Slaves Who Abolished Slavery

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Origins of the Caribbean Demand for Slaves

One of the consequences of the establishment in the 17th century of the sugar industry in the British colonies in the Caribbean region was the importation of Africans to work as slaves. The result of this was that black people very soon comprised the great majority of the populations. During the colonial era British propagandists successfully misled their colonial subjects about their own history. What was taught in schools and portrayed in the press was designed to create the belief that white people were superior and black people inferior and to justify the fact that our countries were ruled by the British Government.

This indoctrination was fortified by what people could see for themselves. The people who held the top positions in government and society generally were white or light complexioned. With few exceptions, the people at the bottom of the social and economic ladder were black. For the most part brown people, of mixed racial origin, occupied an intermediate social and economic status in the social structure. The fact that millions of Africans had been enslaved and transported to the Americas by British slave traders could not be denied. But by allegations that everything in Africa was backward and barbaric an attempt was made to convince colonial subjects that their enslavement and transportation had been to their advantage.

When slavery was mentioned, it was often done in a way to claim credit for Britain‚s leading role in suppressing the slave trade. British abolitionists like William Wilberforce were featured as liberators and the abolition of slavery was attributed entirely to British benevolence. The part played by rebel slaves in achieving the abolition of slavery was rarely if ever mentioned. The subject of my talk tonight, taken from the title of one of my books, is “Slaves Who Abolished Slavery”. However, to put the struggles of the slaves for freedom in context, it is first necessary to examine the programs of the British abolitionist movement and the British Government.

Religious Opposition to the Slave Trade

The people in Britain who first came to the conclusion that it was morally wrong to enslave human beings were motivated by religious convictions.In 1776 David Hartley, representing the city of Hull, proposed that the House of Commons should condemn the slave trade as “contrary to the laws of God and the rights of man”. The House disagreed. In 1783 the Society of Friends, a Christian religious group popularly known as the Quakers, presented a petition proposing that trafficking in human beings should be prohibited. Prime Minister Lord North dismissed their proposal as impractical, asserting that the trade was a necessity for every European nation. [1]

In July of that year six Quakers formed a committee “to consider what steps they should take for the relief and liberation of the Negro slaves in the West Indies, and for the discouragement of the Slave- trade”. On 22 May 1787 Granville Sharp, Thomas Clarkson and others including nine Quakers formed a committee which launched the Abolition Society. Although most of the members of this Society disapproved of slavery, they decided that for tactical reasons they should concentrate on a campaign to persuade Parliament to prohibit trading in slaves and should not demand the abolition of slavery. The only member of the Society who thought that they should proclaim the abolition of slavery as their objective was Granville Sharp. On 12 August 1788 the Society issued a public statement making it clear that the abolition of slavery was not their objective. They repeated this in statements issued on 31 January 1792 and 29 March 1797. [2]

Millions of Africans Transported as Slaves

The slave trade involved the involuntary transportation of millions of Africans to the American mainlands and the Caribbean islands. Noel Deerr (THE HISTORY OF SUGAR, 2 vols. London 1949/1950) estimated that the total number of Africans imported as slaves into the thirteen British colonies was 1,920,000. P.D. Curtin (THE ATLANTIC SLAVE TRADE, A CENSUS (Madison, USA, 1969) estimated the total number imported into the Spanish American colonies as 1,552, 000. The country into which the largest number of African slaves was imported was the Portuguese colony of Brazil. An estimate made in 1861, which Curtin seems to think may have been exaggerated, gave the total number imported as 5,750,000.

During the wars in Africa, encouraged by the slave traders and conducted for the purpose of capturing prisoners for sale, many were killed. For example, in five expeditions in which they obtained 15,000 captives for sale, the Bornu soldiers killed 20,000 others. Many of the captives perished on the journey to the coast where the slave traders were waiting to purchase them (W.W. Claridge, A HISTORY OF THE GOLD COAST AND ASHANTI, 2nd. Edit. Frank Cass, London, 1964).

