Devon Dick | Sam Sharpe was special
Last week, Ian Randle, publisher and historian, inquired of me concerning National Hero Sam Sharpe, as he prepared to narrate a documentary for a British television crew next month. The first thing I told him was to ensure he gets Sam Sharpe’s age correct. Sharpe was 27 years old when he was executed. It is important to underscore Sharpe’s correct age because it shows how one so young could accomplish so much against the greatest odds.
In The Sunday Gleaner last week, an article, ‘Christmas Day 1831’, asserted that Sam Sharpe was born in 1780, which meant that when Sharpe died he was 51 years old. This mistake about his age is due to the portrait of Sharpe reflecting someone in his early 50s. However, according to the court documents at the trial of Sharpe, he was 27. His mother’s name was Eve and he was married.
By age 27, Sharpe was able to make a serious dent in the brutish British slavery edifice and undermined the structure of the British colonial superpower. By age 27, Sharpe and his followers interpreted the scriptures and understood God differently from British missionaries. Sharpe, et al, believed slavery was not compatible with Christianity, while the missionaries believed slavery and Christianity could be compartmentalised in a society and in a soul. At age 27, Sharpe led a movement which was a catalyst for the abolition of slavery in Jamaica and the British West Indies long before it happened in the United States, Brazil, Cuba and Puerto Rico.
HIGHLY INTELLIGENT YOUNG MAN
By the age of 27, Sharpe was well read and well educated. He would regularly read the newspapers. Rev Henry Bleby, British missionary, described him as a very intelligent young man. He was a leader within the church and society. He was aware of what was happening, locally and internationally. It is a disservice to his memory when some claim Sharpe believed that the slaves had been freed in England. However, there is no original document that had Sharpe saying that. Furthermore, Sharpe would have known that the British government had not passed any legislation to free the enslaved. He was no fool; he was nobody’s fool; and he would not make fools of fellow enslaved persons.
That Sharpe, by the age of 27, could have an elaborate passive resistance plan was awesome. Sharpe was an astute labour leader. He and the members of the movement were agitating for the regular three-day holiday at Christmas time.
December 25, 1831, was a Sunday. Sharpe and others claimed that they were entitled to their regular Sunday day off, and since Christmas fell on a Sunday, they should get Monday as a holiday, and Tuesday as Boxing Day. The planters said no and Sharpe planned a strike and said they would not work on December 27. They were claiming workers’ rights, which meant they were humans capable of negotiating what was reasonable and just. Sharpe knew that some people wanted an armed struggle, but he said no; only self-defence was allowable. According to Findlay and Holdsworth in The History of the Wesleyan Methodist Missionary Society (1921), the fires were accidental. Sharpe wanted a passive resistance and mobilised thousands around this idea.
That Sam Sharpe at age 27 could have had such an impact should be an inspiration to young people. Jamaican young people, who are privileged, should not be interested in passing examinations and getting a good job only, but ought also to show deep interest in the affairs of the nation.
Sharpe should also be a challenge to Jamaican Christians to ensure that their prayer meetings and Christian education opportunities are used to discuss injustices and inequalities, and how to help Jamaica to be a better country.
Rev Devon Dick is pastor of the Boulevard Baptist Church in St Andrew. He is author of ‘The Cross and the Machete’, and ‘Rebellion to Riot’. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.