Tom Zoellner’s book Island on Fire is an important contribution to our understanding of what Saidiya Hartman has described as the “afterlife” of slavery. Zoellner documents in vivid detail the base violence and inhumanity of institutionalized slavery in plantation-era Jamaica. But he also tells a story of irrepressible resistance and self-organization that generated the slave rebellion of 1831.
It was a mass uprising that became a critical turning point in the demise of a system that had sustained Europe’s empires for centuries. Island on Fire is not light reading. The details recounted by Zoellner, who draws on extensive historical documentation, are often harrowing. However, his storytelling ability makes this history extremely readable, if not less painful.
Suburb of Hell
The author describes white plantation society in colonial Jamaica as “a suburb of Hell,” where “the stultifying class system that reigned back home in England was completely reframed in the West Indies.” The main defining characteristic of this colonial society was the accumulation of black Africans as slave property and the use of their labor. One clear mark of class privilege among the plantation owners was absenteeism: those who could afford to leave the island, “the moneyed overclass,” would return to England.
Nine out of ten Jamaicans were enslaved. The island’s system of rule rested on coercion without even a semblance of consent. It was therefore inherently unstable. The resident white plantocracy ruled colonial Jamaica as a small minority living in constant fear of the slave population upon whom their wealth and privilege depended. Zoellner compares these structural features of Jamaica in the early 1800s to conditions in the US South, with a slave population accounting for 33 percent of the total — a region where, in contrast, “freehold farms and small artisanal businesses coexisted with large plantations.”
The Jamaican colonial ruling class displayed a “know-nothingness,” relying purely on coercion through “the hands of plantation bosses and their muskets and whips,” in a way that was comparable to frontier settlements. British colonialism chiefly meted out its violence and pernicious greed against the kidnapped and enslaved bodies of black Africans, but it was also not uncommon for guns to be drawn when disputes broke out between local white political figures.
Jamaica’s original name in the language of the Taino people, Xaymaca, means “land of wood and water.” As a British colony, it possessed extensive, fertile land and masses of capital, but lacked sufficient labor after the destruction of the indigenous population through disease and enslavement. The Atlantic slave trade thus became the pivotal element in an international accumulation process.
A region of West Africa — today comprised of the nations of Benin, Ghana, Togo, and parts of Nigeria — became the vile hunting ground for European merchants. Britain came to rule the slave trade as well as the waves. As Zoellner puts it: “The Royal African Company would go on to haul away more black bodies than any other institution in history, and give the British nearly three-quarters of market share.”
The deadly passage, the auction in human flesh, and the brutal exploitation of labor in conditions that C. L. R. James compared to modern industrial production ultimately generated enormous profit: “The average white male resident in Jamaica was 52.3 times wealthier than his peer back in England, and 57.6 times as wealthy as a white man living in New England.” At every point in the political economy and social fabric of this system, violence and torture was deeply embedded. It was organized around working the slaves to death.
Religion and Rebellion
To the extent that there was a civil society in colonial Jamaica, the Anglican Church served as official partner with the Crown and the local governor. The Church was responsible for registering births, marriages, and deaths, even though the plantocracy were, as Zoellner observes, “largely an irreligious lot.”
However, religion proved to be a contradictory terrain. The Baptist Missionary Society took an interest in the island, largely through the person of William Knibb, who arrived on the island from England in 1825. Although Knibb had received strict instructions not to mention slavery or disturb the entrenched system of anti-black racism and colonialism that depended upon it, he came to believe that Jamaica was a place “where Satan reigns with awful power, and carried multitudes captive at his will.”
The Christianity of the Baptist missionaries focused on saving the souls of the oppressed. But the religious challenge to slavery was not only or even primarily a Christian-inspired phenomenon. Despite massive repression, African indigenous practitioners continued to serve secretly as traditional spiritual priests, following the “obeah” knowledge that the white plantocracy feared.
