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Baptist War

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Baptist War
Part of North American slave revolts

Destruction of the Roehampton Estate, January 1832, during the Baptist War, by Adolphe Duperly
Date25 December 1831-5 January 1832
Result Rebellion suppressed
Colony of Jamaica Slave rebels
Commanders and leaders
Willoughby Cotton Samuel Sharpe
Casualties and losses
None[citation needed] ~500 people dead

The Baptist War, also known as the Sam Sharp Rebellion, the Christmas Rebellion, the Christmas Uprising and the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt of 1831–32, was an eleven-day rebellion that started on 25 December 1831 and involved up to 60,000 of the 300,000 slaves in the Colony of Jamaica.[1] The uprising was led by a black Baptist deacon, Samuel Sharpe, and waged largely by his followers. The revolt, though militarily unsuccessful, played a major part in the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire.


The missionary-educated rebels had been following progress of the abolitionist movement in London; their intention was to call a peaceful general strike.[2] Compared with their Presbyterian, Wesleyan, and Moravian counterparts, Baptist slaves seemed more ready to take action. This may have reflected a higher level of absenteeism among white Baptist missionaries. The relative independence of Black deacons facilitated slaves taking greater ownership over their religious life, including reinterpretations of Baptist theology in terms of their experience (for example, they placed an emphasis on the role of John the Baptist, sometimes at the expense of Jesus.[2][3])

Thomas Burchell, a missionary in Montego Bay, returned from England following Christmas vacation. Many of the Baptist ministry expected that he would return with papers for emancipation from the king, William IV. They also thought that the King's men would enforce the order and discontent escalated among slaves when the Jamaican governor announced that no emancipation had been granted.[4]

The strike and the uprising[edit]

Led by 'native' Baptist preacher Samuel Sharpe, enslaved black workers demanded more freedom and a working wage of "half the going wage rate"; they took an oath to stay away from work until their demands were met by the plantation owners. The enslaved laborers believed that the work stoppage could achieve their ends alone – a resort to force was only envisaged if violence was used against them.[5] Sharpe was the inspiration for the rebellion, and was nicknamed "Daddy" Sharpe. His military commanders were mainly literate slaves, like him, and they included Johnson, a carpenter called Campbell from York estate, a waggoner from Greenwich estate named Robert Gardner, Thomas Dove from Belvedere estate, John Tharp from Hazlelymph estate, and George Taylor, who, like Sharpe, was a deacon in Burchell's chapel.[6]

It became the largest slave uprising in the British West Indies, mobilizing as many as 60,000 of Jamaica's 300,000 slaves.[4][1] During the rebellion, fourteen white people were killed by armed slave battalions and 207 rebels were killed.[7]

The rebellion exploded on December 27, when slaves set fire to Kensington estate, in the hills above Montego Bay. Colonel William Grignon of the militia was an attorney who ran several estates, including one at Salt Spring, where a series of incidents in December were the sparks for the uprising.[8]

Grignon led the militia against the rebels at Belvedere estate, but he was forced to retreat, leaving the rebels in command of the rural areas of the parish of St James.[9]

On December 31, the colonial authorities instituted martial law.[10] Sir Willoughby Cotton, who commanded the British forces, then summoned the Jamaican Maroons of Accompong Town to help suppress the rebellion in the second week of January. However, when the Accompong Maroons attacked the rebels at Catadupa, they were forced to withdraw because the rebels were "too strong".[11]

The Accompong Maroons soon gained the upper hand however, and they defeated the rebels in one skirmish, killing one of Sharpe's deputies, Campbell, in the assault. When the army regulars were besieged by the rebels at Maroon Town, the Accompong Maroons relieved them, killing more rebels, and capturing scores of them, including another of Sharpe's deputies, Dehany.[12]

When the Windward Maroons from Charles Town, Jamaica and Moore Town answered the call of Cotton, the rebel cause was lost. These eastern Maroons killed and captured a number of other rebels, including another leader named Gillespie. One of the last leaders of the rebels, Gardner, surrendered when he heard the Charles Town Maroons had joined the fight against them.[13]

Suppression and death toll[edit]

The rebellion was quickly suppressed by the colonial authorities.[14] The reaction of the colonial government and reprisals of the plantocracy were far more brutal than any actions undertaken by the rebels; approximately 500 rebels were killed, with 207 killed outright during the revolt. After the rebellion, an estimated 310 to 340 enslaved Jamaicans were killed through "various forms of judicial executions". At times, enslaved Jamaicans were executed for quite minor offenses (one recorded execution was for the theft of a pig; another, a cow).[15] An 1853 account by Henry Bleby described how the courts commonly executed three or four persons simultaneously; bodies were piled up until the Black people relegated to the workhouse carted the bodies away at night and buried them in mass graves outside town.[4]

