For five horrific weeks after Christmas in 1831, Jamaica was convulsed by an uprising of its enslaved people. What started as a peaceful labor strike quickly turned into a full-blown revolt, leaving hundreds of plantation houses in smoking ruins. By the time British troops had put down the rebels, more than a thousand Jamaicans lay dead from on-the-spot executions and extrajudicial murder.
While the rebels lost their military gamble, their sacrifice accelerated the larger struggle for freedom in the British Atlantic. The daring and suffering of the Jamaicans galvanized public opinion throughout the empire, resulting in a decisive turn against slavery. For centuries cruel bondage had fed Britain’s lust for sugar. Within two years of the Christmas rebellion, slavery was formally abolished.
Island on Fire is a dramatic day-by-day account of this transformative uprising. A skillful storyteller, Tom Zoellner goes back to the primary sources to tell the intimate story of the men and women who tasted liberty for a few brief weeks. He memorably evokes the sights and sounds of the Caribbean in the 1830s, provides the first full portrait of its enigmatic leader Samuel Sharpe, and gives us a poignant glimpse of the dreams of the Jamaicans who died for liberty.
“Tom Zoellner is completely right that the 1831-32 revolt in Jamaica helped break the back of slavery in the British Empire. It’s high time that we had a book like the splendid one he has written: a highly readable but carefully documented account of the greatest of all British slave rebellions, the miseries that led to it, and the momentous changes it wrought.” — Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold’s Ghost and Bury the Chains