27 December 1831
On 27 December 1831, a widespread slave strike occurred in Jamaica, then an integral part of the British Empire. A severe drought during the summer had brought increased hardship for the slave population, which was compounded by the ruthlessness of the plantation owners, who insisted on their legal right to flog both men and women slaves. A decision was also taken by the Jamaican Assembly to cut the Christmas holiday from three days to two.
While the official Baptist Church preached a doctrine of passivity and patience, the Native Baptist Church, led by deacon Samuel Sharpe, spread a message of resistance against injustice. He planned a general strike with his followers swearing on the Bible that they would not return to work after Christmas unless they were granted their freedom. They also prepared an army to defend themselves, but made no plans to overthrow the British administration.
British and Jamaican newspapers expressed surprise that the rebels had not attempted a more violent assault on the white population and refused to accept that such an intelligently led strike could have been organised by the slaves themselves. The Morning Post explained that ‘throughout the accounts we do not find that the lives of the white inhabitants were at all an object of sacrifice. The destruction of property alone appears to have been the intention of the rebels, who’s minds, it is said, had been led astray by individuals possessing much more knowledge than negroes in general can be possessed of.’1
The British dealt with the threat to their authority ruthlessly. According to official figures, mercenaries and militia killed 201 slaves during the military operations to crush the strikes.2 Another 340 slaves were sentenced to death, most of them at court martials without anyone appointed to act in their defence. Some were shot, some hung and others starved in a ‘gibbet erected in the public square (of Montego Bay),’ which was ‘seldom without occupants, during the day, for many weeks.’ The corpses of the hung were left dangling and ‘stiffening in the breeze,’ until they had to be ‘cut down in their turn to make room for more.’3 Hundreds more were flogged so severely that several died from their injuries. As for the Baptist preacher who inspired the strike, Samuel Sharpe suffered death by hanging on 23 May 1832. He informed a missionary visiting his cell: ‘Minister, I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live in slavery.’4
- The Morning Post, 21 February 1832, p. 4.
- Michael Craton, Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 2009, p. 377.
- Henry Bleby, Death Struggles of Slavery, W. Nichols, London, 1868, p. 30.
- Henry Bleby, op cit., p. 129.
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