Slavery’s End: On Tom Zoellner’s “Island on Fire”
By Charmaine McKenzieOctober 13, 2020
Island on Fire by Tom Zoellner
Sharpe’s influence has also been traced in the development of modern liberation theology, his actions seen as a precursor to 20th-century nonviolent freedom fights such as the American Civil Rights movement and liberation struggles throughout Latin America. Brathwaite’s work has spawned a lively historiography of the Christmas uprising and its aftermath, much of which links the struggle in Jamaica to other Black resistance efforts in the Atlantic region, often focusing on the religious groups involved in these events (i.e., Baptists, Methodists, and the Colonial Church Union). Fred Kennedy’s Daddy Sharpe: A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Samuel Sharpe, A West Indian Slave Written by Himself, 1832 (2008), a work of historical fiction, brought Sharpe to life through extensive and imaginative use of primary and secondary sources, and Sharpe’s place in history continues to be a fertile area for study as the meaning of the movement he led continues to be examined.
Tom Zoellner, the most recent writer to study this uprising, has produced, in his new book, Island on Fire: The Revolt that Ended Slavery in the British Empire, a comprehensive account of Sharpe’s life and world and the aftermath of the largest slave uprising to follow the Haitian Revolution. Zoellner has set out to show that
Sam Sharpe’s movement was not predicated on anything more than seeking liberty for himself and his fellow enslaved people and, second, that it sent an unambiguous message to London that slavery was no longer sustainable[.] […] Sharpe’s rebellion did not spur emancipation all by itself, but it certainly hastened the forces that were already in play.
Zoellner explores the idea that Sharpe lost control of the movement, which spiraled into violence, bringing about a reckoning that convinced the British public that slavery could no longer be countenanced, thus hastening its abolition. Sharpe’s plot was rooted in nonviolent idealism, inspired by Baptist salvation theology.
Drawing on an extensive list of sources, Zoellner makes his argument very convincingly. He is a compelling storyteller who writes in a clear, easy style that will appeal to readers who shy away from “dry” historical texts. Zoellner brings the story to life in 13 chapters that examine the usual themes analyzed by others before him; his treatment, however, has produced a book that reads more like a novel than a work of history.
Island on Fire falls into three main parts, with the first five chapters laying the foundation, the next four examining the details of the events, and the final four the aftermath. In the introductory chapter, Zoellner sketches a portrait of early 19th-century England changing rapidly under the pressure of new technologies such as the railway, photography, telegraphy, and steam, and with an emerging middle class demanding political representation. We are also introduced to the settler colony of Jamaica, a dangerous and unhealthy place where vast amounts of money could be readily made — if one survived the fevers that many succumbed to — through the mass production of sugar to meet the insatiable demand of English and European consumers. Life in Jamaica changed fortunes and made noblemen out of nobodies.
Zoellner details the violence meted out to Black slaves, arguing that the cruelty witnessed by new settlers on arrival in the West Indies led to “personality distortions,” with “[p]eople who would have been horrified at the idea of whipping another human […] soon doing it themselves.” It must be noted, however, that the system from which the English settlers came was no less cruel, so such violence was, indeed, familiar. But the power relations that developed as part of a plantation society enabled the settlers to become perpetrators of cruelty themselves.
Samuel Sharpe is introduced in the second chapter. We see the influence of the church on his life, as well as on the lives of so many other enslaved people. Sharpe’s personal charisma, combined with the social advantage of literacy, placed him in a leadership role among his people; trusted by his masters, he had some freedom of movement, which helped facilitate the events of Christmas 1831. Zoellner’s portrait of Sharpe is set against the backdrop of the antislavery movement in England. We meet Elizabeth Heyrick, a little-known Quaker woman opposed to slavery, who promoted a boycott of sugar. Zoellner traces the process of sugar production, from the planting of cane to the production of sugar crystals, and explains its links with the system of slavery. He traces the formation of slave society and the constant fear in which whites in Jamaica lived, since resistance was endemic among the enslaved, who constantly sought agency over their lives. Tacky’s Rebellion, in 1760, preceded Sam Sharpe’s, and the possibility of revolt was therefore always in the mind of white settlers.
