By Nick Grant
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Island On Fire

This article is over 3 years, 6 months old
Issue 464

Jamaica was the main source of sugar in Britain’s food, drink and pantries for three centuries. Roughly 860,000 kidnapped Africans survived the middle passage between 1600 and 1807.

These slaves and their progeny laboured in fertile soils to sow, nurture, harvest and trim cane, then squeeze its sweet juices as muscovado into hogsheads bound for refineries in London, Bristol, Liverpool and Glasgow. Planters themselves had to wait for the stuff to cross the Atlantic twice to put it on their fine dining tables.

While Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce are routinely credited with the cessation of British slavery, popular history texts are coy about what steps Jamaican slaves took themselves to challenge their horrific exploitation.

Slave uprisings had passed through Jamaica like tropical storms about once every five years, with 19 of them during the 18th century. The ruling class had learned to live with them as another cost of doing business.

The fabric of revolt was already woven into the island before the British even wrestled it from the Spanish in 1655.Some of the first enslaved people brought there had run away from their plantations and formed their own renegade society. The British dubbed these cimarrones Maroons, and granted them freedoms as enforcers of their own style of imperial rule.

One of their sharpshooters felled Tacky, the leader of a rebellion that started on 7 April 1760. Sixty white farmers and around 400 slaves were killed. The shaven-headed rebel leaders committed mass suicide in a cave. That year’s sugar crop was mostly lost.

Author Tom Zoellner’s meticulous panorama of the social relations and economic facts of “blood sugar” goes from a microscopic chemical analysis of the human tongue’s response when exposed to refined sugar, to macro-level debate around Eric Williams’s analysis of capitalism and slavery, before focusing on the biggest slave uprising on Boxing Day 1831 and its leader Samuel Sharpe.

Like Toussaint L’Ouverture in Hispaniola and Frederick Douglass later in Maryland in the US, Sharpe was literate. He read intriguing reports of Christian reformist zeal in the motherland in British newspapers. He could exploit his relative freedom as a travelling Baptist minister to gain the confidence of many fellow slaves via his rousing speeches relaying this news.

The historically frequent contradiction of religious rhetoric in the service of social justice rebellion is writ large. As Zoellner stresses, it is quite difficult ideologically to make the concept of original sin – and the need to redeem it through piety and forbearance – stick with people who could not have been more brutally wronged in the first place, and have absolutely nothing to lose in revolt.

Yet for their part, the largely irreligious, rapaciously sinful planters were disinclined to give their chattels a moment’s respite for churchgoing on Sundays. Thus slaves were inclined to heed a call for a morning off their treadmills without necessarily swallowing the prospect of pie in the sky when they died.

This gripping narrative describes how Sharpe led what was in fact a strike for an extra day’s holiday, which was refused and led to conflagrations on estates around Montego Bay.

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