Slavery and Revolution

The Baptist War

The Baptist War in Jamaica was the largest uprising by enslaved people ever to take place in the British Caribbean.

Beginning at the end of 1831 and led mainly by enslaved converts to the Baptist Church, the rebellion had an important influence on parliamentary debates that led to the Emancipation Bill in 1833.

The uprising began two days after Christmas, when thousands of people across the parish of St James and the surrounding countryside refused to continue to work as slaves. Many attacked white property, and some confronted the local militia.

Their over-arching demand was immediate emancipation.

It was a carefully orchestrated challenge to the British slave system that struck terror into local whites, who retreated to the port town of Montego Bay.

But in January of 1832, the rebellion crumbled. Most of the insurgent rank-and-file surrendered soon after regular British troops arrived in St James to begin a determined counter-insurgency operation. During the suppression, about 200 enslaved people were summarily killed by the regulars and militia, while more than 340 were captured and later executed, following hasty courts-martial and trials carried on in the civil courts.

The Baptist War is an example of how enslaved people, despite their exclusion from formal politics, found ways to participate in a rapidly evolving transatlantic struggle over the future of slavery. Their politics of resistance was one part of a clandestine political culture through which enslaved people sought to shape, and even to transform, the power structures that defined their lives.

A contemporary map of the district of the Baptist War, showing properties damaged or destroyed during the uprising. The original document is in the custody of the Norfolk Record Office: catalogue reference MEA 6/31.