Sam Sharpe uprising long time comingMonday, December 28, 2020
I would rather die on yonder gallows than live in slavery. — words attributed to Jamaican National Hero Samuel Sharpe
One hundred and eighty-eight years after his death Samuel Sharpe Day is a reality. December 27 has been proclaimed Sam Sharpe Day by the Governor General Sir Patrick Allen. It has certainly took successive Jamaican governments long enough to recognise and commemorate the significant role Sam Sharpe played in organising the Christmas Rebellion of 1831, which was a catalyst for the abolition of slavery.
The Sam Sharpe Rebellion or the Christmas Rebellion ushered in calls for Emancipation, both in Jamaica and in England, where abolitionists worked on the legislation to free the enslaved Africans. So great was Sharpe's contribution to the abolition of slavery that it warrants more than a Sam Sharpe Day. Indeed, a national holiday would be most appropriate.
Sharpe's contribution to modern-day Jamaica is incalculable. His worth has been under-represented for years. To add insult to injury, the teaching of history education is optional and as such many Jamaicans are not aware of Sharpe's monumental and vital role towards the path to Emancipation.
Reverend Devon Dick wrote in a The Gleaner article published on July 26, 2012, “Sam Sharpe was a master organiser to involve approximately 60,000 persons in a cause at a time of no cellular telephone. He was able to get so many persons to buy into his ideals. He was a leader extraordinaire. What he managed to achieve was an almost islandwide protest. He was able to inspire so many enslaved persons from diverse backgrounds to maintain the secrecy of the plan until near the time. He inspired trust and confidence in the enslaved.”
The Christmas Rebellion of 1831 led by Sharpe was influential in accelerating the process of Emancipation in the British West Indies. Sharpe's idea was for his fellow enslaved Africans not to return to work after the Christmas break unless they were going to paid wages.
Sharpe was clearly a man ahead of his time. His leadership and organising skills were exceptional during a time when blacks were viewed as property of the white plantocracy. On December 28, Tulloch Castle in Kensington, St James, was set afire. Within minutes other estates were ablaze across much of western Jamaica. Sharpe organised underground native Baptists and merged English non-conformist rituals with traditional African religious forms. He led Jamaica's first organised strike against a law passed by the Jamaican legislature in 1831, reducing by one day the slaves' customary annual three-day holiday at Christmas.
Sharpe was a deacon in Thomas Burchell's Baptist congregation in Montego Bay, St James, where he was a household slave. As a household slave he was a bit more privileged than the field slaves. Sharpe was literate.
Although the Christmas Rebellion was brutally crushed, the seeds of freedom had entered the phase of germination. The Christmas Rebellion ended during the first week of January 1832. However, sporadic resistance continued for another two months as the rebels resorted to guerilla tactics while fighting in Jamaica's mountainous interior. At the end of the fighting, 14 free blacks who supported the rebellion and over 200 rebels had been killed. More than 1,000 enslaved men and women were executed, including Samuel Sharpe, who was hanged. The Christmas Rebellion forced Great Britain to adopt full emancipation throughout all of its colonies, including Jamaica and the West Indies in 1838.
Regrettably, many Jamaicans are not as informed as we ought to regarding the leadership role Sam Sharpe played during the Christmas Rebellion of 1831, which eventually led to the abolition of slavery in 1838. It can be argued that as a society our lack of awareness regarding our history has contributed to our state of affairs with record homicide rate.
Apart from Sharpe's image on the 50-dollar note, as well as the naming of the square in his honour in addition to the teachers' college which bears his name, there are no more legacies for this outstanding Jamaican and national hero.
Interestingly, some of the same issues Sharpe died for are still issues affecting the majority of today's Jamaica. To a great extent, the working class in the society is still underpaid and landless. The working class still suffers from poor working conditions and less than ideal social security benefits. Yes, we have attained political freedom; however, economic freedom continues to elude most of us.
According to Professor Verene Shepherd of The University of the West Indies (The UWI), Mona Campus, in an interview conducted on November 5, 2018, the harm done through colonisation and slavery continues. Social historian and director of the Centre for Reparation Research at The UWI, Professor Shepherd, stated that the Jamaican society is still being affected by post-traumatic slave syndrome (PTSS).
Dr Joy DeGruy defines PTSS as a condition that exists as a consequence of multigenerational oppression of Africans and their descendants resulting from centuries of chattel slavery. Only time will tell how this annual Sam Sharpe Day will be viewed by the population.
Minister of Culture Olivia “Babsy” Grange said, “Sam Sharpe Day, each year, will be an occasion to reflect on and celebrate the unflinching courage and bold resolve of these our ancestors, led by Sam Sharpe, who gave their lives for our freedom.” She expressed the hope that Sam Sharpe's “life, commitment, and ultimate sacrifice” would inspire Jamaicans to “commit to nation-building, to see ourselves as our brother's and sister's keeper, and to promote the well-being and welfare of all Jamaicans”.
The Government needs to embark on a public education campaign in order to inform the populace about the life and work of Sam Sharpe. Failure to do this will result in the loss of the significance of the day and the intended purpose behind the day.
The spirit of Sam Sharpe is still with us and as such we need to use this as a motivation to unite as a people. Our greatness as a people lies in our ability to work together towards a common purpose similarly to what Sharpe and followers did in 1831.
Sharpe was silenced for what he believed to be just, humane and fair. The society owes him a debt of gratitude for his vision and leadership skills in paving the path for our freedom.
He was hanged for his role in the Christmas Rebellion on May 23, 1832.
In the words of Marcus Mosiah Garvey: “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”
Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and or gender issues. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org, @WayneCamo.
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