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Alexander Bedward was born in Matilda's Corner, Saint Andrew Parish, in southeastern Jamaica. He grew up in August Town, on the Hope River in Saint Andrew. Nothing is known about his father, but his mother was supposedly a healer. Bedward could not write, and he read haltingly because of borderline literacy. Apart from the years 1883 to 1885, when he was a migrant laborer in Colón, a seaport on the Isthmus of Panama, Bedward worked until 1891 on the Mona sugar estate in Saint Andrew. He was a foreman, laborer, and cooper (a repairman of wooden casks or tubs) on the estate, from which he also leased land.

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Samuel Sharpe was born a slave in Jamaica, probably in the northwestern parish of Saint James. Sharpe worked as a domestic slave in Montego Bay, the island's second largest town after Kingston. Literate and intelligent, he was also a passionate and charismatic speaker. He gained prominence working in the Montego Bay Baptist Church, run by British missionaries, where his duties included helping missionary Thomas Burchell with the supervision of membership classes. At the same time, Sharpe preached at the independent black-led Native Baptist Church, where he gained the titles “Daddy” or “Ruler.” The Native Baptist movement was established in the late 1700s by blacks who came to Jamaica from the United States.

Sharpe drew upon the Bible to argue that slavery was morally wrong He also helped spread the widely held view among slaves who overheard planters frequent complaints about the abolitionist movement in Britain that the British Parliament ...