The Jamaican rebellion and the overthrow of slavery

IN OCTOBER 1736 A slave conspiracy was discovered on the Caribbean island of Antigua. This was an extensive plot that had the support of a large number of slaves, both African and Creole (Antiguan-born). The instigators were an African named Court and a Creole named Tomboy. Their intention was to blow up the governor and the planter elite at the annual coronation ball on 11 October. Tomboy, a highly skilled carpenter, had ready access to the ballroom. Gunpowder would be hidden in the cellar and when it was exploded a general uprising would begin. The whites would be destroyed and an African kingdom established. Unfortunately the ball was postponed until the end of the month. Tomboy urged that they should rise on the 11th regardless, but Court argued that they should wait and carry out the original plan. Court won the argument. While they waited, the plot was betrayed and the ringleaders were rounded up. For the planters the discovery was a terrifying shock. There were less than 3,000 whites on Antigua, living among over 24,000 black slaves. Moreover, the ringleaders were from among the most trusted slaves, artisans and plantation drivers. Aware of their vulnerability the planters responded to the conspiracy with incredible ferocity. Altogether 88 slaves were to be executed for their part in what the judges described as “that unparalleled hellish plot”: five were broken on the wheel, including both Court and Tomboy, 77 were slowly burned to death, and six were gibbeted (hung up in cages to die of thirst and starvation).1 One of the planters, Dr Walter Tullideph, wrote to his brother in London complaining that “we are in a great deal of trouble on this island: the burning of negroes, hanging them up in gibbets alive, racking them upon the wheel, etc takes up all our time”.2 All that put a stop to the slaughter was that the treasury ran out of funds with which to compensate the owners of the butchered slaves.

The punishments meted out in Antigua were not out of the ordinary at the time, although the numbers killed were somewhat excessive. In 1707 Hans Sloane had conveniently listed the punishments for a variety of offences. For rebellion, slaves were usually punished “by nailing them down to the ground…and then by applying fire by degrees from the feet and hands, burning them gradually up to the head, whereby their pains are extravagant”. For lesser crimes, castration or mutilation (“chopping off half the foot”) was the norm. And as for negligence, “they are usually whipt…after they are whipt till they are raw, some put on their skins pepper and salt to make them smart; at other times their masters will drip melted wax on their skins, and use very exquisite torture”.3 Such cruelty was intended as a deterrent, as a way of terrorising the slaves into submission. It was the only way that the heavily outnumbered whites could feel safe. Torturing rebels and suspected rebels to death was a wartime measure used in what was for the planters a permanent state of emergency. An 1811 manual on the management of slaves made the point that “where slavery is established, and the population of slaves outnumbers their masters ten to one, terror must operate to keep them in subjection, and terror can only be produced by occasional examples of severity”.4

From this point of view, the Antiguan conspiracy can be seen as one episode in what historian Hilary Beckles has described as a “200 Years War” between slave and slave-owner in the British Caribbean.5 It is with the concluding stages of this war that we are concerned here, culminating in the great slave revolt of December 1831 in Jamaica, “the Baptist War” that sounded the death-knell for slavery throughout the British Empire.

The sugar empire

The British Empire in the Caribbean was founded on the production of sugar on plantations worked by black slaves. It was part of the so-called “Triangular Trade”, whereby British manufactures were carried to Africa to buy slaves, who were then shipped to the Caribbean, where they produced sugar for export to Britain. The plantation system itself had first been established in Barbados. When sugar production was introduced in the 1640s, there were some 6,000 slaves at work. By 1680 the number of slaves had increased to 38,000 and by the end of the century to over 50,000. This economic model spread to Britain’s other Caribbean possessions, but in the course of the 18th century Jamaica emerged as the cornerstone of the system. By the 1790s Jamaica was producing more sugar than all the other British islands put together. In 1700 Jamaica exported 4,874 tons of sugar to Britain; by 1748 the figure had risen to 17,399, and by 1815 to 73,849 tons. The enterprise sucked in slave labour.

British participation in the Atlantic slave trade is arguably the worst crime in British history. Estimates of the numbers shipped to the Americas by all the slave-trading countries range from a low of 10 million people to up as many as 15 million. Whatever the figure for those shipped, some 2 million is a conservative estimate for those who died while making the voyage whether from illness, violence, starvation, suicide or whatever. Although it extended over four centuries, the trade was revolutionised by sugar production. Whereas 10,000 slaves were being shipped annually in the 1650s, by the 1710s the figure had risen to 40,000 annually and by the 1740s to over 60,000 annually, a figure sustained into the 1800s. Moreover, by the middle of the 18th century, Britain had come to dominate the trade. From 1690 until the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, Britain shipped, according to the available figures, 2,943,356 slaves. The actual figure is certainly over 3 million, but there will never be a final accounting.6