Many of the Africans, who were confined in crowded insanitary conditions in the holds of the slave ships, died during the Atlantic crossing. Between 1680 and 1688, 23 our of every 100 taken aboard the ships of the Royal African Company died in transit. Curtin accepts this percentage rate of loss as valid for the period 1690 to 1700. Similar high losses of life were experienced on the slave ships of other nations. Losses of life on Portuguese ships carrying slaves to Brazil were somewhat lower apparently due to better conditions. Curtin estimates these losses as about 10 per 100 during the period 1701 to 1810 and 9.1 percent during the period 1817 to 1843.

Slave Trading Made Illegal

In 1807 the British Parliament made the slave trade illegal as from 1 August 1808. Interestingly enough, this decision was supported by many of the sugar plantation owners in the older British colonies. These slave owners were not motivated by humanitarian sentiments but by commercial considerations. In 1798 British forces had occupied the Spanish colony of Trinidad and this island was ceded to Britain in 1802. Although the land was suitable for sugar cane cultivation, very little cultivation of sugar canes had taken place under the Spaniards. This may have been because sugar plantations already existed in Andalusia in southern Spain.

After the conquest British settlers began to establish sugar plantations in Trinidad. The sugar they produced could be imported into Britain, enjoying the same imperial customs duty concessions as sugar imported from the older British colonies. The owners of sugar plantations in these older colonies saw the development of sugar production in Trinidad as a competitive threat. In order to prevent such potential competitors from obtaining the labourers they required to develop their new plantations, they therefore supported the abolition of the slave trade.

In 1804 the Dutch colonies of Demerara, Berbice and Essequibo (later ceded and merged to form British Guiana) were also seized by Britain. The Dutch had developed sugar cane plantation, but mainly on the banks of the rivers. After the transfer of these colonies to Britain an expansion of the sugar industry, particularly on the coastal land, began to take place. Sugar produced in these colonies would also enter Britain with the same imperial duty concessions. But these plantations would also require importation of many more labourers. The same considerations as in the case of Trinidad therefore applied. But although, for the reasons given, owners of plantations in the older British colonies might support the abolition of the slave trade, they were strongly opposed to the abolition of slavery.

The Anti-Slavery Society Advocates Gradual Abolition

Not until 1823 did persons in Britain who disapproved of slavery summon up the courage to publicly call for its abolition. They however proposed that this should be done very gradually. The full name of the society formed in that year to advocate this, popularly known as the Anti-Slavery Society, is revealing – “The Society for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery”. In May 1823 Thomas Fowell Buxton, the Society‚s representative, introduced a motion in the House of Commons “That the state of Slavery is repugnant to the principles of the British constitution and of the Christian religion and that it ought to be gradually abolished throughout the British colonies”.

In support of his resolution Buxton proposed that the House should agree on a date, though he did not name a date, after which all children born should be born free, and that those slaves who were already alive on that date should continue to be slaves for the remainder of their natural lives. He however suggested that slaves should have a right (that slaves then enjoyed in Spanish territories but not in British colonies) to purchase their freedom at a price to be fixed by a competent authority. He said that such a scheme for gradual abolition had been adopted and was working successfully in New York State, USA, and in Ceylon and Columbia. He said that, if this plan was adopted, slavery:

will subside; it will decline; it will expire; it will, as it were, burn itself down into its socket and go out … We shall leave it gently to decay — slowly, silently, almost imperceptively, to die away and to be forgotten. [3]

This scheme, if implemented, would have taken at least half a century to run its course, but Buxton withdrew it when the Government, undertook to introduced an even more gradual proposal. Introducing this George Canning said: “The question to be decided is, how civil rights, moral improvements and general happiness are to be communicated to the overwhelming multitude of slaves, with safety to the lives and security to the interests of the white population, our fellow-subjects and fellow citizens”. He then moved the following resolution, which was unanimously approved:

That it is expedient to adopt effective and decisive measures for ameliorating the condition of the slave population of his Majesty‚s colonies.

