Mutabaruka – Cutting Edge October 11 2017 – Morant Bay rebellion
Mutabaruka Cutting Edge 10/11/2017
The Morant Bay rebellion (11 October 1865) began with a protest march to the courthouse by hundreds of peasants led by preacher Paul Bogle in Morant Bay, Jamaica. Some were armed with sticks and stones. After seven men were shot and killed by the volunteer militia, the protesters attacked and burned the court house and nearby buildings. A total of 25 people died. Over the next two days, peasants rose up across St. Thomas-in-the-East parish and controlled most of the area.
The Jamaicans were protesting injustice and widespread poverty. Most freedmen were prevented from voting by high poll taxes, and their living conditions had worsened following crop damage by floods, cholera and smallpox epidemics, and a long drought. A few days before, when police tried to arrest a man for disrupting a trial, a fight broke out against them by spectators. Officials had issued a warrant for the arrest of preacher Bogle.
Governor Edward John Eyre declared martial law in the area, ordering in troops to hunt down the rebels. They killed many innocent black individuals, including women and children, with an initial death toll of more than 400. Troops arrested more than 300 persons, including Bogle. Many of these were also innocent but were quickly tried and executed under martial law; both men and women were punished by whipping and long sentences. This was the most severe suppression of unrest in the history of the British West Indies. The governor had George William Gordon, a mulatto representative of the parish in the Assembly, arrested in Kingston and brought back to Morant Bay, where he tried the politician under martial law. Gordon was quickly convicted and executed.
The violent suppression and numerous executions generated a fierce debate in England, with some protesting about the unconstitutional actions of the governor John Eyre, and others praising him for his response to a crisis. The rebellion and its suppression remain controversial, and it is frequently debated by specialists in black and colonial studies.
Consequences in Britain
When news of the Jamaican government’s response to the rebellion broke in Britain, with hundreds killed and hundreds more arrested and being executed, it generated fierce debate. Public figures of different political affiliations lined up to support or oppose Governor Eyre’s actions. Part of the controversy related to whether observers believed that blacks had planned the uprising on their own, or whether George William
Gordon and possibly whites had led them.
Opponents of Eyre established the Jamaica Committee in 1866, which called for Eyre to be tried for mass murder. More radical members of the Committee wanted him tried for the murder of British subjects, such as George William Gordon, under the rule of law, stating that Eyre’s actions taken under the aegis of martial law were illegal. The Committee included English liberals, such as John Bright, Charles Darwin, John Stuart Mill, Thomas Henry Huxley, Thomas Hughes and Herbert Spencer. Other notable members included Leslie Stephen, James Fitzjames Stephen, Frederic Harrison, Charles Buxton, Goldwin Smith, Charles Lyell, Edmond Beales, Frederick Chesson, Edward Frankland, Thomas Hill Green and Henry Fawcett.
Governor Eyre Defense and Aid Committee, in support of Eyre, was set up by Thomas Carlyle. It included Alfred Tennyson, Charles Kingsley, Charles Dickens, John Ruskin and John Tyndall. When Eyre returned to Britain in August 1866, his supporters held a banquet in his honour, while opponents at a protest meeting the same evening condemned him as a murderer.
Twice Eyre was charged with murder, but the cases never proceeded to trial.
Clinton Hutton, “Review: ‘The Killing Time’: The Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica by GAD Heuman, Social and Economic Studies Vol. 44, No. 1 (MARCH 1995), pp. 191-205, published by Sir Arthur Lewis Institute of Social and Economic Studies, University of the West Indies; via JSTOR; accessed 13 July 2016
Holt, Thomas (1992). The Problem of Freedom: Race, Labor and Politics in Jamaica and Britain, 1832-1938. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 263.
Holt (1992), p. 295
“Alexander Nelson” at Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.
“The Jamaica Prosecutions. Further Examinations of Colonel Nelson and Lieutenant Brand,” The Illustrated Police News: Law-Courts and Weekly Record (London), 23 February 1867: 1.
Semmel, Bernard (1962). The Governor Eyre Controversy. London: MacGibbon & Kee. p. 128.
Mel Cooke, “Story of the song – Third World keeps ‘1865’ current”, Jamaica Gleaner, 20 January 2008.