A slave leader called Tacky headed an earlier, localized rebellion in 1765, recruiting rebels through rituals of special drinks combined with loyalty to resist. In a movement that prefigured later waves of Jamaican rebellion against colonialism and capitalism, slaves expressed protest through what I have elsewhere referred to as a religious idiom where Biblical text intersected with indigenous African practices. It gave rise to collectivities of worship among the enslaved in which some degree of self-governance could take place away from white control.
Lessons in Bible reading, which fostered literacy among the enslaved laborers, terrified the plantocracy, and with good reason. In keeping with the Protestant tenet that the “road to the divine leads through the words of the Bible,” by 1831, most of the Baptist congregation had some level of literacy, according to William Knibb. The forty-six hundred slave worshippers who the Baptists recruited included some named as “deacons,” who received “the authority to hand out the bread and wine of Communion, distribute money for the needy, pay visits to the sick and give religious instruction.”
Samuel Sharpe was one of these deacons. He took seriously the biblical passage which held that “No man can serve two masters” (Matt 6:24). If God was one master, the white plantocracy could not be another. It was therefore not only just, but divinely ordained, for slaves to rebel and refuse the master’s claim to universal authority. In time, the religious merged with the political to consolidate a mass rebellion of immense, transformative proportions.
Stoking the Fire
The rebellion began, not coincidentally, over the Christmas holiday season, on December 27, 1831. First there was a fire that a watchman called Colonel George Lawson reported while standing at the top of a colonial courthouse in Montego Bay. Then another fire erupted close by, and another. This confirmed the rumors, hitherto unthinkable to the white colonial elite, that the black slave population of the island’s northwest shore were rising up, challenging plantation slavery.
John Roby, a customs collector, received the watchman’s report, and he in turn sent a message to the colonial governor: “It is feared that this fire is not from accidental causes . . .” He was right. The fires raged across the sugar plantations of Jamaica for nearly two weeks as a carefully planned, highly organized tactic of rebellion.
Zoellner shows how Sam Sharpe was able to visit plantations under the protective umbrella of the Baptist mission, persuading rebels to swear an oath on the Bible to join the conspiracy of rebellion, coded as “the business,” using his status as a favored slave in the hierarchy of abuse by masters. Sharpe worked closely with a similarly placed network who posed as being outwardly unthreatening, while conspiring in secret “cells” across the plantation system.
If the idiom was religious, the content of the movement was economic and political. Sharpe read discarded newspapers from Britain that reflected the debates of the time, including those about the role of slavery in the British colonial empire and its implications. He advanced the belief — according to Zoellner, most likely as a conscious modification of the news of the day — that the government in England had already declared freedom for the slaves but this promise of emancipation was facing resistance from the Jamaican colonial elite.
While the fires burned, the rebellion’s main character assumed the form of a labor strike, calling for payment in return for work. Rebel recruits swore on the Bible that they would refuse to work until the masters paid them in wages, specifically demanding “50 percent of what a free laborer would normally earn for the same work.”
The movement’s level of organization and shared purpose was remarkable, forged in the most dangerous conditions of brutality and repression. As Zoellner summarizes it:
The taking of oaths and the cell building lasted several months, and before it was over, Sharpe’s influence had extended over six hundred square miles; his Christmas work stoppage plan was known to approximately twenty thousand slaves on more than one hundred plantations.
Laced With Sugar
Sugar was the central commodity produced in Jamaica, and the sugar plantations could only profit through the brutal and continuous exploitation of enslaved labor. Zoellner graphically details the impact of highly refined sugar as a staple for colonial society in the monarchy’s homeland. One chapter begins with the description of an elderly Queen Elizbeth I, who spoke with a mumble and was rarely known to smile. She was covering for the pain and disfigurement of teeth worn to blackened stumps from decay thanks to a diet laced with sugar.
Over the course of Elizabeth’s sixteenth-century reign, the place of refined sugar in the daily diet of British society grew. Supplies originally came from the Mediterranean region, but West Indian plantations expanded over the following centuries to supply the domestic market for sugar. As Zoellner observes: “Market customers hankered for West Indian sugar — especially that which had been refined from its dark molasses state to a whiteness to falsely advertise purity.” He also suggests that the preference for highly refined sugar may have reflected a “literal whitewashing of its origins.”
