James Bond vs. Samuel Sharpe: Authenticity.

I started this contest because the two times I visited Jamaica, our van drivers pointed out spots where James Bond films had been made, but none made any mention of Samuel Sharpe.  Tourists, obviously, are much more interested in James Bond than Sharpe.  So, my question has been which person should we be most interested in?

According to my unscientific and undemocratic and unsystematic process in which I make up the categories and analysis of this contest as I go along, Sharpe is currently beating Bond, 4 to 3.  Today is the last day of the contest.  So, the most James Bond can hope for is a tie, a prospect he never faces in his movies.

Are you nervous?  Are you sitting on the edge of your seat in anticipation, anxiety and excitement?  No?  Well, give me a break.  I’m a historian, not a film maker.  (See the previous post).

Anyway, today’s category is authenticity.


Well, Samuel Sharpe was a real person.  James Bond is not and has never been a real person.  In fact, not even one of the six James Bonds was real.

Samuel Sharpe wins the pennant!  Samuel Sharpe wins the pennant! Samuel Sharpe wins the pennant!

The name is Bond. James Bond, Bond, Bond, Bond, Bond, Bond.

Wait a minute.  There are further considerations.  Sometimes fictional characters help us to better see what is real and true even if they themselves are not real. The best literature and the best films do that.

And James Bond…does not do that very well.  If we go back to the posts in which James Bond lost out to Samuel Sharpe, we will find that the Bond films do not give us solid insights into redemption, violence, human nature, race, sex or God.  Yeah, James Bond is cool and the stories are fun, but let’s face it, Ian Fleming was no Shakespeare, even though he had that English thing going for him.  Samuel Sharpe, meanwhile, played a key role in the abolition of transatlantic slavery. For that reason, if nothing else, solid historical analysis of Samuel Sharpe gives us a lot more insight into what is real and true about this world we live in.

A real person. OK, a bust of a real person.

So, yeah, go crazy folks, Samuel Sharpe wins it all.


Final Score:

James Bond       3

Samuel Sharpe  5


Next:  the post-game wrap up.


James Bond vs. Samuel Sharpe: Stories

I wish I had a good story to tell about this one.

I don’t.

Apparently, I don’t have a good story because I am a historian and not a filmmaker.  Here’s the deal:  filmmakers often tell good stories.  Historians often don’t.

Is this news to you?

Bond films, of course, intrigue so many people because they tell good stories.  The typical Bond film often sports some sort of wild, unpredictable action scene toward the beginning, runs through plenty of twists and turns in the plot, and packs in dramatic action at the end.  The filmmakers use appealing narrative and visual tropes: technological gadgets, life-threatening explosions, clever villains, sex appeal, and cars that do things like turn into submarines.  The action often takes place in some sort of exotic and alluring setting.  James Bond is not only cool, he comes with his own background music.

Meanwhile, I have heard plenty of people complain about history teachers who make their students memorize dates.  And academic historians write books that are set up like long legal arguments, complete with professional jargon.  Who reads these things?

(Actually, other historians do.  Does that make us boring people?)

Now, there are very good reasons why academic historians write books that are set up as long arguments, supported by evidence that is meticulously detailed in footnotes.  Histories make claims about the past, and in order to be accurate about those claims, they need to be grounded in the evidence.

But some academic historians have wondered whether we have lost something by ignoring the power of stories and good writing.  Would more people see the significance of history if historians wrote better stories?

I’m not talking about Abraham Lincoln the Vampire Slayer.  I don’t mean that history should be simply be another form of entertainment. And I firmly believe that historians need to write long arguments with detailed evidence, even if these historical works are only read by other historians.

But I also suspect that there are important truths about the past that are best told in story form.  The Apostle Paul may have written theological arguments, but the Gospels are told in story form.

Samuel Sharpe’s rebellion would make a great story.  And a great movie.  Because of the lack of evidence, it would involve making speculation, but that speculation could be grounded in the best available scholarship.  And it would be a great counterpart to the film, “Amazing Grace.”  Admirable as he was as an individual, William Wilberforce does not encompass the entire story of the abolition of slavery.  But for now, all we really have are the historical arguments about Sharpe and the rebellion in Jamaica.

It is a hard to tell a good story AND hold true to the evidence.  But I think historians ought to try to do it more often.

