Jamaica on Fire: Haiti and the Problem of Inspiration

By Tom Zoellner 

Any study of the march toward freedom in the Caribbean must give a central role to the horror and splendor of the Haitian Revolution – the 1791 revolt of enslaved people in the outpost of Saint-Domingue that turned into a full-blown war against the French slave-owning class.

Cover art - Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire

When I first set out to write a day-by-day account of the consequential 1831-32 revolt in Jamaica that proved the tipping point for abolition in the British Caribbean, I expected to find multiple references to Haiti in the jail cell depositions of the captured rebels. How could it have not been inspiring to them?[1] Here was the motivated leader Toussaint Louverture who responded quickly to the news of a local rebellion, gathered a team of talented co-conspirators to make it even bigger, formed an alliance with the Spanish, repurposed the discourse of the French revolutionaries, used modern European military tactics to foil his oppressors, dictated the terms of retreat to a humiliated British invasion force, and then set his freed colony on a course to be the world’s first republic governed exclusively by freed slaves? He was famous enough throughout the Caribbean to have been an inspiration to Jose Antonio Aponte, the enslaved Cuban rebel leader who had even kept a drawing of Louverture in his house[2]. But to my surprise, in the Jamaican revolt I found barely any mention of the successful revolution next door.

It was not as if Jamaica’s enslaved people were not aware of what had happened in Haiti. As it occurred elsewhere in the Atlantic world, Jamaican slaves learned details of the Haitian Revolution before their enslavers. In The Common Wind Julius Scott convincingly argued how a sophisticated network of intelligence-sharing had already emerged in the Caribbean by the early eighteenth century.[3] Through a complicated brew of overheard dinner table conversations, newspaper clippings, rumors, behaviors observed among the whites, human trafficking throughout the Caribbean, and direct eyewitness accounts, enslaved peoples learned about each other’s situations in great detail. The speed of these underground dispatches was often surprising to the white masters. One British commander warned his subordinates that enslaved people were “immediately informed of every kind of news that arrives” and would know “perfectly well every transaction at Cape Francois.”[4]

Jamaica’s sugar barons tried to cut off knowledge of Haiti, censoring dispatches about it in Kingston newspapers and banning the use of enslaved deckhands on ships bound for Haitian ports, lest they get inspired by the full black independence they might witness. The paranoia was such that an enslaved regiment of fighters accompanying Colonel Thomas Maitland’s ill-fated attempt to help the French regain control in 1792 were freed on the spot and denied passage back to Jamaica. Even the white refugees from Haiti were held at arm’s length; they seemed cursed. Serving as an agricultural prison camp, Jamaican perilous demographics – a ratio of one white colonist for every twenty enslaved people, the quintessential definition of a slave society – proved to be a social tinderbox. Pro-liberty ideology, charismatic leadership, and a united agenda among enslaved peoples had the potential for transforming discontent into revolt.

Servile revolts were not uncommon in the British Caribbean; one erupted every five years or so, and were usually quashed within days by the militia – a paramilitary outfit that had to be joined by every man between the ages of 16 and 60.[5] But three decades after Haitians declared their independence as a sovereign nation, the largest uprising ever seen ripped through the northwestern section of the island without anyone connected with it taking an example from those that had successfully and famously cut off their own shackles.

What spurred the 1831-32 uprising, instead, was a potent message preached by an enslaved Baptist deacon named Sam Sharpe, who had a pass to move between the sugar estates to give Bible lessons. He secretly taught verses from the New Testament that had been censored by white missionaries, such as “no man can serve two masters,” (Matt: 6:24) and aimed them pointedly at the institution of slavery which was, he said, squarely against God’s law. And to this heady teaching, he added a dose of fake news: across the ocean, the King of England had issued a decree that made every slave free but the white overclass had refused to honor it. Sharpe had credibility because he had been taught to read, and he claimed to have read this in the newspapers from London thrown off the ships docked in Montego Bay. What everyone should therefore do on December 27, he told them, was to sit down peacefully and refuse to work until the master’s agreed to pay them at least half of what a free laborer would get from working in the fields.[6]

