Daddy Sharpe and the Baptist War in Jamaica

Samuel Sharpe(Photo: Getty/iStock)

The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds Christians that they are surrounded by a great "cloud of witnesses." (NRSV) That "cloud" has continued to grow in size since then. In this monthly column we will be thinking about some of the people and events, over the past 2000 years, that have helped make up this "cloud." People and events that have helped build the community of the Christian church as it exists today.

Today there is much (often heated) debate and discussion concerning the impact and legacy of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. What is beyond dispute is that about 3.1 million Africans were transported on British ships to the Caribbean and North America between the 17th century and 1807. Of these, around 2.7 million arrived at their destination, due to the huge numbers of deaths which occurred while travelling the so-called "Middle Passage."

This was part of the "Triangular Trade," which saw trade goods shipped from Britain to West Africa. These were exchanged for African slaves, who were then transported to the Americas. The final leg of this process was the movement of items produced by slave labour on plantations (notably sugar, tobacco, molasses and cotton) to Britain.

The trade was truly global, because it also drew in Asian economies too, due to the demand for Asian goods that could be bartered for slaves in Africa. Britain was not alone in this trade but became one of the two biggest players (along with Portugal).

The economics of slavery

A whole culture grew and developed in Britain financed by this trade. This spread far beyond those who were directly involved in the transportation of slaves or the day-to-day ruthless exploitation of black labour in the cane fields, and at the sugar-boiling-vats, of the Caribbean and other plantation systems.

Wealthy aristocrats built fine country houses, enjoyed the season in London, took the waters in Bath, as they spent wealth produced by slaves. Most of these people never set foot on a slave plantation (the dirty work being done by managers and overseers) but reaped the rewards of slave labour.

Bankers, financiers, and insurance firms loaned money to, invested in and made possible the trade in African misery. Those who enjoyed the sugar, cotton, and tobacco, partook of the products of chattel-slavery. Overall, the slave trade provided livelihoods for hundreds of thousands of free people.

It has been estimated that, in the Caribbean alone, Britain received two centuries of unpaid labour from over 15 million African slaves, and those who were indentured from India. The wealth generated by slave plantations, and in associated industries, amounted to about 11% of the total British economy by the early 19th century. Given that British GDP in 1807 (the year the slave trade was ended) has been calculated to have been at least £23.61 billion (when adjusted to modern values), this comes to about £2.59 billion in today's terms. That is a huge amount of money generated by the unfree.

In 1807, the British trade in slaves was ended by act of parliament, but slavery continued in the British Empire until its eventual abolition in 1833. This came into force in 1834. Exceptions and delays were provided for the East India Company, Ceylon, and Saint Helena, where it did not end until 1843.

The ending of the slave trade and, finally, slavery itself was driven forward by the active campaigning of influential Christians, particularly evangelicals (perhaps most famously William Wilberforce). However, when it came to believers, the matter was complex, for there were many within the church who were firmly within the pro-slavery camp. How this conflict, between members of the same faith, could play out was demonstrated dramatically in Jamaica in the winter of 1831–32.

"Daddy" Sharpe and the "Baptist War" in Jamaica

On Christmas Day 1831, a member of the Church of England clergy, resident in Jamaica, had planned to include in his sermon the verse: "If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed" (John 8:36 KJV). On reflection, he decided that it might be "misunderstood by the slaves" and was better not referred to! As one modern historian of the revolt that broke out in Jamaica that Christmas has commented, "The gospel was dangerous."

Around Christmas 1831, large numbers of slaves in Jamaica acted to challenge their servile status. As well as reacting to the hard labour and severe discipline on the sugar plantations, they were also encouraged by rumours that the British government was considering emancipation of slaves in the British Empire. Some rumours even (incorrectly) claimed that the decision had already passed the London parliament but was being withheld by the "plantocracy" who benefitted from their ongoing unfree status. In reality, many planters were openly organising to obstruct emancipation when it came, so the idea that they were already doing so was encouraged by their recalcitrant behaviour.

In addition, there was another factor in the mix. That was the impact of Christian conversion on the lives of enslaved people. Officially, conversion was encouraged from London as part of a "civilising mission" (a term freely used at the time). On the ground, though, there was resistance from planters to the promotion of both religion and education among slaves. It was feared that they might get ideas above their (servile) station. It was that which caused the decision of the Anglican minister as he edited his Christmas sermon, and it helps explain the reluctance of many in the Church of England in Jamaica to be active in evangelising slaves.

However, other groups did not share this racially self-serving hesitancy. Baptists, Methodists, Moravians, and Quakers had taken to the task with enthusiasm. The Baptists, in particular, had been active in Jamaica since 1813 and, by 1832, had congregations amounting to about 30,000 across the island. One MP, in 1823, had estimated that, of an enslaved population of 800,000 in the British West Indies, somewhere in the region of 100,000 had been baptised – largely into non-conformist churches.

One of the key leaders of what has variously been called "the Baptist War," "the Christmas Uprising" and "the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt" was Samuel Sharpe. Aged about 27, he was an urban slave in Montego Bay town. Crucially, he was also a deacon in the black Baptist church there. This earned him the title of "Daddy," or "Ruler."

