The Baptist War began December 27, 1831, in St. James, Jamaica. While lasting under two weeks, the revolt rallied a large number slaves up to 60,000. It contributed to both the abolition of slavery in Jamaica and fears of uprisings in the U.S. and elsewhere.
At this time, leaders among slaves were and the Black populace at large in Jamaica received education from missionaries who mixed religion with reading and writing lessons. This allowed for some Black people to follow the latest news of abolitionists in England and throughout the Caribbean.
Also contributing to the roots of the Baptist War was the role of Black preachers among the Black populace and how they delivered Bible. One leader of this community was the preacher Samuel Sharpe. In the same way that the Bible was interpreted differently given the audience so was the news of emancipation. As in other revolts, it was often interpreted as “This is happening very soon.”
When a missionary returned from England in late December, the Black Baptist community in St. James waited for word that they were free. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the case. As a result, anger began to boil over.
THE BAPTIST WAR
Samuel Sharpe rallied Black people in the town and made demands of a working wage and some liberties. To squeeze these demands out, they went on strike. This was the peaceful option that Sharpe hoped would work. Soon enough violence did break out with fourteen White people being killed. The Jamaican government sent out Willoughby Cotton-led forces to quash the rebellion. As a result, 207 of the roughly 60,000 rebels were killed.
Afterward, trials saw 300-plus slaves executed for their part in the rebellion—including Samuel Sharpe. With the Black religious community being the origin of the revolt, anywhere that was the base of Black congregations were destroyed. Slavery would be declared over in Jamaica by 1838.
REMEMBERING THE REVOLT
For his part in the rebellion, Samuel Sharpe was declared a National Hero of Jamaica in 1975 and his likeness is on the front of the $50 bill.