Revolutionary Jamaica: Interpreting the Politics of the Baptist War

By Gordon Barnes

In the preface to C.L.R. James’s magnum opus and classic text on slave rebellion, The Black Jacobins, James forcefully points out that Saint-Domingue experienced the “the only successful” slave revolt in history.[1] For James, this achievement rests on a dramatic transformation, alteration, or re-articulation of economic and political ideology, specifically in regards to the question of property, and therefore,  of attendant  social relations. I propose an alternative interpretation of slave revolt and rebellion. The history of slave revolt and rebellion in the wider Caribbean is better described as a series of revolutionary processes rather than as a single revolutionary rupture. This is because while Saint-Domingue was the only slave colony where bondage was directly overthrown by the enslaved, understanding the Haitian Revolution as the only slave revolt-cum-revolution discredits revolutionary achievements of other anti-slavery resistance in the West Indies. And furthermore, it promotes a paradigm in which the example of the Haitian Revolution stands as antithetical to all other episodes of organized slave revolt.

How then do we understand slave uprisings that did not immediately bring about an end to chattel slavery? This question is particularly salient when considering histories where revolt heralded the end of slavery, albeit through wholesale manumission, as in the British Caribbean. Though the abolition of racial slavery was accomplished through reform and parliamentary politics within the British imperial system, revolutionary processes preceded and left an indelible mark on the consequent legislation. In considering Jamaica — arguably Britain’s most important colony in the Antilles during the nineteenth century — it is possible to see how revolutionary processes resulted in the transformation of socio-economic relations. Put another way, the social aims of the rebellious slaves in Jamaica were in fact partially realized in the long run, but the seizure of political power did not coincide with this achievement.

De jure slavery ended in Jamaica, as it did throughout the British West Indies in 1834, and de facto enslavement had been curtailed by 1838 with an end to the apprenticeship system. The historiography of slavery and abolition in the Anglophone Caribbean has generally treated emancipation not as a revolutionary struggle, but as the culminating success of metropolitan-based civilian and governmental agitation. While abolitionism in Britain and the colonies had been a persistent facet of political life since the latter part of the eighteenth century, it wasn’t simply the political machinations of abolitionists and their allies that led to the end of chattel slavery. In fact, the emancipation of slaves was won on the ground in the colonies through revolutionary struggles, with British abolitionism serving as an effective propagandistic tool.[2]

The culminating event of nineteenth-century Jamaican revolutionary processes, the Baptist War, began on 25 December 1831. Between 20,000 and 60,000 of the 300,000 enslaved persons in Jamaica rose up in arms, attacking property, and to a lesser extent, members of the plantocracy. The revolt, which began as a work stoppage – inspired by the Swing Riots that had taken place in England a year prior, the Demerara slave revolt, occuring slightly less than a decade before, and Bussa’s Rebellion in Barbados in 1816 – served to further reify planter and metropolitan fears of organized and directed slave violence.[3] The rebellion originated in the Parish of Trelawny and was led by Samuel Sharpe, a slave and influential Baptist preacher. The initial core of the rebellious slaves were under the impression that the Crown had granted emancipation to the colonies and that the planters were in fact disregarding the will of the King and Parliament.[4] The revolt eventually spread to four other parishes as the ranks of participating slaves swelled from hundreds to thousands. Though the revolt was short lived, lasting until 4 January 1832, the slaves caused more than £1 million in property damage and killed fourteen planters.[5]

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Samuel Sharpe on the Jamaican $50.

The outcome of the Baptist War was similar to that of Demerara, as brutal suppression and reprisals typified the slavocracy’s response. However, the slaves’ motivation was rooted in concerns that were part of a revolutionary process taking place in Jamaica. When the sit-in strike failed, and the possibility of receiving wages for labor rebuffed, Samuel Sharpe and other principal leaders of the rebellion initiated a movement that sought to oust white and colored proprietors from the island and replace them with the black slaves who had worked the plantations. In the eyes of the planters, this was evidence of a Haitian-style revolt, one which could lead to their pecuniary ruin. And it had the potential to be so, had the rebellious slaves been immediately successful.[6]

Outcomes aside, the Baptist War was undeniably a revolutionary process. The slaves targeted plantation residences and other edifices utilized by the island’s elite, while leaving the growing sugar cane, as they intended to harvest it for their own benefit.[7] The goal of (economically) liquidating the landowning elite and their allies in conjunction with the desire to end chattel slavery is evidence of revolutionary thinking on the part of the enslaved. This was partially successful, albeit indirectly, as the latter was legally achieved two years after the conclusion of the revolt. While there was certainly a degree of spontaneity involved in the extremely rapid growth in participation, the cadre leading the rebellion were generally acculturated and literate slaves who were aware of contemporary debates around the issues of emancipation, friction between the plantocracy and the Crown, and the vocal support that Jamaican planters gave to the southern United States.

