During the course of just over a week, slavery in Jamaica received the blow that would kill it forever. The Christmas, or Baptist, Rebellion began on December 27, 1831; by its end on January 5, 1832, twenty thousand slaves had razed nearly 160 sugar estates, causing damage to the value of £1 million – then a massive drain on the British exchequer. It was the largest slave uprising in Jamaican history, and it set in motion the process that led to the abolition of slavery in 1834 and full emancipation in 1838.
The rebellion was led by Sam Sharpe, a house slave working for a MoBay solicitor. Though Sharpe took on the surname of his master in accordance with tradition, his sideline as deacon of the town’s Burchell Baptist Church made him anything but servile. Baptists were slavery’s most outspoken critics, rightly seen as a threat by the British establishment. The church taught Sharpe to read, and through international newspapers he learnt of English anti-slavery sentiments and became convinced that emancipation in Jamaica was imminent, a reality that planters were trying to suppress. A powerful orator, Sharpe formed a secret society and planned a nonviolent withdrawal of labour over the Christmas period. Talk of the insurrection spread fast through St James estates, and even the planters became uneasy as December 1831 drew to a close. By the night of the 27th, passions were running high. Peaceful protest soon degenerated into anarchy; tipped off by estate owners, the militia were out in force, and more militant slaves responded by lighting bonfires at the highest point of the Kensington estate to signify the start of a full-scale rebellion. Others followed suit and within days western Jamaica was burning as the cane fields and great houses were destroyed one by one. The response of the British militia was brutal. Though damage was predominantly restricted to property and only fourteen whites died, soldiers gunned down one thousand slaves, and magistrates handed down a further three hundred execution orders during the emotional six-week trial that ensued. Sharpe himself was hanged in the MoBay square that today bears his name. He was buried in the harbour sand, though his remains were later exhumed and interred in the vault of Burchell Memorial Church.