Joshua Surtees (The Voice) discusses Jamaica’s 150th anniversary and presents reflections on the Morant Bay Rebellion by Verene Shepherd, professor of social history at the University of the West Indies. Here are excerpts of the historical account and an interview with Dr. Shepherd:
Slavery may have been over, but the situation for many of Jamaica’s freed men and women remained dire in the decades following abolition. Prevented from voting by the unaffordable poll tax and denied the right to own land for cultivation, most people lived in poverty and suffered poor health. A petition from the people of St Ann to Queen Victoria asking for land to be granted was intercepted by the governor, John Eyre, who persuaded the monarch to deny their request. The Royal’s response to her foreign subjects was, effectively, to “work harder”.
Angered at the disenfranchisement of the poor, Paul Bogle (1822-1865), a wealthy black Baptist deacon – with the support of mixed race politician and fellow landowner George William Gordon – decided to take action. At great personal risk, he organised a group of farmers in August 1865 to make an arduous 45-mile journey from Stony Gut, a small village in the eastern parish of St Thomas to Spanish Town, then the capital of Jamaica, to reason with Eyre. Eyre refused to see them. Despite the setback, Bogle continued to be an agitator for change on the island. But what cemented his place in history and being named a National Hero was his role in the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion – the largest uprising against Jamaica’s colonial oppressors.
Bogle and his supporters were calling for equality and fairer governance of the colony but the white community viewed their effort as a conspiracy to take over the island and were both swift and heavy-handed in crushing what they saw as an insurgency. The seeds were sown on October 7 that year, when a demonstrator protested against the sentencing of two black peasants accused of trespassing on an abandoned plantation. He was arrested, triggering an angry mobilisation of Bogle’s men in the town square where they clashed with policemen. Later, in Stony Gut, rebels fought off police who came to arrest them and forced them into retreat.
On October 11, Bogle’s men attended a public meeting at the local courthouse to make their demands for justice. In response, they were fired at and eight were killed provoking a bloody exchange. Eighteen officials were killed as they left the building.
In retaliation, 500 black people were effectively slaughtered, 600 flogged and somewhere in the region of 1,000 houses were burnt down during the brutal suppression. Bogle and Gordon were arrested, tried and hanged at the order of Eyre on October 24. In Britain, Eyre’s harsh reprisal triggered a heated debate. Liberal thinkers, such as John Stuart Mill and Charles Darwin, called for Eyre to be tried for murder. Instead, he was simply dismissed and returned to England to a comfortable life. [. . .]
The Voice: Is it fair to say that for many black Jamaicans in the decades between emancipation and the Morant Bay Rebellion life was, in fact, harder than under slavery in terms of their economic situation, land, property, health and prospects?
Verene Shepherd (VS): No period in Jamaican history was harder than the period of conquest, colonisation and African enslavement. In the period 1838-1865, life was indeed hard for the newly freed, but that was because the British followed slavery with decades of racial apartheid in which they tried to recreate the slave relations of production and did everything they could to defeat the hopes and expectations of the newly emancipated. But some were able to overcome the challenges to acquire land and upward social mobility. Paul Bogle, for example, had many acres of land. And through property rights, some black men secured the right to vote.
What was, in your view, the main trigger for the rebellion?
VS: First of all, it was a war, not a rebellion. Both sides were armed and the word “war” has been enshrined in the oral history of the period. Of course the colonial British were better armed and used that to their advantage. The main trigger was the response to the Jamaican people’s search for equality, justice and non-racialism. In 1865, Jamaican people confronted the state in their search for those rights and freedoms they assumed would have accompanied Emancipation from enslavement in 1838, but which remained elusive decades after. Rather than constructing a post-slavery society built on mutual respect, equality and non-racialism, the British colonialists cemented their socio-economic and political control over the Jamaican masses and presided over a system of racial apartheid. This led to increasing protests as those emerging out of slavery, or their descendants, refused to live in a society that simply continued the slave relations of production. Increasing lobbying, petitioning and protests for civil rights and justice by the black masses, including a march to seek audience with Governor Eyre in 1865, were met by state terrorism and an unrelenting system of white supremacy.
In the short term, did the crackdown and the constitutional changes make life more difficult for black Jamaicans?
VS: The brutality of the suppression of the people’s protest had a long-lasting negative impact on the people of Jamaica beyond 1865. St Thomas was destroyed and still has not recovered. So many families were broken, property destroyed, women raped, people imprisoned, dignity affronted. Many had to change their names to escape the memory of what happened to their family and the stigma attached to it by elites. Democracy was set back for decades because of the introduction of Crown colony rule and the abolition of the little representative government that there was. Jamaicans continued to struggle for internal self-government. The importation of Indians set up economic competition for jobs and fuelled ethnic tensions. But Sir John Peter Grant [governor from 1867] did make some effort to bring about socio-economic changes.
The brutality shown by Governor Eyre raised serious moral and political questions in England and Eyre was eventually punished and removed. Should Bogle and his rebels be seen as martyrs who helped instigate the freedoms that Jamaicans have today?
VS: Eyre’s actions raised serious moral and political questions in Jamaica also. But more unacceptable is that Eyre was never indicted by any grand jury in the UK or charged with the crimes he committed in Jamaica, so I beg to differ that Eyre was “punished”. The murderer was treated by many in the UK as a hero. Bogle and those who struggled and died with him are indeed martyrs and we honour them each October. But the colonial legacy runs deep and we still have to continue the struggle in the contemporary period. [. . .]
For full article and interview, see http://www.voice-online.co.uk/article/remembering-morant-bay-rebellion