Sharpe’s rebellion in Jamaica highlighted the plight of slaves

Shameful history: the former plantations in Jamaica look like paradise today, but under 19th-century British rule they used brutalised slaves to make a few people very rich 

SUNDAY SUPPLEMENT: Concluding his tour of places around the world named after Croydon, DAVID MORGAN takes a look at a former plantation in Jamaica and its links to a famous slave uprising

One of the popular destinations for tourists today in Jamaica is the Croydon Estate. A two-hour drive from Montego Bay up into the foothills of the Catadupa mountains, it proudly advertises itself as an eco-friendly site where you can connect with nature.

As you tour the grounds, you can see 19 different varieties of pineapple, together with coffee plants and wildflowers. There are panoramic views and trickling waterfalls, with the tour concluding with a buffet feast that celebrates traditional Jamaican cooking.

But the history of the Croydon Estate is very much grimmer than the modern-day idyll.

Set up in the late 18th century, the first crop was sugar, which was grown, harvested and sent for export from Montego Bay using slave labour. The extensive Legacy of British Slavery database compiled by University College, London, allows us to look at the early history of the estate.

Jamaica is an island divided into three counties: Cornwall, Surrey and Middlesex. These are subdivided into 14 parishes. Croydon is in the county of Cornwall and the parish of St James. A list of the sugar plantations in the parish of St James from 1774 does not contain the name “Croydon”, as it was then a part of the Easthams Estate.

The owner was named as Thomas Joseph Grey. The 1774 data shows that Easthams was one of the smaller plantations in St James, producing 80 hogsheads of sugar. Blocks of sugar were packed into large wooden barrels, known as hogsheads. Each barrel would weigh between 80lb and 150lb – nearly 70kg.

Slave destination: Montego Bay 250 years ago

Grey was described in 1774 as a pen, someone who provided the necessary supplies and equipment to keep the sugar works operating and then transporting the barrels to a port for export. The records show that 82 people were enslaved at the estate that year.

Thomas Joseph Grey is listed in the LBS records as a resident slave-owner and in 1826 as a merchant of Jamaica. He would have been a young man of about 20 years of age when he owned Easthams back in 1774. The LBS records go on to state that although Grey was legally the owner, the Easthams Estate was placed in the hands of trustees from 1786-1796. No reason was given for this.

We know Grey married Katherine Cleland, although the date of their wedding is uncertain. One of their sons, Samuel Cleland Grey, spent time in the British Army. He was listed as a Captain, on half-pay, in the 71st Regiment before transferring to the 29th in 1829. He later ran plantations himself. They also had a daughter, Elizabeth, and at least two other sons, James and Charles.

Thomas Grey’s name appears in many places in the Jamaica Almanac.

In 1796, at the time of the Napoleonic Wars when France and Great Britain were in conflict around the world through their colonies, Thomas Grey was listed as a Major in the Jamaica Militia. In 1802, he was given the post of Assistant Commissary-General.

Freedom fighter: Sam Sharpe bravely led the slave strike and rebellion of 1831. He is now a Jamaican national hero, with a square in Montego Bay named in his honour

Ten years later he was promoted to the rank of Colonel in the St James’ Regiment. His name was found on the magistrates’ lists, he was a vestryman in the parish church and a director of the Close Bay Shipping Company.

Grey appeared not to have any links with our Croydon, as his father was of Scottish descent.

One of the national heroes of Jamaica, celebrated today with a statue and a square named after him did have a particular link with the Croydon Estate.

The changes in attitudes in this country which led to the eventual abolition of slavery also encouraged protests by the slaves in Jamaica. One of the best-known of these protests was the Christmas Rebellion of December 1831.

What began as a peaceful protest with a strike, a withdrawal of labour, escalated into a full-scale rebellion. This resulted in the burning of the Kensington Estate before the violence spread to other areas, eventually engulfing the entire western end of the island.

Compensation: slave owners received thousands of pounds after abolition. The slaves never got a penny

The estate owners and the colonial authorities were so fearful for their lives that they took a terrible retribution after the rebellion was over. More than 300 slaves were hanged for their part in the uprising. One of them was a Baptist preacher, Sam Sharpe, and it is his statue that stands today in a town square in Montego Bay which is named after him.

Sharpe was born into slavery in the parish of St James in 1801. He taught himself to read and write and became a deacon in the Baptist Church while still young.

He was aware of the rise of the Abolitionist movement in London and, through the meetings at his Baptist church, organised a peaceful general strike, which was to begin on Christmas Day 1831. He demanded freedom for the thousands of slaves, a proper wage to be paid to them, and he informed the estate managers and owners that their labour would be withheld until their demands were met.

