In Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire (Harvard University Press, 2020) Tom Zoellner delivers an account of the slave rebellion that led to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire. Madison Smartt Bell (All Souls’ Rising) writes, “Tom Zoellner tells the story of Sam Sharpe’s revolution manqué, and the subsequent abolition of slavery in Jamaica, in a way that’s acutely relevant to the racial unrest of our own time. Island on Fire is impeccably researched and seductively readable.”
Description: For five horrific weeks after Christmas in 1831, Jamaica was convulsed by an uprising of its enslaved people. What started as a peaceful labor strike quickly turned into a full-blown revolt, leaving hundreds of plantation houses in smoking ruins. By the time British troops had put down the rebels, more than a thousand Jamaicans lay dead from summary executions and extrajudicial murder.
While the rebels lost their military gamble, their sacrifice accelerated the larger struggle for freedom in the British Atlantic. The daring and suffering of the Jamaicans galvanized public opinion throughout the empire, triggering a decisive turn against slavery. For centuries bondage had fed Britain’s appetite for sugar. Within two years of the Christmas rebellion, slavery was formally abolished.
Island on Fire is a dramatic day-by-day account of this transformative uprising. A skillful storyteller, Tom Zoellner goes back to the primary sources to tell the intimate story of the men and women who rose up and tasted liberty for a few brief weeks. He provides the first full portrait of the rebellion’s enigmatic leader, Samuel Sharpe, and gives us a poignant glimpse of the struggles and dreams of the many Jamaicans who died for liberty.
Tom Zoellner is the author of Uranium, Train, and The Heartless Stone and coauthor of the New York Times bestseller An Ordinary Man. He teaches at Chapman University and Dartmouth College and is the politics editor for the Los Angeles Review of Books.
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