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Case Study 4: Jamaica (1831) - The Rebellion

Jamaica Map by Herman Moll, 1720

There had been a number of rebellions by enslaved Africans on the island of Jamaica. Sixteen slave rebellions had taken place between 1655 and 1813. There were also major uprisings in 1816 and 1823. By the 1820s, more than 2500 enslaved people were escaping from the plantations each year.

1831 saw the largest slave uprising. It started with the enslaved people refusing to work. The strike was meant to be peaceful, with the aim of forcing the owners to pay the enslaved people to cut the cane so it would not spoil. Things soon escalated. Enslaved Africans burnt down houses and warehouses full of sugar cane, causing over a million pounds worth of damage. More than 200 plantations in the north of Jamaica were attacked as 20,000 enslaved people seized control of large chunks of land. 

The rebels were led by Samuel Sharpe. The main rebellion lasted 10 days but it took British troops the whole of January, 1832 to restore order. It resulted in the death of nearly 200 Africans and 14 British planters or overseers. However, the repercussions of the rebellion were more terrible. Hundreds of the rebels were captured  and over 750 were convicted, of which 138 were sentenced to death. Some were hanged, others were shot by firing squad. Most of those who escaped the death sentence were brutally punished, sometimes so harshly that they died anyway. Sharpe was executed in public.   

The revolt was very important and helped to end British slavery. It also shocked the British government and made them see that the costs and dangers of keeping slavery in the West Indies were too high. It reminded many of the St Domingue rebellion.

There were fears of another major rebellion on Jamaica and many terrified plantation owners were now ready to accept abolition, rather than risk a widespread war. Just one week after Sharpe's death, Parliament appointed a committee to consider ways of ending slavery.


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