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Thomas Burchell's Memorial erected in 1992 at Abney Park Cemetery by two of his great grandchildren

Thomas Burchell (1799-1846) was a leading Baptist missionary and slavery abolitionist in Jamaica in the early nineteenth century. It is not uncommon for Jamaican parents to name their children 'Burchell'; indeed it is almost as popular a Christian name as Manley.

Burchell, along with James Phillippo (1798-1879), William Knibb and Samuel Oughton was one of the group of early Baptist missionaries sent from England to respond to requests from pioneer African Baptists who had become free from slavery, for support in establishing chapels and education in Jamaica. They were representatives of the Baptist Missionary Society of London and followed the pioneering preaching of the African George Lisle.

Burchell's time as a Baptist missionary in Jamaica spanned twenty-two years, 1822-46; the most notorious years in the history of slavery abolition in the colony, which included the persecution of Burchell and other Baptists after the Christmas Rebellion or Baptist War of 1831. Burchell narrowly escaped death by fleeing offshore, but persecuted more seriously, was the Deacon in the Montego Baptist Church pastored by Thomas Burchell: Samuel Sharpe. Born in 1801 in Montego Bay of African parentage, Sharpe died for the cause of slavery abolition at the hands of the 'Planters' and their governing militia, being executed on 23 May 1832. Initially buried in the sands of Montego Bay Harbour he was later safely exhumed and given a hero's burial near the pulpit at Burchell Baptist church. He was made a national hero of Jamaica in 1975 and now appears on the Jamaican fifty dollar bill.

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Baptist chapels as well as their members, suffered at the hands of the 'Planters'. The Burchell Memorial Church which was established in 1824 by Rev. Thomas Burchell, could however be rebuilt in 1834 after it was burnt down by an angry mob; unlike the loss of life. The Jamaican National Heritage Trust, founded in 1958, now looks after the building at number one King Street and the corner of Market Street, Montego Bay, in the parish of St. James, which was formerly the Manse of the Burchell Baptist Church.

Starting in the 1830s, in anticipation of emancipation, the Jamaican Baptist congregations, deacons and ministers pioneered the Caribbean concept of Free Villages, which was swiftly copied by other denominations. Many plantation owners and others in the landowing class made it clear they would never sell land to freed slaves, but provide only tied accommodation at the rents they chose. The aim was to prevent free labour choice and movement between employers, and keep labour costs low or negligible upon emancipation. To circumvent this, Baptist chapels' approached their Baptist financiers in England, who could instruct land agents in London to buy Jamaican land and hold it for establishment of free villages, not controlled by the planters. Sandy Bay was founded as a Baptist Free Village for emancipated slaves on the initiative of Burchell, and today its playing field is named Burchell Field. Several others, including the very first, were founded through Burchell's Baptist associate, Rev. James Phillippo.

Personal life

Burchell and his wife Hester Crocker Lusty (d.1856, Mt.Carey, Jamaica) had one daughter, Esthrana Louisa Burchell (b. Falmouth, Jamaica 1827 d.1903 Kingston), second wife of Rev. Edward Hewett (b. 1819, Norfolk, England, d. 1883, Mt.Carey, Jamaica) and twelve grandchildren.

Burial

Burchell is buried at the non-denominational Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington, London where a relatively modern memorial commemorates his life.

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