The Great Jamaican Slave Revolt

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An artistic impression of Samuel Sharpe. Courtesy of the Jamaican Information Service

On this day in 1831, an enslaved Baptist preacher named Samuel Sharpe led the largest slave rebellion in Jamaica, and one of the largest in history.

Known variously as the Baptist War, the Christmas Uprising and the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt, it mobilized as many as 60,000 of Jamaica’s 300,000 slaves. It was initially begun as a peaceful protest, with slaves refusing to work during the crucial and often brutal surar harvest until they were treated better and paid at least half the average wage. Sharpe and his followers believed that a general strike alone would achieve their goals, envisioning violence only as a last, defensive resort.

Unfortunately, like slave owners across time, Jamaican landowners were not forgiving of this challenge, and immediately used violence to end the strike. The subsequent eleven-day conflict resulted in the deaths of fourteen whites and over 200 black slaves. Hundreds more were killed after the rebellion ended in “various extrajudicial killings”, often over minor or trumped up offenses.

Just before Sharpe was hanged for his role, he said in his last words: “I would rather die among yonder gallows, than live in slavery.” Though he and many of his followers did not live to see their goals achieved, the scale of the rebellion and the subsequently severe reprisals afterward are believed to have spurred Parliament to pass the Slavery Abolition Act a year later, with the final abolition of slavery across the British Empire in 1838.

Samuel Sharpe was officially proclaimed a National Hero of Jamaica in 1975, and is featured on the $50 of the Jamaican dollar.

 

 

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