Baptist War

The Baptist War, also known as the Christmas Rebellion, the Christmas Uprising and the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt of 1831–32, was an eleven-day rebellion that started on 25 December 1831 and involved up to 60,000 of the 300,000 slaves in Jamaica.[1] The uprising was led by a black Baptist preacher, Samuel Sharpe and waged largely by his followers.

Christmas Rebellion
Part of North American slave revolts

Destruction of the Roehampton Estate, January 1832, by Adolphe Duperly
DateDecember 25, 1831 – 4 January 1832
Result Slave defeat

United Kingdom

Rebel slaves
Commanders and leaders
Sir Willoughby Cotton Samuel Sharpe  
Casualties and losses
14 killed 207 killed
North American slave revolts

Toussaint Louverture


The missionary-educated rebels had been following progress of the abolitionist movement in London; their intention was to call a peaceful general strike.[2] Compared with their Presbyterian, Wesleyan, and Moravian counterparts, Baptist slaves seemed more ready to take action. This may have reflected a higher level of absenteeism among white Baptist missionaries. The relative independence of Black deacons facilitated slaves taking greater ownership over their religious life, including reinterpretations of Baptist theology in terms of their experience (for example, they placed an emphasis on the role of John the Baptist, sometimes at the expense of Jesus.[2][3])

Thomas Burchell, a missionary in Montego Bay, returned from England following Christmas vacation. Many of the Baptist ministry expected that he would return with papers for emancipation from the king William IV. They also thought that the King's men would enforce the order and discontent escalated among slaves when the Jamaican governor announced that no emancipation had been granted.[4]

The strike and the uprising

Led by 'native' Baptist preacher, Samuel Sharpe, enslaved black workers demanded more freedom and a working wage of "half the going wage rate"; they took an oath to stay away from work until their demands were met by the plantation owners. The enslaved laborers believed that the work stoppage could achieve their ends alone – a resort to force was only envisaged if violence was used against them.[5] It became the largest slave uprising in the British West Indies, mobilizing as many as 60,000 of Jamaica's 300,000 slaves.[4][1] During the rebellion, fourteen whites were killed by armed slave battalions and 207 rebels were killed.[6]

Colonel William Grignon of the militia was an attorney who ran several estates, including one at Salt Spring, where a series of incidents in December were the sparks for the uprising.[7] He led the militia against the rebels at Belvedere estate, but he was forced to retreat, leaving the rebels in command of the rural areas of the parish of St James.[8]

Sir Willoughby Cotton, who commanded the British forces, then summoned the Jamaican Maroons of Accompong Town to help suppress the rebellion in the second week of January. However, when the Accompong Maroons attacked the rebels at Catadupa, they were forced to withdraw because the rebels were "too strong".[9]

The Accompong Maroons soon gained the upper hand however, and they defeated the rebels in one skirmish, killing one of Sharpe's deputies, Campbell, in the assault. When the army regulars were besieged by the rebels at Maroon Town, the Accompong Maroons relieved them, killing more rebels, and capturing scores of them, including another of Sharpe's deputies, Dehany.[10]

When the Windward Maroons from Charles Town and Moore Town answered the call of Cotton, the rebel cause was lost. These eastern Maroons killed and captured a number of other rebels, including another leader named Gillespie. One of the last leaders of the rebels, Gardner, surrendered when he heard the Charles Town Maroons had joined the fight against them.[11]

Suppression and death toll

The rebellion was quickly suppressed by British forces.[12] The reaction of the Jamaican government and reprisals of the plantocracy were far more brutal.[2] Approximately 5000 slaves were killed, with 2070 killed outright during the revolt. After the rebellion an estimated 3100 to 3400 slaves were killed through "various forms of judicial executions", at times for quite minor offences (one recorded execution was for the theft of a pig; another, a cow).[13] An 1853 account by Henry Bleby described how the courts commonly executed three or four persons simultaneously; bodies were piled up until the black people relegated to the workhouse carted the bodies away at night and buried them in mass graves outside town.[4]

