Samuel Sharpe

The Baptist War

Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 16

The Christmas Rebellion, also known as the Baptist War, of 1831 is remembered as a pivotal moment in Jamaican history. It is argued that the scale and structure of this rebellion, although eventually quelled, led to the hastening of the abolition of slavery within the British Empire.

The rebellion, which took place around Christmas day, was led by Samuel Sharpe. Sharpe was born into slavery in 1801 and named after the owner of the plantation he was born on. Not much is known about his childhood, but in his adult years, Sharpe became a well-respected preacher in the Baptist Church.

It is important to note here that the first Baptists to come to Jamaica were black men who established churches in the 1780s. These Baptists, who became known as Native Baptists, were associated with rebellion and soon came into conflict with the European Baptist branch.

As a religious leader, Sharpe was permitted to hold independent meetings with his black congregation. He is also known to have travelled widely to different parishes, spreading his anti-slavery doctrine. Sharpe also kept himself informed of the abolition movements back in Britain.

Sharpe made sure to keep his congregation informed of the latest news regarding the abolition movement - at one point believing that freedom for enslaved peoples in the British Empire had been won, and it was just Jamaican plantation owners who were withholding that freedom.

In December 1831, Sharpe organised a protest, one scheduled to have maximum impact on the sugar cane harvest, one of Jamaica’s most important exports. In meetings with some of his known followers, Sharpe continued to speak out against the horrors of slavery and outlined his plan of passive resistance.

Sharpe and his followers refused to work from Christmas Day 1831, demanding to be paid just half of the standard wage. The strike soon spread to other areas, with as many as 60,000 of Jamaica’s 300,000 enslaved population taking part in the uprising.

Sharpe’s tactic of passive resistance, i.e. non-violent protest, was to be made untenable by the actions of British militia and naval forces, who responded with violent repression.

On 27 December 1831, Kensington Estate in the hills above Montego Bay was set on fire, signalling to many that the rebellion had begun. The rebellion went on to destroy many of the most prosperous sugar plantations in the region, including the Boyne and Roehampton Estates.

The rebellion lasted ten days, with over 200 rebels losing their lives and 14 white slavers also dying. The rebels were estimated to have caused over £1 million worth of damage, the equivalent of approximately £120 million today. Over 100 properties were set ablaze, including 40 sugar plantations.

In the aftermath of the rebellion, British forces murdered an additional 300+ enslaved men, women and children, as retribution for the rebellion. Groups of white slavers also went around destroying chapels that housed black congregations.

Sharpe himself was captured following the rebellion and imprisoned; prior to his execution, Sharpe expressed:

“I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live my life in slavery...”

On 23 May 1832, Sharpe was executed. His ‘owners’ were paid £16 in compensation for their loss of property. A year later, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed. The scale of the rebellion and its financial toll is said to have had a profound effect on the British government.