Posts filed under 'Jamaica'

1776: Jamaican slave rebels

1 comment July 19th, 2011 Headsman

In our late constant disputes at our tables (where by the by every Person has his own waiting man behind him) we have I am afraid been too careless of Expressions, especially when the topic of American rebellion has been by the Disaffected amongst us, dwelt upon and brandished of with strains of Virtuous Heroism.

what mind of a Slave will not recoil and burn into Resentment; when he shall have been the frequent witness of Sedition and Ingratitude in the Conduct of his Master — when he shall hear the Obligation of a subject to his Lord spurn’d at — the Blood spilt by Rebells extoll’d … Obedience to Laws and Authority upon all these Occasions mentioned with a strong Idea of Slavery. And Men toasted into Immortal Honours for Encountering Death in every form, rather than submit to Slavery let its Chains be ever so gilded.

Dear Liberty has rang in the heart of every House-bred Slave, in one form or other, for these Ten years past — While we only talk’d about it, they went no farther than their private reflections upon us & it: but as soon as we came to blows, we find them fast at our heels. Such has been the seeds sown in the minds of our Domestics by our Wise-Acre Patriots.

–Rev. John Lindsay, Hanover Parish, Jamaica

On July 3, 1776, as tensions between the North American colonies and England came to a head, the garrison at Hanover, Jamaica sailed from Lucea to reinforce General William Howe.

The departure of this regiment was the pre-arranged signal for the parish’s slaves — both imported Coromantee and, more ominously for the slaveholder, the generally less-rebellious Creoles — to mount a general rising.

The only reason it didn’t happen was because it was sniffed out — after the regiment left, but before the date planned out by slaves passing word from estate to estate.

For a century or so, lucrative sugar and coffee cultivation on the island (and elsewhere around the thought to have been imported to Jamaica before the slave trade was abolished in 1808.

Planters reaped stupendous profits from this harvest of misery, but perpetually stood in danger of reaping the whirlwind, too. At the time of the intended rebellion, there were 20 or more slaves for every white around Hanover. A Hanover militia officer said in the days after the plot was uncovered that he was “deeply Concerned in the Intended Insurrection, the Number of the Troop is small and the Duty severe, Our apprehensions are great upon the occasion as we know not where it will end.” As the number of implicated slaves mounted past 100, a planter lamented that “there appears to be no end to this horrid affair.”

As jumpy as they were, the authorities managed to keep a lid on this situation through the usual methods, which gives this site its excuse to notice the affair.

We have try’d — found Guilty and Executed Yesterday the following Conspirators, Blue Hole Harry, and Leander of the Spring Estate, Charles of the Baulk, Peter of Batchelors Hall, Prince belonging to John Priest of Lucea, and Quamino to Sir Simon Clarke, these are the Chief Ring-leaders and the most Active in Promoting the Intended Insurrection and We propose proceeding tomorrow in trying the Other Chiefs.

-Report to Sir Basil Keith from the magistrates of Hanover, Jamaica, July 20, 1776

Slavery persisted in Jamaica, dogged by regular rebellions, for another 57 years, until Samuel Sharpe’s revolt helped finally convince Parliament to ban it. Whether that past is really past … that’s another question.

For more, see Richard B. Sheridan, “The Jamaican Slave Insurrection Scare of 1776 and the American Revolution,” The Journal of Negro History July, 1976, which is the source of the quotes in this article.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Jamaica,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Slaves,Torture

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1781: The slaves of the Zong, for the insurance

5 comments November 29th, 2009 Headsman

Beginning this day in 1781, the captain of the slave ship Zong began throwing his cargo overboard in a still-notorious case combining the horrors of the Middle Passage with the cruel rapacity of capital.

The Liverpool-based ship was en route from Africa to Jamaica, there to exchange its human chattel for New World produce bound for the European market.

Characteristically for slave ships, it was inhumanly packed: more economical for a slaver to overcrowd its captives and write off the ones who died than to maximize slaves’ chances of survival. And on this particular ship, malnutrition and disease claimed more than 60 slaves (as well as seven crew members).


