Samuel Sharpe was hanged today in Jamaica for his role in organising as slave uprising referred to by historians as 'The Baptist War'. He is now a national hero and his face appears on the $50 bill in Jamaica
Sharpe was born in Jamaica in 1801. In the Caribbean, England had colonised the islands of St. Kitts and Barbados in 1623 and 1627 respectively, and later, Jamaica in 1655. These and other Caribbean colonies later became the centre of wealth and the focus of the slave trade for the growing British Empire. In 1640 the English began sugar production with the help of the Dutch. This started Anglo-American plantation societies which at their peak production between 1740 and 1807, Jamaica received 33% of the total enslaved people who were trafficked in order to keep up its production. Sugar was hugely popular during the time and Sharpe was born into slavery. He learnt to read and write and he educated himself by reading the Bible, newspapers and books. He joined the church and became a Baptist Deacon at a time when religious meetings were a permissible form of organised activity by slaves. He soon stood out because of his intelligence and leadership qualities; he became a leader of the native Baptists in Montego Bay. He spoke out against the injustice of slavery and it is said that he amazed people with the power and passion of his speech. He dreamed up a plan of passive resistance in 1831, by which the slaves would refuse to work on Christmas Day, causing an inconvenient disruption on a special day for the wealthy slave-owning families. They would continue to strike until the state owners and managers listened to their grievances, and he calculated that as the strike would spread into the key sugar cane harvest and the ripe cane was not cut then it would be ruined with significant short-term consequences to the economy.
Explaining his plan to chosen supporters after his religious meetings, he would made them kiss the Bible to show their loyalty. They, in turn took the plan to the other churches until the idea had spread throughout St. James, Trelawny, Westmoreland, and even St. Elizabeth and Manchester. However word of the plan also reached the ears of some of the planters. Troops were sent into St. James and warships were anchored in Montego Bay and Black River, with their guns trained on the towns. This significantly raised tensions and the stakes and it became clear that the plan of non-violent resistance was impractical.
After Christmas the Kensington Estate Great House was set on fire, as a signal that the Slave Rebellion had begun. A series of other fires broke out in the area. Armed rebellion and seizing of property spread mostly through the western parishes, but the uprising was put down by the first week in January. A terrible retribution followed. While 14 whites died during the Rebellion, more than 500 slaves lost their lives. During Sharpe’s trial, he was reminded that the Scriptures teach human beings to be content with the station allotted to them by Providence, and that even slaves are required patiently to submit to their lot, till the Lord in His providence is pleased to change it. Sharpe responded, “If I have done wrong in that, I trust that I shall be forgiven for I cast myself upon the Atonement … I would rather die upon yonder gallows than to live in slavery. He was hanged on May 23, in Montego Bay on a square now called Sam Sharpe Square. Sharpe’s owners were paid the sum of just £16.00 for their ‘loss of property’
Two years later, William Wilberforce's Slave Trade Act in 1807 abolished the trafficking of enslaved human beings in the British Empire. A system of ‘Apprenticeship’ was instituted to allow sugar production to carry on under different conditions but in 1838 the Apprenticeship System ended and slaves were granted their freedom. After Great Britain abolished the institution of slavery, it began to pressure other nations to do the same. In the Caribbean, France finally abolished institution of slavery in 1848. By then Saint-Domingue had already won its independence and formed the independent Republic of Haiti. Sam Sharpe a man of immense faith and courage and his legacy was recognised by the Jamaican authorities when he was made a National Hero in 1975 and his image is used on the modern Jamaican $50 bill