James Walvin has warned against a recent tendency to “sanitise” the slave trade by treating it as just another business.7 With the triumph of market ideology in the West, this tendency has increased. As eminent a historian as Herbert Klein, for example, can deprecate the portrayal of the slave trade in “popular literature” and insist as a corrective that while “violence and death were a significant factor…the overwhelming majority of slaves did reach America”. Moreover “despite the atmosphere of violence, the experience may not have been as psychologically damaging as some have claimed” [author’s emphasis]. Nevertheless, to be fair, Klein does acknowledge that it is “undesirable and a basic fact of the slave trade” that millions of Africans were shipped “to America against their will” and that this was not done “to better their lives”.8 Given Klein’s somewhat pathetic encounter with the slave trade, it is worth quoting Walvin’s rather more forceful judgement:

We need to recall that every African shipped across the Atlantic (and more than 11,000,000 Africans survived the ordeal) had been violated physically. They had been held in chains, often branded, kept for weeks on end in the most wretched seaborne conditions, and all under the nose of threatening weapons and crew…They were held subservient by white men, who reduced them to unimaginable levels of suffering, who threatened them with weaponry of the most fearsome kind and who appeared to bring inexplicable ailments and death to the slaves huddled in their own filth on the slave decks… The experience of the crossing was dominated by violence. Indeed, the whole system was violent in its very essence.

And, of course, for women slaves there was in addition, sexual harassment and rape.9

Slave resistance began immediately. According to John Newton, the captain of a slave ship who became an opponent of slavery, an abolitionist, it was always “taken for granted that they will attempt to gain their liberty if possible”. He wrote of how:

one unguarded hour or minute is sufficient to give the slaves an opportunity they are always waiting for. An attempt to rise upon the ship’s company brings an instantaneous and horrid war: for, when they are once in motion, they are desperate, and when they do not conquer, they are seldom quelled without much mischief and bloodshed on both sides.

It has been estimated that there was a revolt on a British slave ship every two years.10 To meet the challenge, weapons were always trained on the slaves and attempts to escape or rebel were punished with considerable ferocity.

For the modern reader, the Zong affair probably demonstrates the callous horror of the trade most graphically. The Liverpool-owned slave ship was carrying 470 slaves from West Africa to Jamaica in 1781. So that the owners could claim for the loss of sick slaves on their insurance, the captain, Luke Collingwood, decided to throw them overboard. On 29 November the first batch of 54 were drowned, the next day another 42, and on the third day another 26. Ten more slaves threw themselves overboard, effectively committing suicide in what must have been circumstances of complete despair. Collingwood ended up in court not to answer charges of mass murder, but as part of the insurance claim. At the trial, in May 1783, the Solicitor General, John Lee, went out of his way to insist that “the blacks were property” and that consequently no murder had taken place. This view was endorsed by Lord Mansfield, one of the presiding judges, who concluded “that the case of the slaves was the same as if horses had been thrown overboard”.11 While the number of Africans Collingwood and his crew murdered was high, the important point is that his attitude was unexceptional. The case attracted considerably less attention at the time than it does today.

What of the regime that the slaves found themselves living under once they had arrived in the West Indies? John Newton made an interesting comparison between slavery in West Africa and in the Caribbean:

The state of slavery among these wild barbarous people, as we esteem them, is much milder than in our colonies. For as, on the one hand, they have no land in high cultivation like our West Indian plantations, and therefore no call for that excessive unintermitted labour which exhausts our slaves; so, on the other hand, no man is permitted to draw blood even from a slave.12

What the slaves found in the Caribbean was “excessive unintermitted labour” which was absolutely dependent on the “drawing” of blood. Elsa Goveia provides an account of the plantation slaves’ working day towards the end of the 18th century. They would begin work at dawn and carry on until 9 when they would breakfast. After breakfast they would work until noon when they would have their midday meal. In the afternoon they continued working until about half an hour before sunset. Even once they had finished working in the fields, there were still other jobs to be done. She quotes John Luffman’s observations in Antigua in the 1780s:

The Negroes are turned out at sunrise and employed in gangs from 20 to 60, or upwards under the inspection of white overseers…subordinate to these overseers are drivers, commonly called dog-drivers, who are mostly black or mulatto fellows of the worst dispositions; and these men are furnished with whips, which, while on duty, they are obliged, on pain of severe punishment, to have with them, and are authorised to flog wherever they see the least relaxation from labour; nor is it a consideration with them, whether it proceeds from idleness or inability, paying at the same time little or no regard to age or sex.13

The whip was the mainstay of the plantation work regime. As one historian puts it, the planters “could only squeeze a respectable profit out of their slaves by literally beating it out of them”.14 According to the Baptist missionary William Knibb, “flogging on the estates is as common as eating almost”.15 There were, of course, often refinements and personal idiosyncrasies involved in the administration of punishment. The Jamaican planter Thomas Thistlewood, for example, in 1756 had a slave caught eating sugar cane “well flogged and pickled, then made Hector shit in his mouth”. This excremental punishment was used regularly enough on the estate to become known as “Derby’s dose”.16 A visitor to another Jamaican plantation in 1790 witnessed the master nailing a house slave to a post by her ear for breaking a plate. She pulled herself free and ran away during the night. When she was caught, “she was severely flogged”.17 On another occasion on St Nevis two slave boys received 100 lashes each for stealing a pair of stockings and their sister 30 lashes “for shedding tears when she saw them beaten”.18 While this routine cruelty was primarily instrumental, to ensure submission and generate profit, there is no doubt that the master-slave relationship provided an opportunity for sadists and rapists to satisfy their desires. Sometimes they went too far. In 1811 a planter, Arthur Hodge, was hanged for having tortured and murdered perhaps as many as 60 of his slaves—men, women and children—on Tortola in the Virgin Islands.19 The white community rallied to his support, outraged that one of their number could be executed for killing slaves. Troops had to be brought in and martial law declared to ensure that the sentence was carried out.20

