“Sharpe came to the conclusion that ‘Whites had no more right to hold Black people in slavery, than the Black people had to make White people slaves; and for his own part, he would rather die than live in slavery.”
2012 is a year to remember. The Queen has sat on her throne for 60 years. The world is coming to London for the Olympics, and Jamaica celebrates 50 years of independence.
Jamaican figures, including Paul Bogle, Nanny of the Maroons, Bustamante, Norman Washington Manley and Garvey are being celebrated around the world. They are all worthy of the title heroine or hero, and that includes Daddy Sam Sharpe, a hero par excellence.
Sharpe was more than an educated town slave. He was a Baptist preacher and spokesman, and a first-rate strategist. At the age of 31, he organised a revolt in December 1831, which lasted eight days.
Sharpe had followed the developments of the Abolitionist Movement, by reading discarded local and foreign papers, and conducted meetings with fellow slaves, informing them about what he had read. After a series of meetings, ‘the whole party bound themselves together by oath not to work after Christmas as slaves, but to assert their claim to freedom, and to be faithful to each other.’ The strike was meant to be peaceful. Sharpe made it clear that the slaves should not go back to work after their three-day Christmas holiday. However, if the slave holders refused to give them their demands: better wages and freedom from slavery, then passive resistance, he argued, could not be sustained.
The 1831 Slave Rebellion mobilised up to 60,000 of Jamaica’s 300,000 slave population, and lasted for 10 days. During that time,186 slaves’ and 14 White planters’ lives were cut short. The repercussions were beyond belief. 750 ‘rebel’ slaves were convicted, of which 138 were sentenced to death. Some were hanged; others beheaded, and their heads displayed on the plantations. Those who escaped the death penalty were brutally punished, sometimes so harshly that they eventually died. As for Sam Sharpe, he was executed in Market Square, Montego Bay, on 23rd May 1832. As he awaited his execution, he is recorded to have said, “I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live in slavery.” Sharpe, however, had a huge impact on the Abolitionist Movement. Just one week after his death, Parliament appointed a committee to consider ways of ending slavery.
Although information about Sam Sharpe is scanty, a respected historian summed up his gifts well, stating, “Sam Sharpe was the man whose active brain devised the project, and he had sufficient authority with those around him to carry it into effect, having acquired an extraordinary degree of influence among his fellow slaves.”
Sam was a leader. A well-thought-out plan of action can enable the leader’s dreams to be achieved. Planning can be tedious. However, in order for a vision to be accomplished, long-term strategic thinking is vital, and can determine the sustainability and quality of a project. In this area, Sharpe was at his best: conducting well-organised meetings – which he operated like political campaigns; meeting with Freedom Fighters; sending representatives throughout the country to inform and acquire supporters for his plan, and mobilising churches that provided him with more than just numerical support, but a conduit for communicating the planned revolt. It’s no wonder that the Movement was described as ‘The Invisible Institution’, and that many years later, his legacy lives on.
But leadership must also be underpinned by a theological framework that helps facilitate the interpretation of human reality, and gives a strategy its legs. A theology that all people are equal is what motivated Sam Sharpe. Freedom is another of the theological principles that defined Sharpe’s faith and praxis. He believed that God not only made all persons equal, but also created them for freedom (Galatians 3:26-29). In his reading of the Bible, Sharpe came to the conclusion that ‘Whites had no more right to hold Black people in slavery, than the Black people had to make White people slaves; and for his own part, he would rather die than live in slavery.’
In the last few months, I have found myself thinking a lot about Sam Sharpe. His leadership qualities were exceptional. But I have been particularly struck by his deep, theological convictions, comprising a passion for justice; a love for his oppressed people, and a desire to see them free.
Comparisons can be made between the Exodus of the Israelites, led by Moses, and the slave rebellion led by Sam. Both men – Moses and Sharpe – articulated their communities’ struggles. Their leadership led their people closer to the Promised Land. Both were willing to die for a cause. Sharpe eventually did.
I hope that we have not seen the end of a Garvey, Nanny, Bogle or Sharpe, leaders of high calibre, who used their passion to replace injustice with justice; speaking and suffering on behalf of the voiceless, and motivated by convictions that emanate from a biblical theology of justice. Are such leaders still in abundance?
Many of today’s leaders have a different emphasis. Size of church and conference; name of speaker, and size of offerings appear to be the primary focus of too many of our leaders and churches. Yet the story of Sam Sharpe – and that of Christ – reinforce the importance of servant leadership. Putting others first, not just some of the time but all of the time, a willingness to sacrifice all for a cause that matters. So let’s not just celebrate the man who contributed to Jamaica’s freedom. Let’s learn from the man.
Rev Wale Hudson-Roberts is the Racial Justice Co-Ordinator for the Baptist Union of Great Britain