That through a determined and persevering, but at the same time judicious and temporate inforcement of such measures, this House looks forward to a progressive improvement in the character of the slave population, such as may prepare them for a participation of these civil rights and privileges which are enjoyed by other classes of his Majesty‚s subjects.

That this House is anxious for the accomplishment of this purpose at the earliest period that shall be compatible with the well-being of the slaves themselves, with the safety of the colonies, and a fair and equitable consideration of the interests of private property.[4]

Slave Rebellkions Accelerate the Abolition of Slavery

Many members of the Anti-Slavery Society disapproved of the policy of accommodation pursued by Wilberforce and Buxton and, in May 1830, a resolution was approved at a meeting of the Society which advocated immediate abolition. It is however unlikely that, left to themselves, a majority of the members of Parliament would have arrived at the conclusion that the character of the slaves was sufficiently improved to satisfy the requirements of their 1823 resolution in less than a century. Never the less, legislation abolishing slavery was introduced in the British House of Commons a mere ten years later in 1833. How could this have occurred?

The only logical explanation is that it was the intervention of the most interested parties, the slaves themselves, that accelerated the process of abolition. Throughout the centuries of slavery there had always been slaves who had refused to passively accept their servile status. Hardly a year had passed without a slave rebellion or uprising occurring in the colonies in the Caribbean islands and the adjacent mainlands. There were also numerous conspiracies for rebellion which were discovered and frustrated.

Most of these rebellions had been suppressed and the rebel leaders had been executed, but there had been cases where escaped slaves, who came to be known as Maroons, had succeeded in establishing communities in mountainous or other remote areas, which they had successfully defended, defeating all attempts to re-enslave them. Maroon communities established during the period of slavery are still in existence in Jamaica and in the former Dutch colony of Suriname although the communities established in the island of Dominica and in the former mainland colony of British Guiana, now Guyana, were dispersed. It was however the formidable slave rebellions that occurred in the 19th century that forced upon the British Parliament the realisation that the abolition of slavery had to be treated as a matter of urgency and that the slaves themselves would not allow the issue to be indefinitely postponed.

In 1816 there occurred in Barbados, considered to be an unlikely location for widespread rebellion because of the absence of a mountainous area in which escaped slaves could take refuge, a rebellion involving some 5,000 slaves. The leaders were identified as Bussa, Jackey, Davis, King Bailey and Nanny Grigg. During the suppression of this rebellion “a little short of 1,000” rebels were killed. After the rebellion 214 were executed and 123 were transported from the island to be sold elsewhere as slaves. [5]

In 1823 some 13,000 slaves in Demerara, British Guiana, rose in a rebellion which had started as a general strike. Quamina, one of the leaders, was killed and his bullet-riddled body was displayed in chains to intimidate the population. John Smith, an ailing English missionary, was accused of encouraging the rebellion. He was imprisoned and later died in prison. Telemachus, one of the rebel leaders, was executed when he refused to testify against the missionary. Jack Gladstone, believed to have been the principal rebel leader, saved his own life by giving false evidence to implicate the missionary in the rebellion. In all about 250 slaves lost their lives in the rebellion. [6]

Conspiracies for rebellion were discovered in Jamaica in 1815, 1823 and 1824 and the principal conspirators were executed. But of all the many rebellions that had occurred in the Anglophone Caribbean area over the centuries, the most productive of results in the struggle against slavery was the Emancipation Rebellion which occurred in western Jamaica. This rebellion, involving some 20,000 slaves, commencing at the end of December 1831 and raged for several months before it was suppressed by the combined military force of British troops and the local militia.

The Attitude of Slave Owners and the Government

As we have seen, British abolitionists and the British Parliament had in 1823 decided that although the abolition of slavery was ultimately desirable, it should not occur until the slaves, who were considered unfit for immediate freedom, had been improved in character. They had however resolved that there should be some improvement in the way slaves were treated. At that time the older British colonies in the Caribbean enjoyed internal self-government and the British Government began to press them to enact legislation modifying some of the most obvious cruelties and inhumanities of the system.