Between 1700 and 1774 some 500,000 slaves were imported into Jamaica and yet the slave population only increased by 150,000. The reason was quite simple. The life expectancy of an African who survived the “Middle Passage” of the triangular trade was only some seven to ten years.21According to the planter and historian Edward Long, there was a 25 percent mortality rate for newly arrived slaves in the first 18 months of their Caribbean servitude.22 It has been estimated that “for every African who became acclimatised to plantation slavery in America, at least one other African lost his life through such operations of the slave trade as warfare, the Middle Passage, and the seasoning”.23 Such an appalling casualty rate required a specific ideological justification. The pursuit of profit over so many corpses had to be clothed in racism. The key figure in the construction of planter racism was the same Edward Long who had lived through the great slave revolt of 1760 in Jamaica. In 1774 Long published his “negrophobic” History of Jamaica in which he argued that the blacks were a different species from the whites, closer to the apes. Indeed, he argued that an orang-utan husband “would not be a dishonour to a Hottentot female”. Nevertheless, while the blacks were incapable of civilisation, if caught early enough, they could be taught to perform disciplined labour, although only “in a very bungling and slovenly manner, perhaps not better than an orang-utan might with a little pains be brought to do”. Even the body lice of a black and a white were different (as the historian Richard Sheridan observes, presumably a white man’s lice were superior). And, of course, unless kept constrained, the black was likely to resort to bestial savagery, to become monstrous.24

The other side of the oppression and exploitation of the slaves was, of course, slave resistance. This took many forms, ranging from a low level day-to-day resistance to labour discipline through to full-scale rebellion. As Emilia Viotta da Costa puts it, “Slaves and masters were engaged in permanent war—a cold war that took place every day in many forms, but from time to time burst into violent confrontation.” As she insists, the idea of rebellion was always “latent…in slave societies…not as a clear and well-shaped notion, but as a mere possibility: an aspiration to be free that circumstances could crystallize into a concrete plot”.25 This was certainly the case with Jamaica. Indeed, Orlando Patterson has argued that:

Few slave societies present a more impressive record of slave revolts than Jamaica. During more than 180 years of its existence as a slave society, hardly a decade went by without a serious, large-scale revolt threatening the entire system. Between these larger efforts were numerous minor skirmishes, endless plots, individual acts of violence against the master and other forms of resistance, all of which constantly pressed upon the white ruling class the fact that the system was a very precarious one, held together entirely by the exercise, or threat, of brute force.26

From the very beginning of their occupation of the island, the British faced a “Maroon” problem, the presence of armed runaway blacks establishing hidden communities outside white control, successfully resisting colonial military expeditions, and offering sanctuary to other runaways. The Maroons were a constant threat to the planters, both in themselves and in the example they offered. Having failed to destroy the Maroons after more than 70 years of warfare, in 1739 the British concluded treaties with both the Leeward and Windward communities. Subsequently the Jamaican Maroons became mercenaries, actively assisting the British in capturing runaway slaves and putting down slave revolts.27

The most serious 18th century slave revolt in Jamaica was Tacky’s revolt, which broke out on 7 April 1760. At its height this involved some 30,000 slaves and for a while had the planters terrified. The revolt was not finally suppressed until October 1761. The rebels’ purpose was, according to Edward Long, “the entire extinction of the white inhabitants…and the partition of the island into small principalities in the African mode”. This was a more serious threat than the Maroons had constituted. Indeed, the Maroons played an important part in its suppression, with the rebel leader, Tacky, himself shot dead by a Maroon sharpshooter. By the time the revolt had been finally crushed some 60 whites had been killed, over 400 rebels had been killed, another hundred had been executed, many of them tortured to death, and some 500 deported to Honduras. According to Bryan Edwards, it was “thought necessary to make a few terrible examples of some of the most guilty of the captives”. He describes how one prisoner was sat on the ground and “the fire was applied to his feet. He uttered not a groan, and saw his legs reduced to ashes with the utmost firmness and composure, after which, one of his arms by some means getting loose, he snatched a brand from the fire that was consuming him and flung it in the face of the executioner”. Another prisoner, suffering the same fate, warned his executioners that “multitudes” had sworn to destroy them, “who now lay still, that if they failed of success in this rebellion to rise up again on the same day in two years”. And indeed there were further outbreaks in 1765 and 1766 although not on the scale of Tacky’s revolt.28 The rebels deported to Honduras (today’s Belize) themselves contributed to the slave unrest in that colony.29