Underwater sculpture off Grenada commemorating slaves thrown overboard during the Middle Passage.

With many more in danger of expiring, Captain Luke Collingwood reasoned that the cargo would be a loss if it succumbed, but that shippers’ insurance would reimburse the firm “when slaves are killed, or thrown into thrown into the sea in order to quell an insurrection.” Over a three-day span beginning Nov. 29, 1781, Collingwood had 133 still-living but sick slaves cast overboard;* “the last ten victims sprang disdainfully from the grasp of their executioners, and leaped into the sea triumphantly embracing death.” (Source)

This gave the ship’s owners — the good captain himself was not among them — the chance to attempt an insurance scam.

This historical-philosophical book (review, a pdf) analyzes the Zong affair as the emblematic “inauguration of a long twentieth century underwritten by the development of an Atlantic cycle of capital accumulation.”

When the Zong landed having lost in total more than half of its original 440 slaves (and Collingwood himself, that fastidious servant of his shareholders), its owners did indeed attempt to recoup the many who had been intentionally killed. Smelling fraud, the insurer refused to pay.

There followed the signal case of Gregson v. Gilbert, a dry insurance trial that also became a beacon of the slave system’s blood-chilling jurisprudential logic.

After a jury sided with the claimant shippers against the insurers, the matter hit a wide public on appeal before Lord Chief Justice Mansfield when abolitionist activists Granville Sharp and Olaudah Equiano seized upon its conscience-shocking quality.

While Sharp and Equiano agitated unavailingly for a homicide investigation, the insurer — which was itself in the very same business of human bondage as the shipper — self-righteously posed “as counsel for millions of mankind, and the cause of humanity in general.” (Source) Its interests, after all, would be served by the least possible indemnity for slaves murdered in passage.

Solicitor-General John Lee — “the learned advocate for Liverpool iniquity,” in Sharp’s estimation — successfully insisted upon limiting the case to its commercial considerations.

What is this claim that human people have been thrown overboard? This is a case of chattels or goods. Blacks are goods and property; it is madness to accuse these well serving honourable men of murder. They acted out of necessity and in the most appropriate manner for the cause. The late Captain Collingwood acted in the interest of his ship to protect the safety of his crew. To question the judgment of an experienced, well-travelled captain held in the highest regard is one of folly, especially when talking of slaves. The case is the same as if horses had been thrown overboard. (Quoted here; Wikipedia has it “as if wood had been thrown overboard.”)

Lord Mansfield agreed, “(though it shocks one very much) that the case of slaves was the same as … horses,” and simply found with the insurers that no liability attached them since the killings were voluntary rather than necessary.

Nobody was ever prosecuted.


The disturbing 1840 Turner seascape “Slavers throwing overboard the Dead and Dying – Typon [sic] coming on”, also known simply as “The Slave Ship”, is widely thought to have been inspired by the Zong episode. The allusion would have been well-known to his contemporaries.

* One of the 133 survived by climbing back aboard the ship.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,At Sea,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Drowned,England,Execution,Executions Survived,History,Jamaica,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Pelf,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Slaves,Summary Executions

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1832: Samuel Sharpe, “I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live in slavery”

4 comments May 23rd, 2009 Headsman

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.

Samuel Sharpe, an educated slave who was also a Baptist deacon, was the moving spirit behind the attempted general strike that became the Christmas Rebellion.

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.

Frederick Douglass

Sharpe, today, is an official national hero of Jamaica. The place in Montego Bay that he hanged is known as Sam Sharpe Square, and his face adorns the currency.

* Contrast with the much smaller, much bloodier rebellion of Nat Turner in the U.S., which preceded the Christmas Rebellion by a few months.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Hanged,History,Jamaica,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries

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1955: Leslie George Hylton, a better bowler than liar

1 comment May 17th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1955, Test cricketer Leslie George Hylton was hanged in Spanish Town, Jamaica, for murdering his wife.

Hylton represented the West Indies in six grueling Test cricket matches in the 1930’s. (Career statistics.)

