"The Christmas Uprising" in Jamaica, 1831, heralded the end of slavery in the British Empire

"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did, and it never will." Frederick Douglas

Lincoln did not free enslaved people; enslaved people freed themselves. Lincoln may have signed a piece of paper called the Emancipation Proclamation, but he did not believe enslaved people were equal. Enslaved people, in freeing themselves, were demonstrating their humanity, dignity, and existence—even as another 100 years would pass of Black codes, lynching, and Jim Crow before another piece of paper would be signed to outlaw those practices. Yet, just because something is against the law does not mean people do not continue to lynch, discriminate, and reinforce structural acts of violence and discrimination.

Two days after Christmas in 1831, some 60,000 enslaved people in Jamaica had enough of the brutality and violence of slavery. Theirs was not a spontaneous revolt. The talk had begun as early as the summer of 1831. Led by the Baptist preacher Samuel Sharpe, "The Christmas Uprising" was a 10-day revolt that led to the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire.

As Tom Zoellner writes for Zócalo, "[O]n the night of December 27, 1831…[t]he first signal fires were lit in the hills above Montego Bay, and soon plantation houses went up in flames across the richest West Indian colony of the British empire. White Jamaica found itself contending with its biggest insurrection ever. It took five weeks for a British military crackdown to restore quiet.

The rebellion, after failing, had succeeded. And not just at advancing freedom. "The Christmas Uprising" in Jamaica was a groundbreaking action and a model; its enslaved leaders anticipated the methods of later revolutionary movements—from the Irish Republican Army to Gandhi's struggle against the British, from the French underground fight against the Nazis to the U.S. Civil Rights Movement. The story of the Jamaican revolution suggests that methods of calculated revolutionary action transcend historical periods."

Two years later, the Act for the Abolition of Slavery outlawed slavery in the British Empire. This is history from below.

For a more detailed and in-depth narrative on this subject, check out Zoellner's book, Island on Fire: The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire, published by Harvard Univerisity Press.