Sarah Ann Gill
The abolitionist movement continued to grow and gained momentum in England. Many of the planters blamed the humanitarians for misrepresenting them in the world. They accused the non conformist especially the Wesleyan Methodist. They claimed that they misled the slaves, giving them expectations that were not reasonable.
Between 1816 and 1823 rumours circulated among the slaves that they were about to receive their freedom. This fuelled with a revolt in Guyana and the arrival of the Bathurst proposal in the same both stirred the hopes of the slaves and greatly worried the planters.
The revolt began on 18 August 1823 on the Success plantation, one of seven owned by John Gladstone (father of the future British Prime Minister) and quickly spread to some 60 plantations, involving around 12,000 slaves. The rebels preferred to imprison or expel the whites rather than kill them. The governor, Major General John Murray, met a party of 40 rebels and promised reforms. But the rebels demanded freedom. The revolt was put down savagely, with over 200 rebels killed during the fighting or shot randomly and a further 33 were executed after a summary trial. The heads of ten slaves were displayed on poles at the most heavily involved estates. Rev John Smith, of the London Missionary Society in the colony, who taught the story of Moses and the Exodus, was arrested court marshalled and sentenced to be hung. He was then held in the most appalling conditions in prison until his death 6 months later. In 1824, when the brutal conditions on John Gladstone's estates were criticised in the House of Commons, William, the future PM, sprang to his father's defence saying "he deprecated slavery; it was abhorrent to the nature of Englishmen...". It was his maiden speech, displaying all the hypocrisy that was to mark his long career.
In October 1823, the Chapel building was destroyed by a mob of white rioters and the Methodist missionary Rev. William Shrewsbury and his pregnant wife were forced to flee for their lives to St. Vincent. Shrewsburry first came to Barbados in 1820 and was known for his fiery speech in reproving sin. He spoke about the detestable way both slaves and planters lived and thought slaves that if they wanted freedom they would have to take it by force.
Sarah Ann Gill was a Free Coloured and a member of this controversial church in Barbados. Sarah Ann and her sister-in-law, Miss Christiana Gill, were among the leaders of the church who subsequently opened their homes as meeting places for church members. In the prevailing adversarial, even life-threatening environment, this was an act of exceptional bravery.
A 28-year-old widow, Sarah Ann held regular worship services in the face of continued and active persecution. These included threats to burn down her house and two prosecutions in the law courts for holding "illegal “meetings.
The latter came about as a result of the Conventicles Act of 1664 which forbade assembly of more than five persons for divine worship unless in a licensed meeting place and led by a licensed preacher.
Sarah Ann was persecuted continuously for one year with threats of grievous bodily harm, questioned by magistrates about supposedly having guns and ammunition in her home, and finally, prosecuted by the House of Assembly. On each occasion, and at her own expense, she not only defended herself and defied the authorities, but also took the extraordinary step of continuing to hold services in her home.
Governor Warde, censured by the Secretary of State for inaction, was forced to use soldiers to ensure the safety of Sarah Ann, her household and property when the Secret Committee of Public Safety (ringleaders of the persecution) declared that on October 19, 1824, they would destroy her home.
Instead, frustrated by the Governor, they could only burn her in effigy. In April 1825, when Rev. Moses Rayner was re-appointed to Barbados, he sought, by letter, Sarah Ann's advice about his safety. She replied: "I don't advise you to come, but if it was me, I should come."He returned and built a chapel on the site of the present James Street Church on land provided by Sarah Ann at a minimal cost with payment spread over eight years.
Inevitably, the outrages of the period reached the House of Commons in England and ignited debate of far-reaching consequences. On June 25, 1825, the members "... deemed it their duty to declare that they view(ed) with utmost indignation (the) scandalous and daring violation of the law and (supported by His Majesty's) ... securing ample protection and religious toleration to all ... of His Majesty's dominions."
The Gill Memorial Church at Eagle Hall is named after Sarah Ann. A large, wooden structure built in 1893, it was replaced by a new Gill Memorial Church built at Fairfield Road, Black Rock, St. Michael in the late 1980s. It deserves to be a place of pilgrimage. Her courage, perseverance and commitment to religious freedom set Sara Ann Gill apart even among the unnumbered fine Christian stewards of her day. In thus discharging her primary duty to God, she undoubtedly ensured a standard by which Barbadian society has been greatly uplifted and enriched.
HER final resting place is very modest, even contrastingly simple, when compared with the monumental role she performed on the religious and social landscape of Barbados. The headstone on her grave (revised in Heritage Year 1988) located in the small cemetery at the back of James Street chapel reads:
Sarah Ann Gill
Born February 16 1795
Died February 25 1866
HEROINE OF METHODISM IN BARBADOS
THE DEFENDER OF METHODISM
WHEN ITS EXISTENCE WAS THREATENED IN 1823-1825
WAS PERSECUTED AND PROSECUTED
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