On August 1, Jamaica celebrates Emancipation Day, a holiday recognized by many former British colonies in the Caribbean in observance of the emancipation of slaves of African origin. Most Caribbean islands celebrate this holiday during the first week of August and in some places throughout the Caribbean, Emancipation Day is incorporated into Carnival festivities.
Jamaica once had a large number of slaves and racial tensions ran high on the island during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Due to these tensions and the slaves’ hunger for freedom and liberties, Jamaica experienced a large number of slave uprisings—one of the highest instances of revolts of any Caribbean island.
Here are just a few of the slave rebellions in Jamaica that made history and played a role in the eventual emancipation of slavery in the West Indies:
During the 17th century, Tacky’s War, an uprising of black, African slaves that occurred in Jamaica, is considered to be the most significant slave rebellion in the Caribbean until the Haitian Revolution in 1790. For three months in 1760, Tacky led an uprising that took over plantations and killed the plantation owners, until a slave from one of the rebel-controlled plantations escaped and informed white authorities of Tacky’s takeover and intent.
After authorities were informed of his undertakings, a planter militia, regular troops and Maroon force allied to the British, imposed the beginning of the end of Tacky’s uprising. Once Tacky was captured and killed, the last fighters of the rebellion killed themselves before they were captured. Tacky’s actions spurred unrest and disorder throughout the island, and it took the local forces months to reestablish order.
The Christmas Rebellion
Also known as the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt of 1831-1832, the Christmas Rebellion was a 10-day rebellion that mobilized as many as 60,000 of Jamaica’s 300,000 slave population.The slave uprising, led by Jamaican Baptist preacher, Samuel Sharpe, was waged largely by Sharpe and his Baptist followers, who demanded more freedom and a reasonable working wage. Upon refusal of their demands, the strike escalated into a rebellion that became the largest slave uprising in the British West Indies. Samuel Sharpe is one of Jamaica’s national heroes and a monument in his honor stands tall in downtown Montego Bay, Jamaica, in an area aptly called, Sam Sharpe Square. Just one week after Sharpe’s death, a British committee convened to consider ways of ending slavery in the West Indies.
Morant Bay Rebellion of 1865
Although slavery ended in Jamaica in 1834, many emancipated slaves still felt enslaved. Among other injustices, they were denied land rights that were rightfully theirs and did not receive medical treatment unless they worked on a plantation. Their discontent forced the Morant Bay Rebellion on October 11, 1865, when Paul Bogle, the son of a slave who had been born free, led a crowd of 200 to 300 black men and women to the courthouse and demanded the right to be heard. The crowd then seized control of the court and freed all the prisoners who were being held for non-payment of taxes on the land.
The freed slaves then petitioned Queen Victoria for land rights but the petition, penned by Edward Eyre, the son of a Victorian clergyman, who detested anybody “stepping out of their so called station in life,” was denied. In the end, 400 people were hanged, including Bogle, and a further 600 were flogged. When he was about to die, Bogle was heard quoting the 1831 slave leader Sam Sharpe: ‘I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live in slavery.’ Bogle and the emancipated slaves’ rebellion was not in vain, as the planter’s parliament was dissolved, governor Eyre never worked again, and black Jamaicans got land rights as a birthright.
The slave rebellions over the years served as significant turning points in Jamaica’s history. The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 officially abolished slavery in the British Empire on August 1, 1834. After the British crown abolished slavery in 1834, the Jamaicans began working toward independence, which was eventually achieved in 1962. This year Jamaica will celebrate 50 years of independence.