This was strongly resented. In Jamaica there was advocacy of secession from Britain and unification with the United States of America. In February 1831 the Jamaican legislature enacted legislation reducing the number of free days that the slaves were entitled to enjoy immediately after Christmas. As British Secretary of State Goodrich recorded: “Thus the three annual holidays are reduced to two and the slave deprived of the security formerly given him … ” In November 1831 the Jamaican Assembly refused to discuss the British Government‚s proposal that legislation prohibiting the flogging of female slaves, which had been introduced in the Crown Colonies in 1823-24, be enacted. [7]

However, while the defiant attitude of the slave owners remained strong, there was growing unrest among the slaves. This had been intensified by the news they were receiving of anti-slavery agitation in Britain. Rumours were in circulation that the King had resolved to set them free but that their freedom was being denied by the local slave owners and their government. To refute these rumours a royal proclamation was issued on 3 June 1831 which read:

Whereas it has been represented to us that the slaves in some of our West-India colonies and our possessions in the continent of South America, have been erroneously led to believe that orders have been sent out by us for their emancipation:

And whereas such belief has produced acts of insubordination, which have excited our highest displeasure…

We do hereby declare and make known that the slave population in our said colonies and possessions will forfeit all claim on our protection, if they shall fail to render entire submission to the laws, as well as dutiful obedience to their masters… [8]

Curiously, this proclamation was not initially published as widely in Jamaica as it was in the other colonies. The Governor appears to have taken the view that it would only stimulate discussion of the subject among the slaves and give the rumours wider credibility. When eventually the Governor did decide on 22 December to give it wide publicity, posters containing it were put up in many public places. The slaves however do not appear to have been impressed, if indeed they believed it was genuine. The commander of the Militia in the parish of St. Thomas in the East, a parish largely unaffected by the subsequent rebellion, stated:

I ordered the Manchioneal company out on the first day of January, and did so in consequence of the excited feeling which appeared amongst the slaves, and the evident contempt with which they treated the King‚s proclamation when it was read to them in chapel on that day.

The Emancipation Rebellion in Jamaica

The Emancipation Rebellion in western Jamaica commenced immediately after the traditional Xmas holiday. Its inspirer and leader was Sam Sharpe, a slave who was a convert to the established Baptist Church. He was literate and was familiar with the literature published by that denomination. He was personally well treated by the family of his owner, from whom he had adopted his name. He was allowed considerable latitude for his religious activities. He was a lay preacher and often conducted services for the independent, so called “non-established”, Baptist congregations.

The Methodist minister Henry Bleby, who was stationed in Jamaica at the time and interviewed Sam Sharp after the rebellion, whilst he was in prison awaiting execution, wrote: [9]

The insurrection … was planned by one person, and that individual himself a slave. Samuel Sharpe was the man whose active brain devised the project and he had sufficient authority with those around him to carry it into effect, having acquired an extraordinary degree of influence amongst his fellow-slaves. I had much conversation with him whilst he was in confinement; and found him certainly the most intelligent and remarkable slave I have ever met with.

That Sharpe‚s actions were based on intellectual conviction rather than personal suffering is revealed by Bleby:

Sharpe acknowledged to me that he had as an individual, no reason to find fault with the treatment he had received as a slave. His master, Samuel Sharpe Esq. and the family, were always very kind to him, and he had never been flogged beyond the occasional and slight correction which he had received when a boy. But he thought that he learnt from his Bible that the whites had no more right to hold black people in slavery, than the black people had to make the white people slaves and, for his own part, he would rather die than live in slavery.

A resolution approved by the legislature, at the end of their enquiry into the rebellion, on 5 April 1832, reveals that ideological conviction rather than personal suffering was a motivating factor that inspired many of the rebel leaders:

Resolved, that it has been a remarkable and unprecedented feature in this rebellion, that many of the chief conspirators and ringleaders were to be found amongst those slaves who, from their situations as head-people or confidential servants were the least worked, were the best clothed, and received the most indulgence.

