Samuel Sharpe better known as Sam Sharpe is one of Jamaica’s National Hero, born in the parish of St James in 1801 and died May 23, 1832, a well educated man who led the slave rebellion in 1831. Because of his education, he was respected by other slaves, and he became a well-known preacher and leader. He was also a deacon at the Burchell Baptist Church in Montego Bay, whose pastor was Rev. Thomas Burchell.
In the mistaken belief that emancipation had already been granted by the British Parliament, Sharpe organised a peaceful general strike across many estates in western Jamaica to protest working conditions. The plan was taken to other parishes eventually spreading throughout St. James, Trelawny and Westmoreland and some sections of St. Elizabeth. The strike did not go according to plan. During that time, he travelled widely throughout his parish, speaking about the injustices of slavery and pointing out that the Bible said ‘no man can serve two masters’.
White people, he said, had no more right to hold black people in slavery, than if it were the other way round. He keenly followed the developments of the abolition movement in England, by reading local and foreign papers. Originally peaceful protest turned into Jamaica’s largest slave rebellion. Hundreds of slaves and 14 whites died in the violence. The colonial government used the armed Jamaican military forces to put down the rebellion, suppressing it within two weeks.
On December 27, 1831, the Kensington Estate Great House was set on fire, as a signal that the Slave Rebellion had begun. A series of other fires broke out in the area and soon it was clear that the plan of non-violent resistance, which Sam Sharpe had originated, was impossible and impractical. A terrible retribution followed. While 14 whites died during the Rebellion, more than 500 slaves lost their lives most of them as a result of the trials after.
Over 500 slaves were convicted and many were executed, most were hanged and their heads were cut off and placed around their plantations. Those who escaped the death penalty were treated brutally and many did not survive. Sam Sharpe was named as the key figure behind the resistance and he was captured and hanged in Montego Bay on a square now called Sam Sharpe Square. Samuel Sharpe is remembered by his famous words: “I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live in slavery”. Sharpe’s owners were paid £16 in ‘compensation for their loss of property’.
The uprising that he had instigated was a key moment in the fight for the abolition of slavery as just a few years later, in 1834, slavery would be abolished and a system of ‘Apprenticeship’ would be instituted. On August 1, 1938 the Apprenticeship System ended and slaves were granted their freedom. Sam Sharpe was a man of immense faith and courage and his legacy was recognised by the Jamaican authorities when he was made a National Hero in 1975.
His likeness can also be found on the $50 note. The Sam Sharpe Teachers’ College was also founded in 1975 by the Ministry of Education and funded by the World Bank II is located in Granville, St. James, approximately six kilometres (6 km) from the centre of Montego Bay.