After the rebellion, property damage was estimated in the Jamaican Assembly summary report in March 1832 at £1,154,589 (equaling roughly £52,000,000 in modern terms).[6] The planters suspected many missionaries of having encouraged the rebellion. Some, such as William Knibb, were arrested but later released. Groups of white colonials destroyed chapels that housed black congregations.[14]


As a result of the Baptist War, hundreds of slaves ran away into the Cockpit Country in order to avoid being forced back into slavery. The Maroons were only successful in apprehending a small number of these runaway slaves. Many runaways remained free and at large when the British parliament passed the Act abolishing slavery in 1833.[15]

The brutality of the Jamaican plantocracy during the revolt is thought to have accelerated the British political process of emancipating the slaves. Parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 for initial measures to begin in 1834, followed by partial emancipation (outright for children six or under, six years apprenticeship for the rest) in 1834 and then unconditional emancipation of chattel slavery in 1838.[12]

In literature


  1. Barry W. Higman, "Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807–1834", Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 365–367
  2. Craton, Michael. Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies (Cornell University Press, 1983), pp. 297–98
  3. Turner, Mary. Slaves and Missionaries: The Disintegration of Jamaican Slave Society, 1787–1834 (University of Illinois Press, 1982), p. 81
  4. Révauger, Cécile (October 2008). The Abolition of Slavery – The British Debate 1787–1840. Presse Universitaire de France. pp. 107–108. ISBN 978-2-13-057110-0.
  5. The overthrow of colonial slavery, 1776–1848 Book by Robin Blackburn p. 432
  6. Turner (1982) p.121
  7. Craton, Testing the Chains, p. 293.
  8. Bleby, Henry, Death Struggles of Slavery: Being a Narrative of Facts and Incidents Which Occurred in a British Colony, During the Two Years Immediately Preceding Negro Emancipation (London: Hamilton, Adams and Co, 1853), pp. 9-11.
  9. Michael Siva, After the Treaties: A Social, Economic and Demographic History of Maroon Society in Jamaica, 1739-1842, PhD Dissertation (Southampton: Southampton University, 2018), p. 201.
  10. Siva, After the Treaties, pp. 202-3.
  11. Siva, After the Treaties, p. 203.
  12. "An End to Slavery – 1816–1836: Jamaica Reluctantly Makes History by Freeing its Slaves".
  13. Mary Reckord. "The Jamaican Slave Rebellion of 1831", Past & Present (July 1968), 40(3): pp. 122, 124–125.
  14. Masters, P., 2006: Missionary triumph over slavery. Wakeman Trust, London. ISBN 1-870855-53-1. pp. 17–23
  15. Siva, After the Treaties, pp. 205-8.
  16. "The Long Song by Andrea Levy". Good Reads. Retrieved 24 December 2017.
  17. Crane, Ralph; Stafford, Jane; Williams, Mark (2011). The Oxford History of the Novel in English, Vol IX. Oxford University Press. p. 265.

Further reading

  • Craton, Michael: The Economics of Emancipation: Jamaica and Barbados, 1823–1843 (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 1995).
  • Heuman, Gad: "A Tale of Two Jamaican Rebellions," in: Jamaican Historical Review (1996), 19: pp. 1–8.
  • Hochschild, Adam. Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery. Houghton Miffin, New York 2005. pp. 338–343.
  • Morrison, Doreen: Slavery's Heroes: George Liele and the Ethiopian Baptists of Jamaica 1783-1865, 2004, CreateSpace. ISBN 978-1500657574.
  • Reckord, Mary: The Jamaican Slave Rebellion of 1831. Past and Present (July 1968), 40(3): pp. 108–125.
  • Rodriguez, Junius P. (ed.): Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion, Westport 2006, CT: Greenwood.
  • Short, K.R.M.: "Jamaican Christian Missions and the Great Slave Rebellion of 1831–2," in: Journal of Ecclesiastical History, (1976), 27(1): pp. 57–72.
  • Turner, Mary: Slaves and Missionaries : The Disintegration of Jamaican Slave Society, 1787–1834 (University of Illinois Press, 1982).
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