The essential nonviolent nature of Sharpe’s plan may have been the result of learning his initial Bible lessons under the watch of Moses Baker, a man deeply impressed with the pacifistic example of the Quakers. Even as some of Sharpe’s followers began burning down sugar estates, many kept their vows to simply refuse to work. The eventual death toll among whites – a likely exaggerated official count of 14 — was shockingly low, considering the systematic brutality of slavery and a clear motive for revenge among those who had every reason to seek retribution. During the ecstatic frenzy of the burning, a handful enslaved people were recorded telling white militiamen they were going to set themselves up as the new kings of Jamaica, but these quotations should be regarded with caution, as they came packaged inside war stories laden with exaggeration.[7]

The rebellion took five weeks to quash, and in its aftermath, Anglican priests questioned dozens of enslaved prisoners before their execution – the presence of a cleric served a double-function as a hearer of confessions and an official government witness. The Haitian example does not show up in any these transcripts. Sharpe himself spent considerable time in his jail cell with the sympathetic Methodist minister Henry Bleby and never mentioned Louverture’s example. Nor were there any diplomatic attempts during the rebellion to seek assistance from the freed slave republic 350 miles away. As one of his co-conspirators, Robert Rose, said of Sharpe’s plan: “We must not trouble any body and raise no Rebellion. We must set quite peaceable…We did not swear to burn any where or to fight.”[8]

Establishing causality in an informational vacuum is always a tricky business for historians. And sometimes the biggest surprise of the archives is what does not lie inside. Inevitable conjecture comes in the absence of data. It seems a reasonable conclusion, though, that the lack of a Haitian-style battle cry only points to the credibility of Sam Sharpe’s insistence – which he made until his May 23, 1832 execution — that he had intended a peaceful protest. His unique theology of freedom had a particularly British cast: a reverence for King William IV as the true friend of slaves, as well as the Baptist message of individual salvation. Sharpe desired radical change, but within existing royal systems – what later generations would call “the politics of respectability.” It was not in line with the Haitian insurrection that began in 1791 with a supposed outlaw vodou ceremony, the anti-elitist rhetoric of the French Revolution, and war against  white colonists.

Sharpe did share one important distinction with Louverture, however. Both were successful revolutionaries that never got to see the full fruits of their endeavors. Loverture died in a cell at Fort de Joux in France before Haiti fully emerged as the first Black republic. Sharpe died on the gallows fifteen months before the events he set in motion convinced a reluctant King William IV to give his royal assent to the Slave Emancipation Act of 1833.


Tom Zoellner teaches at Chapman University and Dartmouth College, and is the author of Island on Fire: The Revolt that Ended Slavery in the British Empire (Harvard, May 2020).

Title Image: Sam Sharpe Memorial, Montego Bay

Further reading:

Brown, Vincent. Tacky’s Revolt: The Story of an Atlantic Slave War. Harvard University Press, 2020.

Dick, Devon, The Cross and the Machete: Native Baptists of Jamaica – Identity, Ministry and Legacy. Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle, 2009.

Hart, Richard. Slaves Who Abolished Slavery: Blacks in Rebellion. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 2002.

Turner, Mary. Slaves and Missionaries: The Disintegration of Jamaican Slave Society, 1787-1834. Kingston, Jamaica: University of the West Indies Press, 1998.

Endnotes:

[1] Geggus, David. “The Enigma of Jamaica in the 1790s: New Light on the Causes of Slave Rebellions.” The William and Mary Quarterly 44, No. 2 (1987), pp. 274-299. Geggus was writing about the 1790s, and called Jamaica “the most vulnerable of all slave societies to the inflammatory example of St. Domingue.” He also expressed surprise at the lack of a Caribbean domino theory of revolution.

[2] Childs, Matt. The 1812 Aponte Rebellion in Cuba and the Struggle Against Atlantic Slavery. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2006, p. 4.

[3] Scott, Julius S. The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Revolution. London: Verso, 2018

[4] Lord Effingham to Henry Dundas, September 7, 1791, quoted in Scott, p. 142.

[5] Brathwaite, Kamau. The Development of Creole Society in Jamaica, 1770-1820. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.  p. 28.

[6] “The King Against Samuel Sharpe,” CO 137/181. National Archives, UK.

[7] Senior, Bernard. Jamaica as It Was, as It Is, and as It May Become. London: T.Hurst, 1835.

[8] “The King Against Samuel Sharpe,” CO 137/181. National Archives, UK.

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