Daddy Sharpe declared that he wished to avoid bloodshed and that he was carrying out the work of the Lord in leading an uprising, because slaves had a right to be free. At Sharpe's later trial, much was made of the fact (by his white accusers) that his authority had come from his leadership role within the black community of the Baptist church. There is evidence that Sharpe's first call to strike action came after a prayer meeting, which had occurred at Montego Bay Baptist chapel. This seems to have involved a number of "Daddy Rulers" meeting at the chapel to plan the resistance.

The uprising was further assisted by increased literacy, the ability to gather together, and connectivity between different communities of black people attending chapel services and prayer meetings. Faith and fellowship combined to challenge slavery.

On December 19, resistance broke out. It would soon involve between 20,000 and 60,000 of Jamaica's slave population of about 300,000. The resistance took the form of strikes – refusal to process sugar cane. Christmas was to be the time for decisive action, with no slave labour continuing into 1832.

The strike spread. On many estates it was accompanied by burning down the sugar-producing facilities on the plantation. This was not random destruction. Instead, it deliberately targeted the expensive, and essential, components in the processing of raw sugar. It was direct economic sabotage of the plantation infrastructure, which generated white wealth from black labour.

There is evidence that the arson attacks were coordinated by groups, moving from estate to estate, who then cooperated with local enslaved people. There was almost no violence against white civilians, although armed white responses were resisted wherever possible.

Taken by surprise, the Jamaican militia – comprised of armed white settlers – proved incapable of suppressing such a widespread insurrection. Only the intervention of regular troops succeeded in crushing the rebellion. With the island under martial law, courts martial freely handed out death sentences, which were rapidly enacted. The crushing of the revolt was assisted in the hills by "maroons" (free black communities of formerly enslaved people) who collaborated with white militia and regular troops.

Captured, as the uprising collapsed, Daddy Sharpe was condemned to death in April 1832 and hanged in May that year. At his execution, he wore a new suit of white clothes made for him by members of his owner's family, who respected him.

Before he died, Sharpe made it clear that he regretted the loss of life and property. It seems that he intended a campaign of passive resistance, which would only use force in the face of white armed repression. However, once the uprising occurred it proved impossible to control arson and, of course, the white authorities responded with extreme violence.

The body count

Only 14 white people died in the turmoil of the uprising. However, the disproportionate number of black people killed bears testimony to the extreme violence of the white authorities in suppressing the revolt. And then in exacting vengeance on those who had attempted to emancipate themselves by force. Official figures state that 307 enslaved people were killed during the uprising, but the number was much higher due to ad hoc executions. After the uprising was crushed, a further 312 enslaved people were executed.

This followed a familiar pattern of violence – always ready to hand in support of the plantation system and then bloodily deployed whenever it was challenged – seen in response to all slave revolts. This was true across the British colonies and would occur in the US as well. In short: slavery was maintained by the threat of, and rapid deployment of, extreme violence.

Fourteen Baptist chapels were destroyed due to reprisals organised by Jamaica's "plantocracy." They also attempted to convict missionaries of treason and incitement; but failed to secure prosecutions in these cases.

In 1833 slavery was abolished in the British Empire.

The price of freedom?

What is little known is that our current generation contributed towards the billions of £s (about £17 billion in today's values), paid to slave owners in the 1830s as compensation for the loss of their human "property," as slaves were freed in the British Empire.

In order to pay this compensation, the UK government borrowed a vast amount of money under the Slavery Abolition Act (1833). This amounted to about 40% of the Treasury's annual income then or about 5% of British GDP overall. So huge was the loan taken by the government to cover the compensation paid to slave owners, it was only finally paid off in 2015! Only then did the UK tax payer stop paying the modern creditors and investment houses who had inherited the loans and, consequently, benefitted from the payment made in the 1830s.

It goes without saying that not a penny was paid in compensation to the descendants of Daddy Sharpe and the other slaves who had long toiled in the plantation system. And who, after emancipation, found they had become "apprentices" (poorly paid, or unpaid, and still subject to harsh plantation discipline) for their old masters and mistresses. These "apprenticeships" were abolished in 1838, but still no compensation was paid to the former slaves.

What is the value of another human being, made in the image of God? After Daddy Sharpe was executed, Jamaican law insisted that the price of the "property decrease" be logged by his owner. Daddy Sharpe was then worth £16 and 10 shillings. Adjusted for inflation, today this would be about £1,500, as the price of a person.

Martyn Whittock is an evangelical historian and a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England. As an historian and author, or co-author, of fifty-five books, his work covers a wide range of historical and theological themes. In addition, as a commentator and columnist, he has written for several print and online news platforms; has been interviewed on TV and radio shows exploring the interaction of faith and politics; and appeared on Sky News discussing political events in the USA. Recently, he has been interviewed on several news platforms concerning faith and the Crown in the UK, and the war in Ukraine. His most recent books include: Trump and the Puritans (2020), The Secret History of Soviet Russia's Police State (2020), Daughters of Eve (2021), Jesus the Unauthorized Biography (2021), The End Times, Again? (2021) and The Story of the Cross (2021). His latest book, Apocalyptic Politics (2022), explores the connection between end-times beliefs and radicalised politics across religions, time, and cultures.