Island on Fire by Tom Zoellner

Jamaica in the late 18th and early 19th century was dubbed the ‘suburbs of hell.’ It was a debauched British colony full of horrors: yellow fever, piracy, and heinous slavery. After stealing the island from the Spanish, the British colonial authorities left the island to rot as the slums of the empire, a wretched place far from the swashbuckling image of Jamaica we see in movies like Pirates of the Caribbean.

In the lush tropical landscape, the despicable slave trade was rampant due to the abundance of sugar, the drug of the British middle and upper class. British plantation owners in Jamaica became extremely wealthy off the stolen lives of 800,000 slaves, who toiled in unbearable heat under the whip of sadistic and cruel slave drivers who committed unspeakable crimes against humanity in the name of profit. 

This hellish island became the scene of the biggest slave revolt seen in the British Empire. Led by a man named Samuel Sharpe, a slave and religious leader, the rebellion had peaceful intentions, but nevertheless led to a brutal and bloody crackdown from colonial authorities. But ultimately, it was successful: just two years later, the British government in London made slavery illegal throughout the Empire. 

white boat on body of water near green palm trees
Jamaica

Zoellner tells the story of these events with passion, conjuring the feelings and emotions behind events that shook the foundations of the world’s largest ever Empire. He details the background of the slave trade, and the horrific conditions and brutal lives of the Africans who were removed from their homes, shipped across the Atlantic and forced to work in unimaginably awful circumstances.

But we also see the viewpoints of the Britons at home, who were very divided over the cause of slavery. The liberal establishment and working class movements of the time organised boycotts of sugar, the ‘blood-sweetened’ product of the African slave trade. But the slave owners had too much financial and political power, and much bigger – and more tragic – events had to occur for real change to take place. 

Some of the leading characters in this account are the British missionaries, who in teaching slaves Christianity and how to write, taught them that they should expect basic decency afforded to human beings. Slaves started to question the appalling conditions in which they were being kept and the ‘growth of literacy caused an awakening’ for the enslaved population, Zoellner says, helping the fuel the fire that eventually engulfed the practice of slavery itself. 

The charismatic Sharpe became a missionary himself, teaching the importance of freedom to his fellow slaves. He read news and debates against slavery from British newspapers. He even told slaves that they had been freed, claiming that white plantation owners in Jamaica were keeping them enslaved illegally. While untrue, this was hugely effective in creating hope. He organised a peaceful strike, which rapidly spiralled into a highly organised, military uprising, but one which remained largely peaceful, focussing on property damage rather than violent fighting. 

The rebellion itself was unprecedented, as thousands of slaves stopped working and demanded payment for the labor, as well as fair treatment. There was of course an utterly appalling response from the British army, another shameful chapter in Britain’s imperial history. 

Amazingly, the revolt led to the death of just 14 white people, an amazingly peaceful demonstration from the enslaved population which vastly outnumbered the white Jamaican population. But hundreds of slaves were massacred in the aftermath, even those who had tried to protect their master’s property from other rebellious slaves. Instant executions and forced confessions were used to stamp down on rebellion, and the uprising was eventually quelled. 

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A message left by the British, warning rebellious slaves to surrender

Finally, Zoellner tells us the political story of how the most powerful empire the world had ever seen went from being in hoc to slave traders, to abolishing the practice entirely. The news of the uprising took months to reach Britain, but it caused major shockwaves. Some pro-slavery advocates, like King William 4th, doubled down on their belief slavery should not be abolished due to the unpredictable consequences. But abolitionists saw an opportunity to push for emancipation, as did the Baptist’s who had taught slaves Christianity.

In less than a month Parliament was reviewing the practice slavery in the West Indies. As Zoellner says: ‘never before had enslaved people spoken so loudly in Britain’, despite the efforts of Jamaica’s ruling class.

 Baptists like William Knibb lead the debate in favour of abolishment, and the passing of the Great Reform Bill helped to weaken the pro slavery grip the plantation owners had on parliament in London. Over one million Brits signed petitions or marched against slavery in total, nearly ten percent of the population. 

Eventually, Parliament finally abolished slavery across the British empire, but on terms far too favourable for the despicable slave owners, with a financial settlement of over £20 million to slaveowners, money that the British government didn’t finish paying until 2015. The slaves weren’t even fully free, but forced to continue working for free under a period of apprenticeship which didn’t come to an end until 1838, 5 years later, and excluding slaves owned by the East India Company.

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Contemporary newspaper coverage of the slave abolition act passing

Even at the time abolitionists thought this grotesque, believing the enslaved should get compensated rather than their owners. The transition period was a total failure, and is rarely talked about in modern Britain today. It seems we prefer to remember the banning of slavery as a glorious moral crusade, not a painful political compromise. But slavery was eventually ended, hastened by a brave rebellion.

Island on Fire’ is the kind of history that should be taught in every school. It explores the brutality of empire, the hope of freedom and the political struggle that lead to emancipation. Everyone in Jamaica is taught about Samuel Sharpe, but sadly in Britain I would guess most people have no idea about him, most probably wouldn’t know Jamaica was once owned by Britain. This book is highly recommended. 

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