1831 Emancipation Rebellion (aka Christmas Rebellion)
The English settlers concerned themselves with growing crops that could easily be sold in England. Tobacco, indigo and cocoa soon gave way to sugar which became the main crop for the island. The sugar industry grew so rapidly that the 57 sugar estates in the island in 1673 grew to nearly 430 by 1739.
Enslaved Africans filled the large labor force required for the industry. The colonists were impressed with the performance and endurance of the Africans, as well as the fact that African labour was cheaper and more promising. They continued to ship Africans to the West Indies to be sold to planters who forced them to work on sugar plantations.
The slave trade became a popular and profitable venture for the colonists. In fact the transportation of slaves became such a regular affair that the journey from Africa to the West Indies became known as the ‘Middle Passage’. The voyage was so named because the journey of a British slaver was 3-sided, starting from England with trade goods, to Africa where these were exchanged for slaves. Afterwards, the journey continued to the West Indies where the slaves were landed and sugar, rum and molasses taken aboard for the final leg of the journey back to England.
On 26 March 1808 the Duke of Manchester arrived in Jamaica as Governor. His administration continued for 19 years. The most prominent occurrence in Lord Manchester's administration was the beginning of the controversy between the British Parliament and the Jamaica Assembly on the subject of the Slave Code. In 1823 the Assembly was called upon to give effect to Mr. Canning's resolutions for the adoption of measures to ameliorate the condition of the slaves. The Assembly refused to entertain the recommendations of the resolutions, repudiating the right of the Imperial Parliament to interfere in the internal affairs of the Island.
In 1827 Sir John Keane became Lieutenant Governor, and he was succeeded in 1829 by the Earl of Belmore, who repeated the demand of the British Parliament for the amendment of the Slave Code. Some acts in this direction were passed, but on the British Government subsequently making proposals for the further amelioration of the Slaves, the Jamaica Assembly offered a strenuous if not violent resistance, the House ultimately declining to consider any measures not emanating from themselves. So intense indeed was the hostility of a majority of the Assembly and of the slave-owners to the Imperial Parliament, that they threatened to " transfer their allegiance to the United States, or even to assert their independence after the manner of their Continental neighbours." The excitement produced by these proceedings soon extended to the slave population.
If a memory of Africa was preserved in religious experience, the dream of freedom was also often expressed by religious leaders in religious language. The black people of Jamaica never accepted their fate as slaves. It is said that between the 17th and 19th centuries not a year passed without a slave rebellion or the threat of one. During the first eighty years of British rule, escaped slaves called (“the fierce ones") formed selfsupporting enclaves in the hill country and fought a series of wars against their white rulers. In 1760 a thousand slaves were inspired to insurrection by an “obeah” man named Tacky. Two Native Baptist preachers, Sam Sharpe and Paul Bogle, preaching equality before God for the black man, led rebellions in 1831 and 1865 respectively.
Samuel Sharpe was the main instigator of the 1831 Slave Rebellion, which began on the Kensington Estate in St. James and which was largely instrumental in bringing about the abolition of slavery. Because of his intelligence and leadership qualities, Sam Sharpe became a “daddy”, or leader of the native Baptists in Montego Bay. Religious meetings were the only permissible forms of organised activities for the slaves. Sam Sharpe was able to communicate his concern and encourage political thought, concerning events in England which affected the slaves and Jamaica.
Sam evolved a plan of passive resistance in 1831, by which the slaves would refuse to work on Christmas Day of 1831 and afterwards, unless their grievances concerning better treatment and the consideration of freedom, were accepted by the state owners and managers. Sam explained his plan to his chosen supporters after his religious meetings and made them kiss the Bible to show their loyalty. They, in turn took the plan to the other parishes until the idea had spread throughout St. James, Trelawny, Westmoreland, and even St. Elizabeth and Manchester. Word of the plan reached the ears of some of the planters. Troops were sent into St. James and warships were anchored in Montego Bay and Black River, with their guns trained on the towns.
On Dec. 27, 1831, the enslaved Africans in western Jamaica confirmed that slavery is a very violent system of domination and the possibility of its abolition obligates its victim to use the violence of armed, collective self-defense destroy economic oppression and racist dehumanization. This necessary response to ridding the world of slavery is similar to the revolutionary psychiatrist and theorist of Third World revolution Frantz Fanon’s position on how to eliminate colonialism.
Fanon asserts in his book The Wretched of the Earth that: "In its bare reality, decolonization (the quest for an end to slavery) reeks of red-hot cannonball and bloody knives. For the last can only be the first after a murderous and decisive confrontation between the two protagonists (the enslaved and the enslavers). This determination to have the last move up to the front, to have them clamber up (too quickly, say some) to the organized echelons of an organized society, can only succeed by resorting to every means, including, of course, violence."
These enslaved African workers, under the leadership of the enslaved Native Baptist preacher Sam Sharpe, made the decision to carry out a general strike, if they did not get a wage for their labor power after Dec. 25, 1831. Edward Hylton, a close associate of Sharpe shares his recollection of their stance and behavior at a strategy session that doubled-up as a prayer meeting, “If backra would pay them, they would work as before. If any attempt was made to force them to work as slaves, they would fight for their freedom. They took the oath and kissed the Bible.”
The literate Sharp articulated the demand of his comrades and the broader enslaved thus: “We have worked enough already, and will work no more; the life we live is too bad, it is the life of a dog, we won’t be slaves no more, we won’t lift hoe no more, we won’t take flogging anymore." The use of the general strike or the total withdrawal of labor from the capitalist production process holds a central place in the outlook of anarchist syndicalists and communists and state socialists or communists.