How the Rebellion was Organised

In organising for the rebellion Sharpe made good use of his freedom to travel around the parish of St. James to hold religious meetings. After the prayer meetings persons he trusted would be asked to remain behind to listen to what he proposed. His plan was that, after the Christmas holiday the slaves should refuse to do any more work unless they were paid wages. If their owners refused to pay wages then they would rebel. An account of one of these meetings was given to Bleby by Edward Hylton , one of Sharpe‚s fellow conspirators:

During the year 1831 (he could not tell the month) he received a message at Mountain Spring from Sam Sharpe, desiring him to meet him on the following Saturday night at the house of Johnson at Retrieve estate in St. James. This was the Col. Johnson who led the attack, and was killed at Montpelier.

At the time appointed Hylton went to Retrieve, where he met with Sharpe, Johnson, and others whom he named. After they had held a prayer meeting, most of the people went away, Sharpe, Johnson, Hylton and a few more, remained behind: and the party was afterwards enlarged by several others, who stealthily and with extreme caution made their way into the house, and who were evidently expected by those already assembled.

Hylton then gave an account of how Sharpe laid out his plan:

“After the lapse of some time, Sharpe rose to address the meeting, speaking in a low, soft tone, that his voice might not be heard beyond the walls of the building… He then proceeded with his address to those around him, speaking for a long time on the various topics relating to the great subject he had at heart, and with an eloquence which from Hylton‚s account, kept all his hearers fascinated and spell-bound from the beginning to the end of his speech.

He referred to the manifold evils and injustice of slavery; asserting the natural equality of man with regard to freedom; and referring to the holy Scriptures as his authority, denied that the white man had any more right to hold the blacks in bondage than the blacks had to enslave the whites.

He concluded by observing, that because the king had made them free, or was resolved upon doing it, the whites and Grignon were holding secret meetings, with the doors shut close, at the house of Mr. Watt of Montego Bay, and had determined … to kill all the black men, and save all the women and children, and keep them in slavery; and if the black men did not stand up for themselves, and take their freedom, the whites would put them out at the muzzles of their guns, and shoot them like pigeons.”

Bleby concluded the account of his interview with Hylton with the latter‚s report of what can be described as the resolution of the meeting:

“Further discussion ensued, and their deliberations were carried on far into the night; when, all scruples being set at rest, and the plan of operations more fully detailed by Sharpe, the whole party bound themselves by oath not to work after Christmas as slaves, but to assert their claim to freedom and to be faithful to each other. If ‘Buckra‚ would pay them, they would work as before; but if any attempt was made to force them to work as slaves, then they would fight for their freedom”.

All present then took the oath and kissed the Bible.

What Sharpe‚s plan involved was less revolutionary than the action that had been taken in Haiti, where the rebel slaves had disposessed the slave owners property, expelled them from the country and seized state power. If the slave owners in Jamaica had been willing to make the transition to wage labour, it was envisaged that they would retain the ownership of their property other than their ownership of human beings. Whether Sharpe believed that the slave owners would accept such a settlement is a matter for speculation. It is possible that he expected them to reject his proposal and endeavour to retain the ownership of their slaves, in which event his plan was that the slaves should rise and take their freedom by force.

Bleby believed Sharpe when the latter assured him that this was his plan. He wrote:

“He did not wish to destroy the estates, nor did he desire that any person should be injured: his only object was to obtain freedom. But to his great disappointment he found that the spirit of revolt, once evoked, was not susceptible of control”.

But did the refusal of the slave owners to pay wages really take Sharpe by surprise or did he give Bleby this impression to please him ? Bleby himself recorded Sharpe‚s capacity to deceive:

“Sharpe was not deceived himself concerning the slavery question; he was, I believe, too intelligent not to be aware of the true state of the case. Living in the town of Montego Bay, where he had frequent opportunities of reading the newspapers, containing reports of the movements of the Anti-Slavery party in England … he knew very well how matters stood both in England and in the colony. But being favoured by the absence of the minister, Mr Burchell, from the island … he formed the daring design of imposing upon the slaves, in that part of the island, the belief that they had actually been made free by the king, and of putting himself at their head, to commence a struggle for freedom”.

