Governor Erye Mock Trial of The Morant Bay Rebellion

The mock trial of governor Erye, the man responsible for the murdered of over 400 black people the the parish of St. Thomas Jamaica, were Paul Bogle and George Williams Gordon was also hanged. 


As Governor of the Colony, Eyre, fearful of an island wide uprising, brutally suppressed the Morant Bay Rebellion, which was sparked when a Baptist preacher encouraged a riot, and occasioned the death of 18 militia or officials. Up to 439 black peasants were killed in the reprisals, some 600 flogged and about 1000 houses burnt down. General Luke O’Connor was directly responsible for those who inflicted excessive punishment. Eyre also authorized the execution of George William Gordon, a mixed-race colonial assemblyman who was involved in the rebellion, and was tried for high treason by Lieutenant Herbert Brand in a court-martial. The controlling European element of the Jamaican populace — those who had most to lose — regarded him as the hero who had saved Jamaica from disaster.

Eyre’s influence at this point was so strong that he was able to convince the House of Assembly to pass constitutional reforms that brought the old form of government to an end and allowed Jamaica to become a Crown Colony, with an appointed (rather than an elected) legislature, on the basis that stronger legislative control would ward off another act of rebellion. Before dissolving itself, the legislature passed legislation to deal with the recent emergency, including an Act that sanctioned martial law and —all-importantly for the litigation in Phillips v Eyre — an Act of Indemnity covering all acts done in good faith to suppress the rebellion after the proclamation of martial law.

These events created great controversy in Britain, resulting in demands for Eyre to be arrested and tried for murdering Gordon. John Stuart Mill organised the Jamaica Committee, which demanded his prosecution and included some well-known British liberal intellectuals such as John Bright, Charles Darwin, Frederic Harrison, Thomas Hughes, Thomas Huxley, John Tyndall, Herbert Spencer and A. V. Dicey. A rival committee was set up by Thomas Carlyle for the defence, arguing that Eyre had acted decisively to restore order. His supporters included John Ruskin, Charles Kingsley, Charles Dickens and Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Cases against Lieutenant Brand and Brigadier Abercrombie Nelson were presented to the Central Criminal Court but the grand jury declined to certify either case. Eyre resided in Market Drayton, which was outwith the jurisdiction of the court so the indictment failed on that count. Barrister James Fitzjames Stephen travelled to Market Drayton but failed to convince the Justices to endorse his case against Eyre. The Jamaica Committee next asked the Attorney-General to certify the criminal information against Eyre but was rebuffed. Eyre then moved to London so that he might bring matters to a head and offer himself up to justice. The magistrate at Bow Street Police Court declined to arrest him, due to the failure of the cases against the soldiers, whereupon the imagined prosecutors applied to the Queen’s Bench for a writ of mandamus justified by the Criminal Jurisdiction Act 1802 and succeeded. The Queen’s Bench grand jury, upon presentation of the case against Eyre, declined to find a true bill of indictment, and Eyre was freed of criminal pursuit.


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The case went next to the civil courts. Alexander Phillips charged Eyre with six counts of assault and false imprisonment, in addition to conversion of Phillips’s ‘goods and chattels’, and the case was eventually brought to the UK Court of Exchequer as Phillips v Eyre (1870) LR 6 QB 1, Exchequer Chamber. The case was influential in setting a precedent in English and Australian law over the conflict of laws, and choice of law to be applied in international torts cases. Eyre was exonerated in the Queen’s Bench, a writ of error was submitted to the Exchequer, whose judgment affirmed the one below, and an important precedent was thus set by Willes J.


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