This article by Tom Zoellner (Zócalo Public Square) is from May 28, 2020, but timely. In this essay, Zoellner reminds us that “the ways of resistance are timeless.” He writes that, “just months after the groundbreaking 1831 Rebellion, the British Empire abolished slavery.” [Many thanks to Peter Jordens for bringing this item to our attention.]
[. . .] Then, on the night of December 27, 1831, “the business” opened. The first signal fires were lit in the hills above Montego Bay, and soon plantation houses went up in flames across the richest West Indian colony of the British empire. White Jamaica found itself contending with its biggest insurrection ever. It took five weeks for a British military crackdown to restore quiet.
The rebellion’s end would not be a lasting defeat. Much of the British public was already disgusted by slavery—the price of maintaining it seemed to be endless wars overseas—and after the Jamaica rebellion, political pressure built. Within 18 months of the first fire, slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire.
The rebellion, after failing, had succeeded. And not just at advancing freedom. “The Christmas Uprising” in Jamaica was a groundbreaking action and a model; its enslaved leaders anticipated the methods of later revolutionary movements—from the Irish Republican Army to Gandhi’s struggle against the British, from the French underground fight against the Nazis to the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. The story of the Jamaican revolution suggests that methods of calculated revolutionary action transcend historical periods.
In other words, the ways of resistance are timeless.
Jamaica’s enslaved population was among the most abused and powerless on the globe in 1831. Most were illiterate. Few had ever seen anything but their owner’s plantation. Their only weapons were machetes and rocks. They constantly lived on the edge of hunger and harsh punishment. Yet even in this isolated atmosphere of extreme deprivation, they developed durable strategies for a politically successful revolution.
One such strategy was nonviolence. The chief conspirator of “the business,” an enslaved Baptist deacon named Samuel Sharpe, had insisted the protest would be a peaceful sit-down strike. The plan was to simply refuse to work on the second rest day after Christmas unless masters agreed to pay striking workers half the daily wages that a free person would get for chopping sugar cane. [. . .]
[. . .] Samuel Sharpe used the New Testament, visiting slave villages to preach verses considered too provocative by white missionaries, in particular those that emphasized freedom in Christ. Along with scripture, Sharpe (one of the few enslaved people on the island who was literate) let his followers in on a secret: The British people across the ocean were agitating to free the enslaved, and the King of England had signed a general “free paper” that was being kept under wraps by the Jamaican sugar barons.
[. . .] In Jamaica, Sharpe, while insisting on nonviolent methods, also knew he needed a military wing. At planning meetings in fall 1831, several of Sharpe’s lieutenants agitated for a backup plan in case the strike should fail. Two of those present—Thomas Dove and Robert Gardiner—would become the fiercest fighters against the white volunteer militia once the strike had moved into a less peaceful phase. In January, they even built and staffed an impressive hilltop fortress, designed to repel incursions, called Greenwich Hill, and fought several engagements with British troops. In this, they anticipated another commonplace practice of 20th-century resistance movements: to maintain an armed underground sector operating beneath the political wing. The Palestinian Liberation Organization and Ireland’s Sinn Fein are the most well-known examples of this “arrows and olive branch” approach.
Sharpe also cultivated the enslaved “elite.” The Jamaican colonial government was surprised when it learned that the revolt’s leaders were among the most privileged of the island’s enslaved population: head drivers, head boilers, butlers, and traveling deacons like Sharpe. They were those with seemingly the least incentive to rebel because they enjoyed the most perquisites and avoided the whipping customarily dealt out to field hands. Sharpe himself told his interrogators he had always been treated kindly by his master and never beaten.
[. . .] Samuel Sharpe had been permitted to travel between plantations for the ostensible reason of teaching Bible lessons and leading small worship services. [. . .] Sharpe’s development of safe houses was also ahead of its time. Every Jamaican plantation had a section the white ruling class called the Negro Village: a “main street” of individual houses occupied by enslaved people. Field hands typically occupied small huts, but those in senior labor roles tended to have frame houses. In these elite houses, Sharpe preached about the “business.” His top-level recruits used these houses for the most sensitive meetings, stockpiled weapons in them, and even created their own military-style uniforms: blue jackets with red sashes.
[. . .] Finally, the Jamaican rebels were astonishingly good at the secret sharing of intelligence, and they often knew about troop movements, government decrees, and even international news before their white masters heard about it. They used a sophisticated network of deck hands, house servants, traveling Bible teachers, and cargo ship stevedores to pass along messages.
[. . .] The most critical piece of information of the early uprising, however, could not have been more visible: the first signal fire lit at Kensington Estate on the night of December 27, 1831. Whether Samuel Sharpe approved of it or not, the first blaze was followed almost immediately by a chain of fires lit on neighboring plantations that turned the night sky a dazzling orange and told the entire northwestern side of the island that “the business” was coming to pass at last.
The white ruling class could not help but be intimidated to the point of total confusion.
“The whole surrounding country was completely illuminated, and presented a terrible appearance, even at noon-day,” marveled a white militiaman. “When, however, the shades of night descended, and the buildings on the side of those beautiful mountains, which form the splendid panorama around Montego Bay, were burning, the spectacle was awfully grand.”
[. . .] Within 18 months, William IV gave his reluctant royal assent to the Slave Emancipation Act of 1833. Samuel Sharpe died on the gallows before he saw it come to pass. But the revolutionary methods of “the business” had been victorious against the most powerful government in the world, and more than 800,000 people were set free as a result.
[Above: Painting by Adolphe Duperly depicting the Roehampton Estate in St. James, Jamaica, being destroyed by fire during the uprising. From Wikimedia Commons.]