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The Sam Sharpe Rebellion Essay

Causes of the Rebellion

There are several reasons for the 1831 revolt in Jamaica. One of the main reasons given for the revolt was that the enslaved was led to believe that emancipation was being withheld. In Jamaica reports spread among the slaves that their “free paper” had come from England but their masters were holding them in bondage. It was obvious that the slaves knew roughly what was going on, but they did not know the precise details. Another cause was the activities of the Non-Conformist Missionaries. It was felt that the teachings and preaching of these religious sects, especially the called Baptists, Wesleyan /Methodists and Moravians had the effect of producing in the minds of the slaves a belief that they could not serve both spiritual and temporal masters. St. Matthew 6:24 St. John 8: 36, I Corinthians 7:23, Galatians 3:28 The third and most immediate cause was the flogging of a female slave in the northern part of Jamaica. Her husband was forced to watch the brutal flogging. He struck the whipper. The overseer then ordered him to be arrested, but the other slaves refused. This began the chain of actions.

Flogging of a slave

Another cause was the influence of Sam Sharpe, a slave in Montego Bay who was able to urge the slaves to stop working on the plantations by spreading “watch words” called freedom. He could read and write. From his master’s newspaper he learnt that emancipation was very near and that wage and labour would come to Jamaica. He spread the news among the slaves. Under the guise of religious group meetings in St. James, he organized a general strike during the Christmas week of 1831. Christmas day in the year of 1831 came on a Saturday. This meant that the slaves had two consecutive days off from work. They were expected to resume working on Monday December 27, 1831. The Christmas holidays provided an excellent opportunity for the slaves to move around between estates and meet under the cover of traditional celebration or religious service led by Sam Sharpe a Deacon in the Baptist church.


On Monday December 27, 1831 instead of reporting to work at sunrise with the blowing of conch shells, the slaves island-wide went on a strike! It was to develop however into a bloody rebellion. The Great House and sugar works on Kensington Estate in St. James were the first to be set on fire; soon it spread to the neighbouring parishes such as Hanover, Trelawney, Westmoreland, St. Elizabeth. In all nine out of the twenty two parishes, three hundred (300) estates were and approximately sixty thousand (60,000) rebel slaves were involved. Sharpe had hoped to negotiate a wage settlement with the authorities. The headman on each estate was not only supposed to maintain the strike but also prevent violence. The slaves were already “carrying grievance” from two previous incidents.

Thursday December 15, 1831.

Attorney/overseer Grignon ordered a woman from Salt Spring Estate to be flogged for stealing sugar cane. Her husband objects: waving his machete at the overseer. Grignon goes to Montego Bay and orders two policemen to arrest the husband. The slaves on the estate become hostile and force the policemen to leave.

December 23, 1831

Slaves on the York Estate in Trelawney were discontented with the overseer. The whites attempted to burn the Methodist Minister Rev. Henry Bleby alive, in Falmouth after smearing him with tar! The St. James Militia burnt Salters Hill Chapel. Governor Lord Belmore proclaimed martial law. The leader of the militia General Willoughby Cotton brought the revolt under control. But it took him two months to do so because the slaves used their famous guerilla tactics. The slaves fled to their hiding places in the forested areas and mountainous Cockpits, where they ambushed the ‘red coats’, who were in hot pursuit. With the help of the Maroons the local militia burnt huts and provision grounds. By January 1, 1832 reinforcements came from Britain to join the fight that continued well into the month of February.

Results / effects

1. The revolt helped to speed up the slow process of emancipation. In the summer of 1832 the Baptists missionaries Reverend William Knibb and Reverend Thomas Burchell gave evidence to the committee which the House of Commons (England) had set up to consider emancipation as soon as possible. 2. Knibb and Burchell gave the process a further boost. Their stories of the brutality used against the slaves were bad enough. Their accounts of the persecution of the white missionaries in the infamous colony enraged English opinions even more. The public demanded immediate emancipation. 3. For the first time the missionary societies publicly joined with the abolitionists in calling for an immediate end to slavery.

4. The Colonial Church Union was formed in Jamaica in 1832 supposedly to protect the Anglican Church – the Planters’ Church. Its main objective, however, was the defense of slavery, the persecution of the non-conformist missionaries and the destruction of their places of worship. There was the riotous destruction of Baptist and Wesleyan Chapels in St. Ann, Trelawney, Hanover and in other parishes.

5. In April 1832, a local newspaper: The Watchman published an article calling for an end to slavery. It urged all Humanitarians to bind together to ensure this. The editor, a coloured man named Edward Jordan was subsequently arrested and charged with sedition and treason. He spent six months in prison. After this a number of free coloureds openly sided with the Abolition Movement. 6. Damage done to sugar works and homes were estimated at two hundred thousand pounds (£200, 000). One hundred and forty five estates were burnt. Sam Sharpe was hung in Montego Bay Square. His immortal words served to inspire the slaves he left behind… “I’d rather die on yonder gallows than live in slavery”

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