Anthony Gambrill | Christmas Day 1831
Samuel ‘Daddy’ Sharpe was born a slave in St James in 1780. Thanks to his leadership qualities and his innate intelligence, he was to become a prominent Baptist deacon in Montego Bay. Over time, he had limited freedom to travel throughout western Jamaica to preach the gospel and had devised a strategy of passive resistance, persuading slaves to refuse to work on Christmas Day and to return to the cane fields and boiler house until they were paid a working wage and given better treatment.
After one of his regular prayer meetings in mid-December 1831, Sharpe gathered together a group of his flock and set out his plan for the campaign of passive resistance. Not coincidentally, Sharpe and his followers were aware of rancorous debates taking place in the British Parliament between the abolitionists and those opposing emancipation.
In fact, Thomas Burchell, a Baptist missionary, who was returning from Britain in December, was rumoured (incorrectly as it happened) to be carrying instructions from the king announcing the end of slavery. To show their commitment to his strategy and to demonstrate their loyalty, Sharpe’s supporters each kissed the Bible.
The plan quickly spread through the parishes, but news of it soon reached the ears of the plantation owners. Troops were sent to St James with warships anchored off Montego Bay and Black River, with their guns trained on the two towns.
When their demands were not met, it almost was inevitable that the slaves, especially in the western parishes, would abandon a peaceful campaign for open rebellion.
Known as the Baptist War or Christmas Rebellion, the strike escalated after Kensington Estate in St James was put to the torch on December 27, where cane fields were set on fire and the great house burnt to the ground.
The uprising quickly spread and in a matter of days, 60,000 of the 300,000 slaves in the island took up arms – machetes at first but guns later – after they had destroyed great houses. A slave known as Colonel Johnson formed a black ‘regiment’ and confronted St James militias, who had to retreat to Montego Bay in disarray.
At first, the British troops who were brought in were driven back but received assistance provided by the Accompong Maroons. Colonel William Grignon of the militia led his volunteers against the rebel at Belvedere estate but soon withdrew, leaving the slaves in command of much of rural St James.
Sir Willoughby Litton’s regular army experienced similar setbacks, and with the support of the Maroons, were able to overcome the rebels, killing one of Sharpe’s deputies, Campbell, and capture another, Dehany.
The Baptist War ended during the first week of 1832, although resistance continued for two more months primarily as a result of guerrilla warfare carried out by those slaves who had taken to the mountains. While approximately 200 rebels were killed and many more were to be executed, often for minor offences, just 14 whites lost their lives. Samuel ‘Daddy’ Sharpe was hanged on May 23, 1832.
The brutality of the plantocracy during the rebellion contributed to accelerating the political process in Britain towards the abolition of slavery. It shocked the British government, who saw the cost (£25 million pounds in today’s currency) of such an event, along with the growing likelihood of further uprisings. Just a week after Sharpe’s death, it appointed a committee to consider ways of ending slavery. Emancipation was to begin in 1834 with the unconditional emancipation of chattel slavery in 1838.
The Scarlett family, wealthy owners of land in four English counties, were eventually to play a part in the Christmas Rebellion. Captain Frances Scarlett emigrated to Jamaica shortly after the arrival of Penn & Venables, and by 1670, is recorded as having been granted 1,000 acres of land along the Wag Water river in St Andrew, to which he was to add nearby Temple Hall estate. In 1680-1681, he served in the Assembly but returned to the United Kingdom, dying a bachelor and leaving his Jamaican property to his nephew, William.
William, a merchant of Port Royal, in 1705 married Judith Lecount of St Jago at St Andrew Parish Church, a young heiress still in her prime. Some time after, they sold their property in St Andrew and moved to western Jamaica.
His son, Robert, in 1765, married Elizabeth Anglin, widow of John Wright, who had been murdered before her eyes by rebellious slaves two years earlier. Robert now owned Duckett’s Spring, Success, and Forest Pen, all in rural St James. Robert and Elizabeth had 13 children, of whom only seven survived.
The boys included a doctor, a plantation owner (Cambridge), a chief justice of Jamaica, and James, who came to be known as ‘the silver-tongued Scarlett’, thanks to his success as a barrister in the UK. For his legal and political service, he eventually was granted the title of Lord Abinger. At the time of Frank Cundall’s ‘Historic Jamaica’, there were five reproductions of paintings of Scarlett’s in the Institute of Jamaica.
During the Baptist War of 1831, the great houses and sugar works of Duckett’s Spring and Success Estate were destroyed. Grim ruins remain bearing witness of the uprising.
Adolph Duperley’s familiar painting of Roehampton Estate in flames is a dramatic portrayal of the rebellion. At Emancipation, nine Scarletts still owned estates in six parishes and had received substantial compensation. Future generations would seek their fortunes elsewhere.
- Anthony Gambrill is a playwright. Email feedback to email@example.com