Zoellner considers the possibility that Sharpe’s plan may have been a two-stage one, starting out with a strike that would develop into a more expansive fight for freedom if attempts were made to force the slaves to work. Sharpe’s access to information via his literacy led his followers to believe his claims that they had been set free by the king but that their masters were denying them their freedom. Zoellner chronicles the escalation of events, the extent of Sharpe’s influence, and the fear among whites of an imminent uprising. He also analyzes the role of Baptist missionary William Knibb, whose inability to sway his members from their belief that he was in league with the planters to deny the Blacks their freedom helped lead to the inevitable conclusion. The climax occurs in the ninth chapter, which covers the execution of Sharpe and many other Blacks in a slaughter that opened the eyes of the British public to the horrors of slavery.
Zoellner traces the organization of activities leading up to the strike and the ensuing battle, with the slaves resorting to guerrilla tactics, such as burning trash houses in order to impede the production of sugar. The fires, in Zoellner’s view, were geared to halt the core rationale for bondage, making the enslaved economically irrelevant to their masters. Zoellner also analyzes the confusion in the ideology and tactics of the movement, exploring the network of strong Black leaders who had different ideas than Sharpe about possible outcomes. The key role Black women played in the conflict is evident throughout, as scouts, planners, and fighters who often met the same violent ends as their male counterparts. For Zoellner, the few white lives that were lost provides proof of the persistence of Sharpe’s nonviolent ideology.
The five weeks of insurrection and the ideology of liberty spread by Sharpe did, indeed, succeed in shattering a “myth of invincibility” among whites, which made it difficult for the system of slavery to continue. But the end of the uprising only signified, in the words of Henry Bleby, “hope deferred.” The fires and destruction caused by the Blacks were followed by yet more fires and destruction carried out by the white authorities, in reprisal against the rebellious slaves and the missionaries who were seen as their sympathizers. In Britain, however, these violent reprisals only intensified the efforts of abolitionists, who stirred public sentiment against the institution of slavery while also convincing influential people that the brutal system was beneficial to neither Blacks nor whites.
The intensification of abolitionist efforts, particularly the tireless resolve of missionaries such as Knibb, coupled with the decline of the influence of the West India Interest in the British Parliament, contributed to the hastening of slavery’s abolition. The fight in the Jamaica Assembly to sustain the status quo also failed. Zoellner takes us through the struggles of the so-called “apprenticeship” period up to the achievement of full emancipation on August 1, 1838. Interestingly, he includes a “Where are they now?” section that details the fates of the main characters in his story, to the extent that this information is available. His liberal provision of biographical information sustains the reader’s interest, offering insight into the motivations of characters involved in the enterprise of slavery and its epochal dismantling. This approach enriches the work.
In his epilogue, Zoellner assesses the role the events of Christmas 1831 had in bringing about the end of roughly three centuries of slavery, examining the perspectives of historians on the subject. He engages with the knotty questions raised by the imperfect and limited historical record. He also discusses what Sharpe means in the consciousness of Jamaicans today, with a particular focus on the views of academics and theologians. Although Zoellner takes no position on the question of whether Sharpe was an intentional revolutionary, he is clear, as are others, that Sharpe’s actions led to revolution within Jamaica and outside it, paving the way for future revolutions.
At times, the author’s language is imprecise; for example, he uses the word “sugar” to refer to both the raw material, the cane, and to the final refined product. Also, his chronology is sometimes not as specific as it could be. In a discussion of the opportunities for Black autonomy, for example, he states that the enslaved population held 20 percent of the silver coins in circulation, but the period when this occurred is unclear. While he is usually alert to the prevailing power relations, at one point he describes teenage white boys “sleeping with” enslaved girls, an expression that obscures the inequality and exploitation that informed sexual relations between white settlers and Black slaves.
But these are minor complaints. Zoellner’s prescient engagement with the concepts of memory, memorializing, erasure, and forgetting provides a salutary reminder of an ugly history that remains highly relevant today in the way Black peoples across the world live and are treated. Indeed, Zoellner brings his discussion up to the present, with an account of the 2017 commemoration of the 186th anniversary of the events of Christmas 1831. Island on Fire is a welcome and important contribution to the scholarship on Samuel Sharpe and the project of freedom to which he dedicated his life.
Charmaine McKenzie is a PhD candidate in the Department of History and Archaeology at The University of the West Indies (Mona Campus), where she is currently coordinator of the Office of Online Learning.
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