A short account of the Baptist War, the revolt by Jamaican slaves in 1831 that forced the British Empire to abolish slavery within its borders in the aftermath.
*** Contains descriptions that some listeners may find upsetting ***
Enslaved Africans are forced to work in sugar cane fields - the hours are long and there are frequent, brutal punishments. They have endured these conditions for 200 years.
By 1831 the anti-slavery movement is gathering pace and the slaves decide to take action - by going on strike.
Samuel Sharpe became a Jamaican national hero as he led the island's slaves in a rebellion against the overseers and sugar plantation owners.
The rebellion was brutally crushed, but over time, the rebellion had a significant impact - and two years later in 1833 the Slavery Abolition Act is passed.
(Broadcast 1st October 2013)
Hello and thank you for downloading Witness from the BBC World Service. And today we’re taking you back to the 27th of December almost 180 years ago. On the Caribbean island of Jamaica an uprising is about to begin, Alan Johnston reports.
It is 1831 and in the British colony of Jamaica the vast majority of people are slaves. They’re forced to labour in the sugarcane fields and often the work goes on twelve hours a day. The slaves are overseen by men wielding whips and there are frequent brutal punishments. A Baptist missionary called Henry Bleby is appalled by what he sees on the island and in the language of his time he writes this account of a scene he witnessed in the countryside.
On reaching the estate I was informed that six Negroes were to be punished. The first was a man of about 35 years of age; the cattle herder. His offence was having allowed a mule to go astray. At the command of the overseer he proceeded to strip off part of his clothes and laid himself flat on his belly, his back and buttocks being uncovered. One of the drivers then began flogging him with the cart whip; this whip is about ten feet long and is an instrument of terrible power. It is whirled by the operator around his head and then brought down with a rapid motion of the arm upon the victim, causing the blood to spring at every stroke.
When I first saw this spectacle, now for the first time before my eyes and saw the degraded and mangled victim writhing and groaning. I felt horror struck, I trembled and felt sick. As soon as the scene was over the overseer came into the hall and asked me to drink some rum with him. I told him I was sick and could taste nothing, that I was overwhelmed with horror at the scene I just witnessed.
He said it was not a pleasant duty certainly, but it was an indispensable one. And that I would soon get used as others did to such spectacles.
Jamaica’s slaves have endured their plight for more than 200 years. But now they know that in Britain the campaign to abolish slavery is gathering momentum. They believe their freedom is coming and they decide to press for it by mounting a strike, they decide they won’t return to work after Christmas. And on this day December 27th they rise up.
In the evening as it grew dark the first indication of the actual revolt was given by the burning of the houses and sugar works on a large plantation. It is impossible to describe the consternation that prevailed in the town and neighbourhood of Montego Bay where these fires commenced and the horizon for miles was lighted up with a strong lurid glare by the burning estates. The same evening the insurgents made an attack upon Montpelier, they approached in two parties raising loud discordant noise with horns.
The Seventh company of Saint James’s regiment boldly stood to repel the assailants but owing to the darkness of night, they could not see where to direct their fire except by the flashes of the insurgent’s muskets.
Soon plantations were burning all across Western Jamaica. The slaves had managed to organise some small units of fighters but when the colonial authorities rallied and sent in their military the rebels were hopelessly outgunned and quickly overpowered.
Both regular troops and militia were employed with decisive effect, reducing the insurgents to submission. This was not a difficult matter where the troops had only a disorganised and for the most part an unarmed mob of Negroes to contend with. On several occasions small bodies of Negroes lying in ambush ventured to assail detachments of the military. But this was only for a moment, a volley would generally suffice to scatter them.
Sixteen bodies dragged into the road were putrefying in the sun when we pass by presenting a horrible spectacle. Hundreds of crows were feeding upon them, and scarcely lifted their drowsy wings while our horses stepped over the remnants. Their lay one body, the head of which was completely stripped of flesh by the crows. And the bare skull, still attached to the partly clothed body seemed to grin at us as we passed.
Around 200 slaves died in the crushing of the revolt, and then several hundred more were put on trial.
At first shooting was the favoured method of execution, and many were thus disposed of. But when the novelty of this had ceased the gallows was put in requisition. Half an hour only was the time generally allowed to the condemned slaves between trial and execution. And it often occurred that men were tried, sentenced and executed all within one hour and a half. The bodies remain stiffened in the breeze until the court martial had provided another batch of victims for the hands of a brutal Negro who acted as executioner.
There were around 300 executions altogether, one of the most prominent rebel leaders was a slave called Samuel Sharpe. He was a man in his early 30s who had become a Baptist Christian. Daddy Sharpe as he was known was regarded with affection and respect by his fellow slaves, and he was said to have been a charismatic speaker delivering inspiring messages of hope for freedom. His fellow Baptist Henry Bleby was allowed to visit him in jail.
I had much conversation with him while he was in confinement. And found him certainly the most intelligent and remarkable slave I had ever met. I heard him two or three times deliver a speech, I was amazed both at the power and freedom with which he spoke. He appeared to have the feelings and passions of his hearers completely at his command. He thought and he had learned from the Bible that the whites had no more right to hold the black people in slavery than the black people had to make the white people slaves.
Minister, he said, I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live in slavery. He expressed deep regret that such extensive destruction of property and life had resulted from the conspiracy he had promoted. His only object was to obtain freedom.
Sharpe was the last victim that was put to death for taking part in the insurrection. He was executed at Montego Bay on the 23rd of May 1832. His execution excited a great deal of interest, and a considerable number of spectators assembled to witness it. He marched to the spot where so many had been sacrificed to the demon of slavery with a firm and dignified step. I could not help feeling deep sorrow and indignation as I turned away from his death scene and brushed away the tears. That such a man as Samuel Sharpe should be thus immolated at the polluted shrine of slavery.
But Samuel Sharpe did not die in vain. Over time the uprising would have a significant impact. Diana Payton is a reader in Caribbean history at the University of Newcastle in the north of England.
This is a really crucial event. It demonstrates to people back in Britain that the level of repression that’s needed to sustain slavery is just going to get more and more intense all the time. And in the end, it comes to seem that that’s not worth it, that if slavery is going to produce such extraordinary scenes of brutality more and more people in Britain aren’t prepared to support that anymore.
So, this rebellion I mean on its own you couldn’t say it ended slavery, but it contributes to the kind of environment in the early 1830s. that means that slavery is no longer politically viable and you know its only a couple of years later that you get the passage of the act for the abolition of slavery and the beginnings of the dismantling of the slave system itself.
The courage of those who rose up in 1831 is fully appreciated in Jamaica today. Samuel Sharpe is officially recognised as a national hero; he appears on the country’s $50 banknote and the place where he was hanged in Montego Bay is now known as Sam Sharpe Square.