The years of revolution

The great slave revolt on the French colony of St Domingue, the richest of the sugar islands, is one of the greatest revolutions of modern history. It was not only the first successful slave revolt, but it also survived massive assaults from both the British and the French, and struck a mortal blow at the heart of Caribbean slavery. One can only endorse Robin Blackburn’s conclusion that “it is scarcely possible to exaggerate the impact of the Haitian Revolution on the fate of colonial slavery”.30

The revolt broke out in August 1791. The failure of the French to crush it sent a wave of fear and hope across the Caribbean. In Jamaica the governor, the Earl of Effingham, responded to news of the outbreak by calling out the militia, establishing committees of security in each parish and requesting troop reinforcements from Britain. The planters even agreed to “some minor ameliorations in the slave laws”.31 Jamaica, according to one historian, “was on the brink of its own slave revolt, and the threat was real”. In Kingston slaves were believed to be collecting weapons and were assembling to drink the health of “King Wilberforce” out of a cat’s skull.32 According to Adam Williamson, a future governor, Jamaican slaves were “very inquisitive and intelligent and are immediately informed of every kind of news that arrives”. They had already “composed songs of the Negroes having made a rebellion in Hispaniola” and he had “not a doubt but there are numbers who are ripe for any mischief ”. One correspondent warned that “the ideas of liberty have sunk so deep in the minds of all Negroes, that whenever the greatest precautions are not taken they will rise”.33 In the event, there was no Jamaican slave revolt in 1791: the whites were too well prepared.

For the government in London, the St Domingue revolt was an opportunity as well as a danger. Embroiled in war with the French Republic, the seizure of France’s Caribbean colonies proved an irresistible temptation. In September 1793 the first British troops landed in St Domingue, welcomed as saviours by the French planters. This was the beginning of what was to become a large-scale military commitment. Soon after, in December, the British occupied Trinidad and St Lucia, and the following year, 1794, they occupied Martinique in February and Guadeloupe in March. This conflict was transformed when the revolutionary authorities in St Domingue declared slavery abolished in August 1793 and the Convention in Paris abolished slavery throughout all French possessions in February 1794. The British now found themselves confronting slave resistance sponsored by the French that for a while threatened to overwhelm them. The Jacobin revolutionary Victor Hugues played a leading role in raising a revolt against the British in Guadaloupe, and in encouraging resistance in St Lucia, St Vincent and Grenada. He had driven the British from Guadaloupe by early December 1794 and now made use of the island as a base for the spreading of the revolutionary message. By 1795, in the words of the military historian J W Fortescue, “the greater part of the Negroes in the West Indies were now in open revolt”.34 In March 1795 a revolt led by Julien Fedon broke out in Grenada and came near to expelling the British from the island. Thousands of slaves rallied to the rebel cause. While many British colonial governors have executed rebels, Fedon can claim the distinction of executing a British governor, George Home.35 In June the British were forced to evacuate St Lucia. Even in Jamaica in July there was an outbreak of fighting with one of the island’s Maroon communities, the Trelawny Maroons. The conflict was instigated by the government, which felt their independence to be a threat during a period of revolution. It proved a hard-fought campaign with some 300 Maroons waging an effective guerrilla war. According to Fortescue, after a month of fighting the British “had lost more than 70 killed, including two field officers…whereas there was no assurance that a single one of the Maroons had ever been touched”.36 By March 1796 the Maroons had agreed to surrender on generous terms, only for the government to renege on the agreement and deport them to Nova Scotia. The British military commander, General George Walpole, publicly condemned the government’s treachery and refused any honours associated with the victory.37

The British responded to the setbacks of 1795 with the despatch of a massive expeditionary force of some 30,000 men. One of the most important British military campaigns of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars was to be the attempt to finally conquer the French colonies and to restore slavery. To assist in this, the decision had been taken the previous year to raise regiments of black slaves to help fight against their revolted brothers and sisters. Between 1795 and 1808 the British state bought 13,400 slaves at a cost of £925,000 to serve as soldiers. Ironically, the only way these slave soldiers could be trusted to fight for their new masters was if they were themselves promised freedom at the end of their service.38

In April 1796 St Lucia was retaken, but the British quickly found themselves fighting a protracted guerrilla war waged by black revolutionaries. As the British commander, General John Moore, observed, “Men after having been told they were free, after carrying arms, did not easily return to slavery.” Indeed, there were occasions when Moore feared that the island would once again be lost. This was not to be, but the last resistance was not finally extinguished until early 1798.39 Grenada and St Vincent were also successfully reduced. Decisive, however, was the campaign in St Domingue, and here the British confronted the revolutionary army led by the former slave Toussaint L’Ouverture. The outcome was a humiliating defeat with the British being forced to withdraw in early October 1798.40 The whole campaign in the Caribbean, from 1793 to 1798, cost the British over 55,000 casualties, dead, deserted or unfit for duty. It was one of the greatest disasters in British military history and consequently hardly figures in histories of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The only consolation the British had was that Napoleon was to repeat their mistake, making a similar attempt to reconquer St Domingue and restore slavery. The result was the establishment of the black Haitian Republic in January 1804.

