The decisive episode in the overthrow of slavery in the British Caribbean was the great Jamaican revolt that began on 27 December 1831.
It was the most serious slave revolt in British history, involving some 60,000 slaves, engulfing an area of up to 750 square miles, causing immense material damage and costing many lives.
The conspiracy took shape in conditions of increasing hardship for the slave population, eventually embracing almost a hundred estates.
1831 was a year of drought that seriously affected the slaves’ own rations and the planters were intensifying the labour regime.
The slaves were aware of the growing abolitionist movement in Britain. They were also aware of the planters’ threats of armed revolt and secession to join with the United States.
The underground network that bound the conspiracy together was provided by the Baptist church. The official church was controlled by white missionaries, and although they were abolitionist in sympathy, they preached a message of patient obedience and resignation.
Alongside their church, however, there was the Native Baptist church, with its own black leadership, that preached a very different message.
The leader of the conspiracy, Samuel Sharpe, was the chief deacon at the colony’s most important Baptist chapel.
Sharpe, according to the white missionary Henry Bleby, was “the man whose active brain devised the project”.
Sharpe used his position as a “privileged” slave to spread the conspiracy, recruiting new adherents, preaching liberation and preparing for the coming day.
At the end of prayer meetings on the plantations, selected individuals would be invited to stay behind after the service, and either Sharpe or other leaders would attempt to win them over.
The new recruits swore on the Bible not to return to work after Christmas except as free men and women.
Among the Biblical texts that spoke to their aspirations was John 8:36, “If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed.”
What Sharpe and his fellow conspirators intended was a general strike that would continue until slavery was ended and the masters had agreed to a wage of 2s 6d (12.5p) a day.
The signal for the strike to begin was the firing of the sugar trash on the Kensington estate on the evening of 27 December.
Once this was lit, the trash was fired on estate after estate, as the slaves made their stand.
The strike was almost immediately transformed into a rebellion, although the mechanism whereby this occurred is not altogether clear.
Certainly, as far as the planters were concerned the strike was itself a rebellion to be put down by force, but there was also a widespread recognition on the part of the slaves that more militant action was necessary.
With hardly any arms, there was no way that they could hope to defeat the military, so instead they struck at their oppressors by firing the plantations.
The revolt was effectively crushed by the end of the first week of January 1832, but the hunting down of fugitive rebels continued for weeks afterwards. By the time the rebellion was officially over, the authorities claimed that 201 slaves had been killed. A figure of around 400 killed seems much more likely.
This was followed by a judicial massacre, which saw another 326 rebels executed after trials that were little more than a mockery.
Many slaves went to their deaths defiantly. Patrick Ellis told his firing squad to “fire for I will never again be a slave”.
Henry Bleby said of the revolt, “The spirit of freedom had been so widely diffused … if the abolition of slavery were not speedily effected by the peaceable method of legislative enactment, the slaves would assuredly take the matter into their own hands, and bring their bondage to a violent and bloody termination.”
The Jamaican revolt had finally made clear that slavery was no longer a viable system of exploitation in the British Caribbean.
Fear of further outbreaks made the passage of the Emancipation Act a matter of urgency. Slavery was formally abolished on 1 August 1834 with some 750,000 men, women and children set free.
John Newsinger’s new book The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire is available from Bookmarks. Visit the bookshop at Marxism 2006, phone 020 7637 1848, or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com