Free Men Among the Rebels

Among Sharpe‚s fellow conspirators were several free men, who were able to travel over greater distances than he was to spread the message of revolt. Bleby records that there was some support for Sharpe‚s plan among free black and brown Baptists:

“The powerful influence which Sharpe exercised over the people around him will appear from the fact, that he succeeded in enlisting several free men in the struggle. Two persons called Mackintosh, father and son, another named Largie, and a person named Campbell, all men of colour, were implicated, and, with the exception of Largie, were executed for being actively concerned in the insurrection”.

In a document preserved in the Public Record Office entitled “Return of every Freeman tried and convicted during the late Rebellion… or in consequence thereof” these four men are described as brown Creoles. The total number of free persons convicted of offences connected with the rebellion was 14. Three were described as “black”, two as “sambo”, five as “brown” and one as “white” (a sailor). No complexion was recorded for the other three.

The Emancipation Rebellion Evaluated

The Rebellion, the largest ever to occur in the Anglophone Caribbean area, had the support of the great majority of the slaves in the western parishes of St. James and Hanover and upper Westmoreland, and of considerable numbers of slaves in Trelawny and western St. Elizabeth. Sharpe‚s plan involved creation of a large mobile body of fighters organised in three or four companies and of local units based on a plantation or groups of adjacent plantations. The rebels used a variety of familiar military terms to describe these units. Wherever possible they were to arm themselves by raiding the stocks of arms kept on various plantations. Two men, Gardner and Johnson, were given the rank of “colonel”. Gardner described Sharpe as their “general”. The signal for the uprising to commence was the burning of the trash house at Kensington estate, which was at an elevated location and could be seen for miles. To spread the signal trash houses on other estates were then set on fire.

Sharpe had foreseen the danger that the Maroons at Accompong in St.Elizabeth would be employed to aid in suppressing the rebellion and had sent two emissaries to see the Maroon colonel in an endeavour to secure their support. But the Maroons, whose freedom had long ago been conceded by the British authorities and some of whom had for some time been earning rewards by capturing run-away slaves and returning them to their owners, refused to participate in the rebellion. They arrested the emissaries and turned them over to the St. Elizabeth Militia.

The rebellion raged for several months and was finally suppressed by the combined operations of the British troops and the local militia. 201 rebels were killed in action and approximately 750 slaves and 14 free persons were convicted for having committed acts of rebellion, by the courts martial established during the rebellion and the civil courts. By far the greater number of those placed on trial were sentenced to death. Others were sentenced to penalties ranging from 200 to 500 lashes of the whip, with or without imprisonment. Some 21 appear to have been transported out of the island to be sold as slaves elsewhere.

Henry Bleby, the Methodist Minister who was stationed in Jamaica at the time, wrote this account of how the captured rebels were dealt with:

“At first shooting was the favourite mode of execution and many were thus disposed of. But when the novelty of this had ceased the gallows was put in requisition … The gibbet erected in the public square in the centre of the town was seldom without occupants … for many weeks. Generally four, seldom less than three, were hung at once. The bodies remained stiffening in the breeze … Other victims would then be brought out and suspended in their place, and cut down in their turn to make room for more; the whole heap of bodies remaining just as they fell until the workhouse negroes came in the evening with carts and took them away, to cast them into a pit dug for the purpose, a little distance out of the town”.

Bleby was impressed by the manner in which so many of those awaiting execution conducted themselves:

“The undaunted bravery and fortitude with which many of the insurgents met their fate formed a very remarkable feature of the transactions of the period; and strikingly indicated the difficulty attendant upon the maintenance of slavery, now that the spirit of freedom had gone abroad, and many of the Negroes had learned to prefer death to bondage.

The Execution of the Rebel Leader

There is no record of how Sam Sharp was captured, but on 19 April 1832 he was placed on trial, convicted and sentenced to death. A lawyer had been appointed to represent him but whether he was appointed by the state or employed by Sharpe‚s owner is not clear. He however said nothing in justification of his client‚s actions in organising the rebellion, responsibility for which Sharpe did not deny. It is possible that the appointment of this lawyer to represent him may have been a device to ensure that he did not address the Court. That Sharpe felt that rebellion against slavery was justified is clear from the record that Bleby made of the interview he had with Sharpe whilst he was awaiting execution.