These enslaved African workers were committed to putting into practice this major weapon in the class struggle between the workers and the bourgeoisie or capitalists – deny them access to the labor power of the laboring classes. However, these enslaved Africans knew that denying their labor to the capitalist plantocracy through the general strike might call for the use of violence to defend their inalienable right to control their labor power.
These Africans figured out long before the Italian anarchist Errico Malatesta admonished the anarcho-syndicalists that the general strike was not a substitute for the armed insurrection. Malatesta believes that the “soldiers, policemen and even the bourgeoisie themselves” will come out in armed retaliation against the workers, “and then the question will have to be resolved by bullets and bombs. It will be the insurrection, and victory will go to the strongest.”
On December 27,1831, the Kensington Estate Great House was set on fire, as a signal that the Slave Rebellion had begun. A series of other fires broke out in the area and soon it was clear that the plan of non-violent resistance, which Sam Sharpe had originated, was impossible and impractical. Armed rebellion and seizing of property spread mostly through the western parishes, but the uprising was put down by the first week in January.
The white enslavers and their militia and the armed might of British imperialism answered the just demand of the general strikers for immediate emancipation and payment for their labor power with brute force. The aggressive response of the enslavers and British imperialism gave birth to the largest rebellion of the enslaved in Jamaica – the Emancipation Rebellion (aka the Christmas Rebellion) that involved 20,000 to 60,000 rebels.
As a testament to the humanity of the enslaved Afrikans and in spite of the brutality and inhumanity of slavery about twelve whites were killed, largely combatants or those who violently resisted. The Insurgents were selective of the plantations that were targeted for destruction. The rebels destroyed many estates and the estimated value of these damaged properties came in at £1,112,318.
The colonial state claimed that only 204 enslaved Africans were killed during the rebellion. But doubt has been cast on that figure because the militia engaged in a lot of revenge killings. The planters as members of the militia showed no mercy toward apprehended suspects. Six hundred and twenty-six Africans were brought before the judicial authority and the state executed three hundred and twelve defendants. Many defendants were “judicially” murdered for relatively trivial offenses. Sam Sharpe was murdered by the state on May 23, 1832. This date should be publicly commemorated throughout the former British colonies. Sharpe defiantly went to the gallows and proclaimed that he “would rather die upon yonder gallows than live in slavery.” The rebellion was brutally suppressed and the Methodist missionary Henry Bleby passed judgment on the severity of white victor’s justice in his book Death Struggles of Slavery: Being a Narrative of Facts and Incidents, Which Occurred in a British Colony, During the Two Years Immediately Preceding Negro Emancipation: "Had the masters when they got the upper hand been as forbearing, as tender of their slaves' lives as their slaves had been of theirs it would have been to their lasting honour, and to the permanent advantage of the colony".
British colonialism took the month of January to completely put down the rebellion, although it was effectively over after eight to ten days. A terrible retribution followed. While 14 whites [some accounts relate "fewer than 20 whites"] died during the Rebellion, more than 500 slaves lost their lives – most of them as a result of the trials after [other accounts relae that "nearly 600 slaves were executed in its aftermath"]. Samuel Sharpe was hanged on May 23, 1832. In 1834 the Abolition Bill, was passed by the British Parliament and in 1838, slavery was abolished.
Sharpe said: “I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live in slavery”.
On March 31, 1982 the Right Excellent Sam Sharpe was conferred the Order of the National Hero as per Government Notice 23 Jamaica Gazette along with Nanny of the Maroons.
The scope of the uprising and the level of damage to property impressed upon the minds of many planters and as well as the British authority that slavery’s days were numbered in Jamaica. British pragmatism won the day because it realized that emancipation-from-above was better for maintaining colonialism than the example of the Haitian Revolution’s emancipation-from-below. Reckford accurately captures the practical thinking of British imperialism when she states that “The slaves had demonstrated to some at least of those in authority that it could prove more dangerous and expensive to maintain the old system than to abolish it.”
On May 24, 1832, the British Parliament appointed the members of the Select Committee on the Extinction of Slavery Throughout The British Dominions to recommend the best way to end slavery. An act to abolish slavery was passed in August 1833 to take effective on August 1, 1834, albeit with a six-year apprenticeship period before full freedom.
Notwithstanding the appearance of the British granting freedom to enslaved African workers, those rebels in Jamaica were the authors of the emancipation process. The rebels nurtured and watered the tree of liberty with their blood, sweat and desire for self-determination. The heirs of the Emancipation Rebellion, the contemporary Afrikan working class in Jamaica, should draw lessons and inspiration from the collective struggle that was used to put an end to chattel slavery.
British imperialism compensated the planters for losing their capital or property in enslaved Africans with the abolition of slavery. Africans were not compensated for their centuries of unpaid labor. They left slavery empty-handed and entered the wage-slavery of capitalism with little to no economic and political bargaining power in their relations with their capitalist bosses and the colonial structure.
In fact, the colonial order used all available means to limit the economic autonomy of the newly freed Africans. According to University of the West Indies lecturer Clinton Hutton in his book "Colour for Colour, Skin for Skin: Marching with the Ancestral Spirits into War Oh at Morant Bay", the colonial administrators and planters used various means to deny the emancipated African-Jamaicans access to unoccupied Crown lands, secured land tenure arrangements as well as unfettered use of economic associations to facilitate economic development.
Following Emancipation in 1834, black Jamaicans struggled against the harsh realities of being a colony of Britain and their dissent grew louder in the 1930s.
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