That’s my argument.  I wish I could have told it in story form.

Bond wins this one.



James Bond                3

Samuel Sharpe            4

James Bond vs. Samuel Sharpe: Slavery, Sex and Consumerism

OK, I don’t know what you are thinking about that title.  I may not want to know.  Just bear with me for a moment.

I’m returning to a little series I have going that pits James Bond against Samuel Sharpe.   I have raised the question of which person we should be more interested in.  Today’s category:  objectification, which is to treat human beings as objects.

As a slave in Jamaica, Samuel Sharpe was, at some level, regarded as an object.  The movers and shakers of transatlantic slavery bought and sold human beings like they were houses, deeded human beings to descendants in their wills like they were furniture, and regarded the costs of human beings in their financial calculations in the same way they figured the value of their agricultural machinery.  These are not pleasant or appealing dimensions of the human story to dwell on.

Contrary to the logic of 19th century slavery, Samuel Sharpe was a person, not an object for economic production.

I do find it interesting, however, to consider Samuel Sharpe’s response to this dehumanization.  Just how did he come to the conclusion that the slaves had natural equality with others, especially when this was not an idea that had occurred to slaves in countless cultures down through the centuries?  Why did he instruct his followers to burn houses but not to harm slaveowners, when he obviously had been treated like property himself and it would have been so easy to gain revenge by treating slaveowners like property?  I am thinking the grace of God must have been at work there, but just how did it seep its way into his being?  I find those questions interesting and I wish we had more historical documentation to unpack the story of Sharpe’s life.

We have plenty of stories about James Bond, of course.  In the Bond films, there are human beings who are always, at some level, regarded as objects.  These human beings are the women.  James Bond is always on the hunt for beautiful women to seduce.  After these flings, we don’t ever see these women again, though James Bond keeps reappearing in every movie.  It’s part of the Bond formula.

Most evangelical and traditional Christians probably respond to this point by thinking, “of course this is a problem.  Sex should be reserved for marriage.”  But the discussion should not end there.

The fact that James Bond tends to regard women as objects is nothing new, historically.  One does not have to dig very deeply in history to find men in all sorts of cultures and civilizations who treat women in this way.

There is something new in the way that Bond objectifies women.  It is the same characteristic that is found in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy philosophy:  the role of consumerism.  I’m not just talking about the fact that audiences have bought Bond films and Playboy magazines.  I think that consumer dynamics enable James Bond films to present a sanitized Playboy philosophy for popular audiences.  It’s hard to recognize because all of us in western culture are deeply shaped by consumerism and because Christians tend to evaluate movies by a simplistic rating system that doesn’t encourage more thoughtful reflection.

Contrary to the logic of late 20th century Bond films, women are persons, not objects of economic consumption.

James Bond and Playboy both emerged in the 1950s and early 1960s when a consumer-driven lifestyle came within reach of most Americans (and a few Brits, if they could afford it).   And Americans enthusiastically embraced this consumer world.  Hefner and the Bond films took advantage of a certain kind of consumer lifestyle (among other things) to attract audiences.  Consider the lifestyle that each glorified.  Early on, Hugh Hefner cultivated an idealized image of the playboy as a man living in a “pad” (not a home), furnished with cool furniture, hi-fi stereos and tasteful décor.  He wore snappy suits and drank martinis.  Children did not inhabit this world (we should be thankful for that).  Nor did married, old, or physically unattractive women.  This lifestyle setting helped Hefner in his efforts to make pornography respectable and even cool.

If you cover up the women a bit more, this cool form of consumerism also defined James Bond’s lifestyle. (And it’s not just in the films.  Today you can purchase James Bond items online and imagine yourself to be living his lifestyle.  Good luck with that dream.)

Both Hugh Hefner and James Bond treated women as objects designed for their sexual gratification.  Like sports cars, women were quickly disposed of once a more fascinating model came along.  Like “hip” furniture, women were valued primarily for their physical, external appearance.  Just as we are to believe that the purchasing, wearing and disposing of stylish clothes does not bring any problematic consequences to our relationships, so we are to believe that the seduction and disposal of beautiful women does not bring any problematic consequences to our relationships.  Slaveowners viewed slaves like machinery, as cogs in their system of economic production.  Hefner and Bond viewed women like luxury cruises, as items in their lifestyles of economic consumption.