Bleby would appear to have attempted to convince him that what he had done was wrong and that he should repent, but he does not appear to have exacted from Sharpe more than an expression of regret for the suffering that had been caused. Bleby wrote:

“Sharpe was the last victim that was put to death for taking part in the insurrection. He was executed at Montego Bay on the 23rd of May, 1832. For several weeks before his execution, the magistrate … had prohibited our visits … but, the last time I conversed with Sharpe, he repeated his expressions of sorrow that he had been the cause of so much mischief. He was not, however, to be convinced that he had done wrong in endeavouring to assert his claim to freedom.

This is particularly interesting because this non-conformist missionary, probably in an attempt to save his soul, would appear to have attempted to convince the rebel leader that he had been guilty of a sin for which he should repent. One cannot avoid the feeling that when Bleby chose to remind Sharpe not of how Jesus violently expelled the money changers from the temple, but of the doubtful proposition “that the Scriptures teach men to be content with the station allotted to them by Providence”, he was being unfairly selective.

Bleby alleged that, on hearing this admonition, Sharp “was a little staggered”. But if this was true, Sharp seems to have recovered his composure quickly for he responded with an irrefutable religious reply: “If I have done wrong in that, I trust I shall be forgiven. I cast myself upon the atonement”. That Sharpe should have been able to stand firmly by his convictions at such a time, in the face of moral pressure from a person he trusted and respected, is an indication of his strength of character.

Bleby gave this moving account of how Sharpe met his death:

“His execution excited a good deal of interest; and a considerable number of spectators assembled to witness it. He marched to the spot where so many had been sacrificed to the demon of slavery, with a firm and even dignified step, clothed in a suit of new white clothes, made for him by some female members of the family of his owner, with all of whom he was a favourite, and who deeply regretted his untimely end.

He seemed to be entirely unmoved by the near approach of death; addressed the assembled multitude at some length in a clear unfaltering voice, acknowledging that he had transgressed against God and against the laws of his country; and said, ‘I depend for salvation upon the Redeemer, who shed his blood upon Calvary for sinners‚.

Sharpe‚s reference to the crucifixion of Jesus by the Roman power was well chosen. The significance of relating that event to his own execution would not have escaped his audience. Conceding that “so far as the preservation of slavery was concerned”, the authorities had little choice but to execute him, Bleby paid Sharpe this final tribute: “He was such a man … as was likely, nay certain, had he been set free, to commence another struggle for freedom: for he felt acutely the degradation and monstrous injustice of the system and was bent upon its overthrow”.

What did the Emancipation Rebellion Achieve

Initially the rebels had burned only the trash houses on various estates, to serve as signals that the rebellion had started. Later however, when it was realised that their refusal to work as slaves after the Christmas holiday would not succeed in bringing their enslavement to an end and that the military would be employed in an attempt to enforce their submission, they began to employ a policy of widespread destruction. A report to the Assembly after hostilities had ceased showed the total value of property destroyed in the five western parishes to have been £1,106,267. 12.1, made up as follows:

St. James – £606,250; Hanover – £425,818. 15. 0; Westmoreland – £47,092,

St. Elizabeth – £22,146. 9.7; Trelawny – £4,960. 7.6

There had also been destruction of property by slaves in Manchester amounting to £46,270 and in the eastern parishes of St. Thomas and Portland, where there had been comparatively little unrest, amounting to £2,052. This brings the property damage total to £1,154,590. 12.1. To this should be added the expense of £161,569. 19. 9. incurred in suppressing the rebellion To arrive at the equivalent amounts in today‚s values it would probably be safe to multiply these figures by a factor of at least ten.

