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Lessons from Sam Sharpe

Published:Thursday | May 24, 2012 | 12:00 AM

By Devon Dick

YESTERDAY, MAY 23, the day the Jamaican people celebrated Labour Day, had an interesting twist. On that day, the national project was improving the National Heroes Park. Coincidentally, it is a significant day in our heritage concerning national heroes in that it is the anniversary of National Hero Sam Sharpe, who was executed on May 23, 1832.

Labour Day activities have often overshadowed the observance of the significance of the execution of Sam Sharpe. Sharpe was a remarkable young man. Based on archival research in my book, The Cross and Machete, I estimated that Sharpe was either 25 or 26. The life of Sharpe shows that young persons have a critical role to play in religious, civic and political life. Therefore, space ought to be made in society for young persons who are mature and visionary to make a contribution.

Sharpe was a deacon within the Baptist Church led by Englishman Thomas Burchell. As a deacon, he was a sound interpreter of the scriptures. He was, therefore, given latitude to visit other estates and he functioned as a pastor in some instances. He had a different way of interpreting the Bible and understanding God when compared to the missionaries. Whereas the missionaries accepted the status quo of slavery and avoided the issue in the sermons or hymn-singing, Sharpe interpreted the Bible to argue that no one can serve two masters and, therefore, an enslaved person should only have God as master.

Peaceful resistance

Sharpe also disagreed with some of the enslaved persons who wanted to mount an armed resistance to the slave owners. There were those who believed that the ruling class would not grant freedom without a fight and they should expect violence at the hands of slave owners. Again, Sharpe differed from those persons and argued again from the Bible that he could not support pre-emptive strikes and only conceded to self-defence.

There are many lessons from Sharpe. He showed that interpreting the Bible and understanding God should not be for full-time, seminary-trained clergy only. Persons in the pew bring a perspective to understanding God that should be facilitated in Church. In fact, it would appear that under slavery, Sharpe had more opportunities to preach the gospel within the Church than today under freedom when preaching has largely been restricted to the clergy.

Additionally, two popular statements about Sharpe do injustice to his legacy and mar the ways in which he could inspire us. There is the popular saying that Sharpe believed that England had granted freedom to the enslaved based on the discussions he read in the British newspapers. He was, therefore, mistaken in his belief that freedom had arrived and led the enslaved along that path. Sharpe was described by Presbyterian missionary Henry Bleby as a very bright young man. Therefore, since he could read, he knew that emancipation had not yet come. Otherwise, he would be a deceitful person. He knew it was not so, but believed it ought to be so, and hence, he planned a strike for wages and freedom.

The other issue is that he set fire to an estate in order to tell the enslaved that it was time to strike. This assumes that Sharpe and the enslaved did not know the calendar and when it was December 27 to start the strike. And setting an estate on fire was not part of his strategy. These distortions and inconstancies rob the nation of the quality lessons from Sharpe, who points the way for better in society through a better understanding of God and civil disobedience.

Devon Dick is pastor of the Boulevard Baptist Church in St Andrew. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.