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Thomas Burchell (1799–1846) was a leading Baptist missionary and slavery abolitionist in Jamaica in the early nineteenth century. Many Jamaican parents name their children 'Burchell' in his honor; it is almost as popular a given or Christian name as Manley.
Burchell, along with James Phillippo (1798–1879), William Knibb and Samuel Oughton, was one of the group of early Baptist missionaries sent from England to respond to requests from pioneer African Baptists for support in establishing chapels and education in Jamaica. The pioneers were freedmen who were leading evangelization and teaching in the island. They were representatives of the Baptist Missionary Society of London. The island Baptists followed the pioneering preaching of the African-American George Lisle, a Black Loyalist who resettled in Jamaica after the American Revolutionary War.
Career as missionary
Burchell's time as a Baptist missionary in Jamaica spanned twenty-two years, 1822–46. These were the most notable years in the history of the abolition movement in the colony and he was able to see slavery abolished. Burchell and other Baptists were persecuted after the Christmas Rebellion or "Baptist War" of 1831 a massive slave rebellion across the island. Burchell narrowly escaped death by fleeing offshore, but his deacon, Samuel Sharpe, was convicted of having a major role and was executed. An educated slave, he also served as deacon and a preacher in the Montego Baptist Church pastored by Burchell.
Born in 1801 in Montego Bay of African parentage, Sharpe died for the cause of abolition when executed on 23 May 1832. Initially buried in the sands of Montego Bay Harbour, he was later safely exhumed and reinterred with a hero's burial near the pulpit at Burchell Baptist church. In 1975, Sharpe was designated as a National Hero of Jamaica and his image is featured on the Jamaican 50-dollar bill.
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Baptist chapels, as well as their members, suffered at the hands of the 'Planters'. The Burchell Memorial Church, which was established in 1824 by Rev. Thomas Burchell, was rebuilt in 1834 after being burnt down by an angry mob. The Jamaica National Heritage Trust, founded in 1958, preserves and manages the building at number one King Street and the corner of Market Street, Montego Bay, formerly the Manse of the Burchell Baptist Church.
Starting in the 1830s, in anticipation of emancipation, the Jamaican Baptist congregations, deacons, and ministers proposed the Caribbean concept of "free villages": that freedpeople would be given land of their own. Other denominations quickly adopted this concept. Many plantation owners and others in the landowning class made it clear they would never sell land to freed slaves, but provide only tied accommodation at the rents they chose. Their goal was to prevent free labour choice and movement between employers, and keep labour costs low or negligible upon emancipation.
To circumvent this, Baptist chapels' approached their financiers in England, who could instruct land agents in London to buy Jamaican land and hold it for establishment of free villages, not controlled by the planters. Sandy Bay was founded as a Baptist Free Village for freedmen on the initiative of Burchell. Today its playing field is named Burchell Field. Several others, including the very first, were founded through Burchell's Baptist associate, Rev. James Phillippo.
Burchell and his wife Hester Crocker Lusty (d. 1856, Mt. Carey, Jamaica) had one daughter, Esthrana Louisa Burchell (b. Falmouth, Jamaica 1827, d. 1903 Kingston). She became the second wife of Rev. Edward Hewett (b. 1819, Norfolk, England, d. 1883, Mt. Carey, Jamaica), with whom she had twelve children.
- "Death of the Rev. Thomas Burchell, of Jamaica", in The Church, p. 93, January 1846.
- Gardner, W. J. A History of Jamaica from its Discovery by Christopher Columbus to the Present Time... Elliot Stock (London, 1878).
- Papers Relative to the West Indies, 1840, Part I, Jamaica. Clowes and Sons, p. 58 (1840).
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