Of course, Bond films haven’t been the only ways that a sanitized Playboy philosophy has expressed itself in our culture.  But they have been widely popular.  As such, Bond films have played a role in the tendency that has developed during the last half century to look upon sexuality as a component of our consumer lifestyle.  There’s a different kind of slavery at work here.

It’s a historical development that requires better understanding.  As such, I think it is quite good, when viewing films, to think about and discuss these issues.  This kind of film viewing is not only interesting, it could lead to deeper understanding, wisdom and Christian maturity.

Most people do not view films these ways, though.  I’m guessing that most men who watch Bond films merely respond to the women on screen with a desire that says, on some conscious or unconscious level, “I’d like to have that.”

There it is.  Slavery, sex, and consumerism.


James Bond        2

Samuel Sharpe    4

James Bond vs. Samuel Sharpe: Missionaries and World Christianity

James Bond, missionaries, and world Christianity?

You may be thinking that I have a topic that really does not fit in my contest about which individual we should be more interested in.  You may be thinking that because I have written a book about missionaries and world Christianity, I am looking for a cheap way to turn the topic back to my interests. You may be thinking that I am playing a literary bait and switch here, using James Bond to hook your interest in something totally different.

You may be right.

But then, again, you may not be.

Granted, the nature of James Bond films compels me to shift the point a bit.  I can’t have a sensible contest based on the question of how world Christianity plays out in these thoroughly secular films.  There is, however, a closely related topic to world Christianity.  What happens when the Bond films cross cultural boundaries?  What does cross-cultural engagement look like?

Let’s just say, not great.  Bond films exude an aura of British superiority.  This ethnocentrism, apparently, was even stronger in the Ian Fleming books.  In fact, the whiff of British exceptionalism was so strong that some storylines had to be revised when the books were made into movies for American audiences.  I guess American audiences don’t like to be depicted as inferior.  Who knew?

It gets worse, however, when dealing with non-Anglos, particularly in the books and early films.  The villains are often nonwhites and they are often deformed.  Furthermore, nonwhites just don’t have the brains, the sensibility, the skills, or the enlightened rationality of the Brits (or the Americans, for the film versions).  In “Dr. No,” Bond enlists the help of a Jamaican assistant to investigate Dr. No’s hideout, but this black guy, like the other

The dragon: ha, ha, it’s just clever technology, folks.

Jamaicans, is deathly afraid of the rumors he has heard about a dragon that inhabits the island.  The “dragon” turns out to be a flame-throwing tractor with big teeth painted on the front.  The foolish, superstitious and cowardly Jamaican assistant gets killed in the ensuing battle, but the film viewers are not supposed to care because, like the villains, his life doesn’t seem to matter much.  (It should be noted that even though they are evil, none of Dr. No’s scientific assistants are black.  His hideout displays a level of intelligence that blacks do not seem capable of achieving.)

The Jamaican assistant’s fear of the “dragon” emerges from a common depiction of race and religion that comes straight from the 18thcentury Enlightenment thinker (and Brit) David Hume.  According to Hume, less rational people, particularly those who have not been blessed with civilization, believe in irrational religious beliefs that express themselves in superstitious behaviors.  Enlightened and rational people, on the other hand, build sophisticated, morally superior civilizations that progress beyond the ignorance of previous

Build your own “Dr. No” Lego dragon! Pretend you are intimidating inferior people!

ages.  “I am apt to suspect the Negroes, and in general all other species of men, to be naturally inferior to the whites,” Hume wrote in Essays, Moral and Political.  “No ingenious manufactures among them, no arts, no sciences.”  Most people easily spot the racism in Hume’s thinking.  However, his claims about religious faith, which masquerade as rational truth, still infect much of the western world today

Samuel Sharpe, who lived half a century after Hume’s death and more than a century before the first James Bond film, would seem to qualify as a superstitious and naturally inferior “species of men.”

But here is where world Christianity helps expose fallacies in Hume’s and Fleming’s brand of Enlightenment thinking.  Sharpe’s relationship with the missionaries brings out point.  The leaders of this 1831 Jamaican rebellion (as well as a similar rebellion eight years earlier in Demerara, on the north coast of South America) were deacons and evangelists.  Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian missionaries from Britain had been ministering among the slaves for the previous decades.  Slaveowners, in fact, complained bitterly that the missionaries were spreading radical and subversive ideas about equality and abolition among the slaves.  (Hume, who believed that evangelical religion led to social disorder, political radicalism, emotional derangement and psychological delusion, would have agreed).

