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Jamaica’s Baptist War

Jamaica’s biggest slave revolt broke out immediately after Christmas 1831 and lasted for ten days. About 50,000 slaves took part. They attacked over 225 estates and caused damage totalling over £1 million.

Georgia Estate in Trelawny, owned by Thomas Gordon of Buthlaw and Cairness, was one of the estates caught up in the rebellion, and afterwards five of Gordon’s slaves were sentenced to life imprisonment for joining the fight.

Samuel Sharpe was the most prominent leader of the rebels. A slave from Craydon Estate in St James Parish, he was also a charismatic leader in the local Baptist church. Many of the other fighters were also Baptists. They used Christian theology to argue that they could only have one master – Jesus Christ.
All of the rebel leaders had military titles such as ‘general’ and ‘colonel’ and their followers were organised into military companies. In court, witnesses both for and against the rebels always described the rebellion as a war. In Jamaica today it is commonly referred to as the Baptist War.

The Jamaican government suppressed the rebellion savagely. Troops executed hundreds of suspected rebels, often without a proper trial, while planters and their employees burnt numerous churches where slaves had worshipped. But although defeated, the rebellion actually hastened the end of slavery. It convinced people in Britain that the system was unsustainable; to continue protecting the slave owners would only lead to more expense and more brutality.

British troops fire on rebel positions during the 1831-2 slave rebellion in Jamaica.
(© National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)