The uprisings that ended slavery
We are told William Wilberforce brought about the abolition of slavery. As John Newsinger explains, it was the slaves themselves that fought bloody rebellions in order to win their freedom
‘I Would Rather Die On Yonder Gallows Than Live In Slavery”. These were the words of Sam Sharpe, the leader of the great Jamaican slave revolt of 1831, shortly before he was hanged on 23 May 1832. This was the spirit that abolished slavery in Britain’s Caribbean colonies.
Slavery was not abolished because William Wilberforce successfully appealed to the conscience of the British ruling class. Slavery was abolished because it was recognised that if it were not, the slaves would abolish it themselves. Abolish it, moreover, not only without any compensation being paid but with the slave-owners’ estates being seized as well.
The slaves emancipated themselves, many of them giving their lives in the fight for freedom. Where are the monuments commemorating this great historic struggle? Sam Sharpe and his comrades are among the greatest heroes of modern British history and yet their story is, by and large, forgotten, suppressed.
Anyone with even a basic knowledge of slavery and the slave trade must be incredulous that there are still statues celebrating the good works and civic virtue of mass murderers such as Edward Colston. Any attempt to prosecute and imprison those responsible for the dumping of Colston’s statue must be resisted by the whole labour and anti-racist movements. Indeed, it should be replaced with a statue of Sam Sharpe.
How has the government responded to the long overdue overthrow of Colston? Not only has it condemned it, but it threatens to impose a ten-year prison sentence for such crimes. And, of course, the Labour leadership, purged of Corbynisn, has not only joined in the condemnation but has also indicated its support for a change in the law.
What of the history? The successful slave revolt in Haiti had served notice on slavery throughout the Caribbean. Indeed, it is important to remember that the British were heavily involved in attempting to suppress the revolt. They were humiliatingly driven out of Haiti in 1798 by a black army made up of former slaves who had freed themselves by revolution.
It was one of the worst defeats in British military history that has, of course, been conveniently suppressed. There was a slave rebellion in Barbados in 1816 that was suppressed with some thousand slaves killed, including 144 executed in the aftermath. This was followed in 1823 by a revolt in Demerara that was also bloodily suppressed. The decisive event, however, was the Jamaican revolt.
This was organised by Sharpe and his comrades using the Baptist and Methodist church network on the plantations to spread the word and turning Christianity into a revolutionary doctrine. As Sharpe himself put it, the Bible made clear that the white man had no “more right to hold the blacks in bondage than the black had to enslave the whites”.
The slaves were at this time facing intensified exploitation on the plantations, inevitably policed by the lash. The slave owners cut the Christmas holiday the slaves were allowed from three to two days. Sharpe’s plan was to call a general strike after Christmas, on 27 December, refusing to return to work until the slaves were set free with a wage of 2/6 a day. When the British responded by threatening to put down the revolt with bloody repression, the slaves fought back.
Some 60,000 slaves joined the strike and revolt, putting estates to the torch over some 750 square miles. Some 400 slaves were killed before the revolt had been suppressed, many shot out of hand. And once the revolt had been put down, another 326 rebels were executed after what passed as trials. Being active in the church was enough to earn a death sentence, and some 20 Baptist and Methodist chapels were destroyed. Sharpe was the last prisoner to be judicially murdered.
It is worth noticing that a number of prisoners sentenced to public floggings instead of hanging were actually flogged to death, adding to the death toll. Fourteen whites were killed during the revolt. Repression This bloody repression certainly strengthened the abolitionist movement in Britain where a fierce struggle for the vote was getting underway.
What led to the abolition of slavery, however, was recognition in London that further revolts were inevitable. Slavery was doomed. On 7 July 1832, Lord Howicke, the son of the then prime minister, Lord Grey, wrote to the newly appointed Governor of Jamaica, warning him that “the slaves are not being in the least intimidated or cowed by the dreadfully severe punishments which have been inflicted”.
The Mother of Parliaments abolished slavery in August 1834, and in the honoured traditions of the British Establishment they voted to handsomely compensate the slaveowners while the 750,000 slaves across the Caribbean got nothing.
Indeed, they got less than nothing because a compulsory ‘apprenticeship’ scheme was introduced that compelled the slaves to continue working on the plantations for forty hours a week without pay, getting only their board. Growing resistance involving often bitter strike action led to it being abandoned in 1838. The government borrowed the money to compensate the slave-owners and this debt was not finally paid off until 2015.
What this means, of course, is that the descendants of slaves who subsequently emigrated to Britain, the Windrush generation, unknown to themselves helped to pay through their taxes the cost of the compensation for the emancipation of their ancestors.
Only in Britain could such a scandalous state of affairs be passed off as some sort of triumph for humanitarianism.