Advent Calendar Day 19: The Baptist Rebellion

Advent Calendar Day 19: The Baptist Rebellion December 19, 2018

It’s Christmas time, so we should turn our thoughts toward the great Baptist saints from south of here.

I don’t mean Southern Baptists here in the United States. The great heroes and apostles we’re talking about here are from farther south than that — both more southerly and more Baptist. And also this story takes place several years before the Southern Baptist denomination was formed in defense of white supremacy, theft, tyranny, torture, and rape, and of the theology that treats such sins as virtues.

This is the story of the Baptist Rebellion, which is sometimes also called the Baptist War, or the Christmas Uprising, or the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt. It is the story, among other things, of a Baptist preacher who actually followed Jesus and thus wound up, like Jesus, tried and executed by an empire that saw him as an existential threat.

Erik Loomis wrote about the Baptist War last Christmas for his regular feature on “This Day in Labor History.” That’s appropriate because Samuel Sharpe’s uprising began as a labor action — as a general strike. Sharpe organized his fellow enslaved laborers to refuse to work during the sugar cane harvest season until the plantation owners agreed to pay them for their labor and to allow them some time for rest.

Here’s Loomis’ summary of what happened:

On December 25, 1831, the Baptist Rebellion began in Jamaica. This slave rebellion of up to 60,000 people, put down over the next couple of weeks, also was the final straw that moved the United Kingdom toward outlawing slavery in its colonies.

By the early 1830s, the slave system in the British colonies was under attack from a number of fronts. First, there was a large abolitionist movement in Britain, led by William Wilberforce. This was known to slaves in the Caribbean. Second, the British religious denominations had engaged in large-scale missions among the slaves in the previous decades. In the United States, planters kept very tight control over slaves’ religious world, or at least as much as possible, with white preachers teaching subservience to the slaves on isolated plantations. In the British colonies, this was less in the hands of individual planters and more concentrated in missionaries themselves. Presbyterians, Methodists, and Anglicans made up a lot of the missionaries, but so did Baptists and they had more success among the slaves in Jamaica. In a nearly all-African descent society, very unlike the United States, certain classes of slaves could have more autonomy and given that there weren’t that many Baptist missionaries in Jamaica, the black deacons had a lot of ability to lead. They would play a critical role in the rebellion.

Baptist minister Samuel Sharpe led the rebellion. Probably born in 1801 on a plantation in the Great River Valley, he likely had contact with some of the communities of free blacks who moved to Jamaica in the aftermath of the American Revolution. A highly under-taught fact in American history is that both during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, thousands of slaves fled to British lines, helped the British raid plantations, and fought for the British, all in exchange for their emancipation. Some of these now ex-slaves moved to Jamaica. This probably exposed Sharpe to emancipationist ideas from a young age. Many of these ex-slaves were Baptists and established congregations near the plantation where Sharpe lived. He eventually converted. …

Aware of the talk about slavery in Britain, Sharpe seems to believe that the British had already granted emancipation and the planters were refusing. Although a slave, because he was a preacher, he had more leave to travel freely, which he used to spread his plans among various slave communities. After a prayer meeting in mid-December 1831, he and a selected group of followers met and made final plans. He told them the history of other slave revolts in the Caribbean and then had them swear their faithfulness of the plans on the Bible. He and his followers demanded more freedom for black workers and a wage that was “half the going rate” of freed workers. They decided to go on strike on Christmas to win these demands. They had some support by the island’s relatively small free white population, who were struggling economically due to a depression which they blamed on the control of the island by the planter elite.

They did not think this would lead to widespread suppression, but as it spread, the white Jamaican elites and the British cracked down hard. The strike started on Christmas Day, but turned into an active and full-fledged slave rebellion on December 27, when slaves set sugar on fire at the Kensington plantation near Montego Bay. This quickly turned into a huge rebellion, as up to 60,000 of Jamaica’s 300,000 slaves actively participated. Sharpe himself had hoped this would go off peacefully, but had already laid the groundwork for armed resistance if it the planters started the violence. The slaves began arming themselves and pitched battles broke out. The slaves actually started burning the plantations before the strike had a chance to take full effect, as rumors about a crackdown were swirling and the panicked actions impossible for Sharpe or anyone else to control. A black militia regiment known today only as the Black Regiment and led by a man named Johnson, about whom we know nothing else, defeated an armed white militia on December 28, freaking out the island’s white elites. Overall, 14 whites were killed, as well as 207 slaves before the revolt was put down on January 4, 1832. However, continued resistance in the mountains went on for about two more months. Another 300 or so slaves were executed, often for very small offenses, such as stealing a cow or pig, or just shot on sight. One of the executed was Samuel Sharpe, tried on April 19 and hanged on May 23, 1832.

Jamaican plantation owners blamed the missionaries for stirring up what were surely loyal slaves, amiright? But the brutality of the suppression helped push the British public over the top to end slavery entirely. This received a lot of coverage in the British papers, much of it highly negative. Soon after, Parliament passed a law to start gradual emancipation in 1834 and total emancipation by 1838.

We should note that Sharpe’s general strike was planned almost exactly a month after another enslaved preacher, Nat Turner, was slain following his rebellion in Virginia, but it doesn’t seem Sharpe had heard about that. Sharpe did know about other uprisings and rebellions throughout the Caribbean, but the more immediate spark for the Baptist Rebellion seems to have been the belief or rumor or hope that the white Baptist missionary Thomas Burchell, who founded many churches in Jamaica, would be returning to the island with “freedom papers” from the king of England emancipating its enslaved workers. This rumor was widespread not just among the slaves and Baptist missionaries, but also among the plantation owners — who thus began planning to reject the king’s rule and to violently defend their slavery-fueled fortunes.

That’s according to this Paul H. Williams’ article for the Jamaica news site The Gleaner, written for Heroes’ Day a few years ago: “Sam Sharpe and the Baptist War Sped Up Emancipation.” (Sharpe is one of several official national heroes in Jamaica and his picture is on the country’s $50 bill.) Here’s the end of Williams’ article:

Religion played a major role in this watershed moment of our history. William Knibb, and Sam Sharpe, a lay preacher, believed slavery was wrong from a biblical perspective, and that was what motivated Sam Sharpe to organize Jamaica’s first labor strike, which led to the Baptist War.

It was about fighting for justice by the enslaved who attempted to abolish slavery themselves. They were partially successfully, as their actions sped up the anti-slavery propagation in England.

Remember that name, William Knibb. We’ll get back to him later.

For now, let’s just agree to remember Samuel Sharpe at Christmas time by turning to his favorite book, the Bible, and reading this passage from it, attributed to a son of the woman who wrote the Magnificat:

Come now, you rich people, weep and wail for the miseries that are coming to you. Your riches have rotted, and your clothes are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you, and it will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days.

Listen! The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts. You have lived on the earth in luxury and in pleasure; you have fattened your hearts in a day of slaughter. You have condemned and murdered the righteous one, who does not resist you.


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