The missionaries, however, did not promote, plan or lead the rebellion.  In fact, they warned the slaves not to plan any resistance, they downplayed the possibility of emancipation getting passed in Parliament, and they did not even know of Sharpe’s rebellion until right before it occurred.

In other words, this movement took off without missionary leadership, in ways they did not expect and could not control.  That is usually what has happened when a movement of Christianity emerged and grew after it had crossed cultural boundaries.

There is also a theological point here about cultural blind spots.  Although they were generally favorable to antislavery ideas, British missionaries preached a simple evangelistic message and stayed away from topics of abolition.  The slaves who had converted to Christianity, however, saw implications in the gospel that white Christians were slow to recognize:  the Exodus story indicates that slavery is not God’s plan for the world.  The same held true for Christian slaves in the American South.  On Sunday mornings they might hear a white minister preach on the text, “slaves obey your masters,” but on Sunday nights, in the privacy of their separate worship, they heard slave preachers draw conclusions about freedom from the Gospel.  And they wrote and sang scores of spirituals with themes of being released from bondage in Egypt and entering in the Promised Land.

These slave spirituals could get emotional, a point that Hume would have looked on with distaste.  The slaves could not boast of “ingenious manufactures” or cool Bondian technology.  They did not display the marks of a “civilized” people.  But they understood truths unknown by rational philosophers like Hume and clever writers like Fleming.

That’s interesting.



James Bond      2

Samuel Sharpe  3

James Bond vs. Samuel Sharpe: Looking for God’s Hand in History

And now, a question that makes Christian historians uneasy.  Is it possible to identify how God works through history?

My guess is that many ordinary Christians would answer yes to that question.  Most Christian academics would be very hesitant to say one could do it.

Does that seem strange?

Actually, there are some very good reasons why academic historians—even those with a deep Christian faith–do not think we should wade into these waters.  Frankly, it can be arrogant (and thus sinful) to claim that one can fathom the ways of God in the wider world.  Historians are well aware that Christian Yankees and Christian Confederates during the Civil War each claimed that they could see God at work in the war, but those claims nearly always tried to prove that God was on their side and against the other side.  Historians also know that other Christians, like the Puritans, stumbled over themselves trying to determine what counted as God’s favor, what counted as God’s judgment, what counted as Satan afflicting the faithful, and what counted as Satan fooling people into thinking their prosperity was God’s favor when it was really Christians sinfully putting trust in their own goodness instead of God.  It got messy.

Furthermore, academic historians who try to piece together history from thousands of incomplete, complicated and conflicting primary sources know that figuring out what caused what in history is actually a tentative and uncertain business–even when we don’t try to bring in questions about the hand of God into the picture.  Good historical methodology is based on making careful judgments based on the evidence we have before us.  How in the world could we determine what counts as evidence of God’s activity?  This is complicated by the reality that Christians have different theological explanations for how God works in the world.

Finally, the “rules of the game” for historical scholarship declare that we should stick to evidence and assumptions that all historians can observe and agree upon, regardless of their religious or intellectual commitments.  History is not a discipline, it is assumed, that can address theological questions.

And yet.

And yet, as a Christian historian, I am not fully satisfied with how we do things.  Now, I’m not quite what to do about it.  But I am curious about these questions.

For instance, it seems to me that we humans yearn for a grand purpose and direction in our existence and this comes out in the stories we tell, including our academic histories.  As a result, we consciously or unconsciously end up trying to tell stories that fit into a master narrative that in some way mimics, approximates or searches for the hand of God.

Take James Bond.  OK, it seems odd to look for the hand of God in James Bond films. Bond operates in thoroughly secular world.  One can’t find God, Christian faith or any kind of religious practice anywhere.  Furthermore, these films seem to be little more than entertainment.  The vast majority of viewers don’t think very deeply about James Bond films and the film makers probably didn’t think very deeply about what they were doing, either.  It may be pushing it to look for any larger meaning here.