And apparently he had a thing about adultery, because when he found out his wife was having an affair, he shot her dead. Trying to shoot himself, he told John Law, but his alibi was even worse than his aim: she’d been shot seven times, meaning the fast bowler had reloaded.

Hylton is the only Test cricketer known to have suffered the death penalty. Fans took his death in stride:

Australia were touring the West Indies, and when the Jamaican opener JK Holt followed a run of low scores by dropping two catches in the Test at Bridgetown, a play card urged “Save Hylton, hang Holt.”

Cricket officialdom, though, kept such a stiff upper lip that Hylton’s obituary in its leading publication managed not to mention that his passing had involved a noose.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Hanged,Jamaica,Murder

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1720: Charles Vane, an unsinkable pirate

1 comment March 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1720, Charles Vane’s resilient pirate career finally came to the end of a noose.

Like his onetime lieutenant Calico Jack Rackham, Vane plundered the American coast and the Caribbean during the twilight heyday of the buccaneer.

The man had a gift. From 1716 to late in 1718, Vane looted dextrously, even boldly spurning a royal pardon the better to keep his loot and mounting a flamboyant escape from the armada subsequent sent to detain him.

If he had a weakness, it was not as a mariner but as a manager. A notoriously tyrannous captain, Vane saw one aide turn on him and escape with a ship and a second — the aforementioned Rackham — mount a seaborne coup after Vane judiciously refused to engage a larger French man-o-war.

Nothing daunted by the loss of his command, Vane set about rebuilding his fortunes by resuming the conquest of prizes. Little could he see that the day of piracy was fast drawing to a close, and his own hourglass running faster still.

For all the catastrophes visited on him by his confederates, it required the connivance of nature to do him in. Early in 1720, a hurricane obliterated his ship (and most of his crew); tough old Vane managed to wash up on a deserted island* … but was recognized by his “rescuers” and delivered up to the British governor of Jamaica, who strung him up within the week.

* Straight out of piracy central casting, no? Would you also believe his crew had a renowned “pirate party” rendezvous with Blackbeard’s?

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Jamaica,Notable Sleuthing,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions

1720: Captain John “Calico Jack” Rackham

7 comments November 17th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1720Nov. 18, 1720, the pirate captain “Calico Jack” Rackham was hanged together with his crew by the British governor of Jamaica.

Nicknamed for his flamboyant clothing, the Bristol-born buccaneer plundered the West Indies during the “Golden Age of Piracy”, having ousted his former captain Charles Vane. Rackham is chiefly remembered to history for two who were not hanged with the rest of his crew: Anne Bonny and Mary Read, rare female pirates who served aboard Rackham’s ship.

Immortalized by Daniel Defoe in his pseudonymous A General History of the Pyrates, Bonny and Read came to piracy by different paths but were both every bit the part and leaders aboard their ship — “very profligate, cursing, and swearing much, and very ready and willing to do any Thing on board.” Bonny, at least, was Rackham’s lover — having eloped with him from her husband.

Upon capture, both women “pleaded their bellies” to escape the gallows, and though it’s unclear whether either really was pregnant, it seems the gambit spared both from execution.

Read died in prison shortly after, while Bonny vanished from history — prompting speculation that she had escaped, secured a pardon, been ransomed by her wealthy father, and/or returned again to piracy under a different guise. Reportedly, she castigated Rackham at their last meeting in prison for lying drunk below decks while only the women resisted the capture of their ship: “I am sorry to see you here Jack, but if you had fought like a man, you need not be hanged like a dog.”

As the world’s best-known women pirates, Bonny and Read are recalled as anything from sexualized historical curios to action heroines to proto-feminists.

They feature in Disneyland’s “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride, the Witchblade comic book series, utopian theorizing, popular history … and the occasional action figure.

Update: A much more detailed foray into the lives of these daring women is at Scandalous Women.

Also, I posted this under the wrong date: it should be Nov. 18. Balls.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,England,Famous,Gibbeted,Hanged,Jamaica,Mass Executions,Not Executed,Notably Survived By,Piracy,Pirates,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Women

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