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Island on Fire: Book summary and reviews of Island on Fire by Tom Zoellner

Island on Fire

The Revolt That Ended Slavery in the British Empire

by Tom Zoellner

Island on Fire by Tom Zoellner X
Island on Fire by Tom Zoellner
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Book Summary

From a New York Times bestselling author, a gripping account of the slave rebellion that led to the abolition of slavery in the British Empire.

For five horrific weeks after Christmas in 1831, Jamaica was convulsed by an uprising of its enslaved people. What started as a peaceful labor strike quickly turned into a full-blown revolt, leaving hundreds of plantation houses in smoking ruins. By the time British troops had put down the rebels, more than a thousand Jamaicans lay dead from summary executions and extrajudicial murder.

While the rebels lost their military gamble, their sacrifice accelerated the larger struggle for freedom in the British Atlantic. The daring and suffering of the Jamaicans galvanized public opinion throughout the empire, triggering a decisive turn against slavery. For centuries bondage had fed Britain's appetite for sugar. Within two years of the Christmas rebellion, slavery was formally abolished.

Island on Fire is a dramatic day-by-day account of this transformative uprising. A skillful storyteller, Tom Zoellner goes back to the primary sources to tell the intimate story of the men and women who rose up and tasted liberty for a few brief weeks. He provides the first full portrait of the rebellion's enigmatic leader, Samuel Sharpe, and gives us a poignant glimpse of the struggles and dreams of the many Jamaicans who died for liberty.

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Book Awards

  • award image National Book Critics Circle Award, 2020

Reviews

Media Reviews

"An engaging history of the horrific system of slavery practiced in Jamaica and the slave revolt that finally killed it…Resurrecting this important historical episode, Zoellner moves nimbly through the research, giving an exciting account of the events as well as the significant consequences when the news reached England weeks later." - Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"A pounding narrative of events that led to the end of slavery in the British colonies…Zoellner's vigorous, fast-paced account brings to life a varied gallery of participants…The revolt failed to improve conditions for the enslaved in Jamaica, but it crucially wounded the institution of slavery itself." - Wall Street Journal

"Zoellner makes deft use of primary sources, and illustrates how the atmosphere of energetic political reform and events like Sharpe's rebellion converged to end slavery in the 'agricultural prison camp' of Jamaica, and in the British Empire at large." - New Yorker

"Tom Zoellner tells the story of Sam Sharpe's revolution manqué, and the subsequent abolition of slavery in Jamaica, in a way that's acutely relevant to the racial unrest of our own time. Island on Fire is impeccably researched and seductively readable." - Madison Smartt Bell, author of All Souls' Rising

"Tom Zoellner is completely right that the 1831–1832 revolt in Jamaica helped break the back of slavery in the British Empire. It's high time that we had a book like the splendid one he has written: a highly readable but carefully documented account of the greatest of all British slave rebellions, the miseries that led to it, and the momentous changes it wrought." - Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost and Bury the Chains

"With vivid prose, Tom Zoellner captures the horrors of the brutal sugar plantations of Jamaica as well as that brief but transcendent moment when a group of enslaved people sought, against tremendous odds, to transform the island into a space of liberation. Island on Fire offers a haunting parable of how history is made and remade up to the present day." - Karl Jacoby, author of Shadows at Dawn

"Island on Fire is a gripping account of the five weeks when Jamaica burned in a rebellion led by enslaved preacher Samuel Sharpe. Tom Zoellner recounts these dramatic events with great energy and detail, crucially setting Sharpe's story―which until now has not been well known away from the island―in the wider context of the struggle for abolition on both sides of the Atlantic." - Carrie Gibson, author of Empire's Crossroads

"A riveting recounting of the causes and consequences of the war for emancipation led by Samuel Sharpe in Jamaica. Island on Fire catalogues in vivid detail the price that the freedom fighters paid for saying 'no' to continued enslavement against the backdrop of a growing antislavery movement on both sides of the Atlantic. It is a chilling reminder of colonial British brutality. One will need a strong stomach to read this moving account without shedding tears." - Verene A. Shepherd, author of Livestock, Sugar and Slavery: Contested Terrain in Colonial Jamaica

This information about Island on Fire was first featured in "The BookBrowse Review" - BookBrowse's membership magazine, and in our weekly "Publishing This Week" newsletter. Publication information is for the USA, and (unless stated otherwise) represents the first print edition. The reviews are necessarily limited to those that were available to us ahead of publication. If you are the publisher or author and feel that they do not properly reflect the range of media opinion now available, send us a message with the mainstream reviews that you would like to see added.

Any "Author Information" displayed below reflects the author's biography at the time this particular book was published.

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Author Information

Tom Zoellner Author Biography

© Paul Charest

Tom Zoellner is the author of eight nonfiction books, including Island on Fire: The Revolt that Ended Slavery in the British Empire, and works as a professor at Chapman University and Dartmouth College. His writing has appeared in the The Atlantic, Harper's, The American Scholar, The Oxford American, Time, Foreign Policy, Men's Health, Slate, Scientific American, Audubon, Sierra, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Texas Observer, Departures, The American Scholar, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications. Tom is a fifth-generation Arizonan and a former staff writer for The Arizona Republic and the San Francisco Chronicle. He is the recipient of fellowships and residencies from The Lannan Foundation, the Corporation of Yaddo, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project and...

... Full Biography
Author Interview
Link to Tom Zoellner's Website

Name Pronunciation
Tom Zoellner: zollner

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