On this date in 1832, Jamaican national hero Samuel Sharpe died upon the gallows for instigating the slave revolt that would (help to) end slavery.
That time of year was less than festive for Jamaica’s enormous slave population, for Saint Nick opened the short window for harvesting the island’s sugar cane.
Samuel Sharpe and collaborators had the wit to realize that being depended upon to bring in the cash crop that made life comfortable for their owners put the slaves’ hands upon a potent economic lever. In the last few days of 1831, they pressed it.
The “passive resistance” thing didn’t last long, however, and the “strike” transmuted into a rebellion — the cause swiftly taken up by thousands of slaves around the island who torched crops. Given the small (less than 20) white body count,* the “violence” appears to have been directed against the instruments, rather than the perpetrators, of their enslavement.
Not so the reprisals.
The rebellion was suppressed within days, and over 300 put to death for it (in addition to 200 slave casualties during the pacification itself). There’s an absorbing BBC Witness episode about this affair available as a podcast here.
Sharpe was the last of those executed.
But his revolt is widely thought to have given impetus to the British parliament’s deliberations over the ensuing months that ultimately led to the Slavery Abolition Act (1833).
What [abolitionist MP William] Wilberforce was endeavoring to win from the British senate by his magic eloquence the slaves themselves were endeavoring to gain by outbreaks and violence. The combined action of one and the other wrought out the final result. While one showed that slavery was wrong, the other showed that it was dangerous as well as wrong. Mr. Wilberforce, peace man though he was, and a model of piety, availed himself of this element to strengthen his case before the British Parliament, and warned the British government of the danger of continuing slavery in the West Indies. There is no doubt that the fear of the consequences, acting with a sense of the moral evil of slavery, led to its abolition. The spirit of freedom was abroad in the Islands. Insurrection for freedom kept the planters in a constant state of alarm and trepidation. A standing army was necessary to keep the slaves in their chains. This state of facts could not be without weight in deciding the question of freedom in these countries … I am aware that the insurrectionary movements of the slaves were held by many to be prejudicial to their cause. This is said now of such movements at the South. The answer is that abolition followed close on the heels of insurrection in the West Indies, and Virginia was never nearer emancipation than when General Turner kindled the fires of insurrection at Southampton.
* Contrast with the much smaller, much bloodier rebellion of Nat Turner in the U.S., which preceded the Christmas Rebellion by a few months.