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.
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Slavery ended in Jamaica on 1 August 1834, with the passing of the British Emancipation Act which, after four years of "apprenticeship," led to full emancipation on 1 August 1838. This was the date on which former slaves became free to choose their employment and employer. On paper, former slaves gained the right to vote. However, most blacks remained desperately poor, and requirements to pay a high poll tax effectively excluded them from enfranchisement.
During the election of 1864, fewer than 2,000 black Jamaican men were eligible to vote (no women could vote at the time) out of a total population of more than 436,000, in which blacks outnumbered whites by a ratio of 32:1. Prior to the rebellion, conditions in Jamaica had been worsening for freedmen. In 1864 there were several floods which ruined many crops, whilst 1865 marked the end of a decade in which the island had been overwhelmed by plagues of cholera and smallpox. A two-year drought preceding 1865 made economic conditions worse for much of the population of former slaves and their descendants. Several bankruptcies were declared in the sugar industry, causing a loss of jobs and widening the economic void. Consequently tensions between white farmers and ex-slaves increased, and rumours began circulating among the freedmen that white planters intended to restore slavery.
In 1865, Dr. Edward Underhill, Secretary of the Baptist Missionary Society of Great Britain, wrote a letter to the Colonial Office in order to describe Jamaica's poor state of affairs for the mass of people. This letter was later shown to Jamaica's Governor John Eyre, who immediately tried to deny the truth of its statements. Jamaica's poor blacks learned of the letter and began organizing in "Underhill Meetings." Peasants in Saint Ann parish sent a petition to Queen Victoria asking for Crown lands to cultivate, saying they could not find land for themselves. It passed by Eyre first, and he enclosed a letter with his own comments.
The Queen's reply was made known, and many of the poor believed that Eyre had influenced her opinion: she encouraged the poor to work harder, rather than offering any help. George William Gordon, a wealthy mulatto (mixed-race) politician who was one of two representatives from St. Thomas-in-the-East, began encouraging the people in his parish to find ways to make their grievances known.
One of his followers was a black Baptist deacon named Paul Bogle. In 1865 Bogle led a deputation of peasants from St. Thomas-in-the-East to the capital, Spanish Town, hoping to meet with the governor, John Eyre to discuss issues. But the governor refused to receive them.
The British population in Jamaica, like whites in other Caribbean colonies, remembered the widespread massacres and violence against whites that accompanied the Haitian Revolution. The slaves achieved independence in 1804. The whites were often fearful that the mass of black Jamaicans, ex-slaves and poor, would also rise up in violence against the white elite.
On 7 October 1865, a black man was put on trial, convicted and imprisoned for trespassing on a long-abandoned sugar plantation, a charge and sentence that angered black Jamaicans. During the proceedings, James Geoghegon, a black spectator, disrupted the trial in Morant Bay. In the police's attempts to seize him and remove him from the courthouse, a fight broke out between the police and other spectators. While pursuing Geoghegon, the two policemen were beaten with sticks and stones from the crowd. The following Monday the court issued arrest warrants for several men for rioting, resisting arrest, and assaulting the police. Among those with warrants out was preacher Paul Bogle.
A few days later on 11 October, Bogle marched with hundreds of Jamaican peasant-labourers to Morant Bay. They had taken oaths before marching, to "cleave to the black and leave the white," a sign that they were preparing for insurrection. Gad Heuman argues shows that oath taking in African tradition was a way to bring the group together and prepare for war. When the group arrived at the court house in Morant Bay, they were met by local officials and a small and inexperienced volunteer militia, gathered from personnel from the plantations. The crowd began pelting the militia with rocks and sticks, and the militia opened fire on the protesters. More than 25 people were killed on both sides, before the militia retreated. For the next two days, the mass of rebellious black peasants took over the parish of St. Thomas-in-the-East.
In response, Governor John Eyre sent government troops, under Brigadier-General Alexander Nelson, to hunt down the poorly armed rebels and bring Bogle back to Morant Bay for trial. The troops met with no organized resistance, but they killed blacks indiscriminately, most of whom had not been involved in either the riot at the courthouse or the later rebellion. Heuman has described it as a reign of terror.
According to one soldier, "we slaughtered all before us… man or woman or child". In the end, the soldiers killed 439 black Jamaicans directly, and they arrested 354 more (including Paul Bogle), who were later executed, many without proper trials. Bogle was executed "either the same evening he was tried or the next morning." Other punishments included flogging of more than 600 men and women (including some pregnant women), and long prison sentences. The soldiers burned thousands of homes belonging to black Jamaicans without any justifiable reason, leaving families homeless throughout the parish. This was the most severe suppression of unrest in the history of the British West Indies, exceeding incidents during slavery years.
Believing that the blacks could not have planned such events themselves (as he shared the widespread white assumption of the time that they were not capable of it), Governor John Eyre had representative George William Gordon arrested. The mulatto Jamaican businessman and politician was wealthy and well-known; he was openly critical of the governor and his policies. Eyre believed that Gordon had been behind the rebellion. Despite having very little to do with it, Gordon was quickly convicted and executed. Though he was arrested in Kingston, where martial law had not been declared, Eyre had him transferred to Morant Bay, where he could be tried under martial law.
The trial and execution of Gordon via martial law, following the excesses of suppressing the rebellion, added to the outrage felt by many in Britain. They felt there were serious constitutional issues by Eyre's bringing Gordon under martial law. They were concerned about whether British dependencies should be ruled under the government of law, or through military license. With a speedy trial, Gordon was convicted quickly and hanged on 23 October, just two days after his trial had begun. He and William Bogle, Paul's brother, "were both tried together, and executed at the same time."
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 Willian 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.
Some historians have argued that the Morant Bay uprising was no more than a local riot, but in its wake the Jamaican House of Assembly renounced its charter. The national government made Jamaica a Crown Colony, under direct rule by Great Britain.
In 1969 Paul Bogle and George William Gordon were among several men who were named as Jamaican National Heroes, the highest honour in the nation.
Several Jamaicans in the first half of the 20th century wrote about the Rebellion:
The rebellion has been featured in music as well. Reggae artists Third World featured the title track "1865 (96° In The Shade)" on their second album in 1977; the song described the events of the Morant Bay rebellion from the point of view of Paul Bogle and George William Gordon:
"You caught me on the loose, fighting to be free, now you show me a noose on a cotton tree, entertainment for you, martyrdom for me...Some may suffer and some may burn, but I know that one day my people will learn, as sure as the sun shines, way up in the sky, today I stand here a victim--the truth is I'll never die."