But millions of people find these films to be interesting stories.  Why is that?  I would suggest that a good part of the reason is that we know that James Bond will not fail.  Yes, there will be set backs and tight spots.  He’ll get conked over the head a few times.  But he always comes out on top by the time the closing credits roll.  And we all know it.

The problem is that no human can go through life with Bond’s success rate.  We can try to fool ourselves into fantasizing about being clever, witty, sexy, technologically astute and successful like James Bond, but we’ll never live up to his fictional example.  But I don’t think Bond’s appeal normally lies in viewers imagining themselves to be like him.  Instead, I would suggest that there is a reason why stories in which good triumphs over evil are so popular.  It is because, consciously or unconsciously, we yearn for a Savior who can defeat evil and make everything right in the end.  Temporarily, at least, James Bond makes us believe that evil will be overcome.

What about Samuel Sharpe?  He was, after all, a living human being and not a fictional character.   How do we tell his story and what meaning do we take out of it?

Here is what I find so interesting about Samuel Sharpe:  he failed.  And he failed spectacularly.  His rebellion was quashed.  He was executed.  So were many of his fellow rebels.  That is about as final of a failure as one could imagine.

But as I pointed out earlier, the low level of violence and ultimate failure of the rebellion helped convince a significant number of Brits that blacks were not animalistic savages.  This reality played an important role in the passage of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833.

We don’t have a lot of documentation to know what Sharpe was thinking, but I don’t see how he could have predicted how his rebellion would play out.  I think it is safe to say that even though Sharpe probably calculated that a low-violence campaign would help his cause, it seems absurd to think that he figured that a quashed rebellion and his own execution would produce a favorable outcome.

Stay with me, here.  Maybe, just maybe, the structure of those events make it possible to see the hand of God in this.  All people of good will today, whether they are Christian or not, can agree that the abolition of slavery was a good thing.  Christians, more specifically, believe that humans cannot make things right by their efforts alone.  We believe we all stand in need of God’s grace, which in different ways trumps our flaws, failures, sins and evil intentions. The central story of the Christian faith is that God Himself came to earth and was crucified by humanity, but then rose again, overcoming death.  The most important story of the Christian faith is a story of God bringing good out of the flaws, failures, sins and evil intentions of the world.

One can, of course, find plenty of flaws, sins and evil in the system of slavery.  Historians also know that the entire process of abolishing the transatlantic slave system was a large, complicated, multi-faceted process that involved different nations, economic forces, social trends, cultural shifts, and political interests.  No person or group or nation could control the outcome.  We also can identify a number of people who were seeking God’s grace to deal with this oppressive system.  One of those individuals, Samuel Sharpe, failed spectacularly in the process.  And then good came out of it.

Can we say that this is evidence of God at work in history?

I’m interested to hear what you think.

At any rate, it beats James Bond.



James Bond      2

Samuel Sharpe  2

James Bond vs. Samuel Sharpe: The NPR Effect

Monday morning, October 1.  I’m listening to National Public Radio on the way to work and they introduce a weeklong series on James Bond.  Really.  I didn’t realize this, but this week happens to be the 50th anniversary of the release of the first Bond movie, “Dr. No.”  This film, as I mentioned in an earlier post, was filmed in Jamaica and provoked my original question about who we should be more interested in: James Bond or Samuel Sharpe.

Well, that did it.  I decided I just had to bring NPR into round three of our contest.  After all, my local public radio station advertises itself with the slogan, “NPR.  Classical.  Other Smart Stuff.”  NPR has a reputation of being a news station for thoughtful, highly educated folk who care about the world.  NPR goes beyond the facts and gives us insightful analysis.  That’s what they tell us during their pledge drives.

So how does NPR do in the contest?

I googled their website to determine how times they have referred to James Bond.  I turned up 1700 hits.  (Granted, it might be a much higher number by the end of the week).

Samuel Sharpe?  Not quite as many.

Zero hits.

I found this rather curious.  After all, NPR describes itself as smart.  Many people who listen to this station are concerned about justice and ridding the world of oppression.  If one wants to be smart and one wants to think about how to fight oppression, then it would seem to me that NPR would be a site that would be more concerned with the history of abolition than the history of a Hollywood action-movie series.  (Oh, rats.  I think I just tipped my hand.)

Right, (cough), um, what I mean is that if we take an unbiased approach to our contest, then James Bond and Samuel Sharpe have an equal chance at being significant.  And surely NPR would be a great source for determining whether, for instance, James Bond or Samuel Sharpe gives us a better model for determining how to rid the world of oppression.