Fundamentally, the slaves were acting politically in relation to their constituent socio-political reality, rather than simply reacting to a specific event or issue. They were in effect tearing at the very political and economic fabric that comprised Jamaican society, attacking physically—and to a lesser extent, ideologically—those entities (the plantations and planters) which reinforced the status quo. There also existed a level of political sophistication during the short-lived revolt, demonstrated by the fact that the rebel slave bands utilized spies to garner strategic information from militia movements and positions.[8] The level of organization involved in the revolt, the transformative objectives of the rebellious slaves, and the shocking nature of the episode all indicate a burgeoning revolutionary process. The Baptist War was able to lay the foundation for a socially revolutionary process, one that ended chattel slavery while failing to bring a political revolution to fruition.

Some would contend that emancipation in Jamaica and in the wider British world in the nineteenth century was not a direct result of revolutionary struggle, but was a natural conclusion due either to parliamentary abolitionism and reform or to the alleged waning economic viability of racial slavery. This contention is largely a fallacy which obfuscates a vibrant revolutionary process. When slavery was eventually abolished in the British West Indies, the parliamentary act that codified it into law went so far as to cite the Baptist War as a specific reason for the new legislation. The conflagration essentially forced the hand of British Parliament, demonstrating that if socio-economic organization was resisted from above, it would be forced from below.[9] That there was a two-year period in between the Baptist War and de jure emancipation is of no consequence as there was no Jamaican Revolution, only a Jamaican revolutionary process that served to catalyze emancipatory legislation.

The Baptist War was not merely one of the myriad slave revolts in Jamaica. It was a flash point that represents the culmination of a protracted arc of revolutionary processes in the Anglophone Caribbean more generally, and Jamaica specifically. It was through such struggles that the bonds-people of Jamaica were able to force legislation which had socio-revolutionary ramifications, even if the revolts did not morph into a socio-political process emblematic of classical understandings of revolution. The revolutionary process in Jamaica did not terminate with the Baptist War or with the consequent legislation in Britain that ended slavery. Rather, it continued in the proceeding decades as ex-slaves and their decedents sought to legitimize their newfound freedoms.

Part II of “Revolutionary Jamaica” (coming Wednesday) will look at the immediate post-emancipation period as part of a counter-revolutionary process, implemented to reassert elite power, and also examines revolutionary challenges to the post-emancipatory status quo, namely the Morant Bay Rebellion.

Gordon Barnes is a doctoral candidate and Presidential MAGNET Fellow in the History Program at the Graduate Center, CUNY. His dissertation, tentatively entitled “The Crisis of Freedom: Violence and Elite Ideology in the Post-Emancipation British Empire, 1810-1870,” examines the transition from slavery to freedom in Jamaica and Mauritius and the ways in which organized slave and subaltern violence, as well as fears of such, influenced elite politics and ideology around questions of labor regimentation, immigration, and social formation. You can contact him via email at gbarnes@gradcenter.cuny.edu or tweet him @grb_jr.

Title image: Duperly, Destruction of the Roehampton Estate January 1832, 1833.

Endnotes:

[1] C.L.R. James, The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L’Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution. (New York: Vintage, 1963), ix.

[2] Robin Blackburn, The Overthrow of Colonial Slavery, 1776-1848. (London: Verso, 1998), 154.

[3] See, Emilia Viotti da Costa Crowns of Glory, Tears of Blood: The Demerara Slave Rebellion of 1823 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

[4] The Examiner, 26 February 1832.

[5] Thomas C. Holt, The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor, and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832-1938. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992), 13-14.

[6] The Royal Gazette, 30 July 1831.

[7] Holt, 15.

[8] Steve O. Buckridge, The Language of Dress: Resistance and Accommodation in Jamaica, 1760-1890. (Kingston: University of West Indies Press, 2004), 81.

[9] Verene A. Shepherd, Livestock, Sugar and Slavery: Contested Terrain in Colonial Jamaica (Ian Randle Publishers: Kingston, 2009), 159.

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