Initially associated with wealth and power, sugar consumption later became a staple of working-class diets: “Tea with sugar was the soft drug that brought a moment of peace and the resolve to keep laboring.” It became a standard ingredient for all meals, from porridge to pudding, with the average Briton consuming twenty pounds per year — ten times more than their French counterparts. Diabetes, first identified in the 1670s, followed the same upward curve as sugar intake.
This sweet habit was drenched in blood. At a time when Enlightenment thinking promised to expand notions of liberty and reason, European society excluded the kidnapped agricultural populations of Africa from its conception of what it was to be human. Even liberal icons such as John Locke were defenders of the trade.
The racial violence of the Atlantic slave trade and plantation slavery in the Caribbean is not simply a feature of the past historically, or of the global South geographically. The wealth that was stolen in the form of land and bodies, the profits that accrued from violent exploitation, and the inherited privileges passed on through the generations produced a template of race and power that has proven to be painfully resilient.
There was resistance at every point, and there were contradictions in the system. The colonial authorities parcelled out provision grounds to slaves, on hillside lands considered useless for plantation production, so they could cultivate food produce that would otherwise be unavailable. Sunday markets took shape where slave produce would also service the plantocracy.
After the first wave of rebellion across the plantations, Zoellner identifies a second phase that he compares to “the Continental Army of George Washington that had fought the colonial troops a half century earlier, though without munitions and centralized command and control.”
Another way to understand this shift was that once the plantation owners had violently repressed the mass labor strike, the rebels turned to guerrilla tactics and hid their forces in limestone caves, known as “cockpits.” Frustrated by their ingenuity, the colonial army resorted to attacking the provision grounds. But as Zoellner notes, “the staggering amount of food gathered up and stashed away by the rebels” indicated the potential for months of resistance.
Zoellner pays attention to the gendered dimensions of colonialism and resistance. Plantation slavery was a society based on constant and continuous rape. The slaveowners used enslaved women as sexual concubines. But women were also central to the rebellion. The slave uprising was remarkably selective, targeting property far more than people, and Zoellner recounts numerous heroic stories of creative resistance by enslaved men and women.
The white plantocracy showed no such care or mercy. They had Sam Sharpe executed amidst a wave of state-led repression that included executions, public floggings, and a wave of white vigilante terror that Zoellner portrays as anticipating the violence of the Ku Klux Klan following the US Civil War. The Baptist missionaries also found themselves in the crosshairs of this violent reaction.
William Knibb had not been informed about the rebellion and was not an advocate for it. However, he insisted on speaking graphically about the conditions of brutal repression that characterized plantation slavery. On May 24, 1832, one day after Sam Sharpe’s execution, a select group of MPs in Westminster’s Old Palace called for a committee to investigate the possibility of abolishing slavery.
Their motivation was overwhelmingly pragmatic: they recognized the likelihood of further revolts and deemed the cost of repression to be prohibitive in the long run. Knibb was among the thirty-two witnesses who addressed 8,572 questions from the committee over the summer of 1832. The stories he told included that of Catherine Williams, a Jamaican slave woman who had refused a sexual relationship with her master and was beaten in revenge until her back was “a mass of blood.” In 1833, the British parliament passed the Slavery Abolition Act.
This is an important text. It has, of course, some limitations. The study is more descriptive than analytical, and sometimes there are slippages in theoretical clarity. But we can fill those gaps by reading Zoellner’s work in tandem with other theorists who have helped us to understand the Caribbean experience, from the pioneering work of C. L. R. James, Eric Williams, and Richard Hart to more recent studies by writers such as Anthony Bogues, Hilary Beckles, and Verene Shepherd.
Island on Fire reminds us of what Alissa Trotz demonstrates to be the epistemic centrality of the Caribbean. It also drives home the message that emancipation is the result of self-activity by the subaltern, and that those who have come before us inspire the long march to freedom today.