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Where exactly was Sam Sharpe's place of execution and burial?

Shalman Scott

Sunday, December 02, 2018

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Twenty-five days from today, on December 27, is the 187th anniversary of the start of the Sam Sharpe Rebellion, which played a monumental role in the abolition of slavery in Jamaica and throughout the British Empire.

The now national hero, back then paid the ultimate price with his life. There are numerous confusing stories about the Right Excellent Samuel Sharpe's place (s) of execution and burial. This confusion was deliberate, as is the case with most of what has been passed down to us as Jamaican “history”, engineered largely by Clinton Vane De Brosse, who was chief archivist of Jamaica and the anglophone Caribbean, appointed by England in 1952.

It must be of interest that in 1975 when Prime Minister Michael Manley announced the Right Excellent Samuel Sharpe as national hero, Professor Kamu Braithwaite had to be dispatched to England to research information about Sam Sharpe and the 1831/32 Rebellion.

The reason is that there was no substantive, coherent information in the location where the slave rebellion took place.

Sam Sharpe's playmate and his master's son at Cooper's Hill Plantation, east of and above Jarrett Park sporting complex, had full view of the gallows constructed in the Montego Bay Market from the window of his law office on Albert Lane, situated upstairs the Salmon building in Sam Sharpe Square.

He could see Sharpe's every move and hear the final words of the hero to the very large crowd gathered in front of the Montego Bay Courthouse across the street, as Sharpe emerged from the huge front door of the Georgian building, dressed in full white, to bid them farewell on his way to the place of his execution in Albert Market situated immediately behind the building which is now Montego Bay Civic Centre.

His calm and confident demeanour spoke as loudly as that of his brief parting words: “I accept full responsibility for what took place. The missionaries had nothing to do with the rebellion. I am sorry for the terrible suffering that the people had to bear because of my actions, but I depend for my salvation on the Redeemer who died for sinners by shedding His blood on the cross of Calvary”.

Powerful and awe-inspiring words.

The “dying on yonder gallows” comment was contained only in the letter Sharpe wrote to the British Parliament from his jail cell. In those brief and defining moments, 'Daddy' Sharpe demonstrated unspeakable courage as his steely resolve to face death by the gallows remained unchanged to the end.

For in those final words not only did he communicate his own secret thoughts, but by his body language transformed the bloody rebellion into a message: Be strong and depend on Jesus Christ for all you do and expect.

Yes, Daddy Sharpe turned the closing moments of his test into a testimony, and consolidated it even as he committed the Negro spirit of resistance and defiance to future generations to stand firm and resolutely against injustice, dehumanisation and oppression, disrespect to our ancestors and our race, even when these factors are to be found among some Negroes themselves.

But I believe that Sharpe's message was not just for Negroes but for all peoples … black men, white men, Jews and Gentiles caught in a similar set of circumstances. For indeed, his message and principled example as a leader of men is universal.

But why was Montego Bay Market the place chosen for his execution by William S Grignon, magistrate and head of the St James and combined Western Militia, that same man who inspired, by his provocative behaviour to the slaves… the mutiny at Salt Spring Estate, St James on December 22, 1831, a week before the start of the National Slave War? The same man who also inspired, the mutiny at Barrett Hall Estates, St James, when our ancestors blew up the factory boiler killing 13 people and forcing the Barrett family of Cinnamon Hill to close the estate and subsequently pack their bags and go back to England?

Yes, we the descendants of “the Bus Boila Race” of Barrett Hall, Barrett Town, Lilliput, Rose Hill, Retirement in the district of Chatham near Adelphi, will easily recall the power, validation and ancestral connection the invocation of the name Bus Boila Race brought. Today, the children of the slaves from far and wide own all of Barrett Hall by way of housing lots.

The Montego Bay Market was the strategy and communication room for the Sam Sharpe Rebellion.

Messages from around western Jamaica emanated from, and were received at the Montego Bay Market. This was the nest from which the plan for the rebellion was hatched and later developed… not out of the Baptist Church, contrary to long-standing misinformation.

Under the guise of buying and selling, the plan of the slaves evolved at the time of its implementation to be the most massive, impactful and participatory slave rebellion in the history of Jamaica.

It caused, after the declaration of martial law by Governor Earle Belmore, three British man-o-wars to sail into Montego Bay Harbour to defend the town and its environs from the well-organised and determined rebels.

There was also a warship in the Black River Harbour as well. Artillery gunners, rocket launchers, and other military hardware were the cargo of the three warships active in defence of the Montego Bay area.

The market system, a concept inherited from West Africa and brought here by slaves, remains one of the legacies of our ancestors.

This indispensable institution, the market system, was a place where slaves were allowed to meet and interact. The tradition of “Sunday Market” was a legal arrangement supported by the slave masters, as it absolved the masters of footing a large portion of the bill for slave maintenance and for which “tickets” would be given to individual slaves as permission to leave the precincts of the plantation for Sunday market.

A second day, Saturday, was added as a free day after the Amelioration of Slave Law was passed by the British Government in 1823. Ironically, that same year slaves in the parish of St James were in rebellion, and the following year when Sharpe's would-be second pastor, Thomas Burchell, arrived, the parish of Hanover was in rebellion.

There was no letting up of the struggle by our ancestors. The tickets granting permission for slaves to leave their plantations were called by them, “talkie, talkie”. So by the time of the Sam Sharpe Rebellion the slaves, being pregnant with ideas for a final push for freedom, had more time among themselves to interface, including planning the 1831/32 Rebellion.

Their rallying cry was: “Brown free, black soon” a reference to the 1830 law passed by the Jamaican House of Assembly giving full franchise, inclusive of the right to vote, to coloured and Jews for the first time — a matter in which newspaper publisher and civil rights activist Edward Jordon, based in Kingston, played a very key and commendable role.

With the certain knowledge of the use of the market in the secret planning of the slave war, which came out in the evidence contained in the court documents, Sharpe's executioners and magistrates had no difficulty arriving at a decision that his life was to end where the operational plan for the rebellion started — Montego Bay Market.

Sharpe's burial by the sea contains powerful symbolism as the Bible speaks about leviathan s from the depths of the sea, and certain societies of men propagate beliefs of the fear and dread of the sea containing malevolent spirits that bring harm to persons or their spirit when in close proximity to the water.

A positive view of the sea also exists however as a place of bountiful blessings to humanity, providing sustenance and abundant harvest. A place of healing, cleansing and purification and one of its by product, salt, is highly referenced in Christianity and across all religions.

While, given the circumstances, Sam Sharpe would be, on the face of it, buried by the sea to suffer the fate of torment befitting a criminal, we cannot know for sure the private thoughts of his individual executioners. so we can only speculate as is our right to do.

Sufficient to say, his executioners are all now only obscure footnotes in Jamaican history, if remembered any at all.

Prior to the declaration of him, by the then PNP Government of Michael Manley, as a national hero, the Government decided that Sam Sharpe's remains were to be exhumed from the seaside grave and reinterred under the pulpit of Burchell Baptist Church at Market Street in the city.

Rest in peace, our hero. We are very, very proud of you. Following in the footsteps of Christ the Saviour and Lord, your seeming defeat and shame on May 23, 1832, the date of your execution, has been, over time, transcended into the glory of eternal victory through the grace and love of God, who is the author and finisher of our faith and the only master of our destiny.

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