James Bond. Classic cars. Other smart stuff (?)

All the same, I have to admit that I was surprised by the results.  So I tried a few of different terms in my NPR website search.  Baptist War: zero hits.  Slavery Abolition Act:  zero hits.  Jamaican Rebellion:  zero hits.

OK, time to broaden the search.   NPR surely has done stories that reference abolition, one of the most significant developments in human history.

And….yes!   There we are.  Abolition did indeed turn up as a topic on the NPR website.  Abolition:  653 hits. William Wilberforce (for good measure): 17 hits.


Well, the results are clear.  If you like smart stuff and you take your cues from NPR, James Bond is obviously much more important for us to know about than the abolition of slavery (almost three times as much).



James Bond:       2

Samuel Sharpe:  1


Yeah.  Unless…..this depiction of “smart” radio is all wrong.

In that case, maybe it is proof of the opposite….and I should give the win to Sharpe?

James Bond vs. Samuel Sharpe: The Cool Factor

Round two of our contest raises the question of cool.

Cool is interesting.

Of course, it’s hard to pull off.  I, myself, am not any good at it.  Occasionally I’ve dreamed about dressing for class like my film studies professor friend, Andrew Rudd, who is very cool.  One day, much to my surprise, I came very close to doing it, except that I wasn’t wearing the Converse canvas sneakers with my tweed sports jacket, jeans, and green T-shirt.  It appears, in fact, to have been something like the middle-aged woman who wins a pick-up truck by shooting a puck from center ice into a 5 inch cut-out in the hockey net at intermission of the hockey game.  A lucky shot.  I won’t get that close again.

Pierce Brosnan and an Aston Martin Vanquish take a break from their duties for a moment to show us how to be cool.

To a certain generation (I’m talking about you, Baby Boomers), James Bond was cool.   Always a snappy dresser, Bond was suave, cool and sophisticated.  He drove sleek Aston Martins.  Over the years his films introduced audiences to the latest technology like lasers, videophones and infrared scopes. The latest technology, of course, is cool.  He came with his own theme music, starting with the electric guitar spy riffs in the opening credits of “Dr. No,” and continuing over the years with commissioned music by cool artists like Paul McCartney, Duran Duran, and Alicia Keys.  He always got the woman he wanted.

And of course, there was his famous line:  “The name is Bond.  James Bond.”  That’s a cool line.

Samuel Sharpe wasn’t actually very cool.

Nobody, apparently, told Samuel Sharpe how cool he’d look in dreadlocks.

Many Jamaicans are cool, but Sharpe wasn’t one of them.  If we go by the drawings made of him in the years after he died, he didn’t have dreadlocks.  So he missed a chance, there. Not really a snappy dresser, from what we can tell.  No background music.   His technology, which probably consisted of a shovel and a machete, was not the latest that science had to offer.   Sharpe had to walk everywhere.  He didn’t even form a bobsled team for the Olympics, which was cool there for a while.

Now, he had the chance to pull off a great line.  Imagine Sharpe appearing at the door of the stately home of a slave owner with a band of armed slaves behind him.  He tells the slaveowner, “The name is Sharpe. Samuel Sharpe.”  Then he turns and burns down the guy’s sugar mill.

That would have been cool.

But it didn’t happen that way.



James Bond                 1

Samuel Sharpe            1

James Bond vs. Samuel Sharpe: Redemption and Violence

James Bond or Samuel Sharpe:  which one should we be most interested in?  Today begins our head to head competition between the two (see the previous post for details).  Round one begins with the topic of redemption and violence.

James Bond in “Dr. No”

James Bond is in the redemption business.  He tries to save the world from bad guys and bad women who come in all kinds of different sizes, shapes and nationalities.  And he saves the world, every time of course, usually by killing the bad guys.  At one point in “Dr. No,” the first Bond movie (filmed in Jamaica), Bond knifes a guy from behind who was trying to track him down.  “Why did you kill him?” asks Honey Ryder.  “I had to,” replies Bond, coolly.  According to the logic of the film, the world won’t be saved unless Bond kills bad people.  We see him kill five individuals at different points in this film, not including those who might have died when he blows up Dr. No’s secret nuclear powered radio beam laboratory at Crab Key in Jamaica.

