Samuel Sharpe aka “Daddy Sharpe”
~1801 – May 23, 1832
Samuel “Sam” Sharpe was born into slavery in Jamaica’s St. James Parish. As with many other enslaved people, the details of his early life are unclear or unknown. It’s believed that he was born in or around 1801. He was a first-generation Jamaican with his parents having been kidnapped and transported from Africa to Jamaica within about a decade before his birth. The plantation on which Sharpe was born was owned by a Montego Bay attorney, Samuel Sharpe, who was the source of Sharpe’s name.
In America and some other slaveholding territories, enslaved people were mostly prohibited from learning to read or write. However, given the prevalence of absentee plantation owners in Jamaica, some free and enslaved people were educated as a means of assisting with plantation and community tasks. Others received an education as a result of their and/or their owner’s involvement with the Baptist church.
The British also allowed enslaved people to organize religious gatherings. Factions of the British Baptist Movement were promoting the idea of abolition and some missionaries helped to spread the message through Jamaica. As a young man, Sharpe was baptized and became a member of the Baptist faith. He’d learned to read and write and gained further knowledge from books and newspapers.
When Sharpe became a deacon he used his pulpit to preach against the inhumanity of slavery. He referred to passages from the New Testament that spoke of freedom through Jesus Christ. Traveling with his literacy and fiery sermons, Sharpe became a well-respected member of Montego Bay’s enslaved community. Despite his youth, Sharpe was referred to by some as “Daddy Sharpe” in recognition of his wisdom and leadership.
Reading local and imported British newspapers, Sharpe learned about abolitionist developments in England. He mistakenly came to believe that slavery had already been abolished by Parliament but local slaveholders were keeping it a secret. Sharpe developed and began to spread a plan aimed at forcing slave owners to change conditions on the island.
A pacifist, Sharpe planned to stage a nonviolent rebellion in the form of a work stoppage. Sugar cane was a major crop for Jamaica and the high point of the season was around the holidays. If the cane was not cut in time, it could result in failed crops. Thus the plan was that during the 1831 Christmas holidays, enslaved people would refuse to work unless slave owners agreed to improve treatment of the enslaved and to pay for labor on what should have been a day off.
Participants in the planned strike were made to swear an oath of loyalty. The early oaths were administered by Sharpe but others carried out the oaths as the plan spread to other parishes. While Sharpe was a leader in planning the rebellion, its actual activity was more decentralized. Sharpe put in place leaders on individual plantations in hopes of avoiding large-scale attacks and captures by the British.
The British learned of the rebellion and dispatched troops to St. James Parish and warships to within shooting distance of Montego Bay’s coast. In response, on December 28th the Kensington Estate Great House, a structure in which cane was dried, was lit on fire. This signaled an official start to the rebellion and other fires were lit as the message made its way across the country.
The rebellion officially lasted for about eight days but in reality, continued for longer as the rebels engaged in guerilla warfare. Excluding the destruction of property, the uprising remained mostly peaceful on the part of the rebels as only 14 overseers/planters were killed. Yet, the British were merciless in putting down the rebellion, killing an estimated 500-1000 slaves during the conflict and trials that followed.
For his role in the uprising, Sam Sharpe was the last person to be hanged. He was executed on May 23, 1832, but not before uttering the defiant words, “I would rather die upon yonder gallows than to live in slavery”. Fearing additional uprisings and tiring of the cost of waging wars to maintain control, slavery was abolished two years later. Slavery was replaced with an apprenticeship system that was itself repealed in 1838.
The identity of Sharpe’s parents has been lost to time but he was survived by his mother and predeceased by his father. It is also known that Sharpe had a brother, William, with whom he had a relationship as an adult as Sharpe’s brother accompanied him to turn himself in. Sharpe was married though his wife was owned by someone else and lived on another plantation. Their marriage produced at least one daughter who married and had a child within a few years of his death.
Samuel Sharpe is now recognized as one of Jamaica’s national heroes and is memorialized on the country’s $50 bill.
- “About Sam Sharpe.” n.d. The Baptist Union of Great Britain : About Sam Sharpe. Accessed September 12, 2023. https://www.baptist.org.uk/Groups/379663/About_Sam_Sharpe.aspx.
- Anele, Uzonna. 2023. “Samuel Sharpe: The Enslaved Preacher Who Sparked a Rebellion on Christmas Day in Jamaica in 1831.” Insight News. January 2, 2023. https://www.insightnews.com/opinion/samuel-sharpe-the-enslaved-preacher-who-sparked-a-rebellion-on-christmas-day-in-jamaica-in/article_44a63e56-8b1a-11ed-ac39-330dc1e81f63.html.
- “A Look into the Life of….Samuel Sharpe.” 2022. Montego Bay Cultural Centre. March 7, 2022. https://montegobayculturalcentre.org/resource/a-look-into-the-life-of-samuel-sharpe-2/.
- “Samuel Sharpe.” n.d. Jamaica Information Service. Accessed September 12, 2023. https://jis.gov.jm/information/heroes/samuel-sharpe/.
- “Samuel ‘Sam’ Sharpe.” n.d. National Library of Jamaica. Accessed September 12, 2023. http://www.nlj.gov.jm/labourday/samsharpe.html.
- “Sharpe, Samuel.” 2023. Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. Encyclopedia.com. September 12, 2023. https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/sharpe-samuel.
- Wooten, Andre. 2013. “Samuel Sharpe (ca. 1780-1832).” Blackpast.Org. August 16, 2013. https://www.blackpast.org/global-african-history/people-global-african-history/sharpe-samuel-ca-1780-1832/.
- Zoellner | May 28, Tom. 2020. “The Uprising of 60,000 Jamaicans That Changed the Very Nature of Revolt.” Zócalo Public Square. July 11, 2020. https://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2020/05/28/jamaican-uprising-samuel-sharpe-rebellion-christmas-uprising-great-jamaican-slave-revolt/ideas/essay/.
- Island on Fire [Book Review]
- Mau Mau Rebellion
- Cuffy & The 1763 Berbice Slave Rebellion
- Christiana Resistance
Disclosure: Noire Histoir is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for the website to earn fees by linking to Amazon.com and affiliated sites. Noire Histoir will receive commissions for purchases made via any Amazon Affiliate links above.