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Black history month post: on Jamaican history

Black history month post: on Jamaican history

Jamaica timeline

A chronology of key events:

1494 – Christopher Columbus sights Jamaica.

1509 – Jamaica occupied by the Spaniards under a licence from Columbus's son; much of the indigenous Arawak community dies off from exposure to European diseases (OP: actually it is more likely that this took place as a result of several factors including the fact that they were enslaved by the Spanish); African slaves brought in to work on the sugar plantations.

1655 – Jamaica is captured by the British.

1670 – Jamaica formally ceded to the British in accordance with the Treaty of Madrid.

1692 – Port Royal, once the busiest trading centre of the British West Indies and infamous for general debauchery, is devastated by an earthquake.

1838 – Slavery abolished.

1865 – The British ruthlessly put down the Morant Bay rebellion, staged by freed slaves in response to acute hardship, and force the local legislature to surrender its powers; Jamaica becomes a crown colony.

1870 – Banana plantations set up as the sugar cane industry declines in the face of competition from European beet sugar.

1884 – New constitution marks the initial revival of local autonomy.

1938 – Serious riots caused by unemployment and resentment against British racial policies; People's National Party (PNP) founded by Norman Manley.

1944 – Universal adult suffrage introduced; new constitution providing for a popularly-elected House of Representatives promulgated.

1958 – Jamaica becomes a member of the British-sponsored Federation of the West Indies.

1961 – Jamaica withdraws from the Federation of the West Indies.


1962 – Jamaica becomes independent within the British Commonwealth with Alexander Bustamante of the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) as prime minister.

(More on Jamaican history can be found here and here.)

The maroons of Jamaica

Trelawney Town, settlement for runaway slaves in Jamaica,1800, from The History…of the British Colonies in the West Indies, by Brian Edwards. Trelawney Town was the largest of the Maroon settlements in Jamaica. The Maroons were escaped slaves, who ran away from their Spanish-owned plantations when the British took Jamaica from Spain in 1655. They fought against recapture for many years.

Leonard Parkinson, Captain of the Maroons by H Smith. Parkinson was one of the leaders of the Jamaican Maroons, who maintained their freedom and independence against British troops for 100 years. (The word maroon means escaped slave and comes from a Spanish word meaning mountaineers. The slaves escaped from their plantations to the mountains and formed independant communities of free people.)

Engraving on paper called, Pacification with the Maroon Negros, by Agostino Brunyas. The Maroons were runaway slaves who established independent communities. In Jamaica, the original Maroons had run away from their owners when the British took the island from the Spanish in 1655. They built their homes in the mountains, and resisted recapture by the British for over 100 years. Following ten years of fighting, from 1730 to 1739 (the first Maroon war), the British accepted the situation and made a treaty with the Maroon community, giving them land and recognising their freedom. As part of that treaty, the Maroons pledged to recapture runaway slaves.

The Maroons were escaped slaves. They ran away from their Spanish-owned plantations when the British took the Caribbean island of Jamaica from Spain in 1655. The word maroon comes from the Spanish word ‘cimarrones‘, which meant ‘mountaineers’. They fled to the mountainous areas of Jamaica, where it was difficult for their owners to follow and catch them, and formed independent communities as free men and women.

As more slaves were imported from Africa to work on the developing sugar plantations, and the population of enslaved Africans grew on Jamaica, there were more rebellions by the slaves. Some of the rebel slaves disappeared into the mountains and joined the Maroon communities. As the Maroon population grew, the Jamaican government decided to defeat the Maroons once and for all. They were seen as a constant threat by the government. The First Maroon War began in 1728. The campaign against them made the Maroons more determined than ever. Under their leader called Cudjoe, the Maroons fought back. In 1739, the British and the Maroons made peace. The freedom of the Maroons was recognised and their land was given to them. The Maroons were to govern themselves. In return they would support the British government in Jamaica against foreign invasion and would help capture rebel slaves and runaways from the plantations and return them to their owners. Although this agreement might seem strange now, it was one way for the Maroons to live in peace with the island’s government.

Pictured here is a drawing entitled Pacification with the Maroon Negroes, dated 1801. It is an imaginary view of a meeting between British soldiers and Maroons. It is not clear whether it is meant to be of the 1739 or the 1795 peace agreement. The leaders of the Maroons did meet British officers to accept a peace agreement offered to them.
There were many years of peace between the Maroons and the British in Jamaica. But, in 1795, the new Governor of Jamaica, Balcarres, decided to deal with some minor breaches of the peace treaty by a community of Maroons called the Trelawney Town Maroons. The plantation owners asked the governor not to take action. They felt that an agreement should be reached with the Maroons to maintain the peace of the town. The governor went ahead against this advice, arresting several of the leaders of Trelawney Town. This started the Second Maroon War. 300 Maroons in Trelawney Town held out against 1500 troops and 3000 local volunteer troops. After five months of fighting, the undefeated Maroons were offered an agreement for peace. When they surrendered their arms, the Governor cheated on the peace agreement offered. The Maroons were arrested and, against the agreement they had accepted, were transported off the island to Nova Scotia, on the east coast of north America, and later went to Sierra Leone, West Africa. Leonard Parkinson was one of the leaders of the Maroons, he was active in the Second Maroon War. The local authorities put a price on his head of £50, (about £2,500 today), wanted dead or alive. Parkinson, pictured here, was known as the Captain of the Maroons.

