History lessons

By Geoffrey Philp

Daddy Sharpe, by Fred W. Kennedy
Ian Randle Publishers, ISBN 978-976-637-343-6, 411 pp

Daddy Sharpe, the debut historical novel by Fred W. Kennedy, is a well-researched fictional narrative that recreates the life of the Jamaican National Hero Samuel Sharpe, whose leadership in the “Christmas Rebellion” of 1831 gave impetus to the passing of the Abolition Act in 1832 and eventually led to the end of slavery in the British Empire. Although Sharpe’s involvement in the rebellion was recognised by the Jamaican government in 1975, the details surrounding his life remained in relative obscurity, and Kennedy deserves praise for clarifying the historical record.

The narrative of Daddy Sharpe, told mainly from a first-person point of view, begins with Sam Sharpe in jail and awaiting his death by hanging. By using a series of juxtapositions with the Anancy story “Bro Tiger Goes Dead” and John Bunyan’s allegorical novel The Holy War as plot devices, Kennedy relates Sharpe’s story to the theme stated explicitly on the first page: “to reveal to you the madness of slavery.” Looping the time frame, Kennedy manages to tell the stories of Sharpe’s mother Mimba and his wife Nyame — with whom he had a child, Juba — and to give a portrait of life during slavery and the hardships endured by New World Africans. Kennedy also reconstructs the stories of Mrs Samuel Sharpe, the wife of the slaveholder after whom Sharpe is named, and Reverend Henry Bleby, an eyewitness to Sharpe’s execution:

The sun disappeared behind the clouds and a darkness came over the land. Saddened by his loss, we all left the town square, which some liked to Golgotha, the place of a skull.

This fitting description of Sharpe’s death as a Christ figure is not surprising, for throughout the novel the overwhelming impression of “Daddy Sharpe” — “daddy” was a term used by Baptists of that time to denote respect for his position as a deacon — is of a pious man:

As God is my witness, you must know, Minister, that despite what everyone says, I did not contemplate the shedding of blood and I did not want the tribulation that has been brought down on the heads of my brethren. I did it for freedom’s sake in the name of Christ Jesus.

By combining these various strands from the period between 1814 and 1832, Kennedy gives his reader a much-needed perspective on the prelude to Sharpe’s fateful decision to lead a peaceful demonstration, before witnessing the turn to violence over which Sharpe has no control: “Our plan for peaceful resistance, which we had worked for so hard, went wrong all in an instant.” The meticulous scholarship that Kennedy demonstrates in reconstructing these events is to be commended, and Daddy Sharpe is an excellent supplement to the study of this period.

As a novel, however, the storytelling in Daddy Sharpe does not match its historicity. Fiction, historical or otherwise, depends upon fully realised characters whose dramatic needs propel the plot and answer the reader’s desire to know what happens next. Although Kennedy creates a portrait of Sharpe as devout Christian, plot elements such as his relationship with Nyame as a possible reason for him not to go to war (or vice versa), or the revolutionary and religious fervour that would lead him to become a martyr, are never fully developed. In a pivotal scene, Sharpe tells us his life is changed after a vision quest in the bush. But instead of compressing the action (even at the expense of historical fact) to demonstrate the consequences of this epiphany, there is a break in the story line with Bunyan’s Holy War, followed by descriptions of two slave owners. And there are no scenes that convince the reader of the immensity of Sharpe’s conversion to the Gospels’ message of freedom. When he does act, Sharpe seems more like a victim of events than an actual leader, so his eventual surrender and martyrdom are almost anticlimactic: Samuel Sharpe and the reader remain bound to the grind of inevitable history.


The Caribbean Review of Books, February 2009

Geoffrey Philp is a Jamaican writer based in Miami. His most recent book, Who’s Your Daddy? and Other Stories, will be published in May 2009.