Assessing the historical significance of the rebellion, Bleby’s conclusion was decisive:

“The revolt failed of accomplishing the immediate purpose of its author, yet by it a further wound was dealt to slavery, which accelerated its destruction: for it demonstrated to the imperial legislature that among the Negroes themselves the spirit of freedom had been so widely defused, as to render it most perilous to postpone the settlement of the most important question of emancipation to a later period.

The evidence taken before the Committee of the two Houses of Parliament made it manifest, that if the abolition of slavery were not speedily effected by the peaceable method of legislative enactment, the slaves would assuredly take the matter into their own hands, and bring their bondage to a violent and bloody termination”.

A similar assessment of the rebellion, from a different point of view, was given by Bernard Martin Senior, a military officer engaged in suppressing the rebellion:

“It will not be surprising that so propitious a circumstance as the late rebellion should be seized with avidity for their furtherance and immediate accomplishment. A Bill was brought into Parliament … by which it was enacted that all slavery should cease throughout the British dominions on the first of August 1834 ”.

The Law provided that after 1 August 1834 slaves were to be called “apprentices”. For an interim period, initially designed to last for six years in the case of field (so-called “praedial”) labourers and four years for other categories, they were to be required to work for their owners free of charge for forty and a half hours per week and to continue to enjoy free accommodation and food. If required to work for longer hours they were to be paid wages. Upon the expiration of these periods they were to be entirely free, but were no longer to receive free accommodation or food. [10]

The slaves were however unwilling to work the apprenticeship system. Anticipating this, the Antigua Assembly decided not to adopt the scheme but to proceed to full emancipation in 1834. The slaves in the neighbouring island of St. Kitts rose in revolt. Faced with the fact that the apprenticeship scheme was not working, the British Government advised the other colonies to abandon it after four years of attempting to operate it. They agreed to do so and full emancipation accordingly took place on 1 August 1838.

The freed slaves got no compensation for their many years of enslavement. The British Parliament however provided compensation for the slave owners for the loss of their slaves. The following table shows the number of slaves, colony by colony, for whom compensation was paid and the amounts of compensation paid.

Colony Number of Slaves Compensation (£)
Jamaica 311,070 6,149,955
Br. Guiana 82,824 4,295,989
Barbados 83,150 1,719,980
Trinidad 20,657 1,033,992
Grenada 23,638 616,255
St. Vincent 22,286 550,777
Antigua 29,121 425,547
St. Lucia 13,291 334,495
St. Kitts 19,780 329,393
Dominica 14,175 275,547
Tobago 11,589 233,875
Nevis 8,815 151,006
Bahamas 10,086 128,296
Montserrat 6,401 103,556
Br. Honduras 1,901 101,399
Virgin Ils. 5,135 72,638
Bermuda 4,026 50,409
667,925 £16,573,109
  1. [1]Bryan Edwards, History, Civil and Commercial of the British Colonies in the West Indies, London, 1st edit (e vols.) 1793,4th edit, (3vols.) 1801, 5thedit. (5 vols.) 1819 —vol. 4 pp.316-327; Thomas Clarkson, The History of the African SlaveTrade (2Vols.) London,Longman,Hurt Rees and Orme,1808, vol 1 p.120 [Back...]
  2. [2]Clarkson,, Vol 1, p,282 ff [Back...]
  3. [3]Parliamentary Debates (2nd. Series) 1X, 265 ff [Back...]
  4. [4]ibid. IX, 285-286 [Back...]
  5. [5] Hilary Beckles, Black Rebellion in Barbados, Antilles Publications, Barbados, 1984, pp 87 ff [Back...]
  6. [6]C.Northcott, Slavery-sMartyr, London, Epworth, 197 [Back...]
  7. [7]TheWatchman,16 May, 1832 [Back...]
  8. [8]Parliamentary Papers, Vol. XLVII,pp. 276 —277; Votes, 1831, pp.111-112 [Back...]
  9. [9]Rev. Henry Bleby, Death Struggles of Slavery (3rd. edit), London,1868. [Back...]
  10. [10]Richard Hart, Slaves Who Abolished Slavery, (2 vols.) University of the West Indies Press, M [Back...]

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