Martin Henry is a university administrator. Email feedback to and