Trelawney Town was the largest of the Maroon settlements on the island of Jamaica. The image pictured here of Trelawney Town shows the British soldiers riding in to attack the town. The Maroons are surrounding them, ready to resist, and would beat them back. Maroons were known for their skilful tactics in combat, whereby they relied on their knowledge of the surrounding environment to outwit the attackers.

(More about the Maroons can be found here, here, here, and here.)

Sam Sharpe – Emancipation Hero


THE OUTSTANDING leader of the 1831 Christmas slave revolt, often referred to as the 'Baptist War' because of the denomination of most participants, was Deacon Samuel 'Daddy' Sharpe.
Samuel Sharpe, was an enslaved person who fought for freedom by organising a general strike in Jamaica. He was born in Jamaica in 1801 and brought up in Montego Bay. He was a literate and well respected deacon who was in charge of a missionary chapel in Montego Bay.

He learned to read and write and became known as an inspirational Baptist preacher, who amazed people with the power of his sermons. He travelled widely throughout his parish, speaking about the injustices of slavery and pointing out that the Bible said 'no man can serve two masters'.


Sharpe argued that the Bible proclaimed the natural equality of men, and denied the right of whites to hold blacks in bondage. He persistently quoted the text, 'No man can serve two masters', which became a slogan among slaves. Sharpe also read newspapers of the day, and came to believe that Britain had freed the slaves, or planned to do so. His sense of urgency was also fuelled by violently anti-abolitionist planters, who openly talked of joining the United States as a slave state, thus postponing emancipation indefinitely. Rumours even spread among slaves that whites planned to kill all black men and keep the women and children in bondage.

What Sharpe had envisaged, a century before Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, was a movement of passive resistance, a sit down strike of all the slaves in the western parishes. He hoped to force the plantation owners to pay them for their work, and thus affirm their freedom. Drivers on each estate were delegated to tell overseers returning from the three-day Christmas holidays that slaves would work no more without wages.

Fight for their freedom

However, if an attempt was made to force them back to the fields as slaves, they would fight for their freedom. To this end, a black regiment about 150-strong was formed, with 50 guns among them, led by Thomas Dove and Robert Gardiner. It was believed that royal troops would not fight the slaves whom the king had freed, so only the planter militia might challenge them in the field. No one was to be killed, except in self-defence. Word was spread in nightly prayer meetings, and Sharpe swore conspirators to secrecy by asking them to 'kiss the book'.

However, rumours reached the planters. Troops were sent into St James in case of trouble, and warships were anchored in the harbour. On the last night of the holidays December 27, the occupants of Kensington Great House fled to Montego Bay, and the St James militia marched on the estate to ensure slaves returned to work. The slaves reacted to the militia's presence by setting fire to Kensington estate, which was located on the highest hill in St James. By midnight, 16 other western estates were burning, and a rebellion was on the way, led by some of Sharpe's most trusted lieutenants.

The rebels routed the first militia that confronted them, and roamed over the countryside, destroying plantations. Terrified planters and their families fled, leaving 50,000 slaves suddenly freed and uncertain what to do. Sharpe moved among the estates, counselling and praying, but matters were now beyond his control. Martial law was declared, and the untrained and uncoordinated rebel forces were soon overwhelmed by superior military force. Armed resistance was virtually at an end by the first week of January.

Though property destruction was widespread, loss of life was very low, and even armed rebels fought only against whites who attacked them. Those offering no opposition met with no harm, and there were only two acts of violence against whites throughout. This restraint was noted by a Presbyterian missionary:

"Had the masters when they got the upper hand been as forbearing, as tender of their slaves' lives as their slaves had been of theirs, it would have been to their lasting honour, and to the permanent advantage of the colony".

The civil authorities retaliated brutally. While fewer than 20 whites were killed in the revolt, nearly 600 slaves were executed in its aftermath. Perhaps influenced by the jailing of white missionaries like William Knibb and Thomas Burchell, Sam Sharpe gave himself up to the authorities. He admitted responsibility, cleared the missionaries of any blame, and said destruction of life and property was not part of his plan.

Road to freedom

Even in jail he never lost his composure, praying and preaching to his fellow prisoners. On May 23, 1832, he was hanged, having told Bleby, 'I would rather die upon yonder gallows than live in slavery.' His body is said to have been removed from its original burial place to a grave beneath the pulpit of the Montego Bay Baptist Church. The location of his gallows is now the Sam Sharpe Square in Montego Bay.

Although an ostensible failure, Sam Sharpe's rebellion was the final hammer blow on the door to freedom. If moral arguments were not sufficient, the threat of more such rebellions made slavery obviously untenable. On August 29, 1833, less than two years after Sharpe's death, the House of Commons passed the bill to free all British Empire slaves.

(More about Sam Sharpe can be found here, here, and here.)

Source: ONTD_Political

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