One last point worth briefly considering is why throughout all this revolutionary turmoil, with the British suffering serious setbacks at the hands of black revolutionaries, there was no revolt in Jamaica. In 1800, in response to Toussaint’s takeover of power in St Domingue, slaves in Kingston were happily singing, “Black, White, Brown. All de same”. Nevertheless, this sentiment never took up arms. The most convincing explanation is that there were, throughout this period, too many troops on the island for revolt to be seriously contemplated. Any rising would have been drowned in blood.41 The Haitian Revolution still inspired hope, however. In January 1817 the seven-man slave crew of the schooner Deep Nine escaped to Haiti and claimed their freedom. The British demanded their return. The Haitian authorities returned the schooner, but the men remained free.42

The overthrow of slavery

The ending of the slave trade in 1807 and the resulting creolization of the slave population together with a supposed “amelioration” in slave conditions would, many planters hoped, eliminate slave unrest and weaken popular support for the abolitionists in Britain. This was not to be. Conspiracies and plots had continued throughout the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, for example, the 1801 Tobago and 1805 Trinidad conspiracies.43 What followed, however, was first to shake and then bring down the slave system. Three great revolts in Barbados in 1816, in Demerara in 1823 and in Jamaica in 1831 were to demonstrate that slavery was no longer viable in the British Caribbean. It could be ended peacefully or violently, but end it certainly would.

According to Hilary Beckles, slave resistance in Barbados in the 17th century had been characterised by “a small number of aborted rebellions, continuous attempts at marronage [running away], limited day-to-day socio-economic anti-planter acts, but no actual risings”. There were “aborted rebellions” in 1649, 1675 and 1692. Reprisals were always savage. The 1692 conspiracy was punished by 92 executions carried out with all the usual cruelty. During the 18th century, while marronage and day-to-day anti-planter acts remained a problem, there were no significant conspiracies. Beckles puts this down to Barbados having “the most developed internal military system in the English West Indies”. By the early years of the 19th century the planters were convinced that revolts were a thing of the past. There was a feeling that the slaves were becoming disrespectful and assertive but this was blamed on the pernicious influence of the abolitionist movement in Britain. On the eve of the revolt most planters “possessed an unshaken confidence in the strength and security of the regime”.44

On Easter Sunday 14 April 1816 the slaves rose up and “more than half the island was engulfed by the insurrection”. According to a senior British officer the slaves believed that “the island belonged to them and not to the white men whom they proposed to destroy”. In the event, the rising was suppressed within four days although mopping up operations continued into June. Perhaps as many as 1,000 slaves were killed, some in the fighting, more shot out of hand in immediate reprisal, and 144 executed after trial. Admiral Harvey complained that the militia “put many men, women and children to death, I fear without much discrimination”. One white man was killed, but 25 percent of the sugar cane was destroyed by fire. Even after the bloodletting a visitor to the island that June could still write that the slaves remained “sullen and sulky and seem to cherish feelings of deep revenge”. He concluded that “we hold the West Indies by a very precarious tenure—that of military strength only”.45

The outbreak in Barbados was followed soon after by another revolt in the recently acquired colony of Demerara. Demerara was one of three Dutch territories (the others were Berbice and Essequibo) seized in 1803 and which became British Guiana. According to Michael Craton, these territories had the dubious honour of possessing “the cruellest plantation regime in the hemisphere”. The missionary John Smith wrote that the whip was “used with an unsparing hand” and that the planters believed the slaves must “be ruled by terror”.46 The revolt began on the Success plantation, one of seven owned by John Gladstone, on 18 August 1823. It quickly spread to some 60 plantations and involved some 12,000 slaves. The rebels showed considerable restraint, imprisoning or driving off the whites, rather than killing them. They demanded freedom. The governor, Major General John Murray, had encountered a party of 40 rebels himself and promised them reforms. They told him:

These things were no comfort to them: God had made them of the same flesh and blood as the whites: they were tired of being slaves; their good King had sent orders that they should be free, and they would not work any more.47

While the slaves behaved with restraint, the whites (who were outnumbered in the colony by more than 30 to one) responded with predictable savagery. The revolt was put down by force, with over 200 rebels either killed in the fighting or shot out of hand, and a further 33 executed after a semblance of a trial. Ten slaves had their heads displayed on poles at the estates most heavily involved in the revolt.