News of Sharpe’s plan spread quickly and many more slaves joined the strike than even he had first enviaged.

The planters and managers got wind of what Sharpe was doing and British warships were dispatched to Montego Bay. Once the Kensington Estate was set alight on Boxing Day, there was no chance that the protest would remain peaceful. There were several bloody confrontations and more 200 slaves and 14 planters were killed in the fighting.

Sharpe’s followers were no match for the well-armed British troops. Slaves were rounded up. Many of the 300 or so who were hanged had their heads cut off. These were distributed by the army to the plantations and estates to be displayed and act as a warning to any future protesters.

The Gazette newspaper, reporting on the uprising, printed the following: “Samuel Sharpe was the active person in this scene who seemed to have command of them, belonging, I was told, to T G Grey Esq of Croydon in St. James and who is, so I understand, a ruler, so called, of the sect of Baptists.”

Posters offering a reward for Sharpe’s capture were displayed in many towns, villages and estates. The information on it included the reference that he was born on the Croydon Estate. Other historians appear uncertain about this statement, as they couldn’t find evidence to back it up. What is certain is that Sharpe was a slave on Grey’s estate when the protest began.

Sharpe was eventually arrested in May 1831. He, too, was hanged.

Noted: Jamaica’s Sam Sharpe $50 bill

In 1975, he was named as a National Hero of Jamaica, with his face appearing on $50 bills.

Two years after Sharpe was hanged, the Westminster Parliament passed the Abolition Bill and in 1838 slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire. There were many who thought the Christmas rebellion and the retribution that followed helped to change more minds and bring forward the Abolition Bill sooner.

The ending of slavery did not bring an end to controversy, though. Former slaves were forced into becoming “apprentices”, where they would have to work for their former master for up to six years. The British Government borrowed more than £20million to pay compensation – not compensation to the slaves, but to the wealthy slave owners. It was such a huge loan that it took until 2015 for the British people to finish paying it off.

Under this compensation scheme, Samuel Clement Grey was paid about £600 –  worth more than £85,000 today.

His father, by now a very old man, put in a claim for £1,860 8s 4d. But he was turned down.

But his wife received £298 0s 1d.

Tourist destination: the Croydon Estate today is an ecological visitor centre

Many well-known figures were awarded compensation for the freeing of their slaves. Sir John Gladstone, the father of the Victorian Prime Minister William Gladstone, had owned 2,508 slaves in British Guiana (today’s Guyana) and Jamaica. He received a payment of £106,769, equivalent to £10.3million today.

Not one penny was paid to those who were enslaved and brutalized.

The Croydon Estate has moved on from its slavery days. Society, though, has taken much longer to readjust and to admit its errors.

Nobody owned slaves by mistake. They did it because it made them money, and lots of it.

The idea of “owning” another person is still found throughout the world today. Too many people decide to exploit others for their own gain. Sam Sharpe had a better vision for his Croydon. We should never forget it.

  • David Morgan, pictured right, is a former Croydon headteacher, now the volunteer education officer at Croydon Minster, who offers tours or illustrated talks on the history around the Minster for local community groups

If you would like a group tour of Croydon Minster or want to book a school visit, then ring the Minster Office on 020 688 8104 or go to the website on and use the contact page

Other articles by David Morgan on Croydons around the world:

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1 Response to Sharpe’s rebellion in Jamaica highlighted the plight of slaves

  1. Ian Kierans says:

    David makes some interesting points in the narrative and with relations heralading from the region it is interesting.

    One point struck me though.
    ”The British Government borrowed more than £20million to pay compensation – not compensation to the slaves, but to the wealthy slave owners. It was such a huge loan that it took until 2015 for the British people to finish paying it off”.

    So 175 years it took to repay that loan main from taxation. Taxation from mainly the general populace of great Britain. Us – including me you and everone reading this article in Croydon. No matter where we came from or what colour. All of us.

    You have to think we paid off the lend lease debt from the great war before we paid of that debt to a small group of individuals that misused position privelidge and power.

    Today with Perry’s 15% and no voice we do the same. Fantastic progress made in this great country of ours.

    If anyone thinks that Colour was the prime reason they would be very wrong. One only has to look at what empires and colonialism did to other countries also where the population was white, Asian Oriental and Black.

    No in nearly every instance the prime motovation was a lot of money to a very small few capable and allowed to misuse power and position. Colour Religion Class, Royalty Position are just rationales for doing wrong and wanting to get away with it.

    From the Egyptian Pharoes to what anyone can see in this modern world including kidnapping women and children and making sex slaves of them.

    The biggest modern deceptive phrase uttered by politicians and those in authority is ” we need to learn lessons this this”

    Clearly not many lessons have been learned.

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