1774 - 1832
Joseph Brown was the head driver on Great Valley estate in Hanover in western Jamaica, in 1831. The slave register of the following year lists him as age 58, black and Creole. According to numerous witnesses, Brown had “great influence” over the other enslaved people on the estate, who “perform any thing he directs”.
On Christmas Day 1831, enslaved people in St James began a co-ordinated strike, refusing to return to work. On Wednesday 28 December, enslaved people set fire to Kensington Estate, setting off a broader uprising. Tens of thousands of enslaved people in the western parishes took up arms; the main aim was not to kill the white population but to damage property. Over the course of the next ten days, several hundred sugar works and great houses were destroyed. Professional troops and the militia were sent to quell the rebellion; white women and children fled the estates. The events of December and January formed the largest slave uprising in the British Caribbean and came to be known as the Baptist War, the Christmas Rebellion or Sam Sharpe’s Rebellion, named after its leader.
Dr William Johnson, a physician who “attend[ed] Great Valley professionally”, visited the estate on Thursday 29 December and, finding no white people present, ordered Joseph Brown as head driver to set up patrols to secure the property. According to Johnson, Brown did this “with a great deal of reluctance” and when Johnson returned later that day he found the watchmen had all left their posts. The estate’s book-keeper, John McCrummen, returned to Great Valley that night to find Dr Johnson talking with Joseph Brown. Both Johnson and McCrummen later testified that Brown told them that he was the only person who could control the enslaved people there. According to McCrummen, “the driver said that he would manage the negroes, and would be responsible for anything they would do, and that we might shoot him through the head if any of the people attempted to be guilty of any misconduct in firing the estates. He put me in mind of his good conduct in 1824 during the Argyle Rebellion and told me to have every confidence in him and the Estate negroes.”
The following day, Friday, the trash house on Great Valley was burned down. Sandy Thomson, an enslaved man on the estate, later testified that he heard the blowing of the fire shell but saw no attempt on the part of Joseph Brown or the other two drivers to put out the flames. By Saturday, tensions had escalated further. Rev James Watson, a missionary, took it upon himself to ride around various estates in the neighbourhood reading out a proclamation from the King and calling for an end to the rebellion. Watson visited Great Valley in the company of Frederick Zincke; Joseph Brown refused to tend to Watson and Zincke’s horses and informed him that the trash house had been burned down by people from the nearby Welcome Estate. Watson entered the great house, “which was instantly filled with Negroes”. The enslaved people were wearing greatcoats and carrying cutlasses. Watson was “rather alarmed” and called for Zincke and McCrummen, “thinking we ought to keep ourselves together for our mutual defence.” Zincke told the enslaved men to take off their hats but they refused. He asked them to raise their hands if they were willing to defend the property but “only a few did so”. At this point Joseph Brown reappeared, “apparently confused and agitated, he was drunk.” Watson later testified that “I do consider that the people around us were in every way preparing for rebellion” and that, although Joseph Brown was keeping himself separate, Brown’s conduct was “strange and singular, shewing more a degree of apathy than an endeavour to suppress misconduct.”
By 5th January, several hundred enslaved people had been killed in Jamaica by British troops who had regained control of the island. On 31st January, Joseph Brown pled not guilty to “instigating or not preventing” the rebellion on Great Valley. He was not invited to testify in his defence. No evidence was given at his trial as to his actions after Saturday 31st December and no witnesses claimed he ever left the estate. He was unanimously found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging.
Slave register: T71/198 316 (1832).
CO137/185 part 3, Trial of Joseph Brown.
Joseph Brown was not named in evidence given to the trial of enslaved people following the Argyle Rebellion: see Papers relating to the manumission, government and population of slaves in the West Indies, 1822-1824 (1825) pp. 112-128.
The dates listed below have different categories as denoted by the letters in the brackets following each date. Here is a key to explain those letter codes:
- 1832 [EY] → Enslaved