Samuel Sharpe was born into slavery in the parish of St James, Jamaica. He was allowed to become well-educated. Because of his education, he was respected by other slaves.
Sharpe became a well-known preacher and leader in the Baptist Church, which had long welcomed slaves as members and recognized them as preachers. He was a deacon at the Burchell Baptist Church in Montego Bay, whose pastor was Rev. Thomas Burchell, a missionary from England. Sharpe spent most of his time travelling to different parishes in Jamaica, educating the slaves about Christianity, which he believed promised freedom.
Slaves learned that the British Parliament was discussing abolition of slavery; those who could read followed such news closely. In the mistaken belief that emancipation had already been granted by the British Parliament, Sharpe organised a peaceful general strike across many estates in western Jamaica to protest working conditions. As this was the harvest of the sugar cane, it was a critical time for the plantation owners: generally the workforce had to work overtime to process the cane quickly at its peak. The Christmas Rebellion (Baptist War) began on 27 December 1831 at the Kensington Estate. Reprisals by the plantation owners led to the rebels' burning the crops.
Sharpe's originally peaceful protest turned into Jamaica's largest slave rebellion. The colonial government used the armed Jamaican military forces to put down the rebellion, suppressing it within two weeks. Some 14 whites were killed by armed slave battalions, but more than 200 slaves were killed by troops. Afterward more reprisals followed. The government tried, convicted, and hanged many of the ringleaders, including Sharpe, in 1832. A total of 310 to 340 slaves were executed through the judicial process, including many for minor offenses such as theft of livestock.
Just before Sharpe was executed for his role in the rebellion, he said in his last words: "I would rather die among yonder gallows, than live in slavery." The rebellion and government response provoked two detailed Parliamentary Inquiries. The Jamaican government's severe reprisals in the aftermath of the rebellion are believed to have contributed to passage by Parliament of the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act and final abolition of slavery across the British Empire in 1838.
- In 1975, the government of independent Jamaica proclaimed Sharpe a National Hero, with the posthumous title of Rt. Excellent Samuel Sharpe.
- Also in 1975, Sam Sharpe Teachers' College was founded and named in his honor in Granville, a suburb of Montego Bay.
- Sharpe's image is used on the modern Jamaican $50 bill.
- Rodriguez, Junius P. (ed.), Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood, 2006.
- Reid-Salmon, Delroy, Burning for Freedom: A Theology of the Black Atlantic Struggle for Liberation. Jamaica: Ian Randle Publishers, 2012.