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Christmas Rebellion
Part of North American slave revolts
DateDecember 25, 1831 – 4 January 1832
LocationColony of Jamaica
Result Slave defeat
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland British Military
Jamaican Government
Rebel Slaves
Commanders and leaders
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland Sir Willoughby Cotton Samuel Sharpe
Unknown 60,000
Casualties and losses
14 killed 207 killed
The Christmas Rebellion, also known as the Christmas Uprising and the Great Jamaican Slave Revolt of 1831–32, was a 8-day rebellion that mobilized as many as 60,000 of Jamaica's 300,000 slave population.[1] Led by 'native' Baptist preacher, Samuel Sharpe, it was waged largely, though not only, by his Baptist followers amongst the slaves.


The missionary-educated rebels were attuned to the abolitionist movement in London; their intention was to call a peaceful general strike.[2] Compared with their Presbyterian, Wesleyan, and Moravian counterparts, the greater propensity of Baptist slaves to mobilization may have reflected a higher level of absenteeism among white Baptist missionaries; the relative independence of Black deacons[2] facilitated greater slave ownership over religious life, including reinterpretations of Baptist theology away from European orthodoxy (for example, the emphasis placed on John the Baptist, sometimes at the expense of Jesus Christ[3]) Thomas Burchell, a missionary in Montego Bay returned from England following Christmas vacation. A wide expectation among the Baptist ministry was that he would return with papers for emancipation from King William. There was furthermore expectation that the King's men would enforce the order. Thus, discontent escalated when the Jamaican governor proclaimed that no emancipation had been granted.[4]

The strike

Led by 'native' Baptist preacher, Samuel Sharpe, blacks demanded more freedom and a working wage of "half the going wage rate", and promised the pastor not to return to work until their demands were met by the plantation owners. Upon refusal of their demands, the strike escalated into a full rebellion. It became the largest slave uprising in the British West Indies,[4] lasting 10 days and mobilized as many as 60,000 of Jamaica's 300,000 slave population.[1]

Suppression and death toll

The rebellion was suppressed with relative ease by British forces, under the control of Sir Willoughby Cotton.[5] The reaction of the Jamaican Government and plantocracy[2] was far more brutal. Approximately five hundred slaves were killed in total: 207 during the revolt and somewhere in the range between 310 and 340 slaves were killed through "various forms of judicial executions" after the rebellion was concluded, at times, for quite minor offences (one recorded execution indicates the crime being the theft of a pig; another, a cow).[6] An 1853 account by Henry Bleby described how three or four simultaneous executions were commonly observed; bodies would be allowed to pile up until workhouse negroes carted the bodies away at night and bury them in mass graves outside town.[4]

Only 14 whites were, however, killed by armed slave battalions during the course of the rebellion, which left property damage estimated in the Jamaican Assembly summary report in March 1832 at £1,154,589 (equaling roughly £52,000,000 in modern terms).[7]

Many missionaries came under suspicion by the planters. Some, such as William Knibb, were arrested but later released. Groups of white colonials destroyed chapels that housed slave congregations.[8]


The brutality of the plantocracy during the revolt is thought to have accelerated the process of emancipation, with initial measures beginning in 1833, followed by partial emancipation (outright for children six or under, six years apprenticeship for the rest) in 1834, and then unconditional emancipation of chattel slavery in 1838.

In Literature

Andrea Levy's 2010 novel The Long Song recounts, through a fictional narrative, the events of the Baptist War.


  1. 1.0 1.1 Barry W. Higman, "Slave Populations of the British Caribbean, 1807–1834", Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Autumn, 1985), pp. 365–367
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Craton, Michael. Testing the Chains: Resistance to Slavery in the British West Indies (Cornell University Press, 1983), pp. 297–98
  3. Turner, Mary. Slaves and Missionaries: the disintegration of Jamaican slave society, 1787–1834 (University of Illinois Press, 1982), p. 81
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Révauger, Cécile (October 2008). The Abolition of Slavery – The British Debate 1787–1840. Presse Universitaire de France. pp. 107–108. ISBN 978-2-13-057110-0. 
  5. "An End to Slavery – 1816–1836: Jamaica Reluctantly Makes History by Freeing its Slaves". 
  6. Mary Reckord. "The Jamaican Slave Rebellion of 1831", Past & Present (July 1968), 40(3): pp. 122, 124–125.
  7. Turner (1982) p.121
  8. Masters, P., 2006: Missionary triumph over slavery. Wakeman Trust, London. ISBN 1-870855-53-1. pp17-23

Further reading

  • Reckord, Mary "The Jamaican Slave Rebellion of 1831," Past and Present (July 1968), 40(3): pp. 108–125.
  • Turner, Mary. Slaves and missionaries : the disintegration of Jamaican slave society, 1787–1834 (University of Illinois Press, 1982).
  • Short, K.R.M. "Jamaican Christian Missions and the Great Slave Rebellion of 1831–2," Journal of Ecclesiastical History, (1976), 27(1): pp. 57–72.
  • Craton, Michael. The Economics of Emancipation: Jamaica and Barbados, 1823–1843 (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1995).
  • Gad Heuman. "A Tale of Two Jamaican Rebellions," Jamaican Historical Review (1996), 19: pp. 1–8.
  • Junius P. Rodriguez, ed. Encyclopedia of Slave Resistance and Rebellion. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2006.
  • Hochschild, Adam (2005). Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery. Houghton Miffin, New York. pp. 338–343. 

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