As far as the planters were concerned, responsibility for the revolt rested with the abolitionist movement in general and with the London Missionary Society representative in the colony, the Reverend John Smith, in particular. His teaching of the story of Moses and the Exodus was regarded as particularly provocative. Smith was arrested and tried for his life with rebel prisoners being promised their own if they implicated him. He was sentenced to death with a recommendation of mercy, but was to die in prison while awaiting the royal reprieve. Smith, a consumptive, was held in the most appalling conditions for six months and his death was really murder by deliberate neglect. John Gladstone welcomed his death, “as his release would have been followed by much cavil and discussion” in Britain. He urged the government to despatch troop reinforcements to Demerara and to have “ships of war stationed or cruising around”. The slaves had to be kept “in due subjection and subordination” and it had to be made clear to them “that any renewed attempt will end in their own destruction”.48 The slaves, however, could not be reconciled to their servitude. Indeed, the following year (1824) the governor wrote to London that the “spirit of discontent is anything but extinct”, that “it is alive as it were under its ashes” and that the slaves were “still agitated, jealous and suspicious”.49 Ten years later, when the brutal conditions on John Gladstone’s Demerara plantations were criticised in the House of Commons, his son William, the future prime minister, sprang to his father’s defence. He made it clear that “he deprecated slavery; it was abhorrent to the nature of Englishmen; but conceding all these things, were not Englishmen to retain a right to their own honestly and legally acquired property?” This was William Gladstone’s maiden speech and it already displayed in full measure the hypocrisy that was to be one of the hallmarks of his long and distinguished career.50

The decisive episode in the overthrow of slavery in the British Caribbean was the great Jamaican revolt that began on 27 December 1831. It was the most serious slave revolt in British history, involving some 60,000 slaves, engulfing an area of up to 750 square miles, causing immense material damage, and costing many lives. Preparations for the rising had begun as early as April of that year, with the most privileged slaves on a number of estates, men with responsibility within the system, coming together to plan its overthrow. The conspiracy took shape in conditions of increasing hardship for the slave population, eventually embracing almost 100 estates. 1831 was a year of drought that seriously affected the slaves’ own rations. The planters were intensifying the labour regime and they were refusing to implement some of the reforms being advocated by the British government. Even though flogging was legally restricted to 39 lashes at any one time, this was generally ignored, and the Jamaican Assembly had refused to even consider London’s proposal to prohibit the flogging of women. Moreover, the decision was taken to cut the number of days holiday at Christmas from three to two. At the same time, the slaves were aware of the growing abolitionist movement in Britain. They were even more aware of the planters’ response to it. Planter threats of armed revolt and secession to join with the United States were common knowledge. There was even talk of a massacre of male slaves. One planter told a slave that “freedom was to come from England, but that he would shoot every d-d [damned] black rascal before they should get it”.51

The underground network that bound the conspiracy together was provided by the Baptist church. The official Baptist church was controlled by white missionaries, and although they were abolitionist in sympathy, perhaps mindful of the fate of John Smith in Demerara, they preached a message of patient obedience and resignation. Alongside and within their church, however, there was the Native Baptist church, with its own black leadership, that preached a very different message. The leader of the conspiracy, Samuel Sharpe, was the chief deacon at the colony’s most important Baptist chapel, Thomas Burchell’s Montego Bay Baptist Chapel. He was also a native Baptist preacher. Sharpe, according to the white missionary Henry Bleby, was “the man whose active brain devised the project and he had sufficient authority with those around him to carry it into effect, having acquired an extraordinary degree of influence among his fellow slaves”. He was “certainly the most intelligent and remarkable slave I ever met”, Bleby later recalled, a man “possessed of intellectual and oratorical powers above the common order”. Sharpe used his position as a privileged slave to spread the conspiracy, recruiting new adherents, preaching liberation and preparing for the coming day. At the end of prayer meetings on the plantations, selected individuals believed to be sympathetic would be invited to stay behind after the service, and either Sharpe himself or other leaders would attempt to win them over. One of those recruited in this way, Edward Hylton, later told Bleby that Sharpe had:

Referred to the manifold evils and injustices of slavery; asserted the natural equality of man with regard to freedom; and referring to the Holy Scriptures as his authority, denied that the white man had any more right to hold the blacks in bondage than the black had to enslave the whites…

Once they were won over, the new recruits swore on the Bible not to return to work after Christmas except as free men and women.52 Christianity had become a “revolutionary ideology”, “a positive justification for action”, that steeled them for the struggle ahead. Among the biblical texts that spoke to their aspirations was John viii: 36: “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed”.53

What Sharpe and his fellow conspirators intended was a general strike that would continue until slavery was ended and the masters had agreed to a wage of 2d 6p (12.5p) a day. They had organised an “army” a few hundred strong to protect themselves, but there were no plans for revolutionary or guerrilla war. The signal for the strike to begin was the firing of the sugar trash on the Kensington estate on the evening of 27 December. Once this was lit, the trash was fired on estate after estate, as the slaves made their stand. The strike was almost immediately transformed into a rebellion, although the mechanism whereby this occurred is not altogether clear. Certainly, as far as the planters were concerned the strike was itself a rebellion to be put down by force, but there was also a widespread recognition on the part of the slaves that more militant action was necessary. With hardly any arms, there was no way that they could hope to defeat the military, so instead they struck at their oppressors by firing the plantations. According to one rebel, they would burn “the Blasted Estates and do away with all the sugarworks; it was them that kept them from getting freedom”. A woman incendiary proclaimed, “I know I shall die for it, but my children shall be free.” She was shot by the militia.54 The burning of the estates dealt the planters a crippling blow with losses estimated at £1,154,590.

