Spotlight On: Baptist War video transcript

Hello, I’m Daniel Gilfoyle, one of the record specialists here at The National Archives, the special history in Colonial Office records and the history of the British Empire. Today we’re going to be looking at documents from our CO collection.

The documents in this collection all relate to the Colonial Office and cover the time period from around the mid-17th century all the way up to the 1960s when the Colonial Office was merged with the Foreign Office to form the Foreign Commonwealth Office. The Colonial Office was established in 1854 as a separate government department and was responsible for administering their former British colonies from London through communication with the colonial governors. Most of the Colonial Office collection consists of materials sent to the Colonial Office from the former colonies by the governors who headed up the various colonial governments. They may include letters or dispatches from the governors to the Colonial Office on government policy, notes on policy written by Colonial Office officials reports for events in the colonies, around specific topics like agriculture or public health, documents of the local governing assemblies and councils. The Colonial Office collection also includes an extensive collection of photographs dating from the 1860s all the way up to the 1960s. There is also a wide-ranging collection of maps dating from the mid-17th century.

So before we look at our example, notice that each of our documents has a specific identifier and in this case it’s CO 137/181, and that means that it’s a Colonial Office document – the CO stands for Colonial Office – and the 137 stands for the series of Jamaica original correspondence and the 181 is the 181st volume within that series.

This document relates to the Baptist War or Sam Sharpe’s War to overthrow slavery, which took place in Jamaica over Christmas 1831. It was led by the Black Baptist preacher Samuel Sharpe and was the largest scale rebellion against slavery in the British West Indies. Some sixty thousand of the enslaved took part. While this was brutally suppressed by the colonial authorities, the Baptist War made a deep impression in Britain and accelerated the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.

The document is a copy of the proclamation issued by Willoughby Cotton, the British military commander in Jamaica. It is dated 2nd of January 1832, when the colonial forces were engaged in suppressing the insurgency. You’ll notice it’s printed on quite a large sheet of paper and it’s actually a copy of a poster which was distributed throughout Jamaica. The proclamation is intended to intimidate the rebels into surrendering and offers amnesty to those who comply.

I think this is an important document because it tells us something about the colonial government’s attitude towards the insurgency. Cotton warns that news of imminent emancipation was false and he threatens those who have taken part with the death penalty: ‘all who are found with the rebels will be put to death without mercy.’ But I think it shows that the authorities had been shaken by the events, as Cotton offers amnesty to those who provide information.

Documents like this tell us something about the attitude of the colonial governance in Jamaica but little about the actions of those who took part in the insurgency. This volume however gives us a lot more detail about individual actions during the Baptist War. This document occurs four volumes later at CO 137/185. It is made up of the councillor trials or court martial that followed the rebellion. The individual trials include details of the actions of the participants and of the sentences that were meted out to them.

So for example on this page we find that Eliza James and Susan James were accused of stealing a jug of rum during the insurgency while the building was on fire. They were given quite severe senses of lashes and it shows I think the very severe attitude which the authorities took towards the insurgency. It therefore enables a more detailed account of what happened over Christmas of 1831 in Jamaica. But we may have also to keep in mind the context of the court and the circumstances in which evidence was given.

So these are just two of the many documents to be found in our Colonial Office collection, which can be used to find out more about resistance to slavery in the British Caribbean. These are official documents and they reflect an official view. The researcher may have to look to other sources to find the more personal voices and views of the enslaved.