Samuel Sharpe (ca. 1780-1832)

Samuel Sharpe on the $50 Jamaican Banknote
Image Ownership: Public Domain

Samuel “Sam” Sharpe (or “Daddy Sharpe”) led a rebellion which led to the end of legal slavery in the British colony of Jamaica.  Records of who his parents were have been lost.  Sharpe was a slave of an English attorney and namesake who practiced in Montego Bay.

Sharpe was baptized and subsequently became a lay deacon and leader of the congregation at the Burchell Baptist Church.  Because the British allowed slaves to hold religious meetings, Sharpe started preaching about freedom from slavery. In 1831 the British Parliament began discussing the abolition of slavery throughout the Empire, and that displeased many Jamaican planters. Sharpe followed the Parliament arguments by reading local and foreign newspapers, and he made certain his congregation was apprised of the latest news concerning the abolition debates.

In December 1831, under the mistaken belief that freedom had already been granted to Jamaica’s enslaved people by the British Parliament and that local planters refused to abide by the decision, Sharpe organized a protest.  That rebellion was timed to have maximum impact on the sugar cane harvest because Sharpe knew that if the cane was not cut, most of the island’s crops would be ruined.

Since Christmas Day 1831 fell on Sunday, a rest day, Sharpe assumed that the workers were entitled to both Monday (Boxing Day) and the following Tuesday off. Sharpe and his followers vowed not to work until they were paid for that day’s work.  The strike soon spread to other parishes including St. James, Trelawny, and Westmoreland, and to some sections of St. Elizabeth Parish.

Sharpe’s strike did not go according to the initial plan of a passive but firm resistance.  On December 28 1831, when the British militia marched on the protesters, the Kensington Estate Great House was set on fire.  The rebellion lasted eight days and cost the lives of 186 slaves and 14 white overseers or planters.

Over 500 slaves were convicted of participating in the rebellion. Many were hanged and their heads were severed and placed around their plantations as a warning against future rebellions. Those who escaped the death penalty were treated brutally.

Sharpe was named the key figure of the rebellion. He surrendered to save Baptist Missionaries blamed for the revolt, and was eventually hanged in Montego Bay on May 23, 1832. Sharpe’s owners were paid £16.00 (about $20) for their “loss of property.”

Sharpe was buried like a criminal in the sands of Montego Bay Harbor, but his remains were later recovered and buried beneath the pulpit at the Burchell Baptist Church.

In 1975, independent Jamaica honored Sam Sharpe when the Teachers’ College founded in 1975 by the Ministry of Education was named in his honor. The square in Montego Bay where he was executed is now called Samuel Sharpe Square.