The revolt was effectively crushed by the end of the first week of January 1832, but the hunting down of fugitive rebels continued for weeks afterwards. Maroon mercenaries inevitably played their part in this mopping up exercise.55 By the time the rebellion was officially over, the authorities claimed that 201 slaves had been killed. This number is much too low, as a number of districts never sent in returns. A figure of around 400 killed seems much more likely.56 Many of them were shot out of hand. This was followed by a judicial massacre, which saw another 326 rebels executed after trials that were little more than a mockery. In addition to this, a number of the prisoners sentenced to be flogged also died, flogged to death, but were not listed as executed. Fourteen whites were killed in the revolt. Many slaves went to their deaths defiantly. Patrick Ellis told his firing squad to “fire for I will never again be a slave”. Similarly, Samuel Sharpe, shortly before his execution, told Henry Bleby that he “would rather die on yonder gallows than live in slavery”.57 He was hanged on 23 May 1832, the last rebel to be executed. That same day a white Jamaican wrote that the slave “now knows his strength and will assert his claim to freedom. Even at this moment, unawed by the late failure, he discusses the question with a fixed determination”.58 Let us leave the last word on the revolt to the missionary Henry Bleby:

The result failed of accomplishing the immediate purpose of its author, yet by it, a further wound was dealt to slavery which accelerated its destruction for it demonstrated to the imperial legislature that among the Negroes themselves the spirit of freedom had been so widely diffused as to render it most perilous to postpone the settlement of the most important question of emancipation to a later period…if the abolition of slavery were not speedily effected by the peaceable method of legislative enactment, the slaves would assuredly take the matter into their own hands, and bring their bondage to a violent and bloody termination.59


Many planters blamed the white missionaries for the revolt that had left their estates smoking ruins. In the aftermath they responded by burning or pulling down nearly 20 chapels and arresting the missionaries who were manhandled and threatened. Henry Bleby was tarred and feathered and told he was to be burned alive, William Knibb was roughed up, insulted and prodded with a bayonet, and an attempt was made to frame Thomas Burchell by procuring perjured evidence of his involvement in the revolt. While these men had opposed the revolt, they now saw their chapels destroyed, had themselves been threatened, and had seen members of their congregation killed, as far as they were concerned, for their faith. The missionaries, in particular William Knibb, who was to become popularly known as “Knibb the Notorious”, carried word of what had been done in Jamaica back to Britain. The abolitionist movement provided a mass audience.

What was the relationship between slave revolt, the abolitionist movement and the overthrow of slavery? While the contention here is that slave revolt was the decisive factor, the importance of popular abolitionism should not be underestimated. Although usually personified in William Wilberforce, the abolitionist movement was, in fact, rooted among artisans particularly in the north and inspired by the ideas of the non-conformist church. It was a cross-class movement, but at the same time part of the popular working class radicalism of the day. Between 1830 and 1832 abolitionism became a mass movement. People “flocked” to the cause, and as James Walvin points out, “the extent and depth of anti-slavery feeling is difficult to overstress”.60 Public and private meetings were held (William Knibb toured the country on one occasion making the point that if Samuel Sharpe had been a Polish patriot fighting the Russian Tsar he would be celebrated as a hero), a huge amount of anti-slavery literature was sold, and mass petitions were organised. In 1833 Henry Whitely’s Three Months in Jamaica in 1832 sold 200,000 copies in two weeks. That same year 5,020 petitions, signed by 1,309,931 people, were submitted to parliament. This was a powerful movement at a time when the British political system was coming under tremendous popular assault culminating in the 1832 Reform Act. There were also radicals opposed to abolition, most notably William Cobbett, who combined democratic principles with a vicious racism—he had urged the French to hang Toussaint L’Ouverture and proclaimed slavery the African’s fate. Even Cobbett, however, when standing for parliament in 1832 had to promise to support the abolition of slavery. This is a powerful testimony to the potency of the movement. Moreover, this explosion of support for abolition came at a time when the Caribbean plantocracy’s position was weakening. The transformation of Britain into an industrial economy and society established the ideology of free labour with both the employing and the working class. The social, economic and political weight of this constituency was increasing, while that of the so-called West Indian interest, the plantocracy, was weakening. Indeed, the 1832 Reform Act dealt it a massive blow. Nevertheless, as Seymour Drescher has argued, just as it took the threat of revolution to secure the passage of Catholic Emancipation in 1829 and the threat of revolution to secure the passage of the 1832 Reform Act itself, so it took the threat of revolution in the Caribbean to secure the abolition of slavery.61

The threat was taken extremely seriously. It was assumed, certainly correctly, that failure to abolish slavery would inevitably result in further revolts. Indeed, they were thought imminent. On 7 July 1832 Lord Howick, under-secretary for the colonies and the son of the prime minister, Lord Grey, wrote to the new governor of Jamaica that his information was that:

The slaves are not being in the least intimidated or cowed by the dreadfully severe punishments which have been inflicted, but on the contrary as being quite careless of their lives, and as regarding death as infinitely preferable to slavery, while they are exasperated to the highest degree and burning for revenge for the fate of their friends and relations…it is quite clear that the present state of things cannot go on much longer, and that every hour that it does so is full of the most appalling danger…my own conviction is that emancipation alone will effectively avert the danger, and that the reformed parliament will very speedily come to that measure, but in the meantime it is but too possible that the simultaneous murder of the whites upon every estate which Mr Knibb apprehends may take place.

