Sharpe, Samuel

views updated

Sharpe, Samuel

c. 1801
May 23, 1832

Samuel Sharpe, a Jamaican National Hero, is best known as the chief organizer of the 183132 Emancipation War that hastened the passing of the British Abolition Act in 1833. In keeping with a historiographical trend that gives little visibility to the individual enslaved, biographical details on Sharpe are sketchy. Historians generally agree, however, that he was born around 1801, his parents having arrived in Jamaica from Africa between 1787 and 1801. Sharpe himself was a Creole (that is, born in Jamaica). He was named after the lawyer Samuel Sharpe, Esquire, his enslaver. He had a brother, William (who accompanied him when he decided to give himself up in 1832), and a nephew who worked at a printer's shop in Montego Bay. His mother survived him, but his father died years earlier. He was married, but (not unusually) his wife, whose father was among the rebels, lived on another property. According to a letter in the Jamaica Advocate in 1896, he had a daughter who married a Mr. Gaynor; and Mrs. Gaynor and her daughter, Mrs. Scott, were living in Montego Bay in 1896.

In 1831 Sharpe was working in a nonfield capacity at Cooper's Hill on the outskirts of Montego Bay in the western parish of St. James. He was, therefore, among that group of enslaved that historians characterize as the "slave elite." Converted to Christianity, he became a deacon in the First Baptist Church in Montego Bay, now the Burchell Memorial Baptist Church. He encouraged enslaved people to strike for wages after the Christmas holidays of 1831 and to resort to armed resistance if their demands were not met. When word came that the whites were planning to break the strike, arson and violence erupted. The ensuing rebellion was, according to a petition to the Jamaica House of Assembly in 1832, one "unparalleled in the history of the colony, whether for depth of design or the extent of misery and ruin which it has entailed on the inhabitants." Not only did Sharpe plan and fight in the war, but he organized subleaders on every plantation or cluster of plantationsrevolutionary cellsmore effectively to fight the war. The British suppressed the rebellion brutally, killing about 1,000 enslaved rebels during the war or after, through judicial decree.

On April 19, 1832, Sharpe was tried and sentenced to hanging for his role in the war. The testimonies of nine enslaved people who gave evidence against him (and that appear in the records of the Jamaica House of Assembly) confirmed the objectives and strategies of Sharpe's war as well as his deep involvement. James Stirling testified that "[Sharpe] gave me an Oath not to work after X'mas." Edward Barrett confirmed: "Sharpe said we must sit down, we free and we must not work again unless we get half pay"; and Edward Hill reiterated the freedom mission of the rebels: "Sharpe told we all we going to get free; he sent Edward Ramsay to Thomas Reid at Mahoney to swear all the people [to an oath on the Bible]."

At the end of Sharpe's trial, the following sentence, signed by John Coates and others, was handed down:

That the said Negro man slave named Samuel Sharpe be taken from hence to the place from whence he came and from thence to the place of Execution at such time and place as shall be appointed by His Excellency the Governor and there to be hanged by the neck until he be dead.

According to the historical accounts, Sharpe, age thirty-one, dressed in a white suit, walked in a dignified manner to the gallows on May 23, 1832. After a short speech, he prayed, then declared: "I now bid you farewell! That is all I have to say." Sixteen pounds ten shillings, Sharpe's estimated value, was eventually paid as compensation to his enslaver.

See also Anti-Colonial Movements; Emancipation in Latin America and the Caribbean; Maroon Wars; Protestantism in the Americas


Colonial Office (C.O.) 137/185. Public Records Office, London.

Craton, Michael. Testing the Chains. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982.

Jamaica Archives. Spanish Town, St. Catherine. Jamaica House of Assembly Votes, 1832.

Reid, C. S. Samuel Sharpe: From Slave to National Hero. Kingston, Jamaica: Bustamante Institute for Public and International Affairs, 1988.

verene a. shepherd (2005)