But is it interesting?   Well, yes, on one level.  Several Bond films have hit the top 100 grossing films of all time.  A lot of people are quite interested in stories in which a hero or set of heroes kills off bad people who threaten to destroy society.  It is one of the most common stories humankind tells itself.   And it is very common in film.  (Just think Star Wars, Spider Man, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Rambo, the Avengers, Little Mermaid, your typical western, your typical war movie, any film with Arnold Schwarzenegger in it where he does not get pregnant, etc. etc. etc.)

Now, I have to confess that, personally, I don’t find this basic formula extremely interesting, partly because it is so very common.  I am, however, extremely interested in why so many people find this kind of story interesting, but that’s a question for another day.

So what about Samuel Sharpe?

Sharpe was also in the redemption business.  He was a Baptist evangelist, which meant that he was interested in the salvation of souls.  But he also was very interested in saving society from the oppression of slavery.  As a result, he attacked that system.  But his story unfolded much differently than the typical Bond film.  Let me highlight two points.

First, if the goal of a rebellion is to kill the bad guys, the Jamaican slaves proved to be stunningly and amazingly ineffective.   Sixty thousand slaves rose up, fought for one month and in the process killed…..fourteen whites.  60,000 to 14.  Has there ever been a smaller proportional harvest of dead bad guys than that?  James Bond could knock off that many bad guys in about three minutes of hand-to-hand fighting in an ordinary atomic laboratory.

What kind of rebellion was this, anyway?

Jamaican slaves attack a plantation

The Baptist War was a rebellion that intentionally targeted property rather than people.  The slaves burned hundreds of houses and attacked sugar mills.  Sharpe explicitly told the rebels that they were to drive the slaveowners off the estates but they should not harm them, except in self-defense.  What a strange strategy.  More strange was that 60,000 slaves should listen to it. Burdened by a terribly oppressive system and given the opportunity to vent their frustrations, why should they exhibit this amount of self-restraint?

The slave rebellion was crushed.  In the end, 500 slaves were killed or executed.  The rebellion was a failure.  Slavery was not abolished in Jamaica.

But the story does not end there.

Slavery was not abolished, that is, until one year later, when the British Parliament emancipated the slaves in all its colonies (except those under the control of the British East India Company).  And here we come to the second very interesting part of this story.  The self-restraint and relative absence of violence on the part of the slaves played a key role in abolition.  In a round-about way, the slaves won, even after they lost the rebellion.

It’s a long and complicated story, but here are the relevant points for our purposes:  abolitionists in Parliament had been working for decades against formidable opposition.  They had managed to ban the slave trade and slavery in Britain.  It was tougher going to ban slavery in the colonies.

By 1831, political conditions made it look like abolition was in reach.  The key lay in persuading enough politicians and their constituents to put the vote over the top.

But most Brits had the 1791 Haitian slave revolt in the back of their minds.  That revolt left 10,000  blacks and 2000 whites dead.  It provoked an even more violent twelve-year rebellion.  As a result, the Haitian revolt  left an ambiguous legacy.  It proved that abolition was possible.  But the violence of the rebellion terrified whites in Europe and the Americas.  Stores of atrocious acts of violence by blacks (though not those of whites against blacks) circulated among white populations for years afterward.  The revolt reinforced racial stereotypes of blacks as savage beasts and encouraged many whites to believe that emancipation would lead economic ruin and the wholesale slaughter of whites.

Had the Jamaican slaves in 1831, then, set out to kill as many slaveowners as possible, they most likely would have turned a great chunk of British public opinion against them.  Samuel Sharpe, who had received news from missionaries about Parliamentary negotiations, knew this.  Thus, the orders for self-restraint.

And it shaped the political discussion in the months after the Baptist War.  Instead of hearing speeches denouncing savage brutality of blacks who wanted to rape white women and massacre the English, MPs in London heard missionaries testify about the cruelty of the planters and the execution of Christians like Sharpe.  Black slaves no longer looked like savage beasts.  It became more possible to conceive of them as free citizens.  Although there was more to the story, the relative lack of violence by the Jamaican slaves played a key role in their redemption from slavery.  How strange.

And what an interesting story of violence and redemption.

Score:    James Bond         0

Samuel Sharpe    1