In his journal, he wrote, “I would not be surprised any time to hear that Jamaica is in the possession of the negroes”.62

The Jamaican revolt had finally made it clear that slavery was no longer a viable system of exploitation in the British Caribbean. Fear of further outbreaks made the passage of the Emancipation Act a matter of urgency and the legislation was carried through both Commons and Lords by large majorities in the summer of 1833. Slavery was formally abolished on 1 August 1834 with some 750,000 men, women and children set free. Their freedom came very much on the planters’ terms, however. They received £20 million in compensation for their lost property, an astonishing sum at the time, and over £2.2 billion in today’s money. John Gladstone, for example, received £85,600 for his 2,183 slaves. The slaves, of course, received no compensation. On top of that, slavery was replaced by what one historian has described as “unfreedom”, an apprenticeship system whereby ex-slaves continued to be compulsorily bound by law to work for their former owners for over 40 hours a week without pay. The apprenticeship was to last for four years for domestic slaves and artisans and six years for agricultural slaves. Apprenticeships met with immediate opposition. In St Kitts there was a general strike that had to be put down by troops.63 Elsewhere, in Dominica, Trinidad and Jamaica, there were more limited strikes. The apprenticeship scheme became the source of continual conflict.64 How tense the situation had become was shown when a rumour circulated that Knibb had been murdered by the planters. Hundreds of armed blacks assembled to take revenge, only dispersing when assured that it was untrue.65 Apprenticeship was eventually abolished for all ex-slaves after only four years on 1 August 1838. Freedom at last!

Morant Bay, 1865

Freedom did not end exploitation and oppression. Even with the abolition of slavery, political and economic power remained in the hands of the white plantocracy. Moreover, there were continual rumours that the colony was going to secede to the United States and later the Confederacy of the Southern States as a first step in the restoration of slavery. Economic, social and political grievances came to a head on 11 October 1865 in Morant Bay with clashes between the militia and protesters led by Paul Bogle. The governor of Jamaica, Edward Eyre, responded with overwhelming force and incredible brutality. As far as he was concerned, one moment’s hesitation “might have lit the torch which would have blazed in rebellion from one end of the island to the other”. If unchecked, he feared the revolt might spread throughout the Caribbean.66 Troops were sent into the disturbed areas where they imposed a reign of terror. There were hundreds of executions, over 600 prisoners were flogged, including pregnant women, and a thousand houses were burned down. Twenty nine whites were killed in the outbreak and between 500 and 1,500 blacks. Officially, 353 people were executed after court martial and some of these were used as target practice by the troops. In case the reader should think this an exaggeration, we have the testimony of Captain Spencer Field, that after being sentenced to death Arthur Wellington was tied to a tree while soldiers using the Enfield rifle fired at him from a distance of 400 yards. The provost sergeant acted as a marker and signalled that the seventh shot had “passed through the rebel’s throat, the ninth or tenth shot entered his heart or thereabouts”.67 Bogle himself was hanged on 25 October. The Assembly member for Morant Bay, George William Gordon, was in Kingston throughout the outbreak and had no involvement in it whatsoever. He was, however, a champion of the poor and a vocal critic of Governor Eyre. He was arrested and taken to Morant Bay where he could be tried by court martial and hanged without the inconvenience of a jury hearing the evidence or rather lack of it. This was a barely disguised political murder.

The scale of Eyre’s repression provoked outrage in Britain. A Royal Commission investigated his conduct, and while it praised his speedy response to the outbreak, nevertheless condemned the use of capital punishment as excessive, the floggings as “reckless” and the house burning as cruel.68Eyre was dismissed and returned to England. He arrived at Southampton on 12 August 1866 to find a group of respectable, wealthy supporters, many of them titled, proposing to hold a dinner in his honour. While the mayor welcomed Eyre and his supporters on 21 August, working class protesters gathered outside. They condemned the “Banquet of Death”, assaulted the guests and stopped and searched their coaches, looking for Eyre so they could lynch him. Elsewhere a protest meeting, “the largest working-class meeting that the city of Southampton had ever known”, passed resolutions condemning him and the disgrace his welcome had brought on the city.69 A Jamaica Committee was established in London to demand that Eyre be prosecuted, and a rival Eyre Defence Committee to celebrate his heroism. There was a fierce controversy with Eyre’s supporters arguing a viciously racist defence. They did not deny the murderous brutality of his martial law regime but championed such methods as the only way to keep the blacks down. Middle class and working class radicals fought back to good effect, but no prosecution took place. This campaign was part of the radical upsurge that was to culminate in the 1867 Reform Act.

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