The Christmas Rebellion: Why It Still Matters Today
Resistance to enslavement and rebellion have long been central themes in Jamaican history. This January marks 185 years since the end of the Christmas rebellion, a pivotal event in our nation’s history. The 1831 Christmas Rebellion, also called the Baptist War or Sam Sharpe’s Rebellion, was a nine day confrontation between the enslaved black population of Western Jamaica and white colonialist powers, as well as a turning point in the development of Jamaican society.
As denoted by one of the alternate names of the conflict, the rebellion was led by Samuel Sharpe. Long before he was declared a national hero, Sam Sharpe was enslaved on the Croydon estate in St. James. He was a member of the Baptist church and was only about 27 years old at the time of the rebellion. Sam Sharpe’s literacy enabled him to become a church leader as well as leader amongst the enslaved Africans in St. James. Sam Sharpe’s religious faith led him to the beliefs that no person should be a slave to another man and that the enslaved people were to liberate themselves in a non-violent way; the latter was very idealistic. With this in mind he organised a general strike. He proclaimed to the masses:
Sharpe knew that the estates could not make a profit without their labour and so he told his followers that after Christmas Day that year, they should not work until they were free and received compensation for their labour.
What Sharpe had originally planned as a strike quickly turned into a violent rebellion, but this was inevitable as the enslaved Africans had recognised that the path to liberation was inherently violent. The enslaved Africans set fire to the Croydon estate. As news of the fire spread from one estate to the next, other groups of enslaved Africans quickly made use of this momentum and began to burn down more estates and engaged in combat with the white men and soldiers who opposed them. The enslaved people were tactical in their revolt; they set up roadblocks and destroyed bridges to delay the white soldiers and dug trenches to be used as traps. The rebellion went on for nine days and in this time enslaved people from five parishes -- St. James, Trelawny, Hanover, Westmoreland and St. Elizabeth -- fought against their oppressors and managed to obliterate property worth over £1.1 million at the time, around 8 billion JMD in today’s currency.
Two hundred and seven enslaved persons were killed in the uprising, compared to fourteen white belligerents. This heavily imbalanced death toll is the outcome of the way in which the white belligerents went about suppressing the rebellion. Whereas the enslaved people focused more on destroying property and maintaining their strike, white combatants were brutal and shot any Black person on sight. An observer account reports “A man who was going to work with a hoe on his shoulder was shot through the head, and fell dead on the spot.” The same report also comments that the white soldiers were so disorderly it was miraculous that they had not shot themselves. Free mixed people, upon seeing this white violence reluctantly allied themselves with the enslaved rebels for they were more concerned with self-preservation than the actual aims of the rebellion.
In assessing the rebellion’s relevance today it is beneficial to note that it began and was concentrated in Western Jamaica, a region which today has a large cluster of constituencies with meagre voter turnouts and marginal election results. For example, in the February 2016 general election, in the constituency St. James Southern there was only a difference of 72 votes between votes casted for the PNP candidate and JLP candidate, a margin which represents less than 0.5% of votes casted in the constituency. Similarly, in Hanover Eastern JLP candidate Dave Hume-Brown was elected with a lead which amounted to less than 3% of votes casted. The average voter turnout in constituencies in St. James was below 45%, and the average in constituencies in Westmoreland was below 41%.
Jamaican elections have come to reflect the negative aspects of Liberal Democracy. Our analysis of elections within Liberal Democracy is that they are treated as competitions instead of mechanisms for popular representation. These trends, narrow margins of victory and low voter turnout, reflect the apathetic attitude of the electorate regarding this ‘democratic’ exercise and in the parties themselves. The Christmas rebellion exemplifies how political participation which brings about meaningful change is not required to take place through the ballot box. The rebellion demonstrated to the planter class and colonialists that enslaved Africans would revolt if slavery was not abolished, and like the Maroons and the Haitians, liberate themselves. Likewise, Malcolm X stated that if Black people in the US could not seek liberation by conventional means, they would have no other choice but to take up the bullet.
It took the entire month of January 1832 for colonial forces to completely quell the rebellion and by then the colonialists were left with no choice but to abolish slavery, however, emancipation was far from idyllic. The manner in which it took place was akin to an easing of conditions which actually prolonged the struggle of the enslaved Africans. Emancipation did not give them immediate liberation as it took years to go into full effect, after a period of “apprenticeship” in which the black Africans were to learn the responsibilities of the wage worker. The plantocracy held no opposition to apprenticeship, having realised it was cheaper for them to pay the formerly enslaved Africans apprenticeship wages than it was to feed and house them under slavery. After considerable opposition apprenticeship was abolished in 1838, most black Jamaican labourers turned to peasantry — owning their own land and working for themselves. The Christmas rebellion was a vital element not only in the progression of Jamaican society, but the progression of the wider Anglophone Caribbean. The rebellion also serves as a significant example of how activities outside of elections may invoke relevant political change. Emancipation was not realised in a perfect linear progression; very few things, if any, are achieved in this manner. Without the Christmas rebellion the enslaved Africans would have certainly suffered much longer under the totalitarian institution of slavery.
- Samuel Sharpe: A Forerunner of Modern Day Labour Movements
- Apprenticeship: Slavery by another name
- Understanding Slavery: Resistance and Rebellion
- Understanding Slavery: Bussa and Christmas Rebellions
- Christmas Rebellion Pushed Emancipation
- Jamaica General Election 2016 Results
- Malcolm X: The Ballot or the Bullet