King's College London
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‘The paradise of the world’: conflict and society in the Caribbean

Uprising in Jamaica

The rebel chief, Gardiner, hiding in a tree from two soldiersThe rebel chief, Gardiner, from: Bernard Martin Senior. Jamaica as it was, as it is, and as it may be. London: T Hurst; Edinburgh: Grant and Son, 1835 [FCDO Historical Collection F1871 SEN]The tide of British public opinion began to turn against the Atlantic slave trade in the late eighteenth century. New ideas of the universal brotherhood and equality of man, emanating from Enlightenment France, combined with the growing influence of evangelical and nonconformist Christians.

While Christian ideals and altruism drove the abolitionists, there were also sound economic reasons for their eventual success. The slave trade was losing its value to Britain, whose Caribbean sugar plantations had become less productive through overworking of the soil; many British plantation owners saw that the slave trade was now simply playing into the hands of the French, by supplying their more fertile Caribbean island plantations with a supply of labour.

Powerful vested interests were at stake, however, and it was only at the fourteenth attempt, in 1807, that William Wilberforce’s Abolition Bill was passed in Parliament, making participation in the slave trade illegal for British subjects.

Participation in the slave trade might now be illegal, but slavery itself was prohibited only on British soil and remained the social and economic cornerstone of Britain’s Caribbean colonies. It would not be until July 1833, three days before the death of Wilberforce (1759-1833), that slavery itself would be abolished in Britain’s Caribbean possessions, paving the way for the emancipation of existing slaves.

By 1831, however, the movement towards emancipation was gathering pace and on Christmas Day some 50,000 Jamaican slaves rose up in revolt, led by Samuel Sharpe (1801-32), a slave and Baptist deacon. The revolt was initially largely peaceful; planters were compelled to leave their estates, but only three white Jamaicans were killed. Martial law was instituted and a general pardon was issued by Sir Willoughby Cotton, the commander of the military forces, to all rebels other than the leaders of the revolt, if they gave themselves up. Fierce fighting then ensued and some 400 slaves were killed in ten days, before the revolt was crushed.

Official reprisals were harsh; Sharpe and around 100 others were hanged and a number of non conformist missionaries, whose teachings were blamed by the Jamaican authorities for inspiring the revolt, were arrested. Unofficial reprisals – assaults on missionaries and the destruction of chapels – were also widespread. The frontispiece of this contemporary account of the revolt shows one of the rebel leaders, Gardiner, hiding in a tree, shortly before his surrender to government troops.

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