After the rebellion, property damage was estimated in the Jamaican Assembly summary report in March 1832 at £1,154,589 (roughly £124,000,000 in 2021). Thousands of rebels had set fire to more than 100 properties, destroying over 40 sugar works and the houses of nearly 100 slavers.[16]

The slavers suspected many missionaries of having encouraged the rebellion. Some, such as William Knibb and Bleby, were arrested, tarred and feathered, but later released. Groups of white colonials destroyed chapels that housed Black congregations.[17]


As a result of the Baptist War, hundreds of slaves ran away into the Cockpit Country in order to avoid being forced back into slavery. The Maroons only apprehended a small number of these runaway slaves. Many runaways remained free and at large when the British parliament passed the Act abolishing slavery in 1833.[18]

Historians argue that the brutality of the Jamaican plantocracy during the revolt accelerated the British political process of emancipating the slaves. When Burchell and Knibb described how badly they were treated by the colonial militias, the House of Commons expressed their outrage that white planters could have tarred and feathered white missionaries. Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 for initial measures to begin in 1834, followed by partial emancipation (outright for children six or under, six years' apprenticeship for the rest) in 1834 and then unconditional emancipation of chattel slavery in 1838.[14][19]

In literature[edit]


  1. ^ a b Barry W. Higman, "Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807–1834", Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 365–67
  2. ^ a b Craton, Michael. Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies (Cornell University Press, 1983), pp. 297–98
  3. ^ Turner, Mary. Slaves and Missionaries: The Disintegration of Jamaican Slave Society, 1787–1834 (University of Illinois Press, 1982), p. 81
  4. ^ a b c Révauger, Cécile (2008). The Abolition of Slavery – The British Debate 1787–1840. Presse Universitaire de France. pp. 107–08. ISBN 978-2-13-057110-0.
  5. ^ The overthrow of colonial slavery, 1776–1848 Book by Robin Blackburn p. 432
  6. ^ Craton, Testing the Chains, p. 299.
  7. ^ Turner (1982) p. 121
  8. ^ Craton, Testing the Chains, p. 293.
  9. ^ Bleby, Henry, Death Struggles of Slavery: Being a Narrative of Facts and Incidents Which Occurred in a British Colony, During the Two Years Immediately Preceding Negro Emancipation (London: Hamilton, Adams and Co, 1853), pp. 9–11.
  10. ^ Richard Dunn, A Tale of Two Plantations: Slave Life and Labor in Jamaica and Virginia (Cambridge: Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2014), p. 344.
  11. ^ Michael Siva, After the Treaties: A Social, Economic and Demographic History of Maroon Society in Jamaica, 1739–1842, PhD Dissertation (Southampton: Southampton University, 2018), p. 201.
  12. ^ Siva, After the Treaties, pp. 202–03.
  13. ^ Siva, After the Treaties, p. 203.
  14. ^ a b "An End to Slavery – 1816–1836: Jamaica Reluctantly Makes History by Freeing its Slaves". Archived from the original on 2017-01-18. Retrieved 2017-01-18.
  15. ^ Mary Reckord. "The Jamaican Slave Rebellion of 1831", Past & Present (July 1968), 40(3): pp. 122, 124–25.
  16. ^ Dunn, A Tale of Two Plantations, pp. 343–44.
  17. ^ Masters, P., 2006: Missionary triumph over slavery. Wakeman Trust, London. ISBN 1-870855-53-1. pp. 17–23
  18. ^ Siva, After the Treaties, pp. 205–08.
  19. ^ Craton, Testing the Chains, pp. 316–19.
  20. ^ "The Long Song by Andrea Levy". Good Reads. Retrieved 24 December 2017.
  21. ^ Crane, Ralph; Stafford, Jane; Williams, Mark (2011). The Oxford History of the Novel in English, Vol IX. Oxford University Press. p. 265.

Further reading[edit]

  • Craton, Michael: The Economics of Emancipation: Jamaica and Barbados, 1823–1843 (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1995).
  • Heuman, Gad: "A Tale of Two Jamaican Rebellions," in: Jamaican Historical Review (1996), 19: pp. 1–8.
  • Hochschild, Adam (2005). Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery. Houghton Miffin, New York 2005. pp. 338–343.
  • Morrison, Doreen: Slavery's Heroes: George Liele and the Ethiopian Baptists of Jamaica 1783-1865, 2004, CreateSpace. ISBN 978-1500657574.
  • Reckord, Mary: The Jamaican Slave Rebellion of 1831. Past and Present (July 1968), 40(3): pp. 108–125.
  • Rodriguez, Junius P. (ed.): Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion, Westport 2006, CT: Greenwood.
  • Short, K.R.M.: "Jamaican Christian Missions and the Great Slave Rebellion of 1831–2," in: Journal of Ecclesiastical History, (1976), 27(1): pp. 57–72.
  • Turner, Mary: Slaves and Missionaries : The Disintegration of Jamaican Slave Society, 1787–1834 (University of Illinois Press, 1982).